professional photographer magazine – column 6 – defining success

Before Kristen and I ran our ‘be nice + take nice photographs’ workshop last year, we wanted the attendees to spend some time to think about a few things. The main element was around how to define success and what that means to each person. The style of workshop we run isn’t so much a “we-do-this-and-you-can/should-do-it-too” method, it’s focused more on helping people figure out their unique goals are and equipping them with the tools to get there. So naturally, the first step is to actually articulate what they want and the ways to determine when they had achieved it.

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In my mind, there are two types of goals, objective and subjective. Objective goals are ones that can actually be measured, goals such as securing 25 bookings for the next year, making a certain amount of money or shooting a destination wedding (I put dibs on the first lunar wedding!). Then there are the subjective goals, things like job satisfaction, how much you enjoy being around the people you work for and feeling suitably challenged by what you do. A perception of one’s success, in my mind, needs to be a combination of both of these types of goals as I believe focusing too much on one and not the other can create complications. I think that I personally focus more on the subjective goals, for me success is about being happy, it’s about photographing couples that I genuinely feel affection for and celebrating weddings in a way consistent with each couple and their personalities. I love authenticity and connections and for me I wanted that those experiences in my day-to-day ‘work’. It took some time to figure this out but when I did, every decision I made was based around achieving that. I wanted to be true to my values and some really great things have happened to me as a result of that (this column being a perfect example).

As I mentioned above, we must be pragmatic and have some objective goals – living in the society we live in costs money, and we must ensure that we can pay for that life! I’ve never focused on making a certain amount of money (and have been truly fortunate that I have had a partner who was able to buffer us while I started out in photography) but at the same time, I do put a monetary value on what I do as Kristen and I live in a way that requires income.

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In the rare instances that I’ve had a 2nd shooter, the photographers have been friends of mine, each able to create beautiful and complimentary images to my own. All of them were just starting out their careers and like the rest of us at that stage, felt somewhat uncertain about how things would progress for them and whether their businesses would be sustainable in the long run. I’m no expert on anything really but I really believed in them and felt that they already had the starting points of everything that they required: great photographic skills, a kind demeanour with people and a sense of right and wrong. But they told me that they didn’t necessarily feel like that was enough and it was only after shooting with me that they realised that what they do, how they interact with couples and how they go about their day, is nearly identical to what I do which provided them with validation. It appeared my friends had looked other photographers and their work and imagined that in order to be “successful”, they needed something magical and mysterious which they didn’t have –I think they also fell into the trap of seeing images from beautiful weddings shot by some bigger name photographers out there and felt inadequate about their own images. The reality is, not every wedding that we photograph is filled with ‘beautiful’ details, glamourous dresses, sharp suits and wonderfully styled venues nor do every couple want to spend 2 hours driving to and from stunning locations to take photographs. The expectations my friends had been setting for themselves were around failing to create images like the ones they had seen, when the truth was they had never been in a position to create images like that in the first place. It’s a bit like seeing a photographer take an amazing photo of an orange but you’ve only ever photographed apples and felt disappointed that none of your images ever looked like an orange! Extending our analogy a little further, if all of your images of the apple were great, then you’ve succeeded in your job and the apples that hired you to photograph them will be happy to the core (dad joke!). I know that the couples that my friends have photographed for were truly happy about the images they received and in my mind that should be enough for them to feel proud of themselves and to feel like they’re achieving their objectives. But of course I would think that because it is one of my objectives when I photograph people! Each photographer obviously has their own measures for success, and what makes them feel proud and satisfied.

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It’s so easy to fall into this trap of wanting more and more and more – wanting to be more well known, wanting to make more money, wanting to be looked up to more. I honestly don’t have any interest in any of those things, I’m happy with my photographic life because I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to and anything on top of that is just a huge bonus. From here on for me, it’s just about maintaining the level I’m at and remaining happy with my life (and growing a vegetable garden, getting some chickens for eggs, bees for honeys and a donkey or two as pets for Kristen). It really is that simple. I don’t think everyone has the same expectations or desires as me but I definitely believe it’s important to measure success according to your own metrics, not someone else’s. As long as you do, you will either be happy with what you’ve achieved or have a better idea of how to get to a place where you will be.

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