Tips for Young Photographers from an “Older” One

I’m not so sure if it’s true that we get wiser as we get older.  I think we just have a lot more time to make mistakes and hopefully learn by them.  When I was first starting out as a photographer, I was extremely fortunate to learn from some of the legends of my time – not just about photography – but all kinds of things.

Gail with children in small village along Amazon River, Peru

I think sometimes that we have become such a youth centric society in America that we forget what we can learn from those who came before us.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Watch out for your “peak” years – most hit those peak earning years during their 30’s and 40’s. When you are at the height of your career, remember to live in the “now” and enjoy the ride. Things change quickly in a creative business.  Be prepared for the peaks and the valleys.
  • Stay away from trends and be authentic to yourself – Don’t emulate others’ style, find your own.  Listen to what your inner voice is telling you, despite what happens to be the trend du jour.
  • Be proactive – not reactive – Don’t fight change – it’s an impossible task.  Things are always changing. Nothing is static.  Doing nothing is not staying the same – it’s actually going backwards. By the time people react to change – it’s usually too late.
  • Say yes more than no – Whenever I’ve been brave enough to say yes to a job that I didn’t think I’d like or be able to handle, it has always turned into one of my most rewarding experiences, either creatively, financially or both.
  • Be more vulnerable – if you’re not feeling vulnerable, even at the peak of “success” – you aren’t pushing yourself enough.  During the entire making of my film, Opening Our Eyes, and even now, I have felt vulnerable – first in the journey itself around the world and the trials and tribulations that came with that and now dealing with the rejections that come with submitting the film to top tier film festivals.  But I thrive on the wins and we’ve been honored at so many wonderful festivals and that wouldn’t have happened – if I hadn’t been vulnerable.
  • When a door closes – a window always opens if you recognize opportunity – My worst moments have always been followed by my best ones.  Sometimes, something has to happen to motivate me to take the next step.  Unfortunately, when the crappy stuff happens, I feel least empowered and optimistic but I plow ahead because I know this must happen to get me where I need to be.
  • You’re never too old to be mentored – I love learning.  In fact I love it more now than I did when I was younger.  I love the whole idea of mentoring and I feel that it works both ways.  When I mentor someone else, regardless of age, I always end up learning as well in the process.
  • Marketing & Promotion: Do more pull – less push – The most effective promotion and marketing efforts on my part have been when I’ve spent more time “creating” for the sake of creating, rather than for the intent of marketing.  When I’m working on a project that I am passionate about, people who hear about it take notice and the word spreads.  When that happens, clients or media attention comes to me.  Whenever I have spent more time, “marketing” to potential clients or trying to get publicity, it has never worked.  It’s much better when it happens organically.
  • Network outside your profession – I’ve always found it more interesting to engage with people in all sorts of professions.  As a storyteller, I thrive on meeting different people.  As a photographer, it makes sense on many different levels.  I have found that by broadening my circle of friends and colleagues, it has led to many interesting collaborations.
  • Making mistakes ISN’T a bad thing – it just means you aren’t afraid to try new things.  Well I should probably not imply that I’m not afraid – quite the contrary – but I don’t let my fears become my reasons not to act on something. I often blog about my mistakes and in fact they consistently are the most read posts.  I think people would rather read about others’ mistakes than read manuals.
  • Don’t focus on the gear – focus on the story or the message.  The story never goes out of style.
  • There are no overnight successes – just ask anyone.  We just don’t hear about people until they do become a “success”.  Be prepared for rejection along the way because it comes with growth and consistently trying.

Being Proactive vs Reactive

I have always approached new technology in a backwards sort of way. I’m not one to buy the latest camera or software version if I don’t have a need driving me in that direction. I got into video because I felt the need to incorporate motion and sound to the stories that I wanted to tell.

Lately all you hear about is video. Clients are coming to me because they feel the need to add video to their website. And more and more still photographers feel the need to embrace video in their work. Whenever someone questions me about getting into video, I always ask them “what do you want to do with it?” A typical answer is “because everyone is getting into” or “I feel the need to keep up and not be left behind”. While these are honest answers, and certainly there’s some merit to them, I always try to get people to focus on what it is they want to use the medium of video for. Will video convey their message better than a still image or text?

Personally I’ve never been a fan of “getting on the bandwagon” just because everyone else is. Whenever I’ve acquired a new “toy” for that purpose – it generally sits in the box because I haven’t thought about how I will use it to “tell the story” that I have to tell. I was reminded today when watching a piece about Don Hewitt, the creator of the TV program 60 Minutes. He was all about “telling the story” and felt that the story is what we humans are interested in and will hold an audience’s attention. His vision was to create a magazine in a TV format. That was almost 40 years ago and 60 Minutes is still on the air. But Hewitt was a persuasive and dynamic man with a strong belief in his convictions. He was also a pioneer in TV broadcasting and at the right place, at the right time – because back then everyone was learning and they were writing the rules as they went.

Right now I think we’re at the same place with video on the web. We’re all struggling with not only new technology but how we can apply it in a business sense. The 100 million dollar question (or more) is How to monetize the Web? I for one don’t have a crystal ball but I do know one thing that history has taught me and that is – nothing new ever comes from keeping the status quo. That’s not to say that every pioneer has a success story and in fact behind every successful person is usually a trail of failed ideas. But if they hadn’t taken that chance……….you gotta wonder.

The other big dynamic is that being proactive is taking control of the situation rather than reacting to something out of fear. For the most part fear stifles creativity. Either way – there’s always going to be a bit of fear but I find when I take control and become more proactive, I focus on the creative aspects and remove the mental roadblocks that are telling me to stop. I don’t always succeed – but I always give myself a shot at success – when I free my mind and am open to possibilities.

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