6 Steps To Finding a Photography Mentor - Digital Photography School
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6 Steps To Finding a Photography Mentor

Martin Gommel, in a guest post at Digital Photography School, listed “Search for a Mentor” as #92 in his post 100 Things I’ve Learned About Photography. This post by Peter Carey expands on that idea with 6 steps to help you in your search.

Photography-MentorImage by Shenghung Lin

Mentoring is a time honored method for passing on decades of learned information from one person to another. Not only can you learn a specific topic, finding a mentor can bring growth to other aspects of your art you were never aware of. It’s also great to know there is someone who has your best interest at heart and will give you candid, honest feedback while helping your improve. Picking a mentor need not be a hard process or one fraught with fear. Ok, there might be a bit of fear but the benefits of getting over that fear far outweigh the effort. Grab a notebook and let’s take a look at some of the important points in picking a photography mentor.

1. Know Your Favorite Subject Matter

Let’s start with you first. What is your favorite topic? Are you big on architectural photography? Wildlife? Sports? The list goes on and on and chances are you fit into more than one bucket. Most of us do. After listing out a couple of your favorite topics, narrow the list down to your top two. These are the, “If I could only study two types of photography, I want them to be ……” topics. It’s important to do this step first. First, it helps you focus (har har har) and second, it helps you really focus. You’ll have time later to find a mentor for each topic, for now, let’s keep it simple with just two.

2. Find The Like

Chances are you already have some names rolling around in your head. Favorite photographers you’ve picked up along the way. Write these names down first as they are the easy ones. Then start doing some searching. Looking online is a good start since you’re already at a computer. But also check out your local photography scene. Check your nearby college. Visits all the art galleries in your area until you find a good match for your topics and style.

3. Know What You Want From The Relationship

This is a very important step in the process. Without it, both you and your mentor may be left floundering or spending a lot of time on tasks that should have been done before you got in touch. Are you simply looking for regular critiques? Do you want hands on help with equipment? Maybe you wish to shadow the person for a day, a week, on a shoot. Or just need someone to help you with a new direction in photography. Whatever the case, list out how long, why, when and what. Be specific or vague as you wish, but make sure it would be clear to the other person what you are asking of them.

4. Get In Touch

Now for the part that stops most people in their tracks; getting up the nerve to contact possible mentors. For some, this part is easy and if that’s you, I’m sure you already know what to do. For the rest of us (myself included) this step might seem a bit daunting. I mean, you are actually going to let someone else know that you are not perfect and would like some help. EEeek!! Now get over it. Right now. Gather up some courage (“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain) and contact the people on your list. You may have to write or call the person, or maybe start with email. It all matters on the contact information you have gathered. No matter than manner, write out a little script first and practice/proofread it so you know what you want to say clearly. The step before should have made this easy to fill in.

And don’t let your brain tell you, “Oh, that person would be too busy or important to mentor you.” If you never ask the person, the answer is always no. Don’t ask ‘should I contact this person’, just do it! The worst they can do is say no and they just might say yes! If it’s ‘no, thanks’, you may be referred to other mentors who would be willing to help. Just ask and let the chips fall where they may.

5. Take Notes

Let’s say you have contacted someone and they agree to help mentor your in your art. GREAT!! Now make sure you take plenty of notes. And not just notes on the subject at hand. Here I’m talking about notes on your relationship. This first mentor is not necessarily your be-all, end-all mentor. You may go through many in your life. It’s important to know what works for you and what doesn’t. What kind of communication style, how much, in what form, etc… These notes will be important in continuing your relationship or in choosing the next mentor.

6. Keep An Open Mind

The actual process of picking a mentor may put images in your mind of just exactly how the relationship will work. While it’s fine to visualize an intended goal, don’t get too hung up on it. Think of Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid. Miyagi, his mentor, had him painting fences and doing all sorts of other things he thought had no relation to his goal, which was to learn karate and beat up some bullies. But Miyagi’s methods, while odd to Daniel, were simply a different path toward his goal than Daniel had imagined. So keep an open mind and take a few chances if your mentor is asking you to stretch or try something new.

