The Three Life Lessons You Won’t Want to Learn the Hard Way

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: photographers never, ever stop learning. We’re a creative bunch of people, which means that we’re naturally curious – and that curiosity drives us to constantly question the world around us, to explore new techniques, and to try to improve and streamline our own practice.

But constant learning – especially if you’re self-employed – isn’t always about those ‘eureka!’ moments when you discover something that totally changes the way you shoot, or market, or edit.

Sometimes, it’s about trial and error, with an emphasis on the error! Making mistakes isn’t a sign of failure – instead, it’s one of your most valuable opportunities to grow. I’ve made some absolute whoppers in my time – and there have been three, in particular, which have really shaped my photography business.

Life Lesson #1: You Are The Only Person Standing In Your Way

Sounds totally bonkers, right – after all, you know you want to succeed, and you’ve been working your rear end off to make it happen. But here’s the thing: no one – not a single soul – is ever going to give you permission to be as awesome as you absolutely can be. There’s never going to be a golden letter that comes whizzing through your letterbox, proclaiming:

“Dear Miss Freeland,

CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve done it! You’re the equestrian industry’s most in-demand personal photographer. Those doubts in the back of your mind? Chuck them out! You’ve made it!

Go forth and be awesome!

Lots of love,

The Universe.”

Nope, not going to happen. Instead, YOU have to be your own barometer of success – and the only way to do that is to learn how to silence those little voices in your head that say, ‘but what if you’re not good enough?’

Look, here’s the truth: there’s an awful lot of people in the world, and every single one of them has their own set of opinions, their own tastes, their own threshold for quality. You won’t ever please all of them – not in a million years! But you can certainly wear yourself down trying.

Some of the best, and most famous, photographers in history have been on the receiving end of critical take-downs – some from fellow professionals, and some from casual viewers who have decided, for one reason or another, that they don’t like what they see.

(Don’t believe me? The New York Times once referred to Steve McCurry’s portraits as ‘astonishingly boring.’ Yes, that Steve McCurry, of ‘Afghan Girl’ fame. Possibly the most lauded photographer in history. Boring! Who’d have guessed it?!)

Ultimately, you need to learn to rise above the opinions of others and shoot in the way that inspires you. Then, people who love your style will seek you out, while those who don’t will go elsewhere – and that’s fine. No one produces truly brilliant, emotive, honest work if they’re trying to change what they do to suit somebody else. You’ve got to be true to yourself.

I definitely learned this one the hard way. I stood in my own way for years, letting my lack of confidence and my fear of negative opinions stop me from doing what I loved and loving what I do.

My mentor would suggest all sorts of brilliant ideas for my portfolio, and I’d smile, nod, and then get into my car and talk myself out of doing any of them. “You’re not good enough. Your camera isn’t good enough.” And on, and on. It drives me mad to think of the time I wasted stopping my own photography business from growing.

Eventually, I learned to try, and each time, I became a little bit braver. Now, I jump into new ideas with both feet, knowing that I’ll either succeed or I’ll learn. And both options are infinitely better than staying in the same place forever!

Life Lesson #2: Keep Your Gear Up-to-Date

First of all, let me make one thing very clear: I don’t believe in the idea of a camera ‘not being good enough’. I firmly stand behind the old photography adage that the best camera for the job is the one that you have with you in the moment. No matter your budget and no matter your tools, you can produce top-notch images.

The catch? You’ve got to take care of what you’ve got. Sounds obvious, right? Sure – but when did you last send your body and lenses to get serviced? Have you ever popped your camera on the ground while you made adjustments to your subjects? And have you ever been caught in an impromptu rain shower while shooting?

We photograph horses, so wear, tear, and a bit of arena sand is to be expected. Cameras, these days, are tougher than ever, and they can hold their own admirably against the elements. But nevertheless, it’s so important that we treat our kit as well as we can – the big bits, and the little bits.

Let me tell you a story. I was offered a fabulous commission a few years ago for a major magazine, who wanted me to provide a cover image and six pages’ worth of editorial images of an Olympic rider. I was to share the shoot day with a film crew from Channel 4. It was a VERY BIG DEAL.

The shoot day came around, and what a day it was – the rider was a dream to work with, the weather behaved itself, and I was so excited about the results, which I was sure were the best work I’d ever produced.       I raced home on an absolute high – I couldn’t wait to start editing!

Once home, I popped my memory card into the card reader, buzzing with excitement. And then? Nothing. Niente. Zip. Zilch. Nada. No icon telling me that the machine had read the card, no folder chock-full of images, just tumble-weeds, and a sudden, icy feeling of panic.

My memory card had corrupted, and worst of all? It was a 64GB card, which meant that I’d done the entire shoot on it. I’d lost everything. To say I cried is a woeful understatement.

Fortunately my partner, Matt, is a bit of a tech wizard. Fuelled by the prospect of having to spend the whole night listening to me crying, he delved into the problem. By 3am, we’d saved about 90% of the images. I got REALLY lucky. But more importantly? I learned some valuable lessons. Namely…

  • Cards CAN just corrupt. Always re-format them after uploading your files!
  • If you haven’t used a memory card in a while (gulp – eight months!) maybe don’t pull it out for a very important job. Test it first!
  • Multiple small cards are better than one enormous one. If you use three 16GB cards and one corrupts, at least you have the images on the other two!
  • Periodically take your kit in for a bit of an MOT. Better to spend some money on an annual service than to lose a day’s pay (and dent your reputation) because your equipment failed.

Life Lesson #3: Keep It Simple, Silly

Or, more to the point, don’t fill your online photography portfolio with 120 images. First of all, ain’t NOBODY got time for dat, and second of all, you could actually lose a potential client as a result.

Sound drastic? Let me explain a little bit about sales psychology. Basically, humans are hard-wired to look for a reason not to commit to things – so when presented with a product, particularly one with variables, like a photoshoot, they’ll subconsciously look for things they DON’T like about it. Then, they’ve got a tailor-made reason not to commit to it.

People make up their minds pretty quickly, and first impressions count for a lot. It actually only takes a few shots for someone to decide whether or not your style is for them, and by giving them an endless stream of images to sift through, you’re only increasing the likelihood that they’ll stumble across something they don’t like. Instead, select 10-20 of your absolute favourite shots, preferably showing the full range of what you can do. Don’t choose 15 shots of a variety of clients all in the exact same pose or location – mix it up a bit, making sure your style is apparent in each shot, but that each shot brings something new to the table. Leave them wanting more, and they’ll be yours!

Back to You:

How about you? What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned the hard way while building up your photography business? Have you made any of the same mistakes I did? Leave your story in the comments!