What Makes a Successful Photographer?

I woke up this morning before dawn, not able to sleep anymore and my mind spinning with random thoughts about where I’ve been and where I’m going. I’m in Iquitos, Peru right now, the last major outpost before the real jungle begins along the Amazon River.

Gail on the Amazon River, Peru

I had just spent a week visiting the jungle villages along the river as part of my documentary, Opening Our Eyes.

As I lay in bed, I thought about a recent conversation I had with someone about what it means to be a success. This person had made a comment to me that I must be a very successful photographer. This is not the first time that someone has made that remark and it always takes me by surprise and makes me think about the meaning of that word “success”.

I think that in this lukewarm economy and with the incredible changes that have affected the profession of photography (and print), I would have to say that a successful photographer is one who doesn’t need another job to support themselves. That they are able to make a living shooting photographs (or video).
But how does one achieve that, if that defines success?

Personally, I think that with any creative and competitive field, you have to be passionate about it and have the desire to pursue it no matter what. In other words you have to want to pick up a camera and take photographs without someone paying you or “validating” you in some way to do it. If you think about it from a buyer’s standpoint – why would they want to hire someone who isn’t passionate about it? So shoot and shoot for yourself – always have a personal project you’re doing.

So the question – how do you find the passion or keep it begs to be asked. There isn’t one answer to this question because it’s different for each of us but for me I need to be involved with other things besides photography to keep my interest in photography alive. I need to get beyond the science of photography and even the art. I’m interested in music, cooking, sewing, film, looking at impressionist paintings, taking walks in the woods and even people watching in New York City. I do all of these things and more to recharge myself and keep my passion alive for what I’m doing.

Photography is a visual means of communication. If you don’t have anything to say because you’ve just consumed yourself with the technical aspects of photography, then how will you be able to deliver a visual message – whether it be for a magazine or an annual report or even an advertisement.

Lastly, photography is something that you have to “do” to get better at it. You can’t just read about it in a book – you have to shoot – practice – perform. That is why shooting for yourself is imperative. If it’s been two months since you’ve picked up a camera and you head out to shoot a job – you do a disservice to your client. I don’t care how long you’ve been in business.

Here is how others have defined success:

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits”
Brian Tracy

“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones”
Benjamin Franklin

“Practice means to perform over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
Martha Graham

So, am I a successful photographer? Perhaps – but there are photographers way more successful than me. But I am determined and I definitely have the desire and there is always something that I still want to achieve.

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4 Replies to “What Makes a Successful Photographer?”

  1. I loved this post Gail. Well said!! I agree with the constant shooting and love of the art, as well as the definitions of “success” in photography. I hope to reach your level some day;) Happy travels and looking forward to future posts!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Lily…a very informative read.

    I do believe that having a passion for what you enjoy in life…and always doing the best you, is success within itself.

    Thank you Gail for a wonderful perspective.


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