Peter is an avid photographer who enjoys travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. A travel related blog of his past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Peter West Carey is a world traveling photographer who now is spending a large amount of time going back through 6 years of travel photo and processing them like he should have to start with. He is also helping others learn about photography with the free series 31+ Days Of Photography Experiments which builds off of the 31+ Days To Better Photography series on his blog.

  • http://www.tylerrobbins.net tyler

    Even after being in art school for 7 years, I need a mentor. A masters degree has helped me hone my methods, but there is a bigger business in art photography that can takes years to get good at.

    This was good advice.

  • Cliff

    I just enrolled into the NY Institute of Photography (can’t wait to get the material). Would it be wise to tell people this when I ask them to mentor me (thinking that may show I’m serious about learning and being mentored)? Or would it be unwise (showing that I’m wanting to learn to go out on my own and compete for business against this person one day)?

  • http://thecareyadventures.com/blog Peter Carey

    Cliff, I’d say tell them. If someone is only worried about you being a competitor, they wouldn’t make the best mentor as they don’t wish you to grow, possibly past them. Any true master in any art that is willing to mentor would be honored if the student excelled past the master. Plus any person who would be a good mentor already knows there is tons of competition out there. Better the enemy you know…. :)

    I think it’s great you’ve enrolled and shows your true intent!

  • Alex

    Can you describe what are the advantages for a mentor in this relationships. You described in great details benefits for a student but what can drive a mentor. The response to this question might help as well when overcoming the fear to contact a person in the first place.
    Many thanks!

  • http://www.studiotampa.com Steve Wilson

    Great advice, but in my experience, it’s easier said than done. I was floored when I went out and tried to contact potential mentors in the wedding photog business (at least in my area). After being told by 3 people I respected that they “weren’t in the business of training competition” I gave up. I was even willing to sign a non-compete for a period of time, none were interested. I then started reading Dane Sanders’ stuff about the “grumpies” and realized I had met 3 of them :).

    Anyways, good advice, just be aware there are a lot of insecure “pros” out there. There are also many people that love to share and realize there is always something to learn. Just have to be patient and look for the right person.

  • http://www.manually-focused.blogspot.com Maria Sabala

    Thanks for the great tips! I have been recently wishing for a mentor, so this came at the perfect time. Books and websites can only get you so far. Now to start the search and work on the whole courage thing…

  • http://www.petelanglois.net Pete Langlois

    My mentor is someone I hired to do my wedding. She doesn’t do weddings anymore but she’s been in the “business” for 30 years. I just happened to see her at the car dealership getting an oil change one day and we started yakking.

    http://www.meetup.com is a great place to find others with similar interests as well.

    Pete
    http://www.petelanglois.net

  • http://reginawhitephotography.smugmug.com Gina

    I have been looking for someone to mentor me forever. I don’t have any luck. So I am looking for the right person. I agree with Maria on this too. I think if I could be like the rest of the best I would love to pass on info. I mean I’m in Michigan why would I want to compete with someone out in Hawaii or California. I do have to say Dave with Ohana Photography has been awesome when I e-mail him. Thanks Dave!

  • http://koleidoscope.wordpress.com Jim

    I guess mentoring is true for both professionals and hobbyists. Thanks for this!

  • J. Dillon

    Good advice, and thoughtful discussion following it. Alex asked about the advantages to the mentor. I have been teaching groups and mentoring individuals for about a decade (I’m a woodworker), and I feel very strongly I’d be a less complete woodworker if I didn’t do it.

    For me, personally, there are two specific benefits that come to mind immediately. The first is that coaching someone else in both the physical techniques and the mentality that goes along with them forces me to clarify them for myself, and come up with clear explanations. It’s the old thing about really learning something by teaching it. I have also found that a lot of the subtleties of technique, I never actually try to put into words, unless I have to explain them to someone. And putting them into words, perhaps explaining “why” instead of just “how,” almost always shows me something I hadn’t realized before.

