An artist’s life is an endless series of ups and downs filled with both joy and inevitable disappointment. But adding a little routine to a seemingly routine-free life can make you both a better photographer and a happier human being.
I remember many years ago, before I became a full-time professional photographer and I was still dividing my time between soul-feeding art and soul-crushing day jobs, I found myself sitting at the large wooden desk behind which I spent most of my time. days. My company-provided computer monitor should have displayed the most up-to-date spreadsheet or mainframe interface that would allow me to do the job they were paying me for that day. But since, by this point, I had perfected the process of completing my daily chores early in order to spend time building my ramp out of this drudgery through photography, my screen was instead occupied with extremely detailed processing that I was preparing for a photo shoot over the coming weekend.
My co-worker, well aware of my double life, walked past my desk and saw the inordinate amount of planning needed to make the shoot successful and stopped to observe with a somewhat stunned expression. When I asked him about his face, he mentioned how he was always so surprised by the amount of work that went into each of my shoots. When he thought of a photo shoot, he figured a photographer would just show up somewhere with a camera, take a few shots of everything there, and then spend the rest of the day sipping Mojitos on the beach with the models. He had no idea the level of production that went into it.
That moment was too long ago to remember what shoot I was preparing for. I’m not even 100% sure if the shoot was a success. But I begin my essay today with this story as a simple reminder that being an artist, especially a commercial artist, is hard work. It’s not easy to live your life in an ultra-competitive world, without guarantees, and in a job that requires you to show off on a daily basis.
So here are some daily practices that can help you see your way.
Improve your craft
Being a photographer, perhaps more so than most careers, is greatly enhanced by having some level of natural talent. Anyone can teach themselves techniques for executing a proper exposure, but some people are simply more creative than others. There’s no shame in that. Some people are taller than others. Some people are faster. We all have our gifts. And at least having a minimal leaning towards the creative side of life is probably a pretty decent precursor to success as a photographer.
That being said, talent isn’t everything. The world is full of talented people. However, what the world often lacks are people willing to work hard to improve themselves. Being over six feet tall in middle school gave me an edge when I played basketball at recess. But as time passed and my classmates caught up to me and often outgrew my dimensions, I realized that it was my skill, not my size, that would set me apart. And those skills took practice.
Same with photography. We’ve already established that having a natural talent for art is a good place to start. But if you plan to build a career and, more importantly, sustain it, you’ll also need tangible skills to support it. You have to develop your creativity. But you also need to deepen your understanding of the nuts and bolts trade needed to translate that creativity in your head into practical results.
Luckily, you don’t have to learn everything in one day. Knowledge is something you acquire over time and through repetition. But to gain as much knowledge as possible, it pays to make a concerted effort every day to improve your skills. Even if it’s as simple as learning a basic new tool in your camera menu, the daily practice of intentionally improving yourself with your craft will help you make the most of your natural abilities.
Spend more time thinking about how to make money than spending it
I’ve spilled so much ink over the years, seemingly making the same point. But that’s just because it seems like an eternal problem. Same for me.
But let’s repeat it here again. Gear is simply a tool that helps you create art. The equipment itself is not your art. It doesn’t matter what camera you have in your hand. The only thing that matters is that you are able to translate the vision in your head into a photograph. It doesn’t matter what equipment you use. It doesn’t matter how uniquely creative you bring to the table.
So why do most of us spend endless hours a month obsessing over camera gear instead of spending that time trying to figure out how to grow our business?
As I said, I myself am guilty. I’m well aware of every new tool that hits the market, and I spend far too much energy debating whether each new iteration of a camera will make me more or less productive. But, really, what would be most productive for me would be to turn off that YouTube video and reopen my prospect list to start reaching out. Instead of worrying about autofocus speed, I should spend time reviewing my business plan to make sure my business is up to date.
You should never be in a position where you spend more time thinking about what you can buy than earning money to pay for it. Obviously, if you’re an amateur (lucky you), you’re more than welcome to spend more on photography than you bring in. But, if you’re doing this for a living, spending more time thinking about buying than selling is an equation that just won’t add up.
Here’s the problem with a career in the arts: when things are going well, it’s a high like most people will never experience. When you book a new client, pull off a great photoshoot, or win an award, it can give you a boost that’s hard to explain to others who may not be part of our world.
But between those successes, we are likely to face as many, if not more, disappointments. No matter how successful you are, artists will take home more than our fair share of losses. Even for the most positive people, it can start to wear off over time. If it lasts long enough, you might be inclined to give up the fight.
So how do you fight back against insurmountable obstacles? How do you keep your attitude positive? Well, a good place to start is to remember that no matter what happens, you still have countless things to be grateful for. Maybe it’s your family. Maybe it’s your pet. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve found an outlet that really gives your life meaning. Maybe it’s the fact that you were offered another day of life. Another sunrise to wake up and try again.
We can be fooled into thinking that the only “good” things that happen to us are the headlines. We can be fooled into thinking that if something isn’t Instagram-worthy, it just doesn’t matter. But having the chance to be on this Earth matters. Being good with people who love us is important. And having the freedom to pursue our dreams, even if they don’t come true the way we planned, is something we should be truly grateful for every day.
When you remind yourself of the good things in your life every day, it helps fill your bank of positivity. And that bank of positivity will be needed to give you the strength to get through your day.
Put away your camera
Of all the things I mentioned, this is by far the most difficult for me to practice. I’m a little OCD When my mind is locked on something, it’s very hard for me to let go and think about something else. It actually helped me in my career because it made me work hard. Even if I don’t want to work hard, I will still do it because my mind won’t let me focus on anything else until I complete the task at hand.
But the downside is that it’s very easy to think that your career is your life. I know that for career-driven people like me, success can feel like a matter of life and death. But, unless you’re a soldier, chances are that whatever happened to you at work today is a lot less critical overall than you think.
As I mentioned earlier, you should work hard to improve your art and creativity to advance your career. But, just as important, you should take the time to step away from your art for a moment and just live your life. Not every life event has to be fodder for a photoshoot. Not everyone you meet needs to be considered for their photographic potential as a subject. It is possible to travel without needing to take photos of the experience. Sometimes it’s just enough to have the experience at all. Cherish your art. But, remember to cherish your life.