What Every Aspiring Photographer Should Know

“All I ask is one thing, particularly of young people that watch. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. It’s my least favorite quality. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and are kind, amazing things will happen.” -Conan O’Brien

Change is one thing in life you can count on. It’s inevitable. You can’t stop it or slow it down. As a professional photographer for the past 20 years, I’ve seen a lifetime of change happen overnight. New and aspiring photographers are always asking for words of wisdom from those of us who have seen so much change and thrived where others have struggled.

I may be an infrequent blogger, but I’m always pondering things to share. This is something I’ve given much thought, especially after a wonderfully talented high school senior shadowed me for a week as part of a graduation project. Never before in the history of our planet have there been so many people documenting and creating images— daily. How do you find your voice? How do you stand out from the every increasing number of voices struggling to be heard?

Then I read an article written by Colorado portrait photographer Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai and found it perfectly articulated what I wanted to say. With permission, I’m sharing her thoughts on what every aspiring photographer should know.

• Style is a voice, not a prop or an action. If you can buy it, borrow it, download it, or steal it, it is not a style. Don’t look outward for your style; look inward.

• Know your stuff. Luck is a nice thing, but a terrifying thing to rely on. It’s like money; you only have it when you don’t need it.

• Never apologize for your own sense of beauty. Nobody can tell you what you should love. Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically. You cannot build your sense of aesthetics on a consensus.

• Say no. Say it often. It may be difficult, but you owe it to yourself and your clients. Turn down jobs that don’t fit you, say no to overbooking yourself. You are no good to anyone when you’re stressed and anxious.

• Learn to say “I’m a photographer” out loud with a straight face. If you can’t say it and believe it, you can’t expect anyone else to, either.

• You cannot specialize in everything.

• You don’t have to go into business just because people tell you you should! And you don’t have to be full time and making an executive income to be successful. If you decide you want to be in business, set your limits before you begin.

• Know your style before you hang out your shingle. If you don’t, your clients will dictate your style to you. That makes you nothing more than a picture taker. Changing your style later will force you to start all over again, and that’s tough.

• Accept critique, but don’t apply it blindly. Just because someone said it does not make it so. Critiques are opinions, nothing more. Consider the advice, consider the perspective of the advice giver, consider your style and what you want to convey in your work. Implement only what makes sense to implement. That doesn’t not make you ungrateful, it makes you independent.

• Leave room for yourself to grow and evolve. It may seem like a good idea to call your business “Precious Chubby Tootsies”… but what happens when you decide you love to photograph seniors? Or boudoir?

• Remember that if your work looks like everyone else’s, there’s no reason for a client to book you instead of someone else. Unless you’re cheaper. And nobody wants to be known as “the cheaper photographer”.

• Gimmicks and merchandise will come and go, but honest photography is never outdated.

• It’s easier to focus on buying that next piece of equipment than it is to accept that you should be able to create great work with what you’ve got. Buying stuff is a convenient and expensive distraction. You need a decent camera, a decent lens, and a light meter. Until you can use those tools consistently and masterfully, don’t spend another dime. Spend money on equipment ONLY when you’ve outgrown your current equipment and you’re being limited by it. There are no magic bullets.

• Learn that people photography is about people, not about photography. Great portraits are a side effect of a strong human connection.

• Never forget why you started taking pictures in the first place. Excellent technique is a great tool, but a terrible end product. The best thing your technique can do is not call attention to itself. Never let your technique upstage your subject.

• Never compare your journey with someone else’s. It’s a marathon with no finish line. Someone else may start out faster than you, may seem to progress more quickly than you, but every runner has his own pace. Your journey is your journey, not a competition. You will never “arrive”. No one ever does.

• Embrace frustration. It pushes you to learn and grow, broadens your horizons, and lights a fire under you when your work has gone cold. Nothing is more dangerous to an artist than complacency.

—Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai

A pioneer in the world of children’s portraiture, Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai is among the most admired and emulated portrait photographers working today. With a style described by Black and White Photography Magazine (UK) as “the anti-cute approach”, her work has helped usher in a more honest, respectful era of child photography. And she only shoots film!

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai

    Randy, just wanted to say that the image you’ve posted with this entry is really wonderful. Great personality and technique coming together.

    – CJ

  2. Thanks Cheryl for the kind words and for the thoughtful turn of words for aspiring photographers.

    The photo is of Lincoln Briney, an amazingly talented singer that I’ve had the pleasure of working with and following.


    This image was captured with a Hasselblad on Tri-X film *gasp* that was processed by hand in a special blend of Agfa Rodinal 1:50.

    Thanks again for letting me share your thoughts with the world that stops by my blog.


  3. Randy, I just want to say thank you so much for sending this out into my corner of the planet!
    The photo is one of my favorites of yours but you already know that… I’m thanking you for introducing a very straight forward woman who also happens to be a marvelous photographer.
    She made me laugh out loud more than a couple of times!

  4. Randy,

    Jamie Bosworth sent me to your blog. I found out about her at my niece’s wedding last summer and fell in love with her pictures and her blog. She sent me to this posting because she thought I’d like your work as well (and now I’ve fallen in love with YOUR work — man, that picture of Lincoln Briney is beyond wonderful) and also because of what you passed on from Cheryl. I’m a writer and with almost every thing Cheryl said, I could take out photographer and put in writer. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. I love what Cheryl wrote and could not agree more – thanks for passing it along.

    Even as a seasoned photographer I find some of her points still can apply to me today.

  6. Thanks for this insightful and educational list. THis was forwarded to me and I was so impressed that I felt I needed to comment. I am not a portrait/people photographer but I can safely say that almost everything on this list resonates with a landscape photographer like myself.

    There are actually several points I hadn’t thought of that are very helpful. Perhaps my two favorite points were these. “Learn to say “I’m a photographer” out loud with a straight face. If you can’t say it and believe it, you can’t expect anyone else to, either AND “You cannot specialize in everything.” I see Photogs who are newer than myself making the mistake of trying to do everything and thereby being exceptional at nothing. Thanks for the great Ideas.

    All the Best,
    Mike Putnam

  7. This is Golden, thxs for the post, I will keep it with me, this answers many questions that I had, and I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER.

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