    Second is the satisfaction. Seeing the “aha!” in someone’s eyes, realizing I’ve struck a spark, is deeply satisfying for me. This is more dependent on the mentor’s personality, but many of the (good) teachers I’ve known have said the same thing.

    In his introduction to “The Camera,” Ansel Adams says something quite similar to this, only much more eloquently.

    About training one’s competitors . . . this might depend on the subject matter or discipline involved. Portraits, weddings, and catalog photography are areas where the final product is pretty much a commodity and there is price competition. Subjects (or approaches) that allow for more self-expression on the photographer’s part move in a much more diffuse marketplace, where it’s hard to find apples to compare to apples, and competition is far less an issue. But previous commentors are also right: personality plays into it as well.

    Good luck! A few years ago I found the mentor I’ve needed all my life, and I know it’s a very rewarding relationship for both of us. I see a time coming when the mentoring will be less one-sided, but we’ll both continue to be energized by and interested in each other’s work. Life’s good, sometimes.

    jd

  • http://adweckphoto@comcast.net Aboud

    Professional photographer with 35 years experience looking to mentor a young photographer who is serious about his or her work.

  • http://www.kssimages.com Kim

    Aboud? Are you serious? Are you still offering? I am unable to find any info on you so I cannot tell where you reside/work…please e-mail me if you are still willing to take on a very dedicated and eager photographer.
    Thank you,
    ~Kim

  • http://www.yourmemoryremainsphotography.com/ Brandie

    I just recently graduated with my associates degree in Commercial Photography and I am desperately trying to find work and a mentor. The field I want to get into is live concert and event photography. The city I live in his a great place for this. While I was taking one of my photog classes, my instructor told me of a guy to contact to get info/advice on how to break in to this field. I sent him a friend request on FaceBook and eventually messaged him to ask him for 30 minutes of his time. he told me to give him a month or so and he would be happy to talk to me. He gave me his email address so I waited and emailed him. He replied about 5 days later stating that he was getting ready to move and that this was not the best time. I sent him an email back saying I understood and waited a couple months and emailed him again. He flat out told me he is too busy to meet with me. I have not contacted him since. I cannot believe how conceited or boated this guys ego must be. I have no intention of stealing his work and I don’t know he could even think I would be a threat.

Some older comments

  • Brandie

    June 25, 2013 08:12 am

    I just recently graduated with my associates degree in Commercial Photography and I am desperately trying to find work and a mentor. The field I want to get into is live concert and event photography. The city I live in his a great place for this. While I was taking one of my photog classes, my instructor told me of a guy to contact to get info/advice on how to break in to this field. I sent him a friend request on FaceBook and eventually messaged him to ask him for 30 minutes of his time. he told me to give him a month or so and he would be happy to talk to me. He gave me his email address so I waited and emailed him. He replied about 5 days later stating that he was getting ready to move and that this was not the best time. I sent him an email back saying I understood and waited a couple months and emailed him again. He flat out told me he is too busy to meet with me. I have not contacted him since. I cannot believe how conceited or boated this guys ego must be. I have no intention of stealing his work and I don't know he could even think I would be a threat.

  • Kim

    July 29, 2010 04:21 am

    Aboud? Are you serious? Are you still offering? I am unable to find any info on you so I cannot tell where you reside/work...please e-mail me if you are still willing to take on a very dedicated and eager photographer.
    Thank you,
    ~Kim

  • Aboud

    March 22, 2009 02:37 am

    Professional photographer with 35 years experience looking to mentor a young photographer who is serious about his or her work.

  • J. Dillon

    September 22, 2008 12:12 am

    Good advice, and thoughtful discussion following it. Alex asked about the advantages to the mentor. I have been teaching groups and mentoring individuals for about a decade (I'm a woodworker), and I feel very strongly I'd be a less complete woodworker if I didn't do it.

    For me, personally, there are two specific benefits that come to mind immediately. The first is that coaching someone else in both the physical techniques and the mentality that goes along with them forces me to clarify them for myself, and come up with clear explanations. It's the old thing about really learning something by teaching it. I have also found that a lot of the subtleties of technique, I never actually try to put into words, unless I have to explain them to someone. And putting them into words, perhaps explaining "why" instead of just "how," almost always shows me something I hadn't realized before.

