Photography lesson

The biggest life lesson in becoming a successful photographer

There is a big mistake that some photographers repeat over and over again. It can cause more damage to their professional or amateur careers than a blurry photograph.

I’m typing this in an apartment in Warsaw, Poland. On the wall, a series of black and white prints of Paris. These are fabulous shots, perfectly executed, and as a collection they work well together. They are also beautifully printed on acrylic panels.

At first I thought these were mass produced prints purchased from IKEA or a similar store. I used Google Lens to identify the photographer. Although the magic of this tool correctly identified them as Paris, it did not find a match for these exact photos. So I can only conclude that they were photographed by the owner of the apartment or bought from a professional photographer.

Yesterday I was at IKEA, joking with my Polish friend – one of the best photographers I know – that I was being given an authentic Polish experience. IKEA sells fantastic framed photo prints at an exceptionally low price.

Later, we strolled through a mall in central Warsaw. I’m not a fan of malls. No matter where you are in the world, they’re all the same with like-minded stores, selling mostly the same mass-produced junk. Plus, they seem to suck my energy like concrete vampires. Give me an outdoor market to photograph above a mall any day. Of course, there were generic lifestyle stores, some of which also sold mass-produced photo prints.

As a professional photographer who sells prints, it’s baffling that the public can buy great photos for far less than I can even produce mine.

However, there is one thing that works in my favor. Like two women arriving at a party wearing the same dress, when someone buys a print from IKEA, they risk their friends having the same artwork hanging on their wall. Showing a generic impression produced by the thousands will mean that visitors have at least seen the photo before. They will probably also know the store it came from. Therefore, the print is unlikely to hold their attention for long.

There is an important point that we photographers can learn from this. Marketing experts talk about the unique selling point, the USP. Your images are unique. The next time your client hosts a house party, their guests will see and be interested in the art hanging on their walls because it’s unlike anything else they’ve seen. The host will tell them about the photo and about you too.

When someone buys your photo, they’re investing in you, not just your photography. This is important because your business should target around 80% of your customers as repeat customers. There are good reasons for this, both for the buyer and the photographer. First, the buyer must be motivated to come back for more of the same; they will want a job that matches what they already have. If you have a singular style, your other works will fit in with their previous purchases. For you, the photographer, this means they don’t have to invest so much time, money and energy into advertising.

Most importantly, however, you must be the kind of person the buyer wants to invest in.

As a photographer, that means giving a bit of yourself to the customer, not just the product or service. Your customers want to consider you a friend. Be an Eagle Scout.

Scouting is still the largest youth organization in the world, and its success is largely due to its philosophy. More than half of the most successful people in the world are former Scouts, compared to a quarter of the general population. Scouts and Guides around the world are committed to a very similar set of rules. This is what makes them successful. Their philosophy is built around a common set of laws that Scouts follow. They vary slightly from country to country, but they all include trust, loyalty, friendliness, consideration, helpfulness, courage, and kindness. These are the attributes that your customers, customers, and subscribers want to invest in.

But this is an area where some photographers fall and hit the rocks.

There’s a photographer I met whose business isn’t doing well. There’s a reason for that. First, he comes across as angry. He also has a reputation for being a fanatic, regularly places sarcastic comments online, and never celebrates the successes of others. His rotten attitude hurts his reputation far more than any harm he does to others.

Have you heard of the six degrees of separation? It’s the idea that everyone on the planet is connected to everyone else by a chain of knowledge with five or fewer links. In the world of photography, it’s a much smaller chain with just two links. How you use it matters.

A few days ago, a prominent photographer decided to post a negative and unfounded comment on his personal Facebook wall. Someone took a screenshot of the post and shared it with their friend, who is a writer here. Subsequently, the screenshot circulated among the entire editorial staff. Most of the team here have close contact with other writers, editors, camera industry personnel, and website owners. The photographer has seriously damaged his reputation and his business with a malicious and poorly thought out message.

In a marketing training course in the early 1990s, long before anyone had heard the term “social media”, I was told that if a customer received good service, they would tell another person . However, they would say 10 if they had a bad customer experience. If people are mean online, their attitude gets noticed more than what they say. Word spreads, and it comes back to bite them.

A while ago I considered interviewing one of the readers here because I thought his work was worth promoting. I then saw the nature of most of the comments he wrote on the articles; they were invariably petty. He runs a photography business. I wonder how many clients have been blown away or missed opportunities because of the reaction to his comments.

I’m not saying don’t complain when things go wrong, but always prioritize kindness and avoid malicious intent. The latter will always come back to bite you. If you receive negativity from someone, then rest assured that it will do you little harm. A fellow writer told me that an agent once promised to ruin his career. The writer’s career is booming and no one wants to work with the agent. This kind of extreme behavior is rare, but there are things you can do if it happens.

In short, if you want someone to like or keep buying your work, you need them to like you. Being a good photographer is not enough; you must be a good person too.