    Second is the satisfaction. Seeing the "aha!" in someone's eyes, realizing I've struck a spark, is deeply satisfying for me. This is more dependent on the mentor's personality, but many of the (good) teachers I've known have said the same thing.

    In his introduction to "The Camera," Ansel Adams says something quite similar to this, only much more eloquently.

    About training one's competitors . . . this might depend on the subject matter or discipline involved. Portraits, weddings, and catalog photography are areas where the final product is pretty much a commodity and there is price competition. Subjects (or approaches) that allow for more self-expression on the photographer's part move in a much more diffuse marketplace, where it's hard to find apples to compare to apples, and competition is far less an issue. But previous commentors are also right: personality plays into it as well.

    Good luck! A few years ago I found the mentor I've needed all my life, and I know it's a very rewarding relationship for both of us. I see a time coming when the mentoring will be less one-sided, but we'll both continue to be energized by and interested in each other's work. Life's good, sometimes.

    jd

  • Jim

    September 21, 2008 12:52 pm

    I guess mentoring is true for both professionals and hobbyists. Thanks for this!

  • Gina

    September 18, 2008 12:39 am

    I have been looking for someone to mentor me forever. I don't have any luck. So I am looking for the right person. I agree with Maria on this too. I think if I could be like the rest of the best I would love to pass on info. I mean I'm in Michigan why would I want to compete with someone out in Hawaii or California. I do have to say Dave with Ohana Photography has been awesome when I e-mail him. Thanks Dave!

  • Pete Langlois

    September 18, 2008 12:38 am

    My mentor is someone I hired to do my wedding. She doesn't do weddings anymore but she's been in the "business" for 30 years. I just happened to see her at the car dealership getting an oil change one day and we started yakking.

    http://www.meetup.com is a great place to find others with similar interests as well.

    Pete
    http://www.petelanglois.net

  • Maria Sabala

    September 18, 2008 12:04 am

    Thanks for the great tips! I have been recently wishing for a mentor, so this came at the perfect time. Books and websites can only get you so far. Now to start the search and work on the whole courage thing...

  • Steve Wilson

    September 17, 2008 11:09 pm

    Great advice, but in my experience, it's easier said than done. I was floored when I went out and tried to contact potential mentors in the wedding photog business (at least in my area). After being told by 3 people I respected that they "weren't in the business of training competition" I gave up. I was even willing to sign a non-compete for a period of time, none were interested. I then started reading Dane Sanders' stuff about the "grumpies" and realized I had met 3 of them :).

    Anyways, good advice, just be aware there are a lot of insecure "pros" out there. There are also many people that love to share and realize there is always something to learn. Just have to be patient and look for the right person.

  • Alex

    September 17, 2008 10:10 pm

    Can you describe what are the advantages for a mentor in this relationships. You described in great details benefits for a student but what can drive a mentor. The response to this question might help as well when overcoming the fear to contact a person in the first place.
    Many thanks!

  • Peter Carey

    September 17, 2008 02:06 pm

    Cliff, I'd say tell them. If someone is only worried about you being a competitor, they wouldn't make the best mentor as they don't wish you to grow, possibly past them. Any true master in any art that is willing to mentor would be honored if the student excelled past the master. Plus any person who would be a good mentor already knows there is tons of competition out there. Better the enemy you know.... :)

    I think it's great you've enrolled and shows your true intent!

  • Cliff

    September 17, 2008 01:12 pm

    I just enrolled into the NY Institute of Photography (can't wait to get the material). Would it be wise to tell people this when I ask them to mentor me (thinking that may show I'm serious about learning and being mentored)? Or would it be unwise (showing that I'm wanting to learn to go out on my own and compete for business against this person one day)?

  • tyler

    September 17, 2008 10:15 am

    Even after being in art school for 7 years, I need a mentor. A masters degree has helped me hone my methods, but there is a bigger business in art photography that can takes years to get good at.

    This was good advice.

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