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Last December, no doubt thanks to data driven marketing, a little red ad with festive fireworks graphics kept popping up in my Facebook feed asking me: “WILL YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS SUCCEED OR FAIL IN 2014?” Over and over it found its way to my eyeballs and dared me to click, and apparently peek into my very own crystal ball, yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In all caps screaming at me, it seemed to suggest more seriousness than I can handle this time of year.
And the fireworks secretly conveyed what it really was saying: “WILL YOU BE CELEBRATING OR GOING DOWN IN A BURNING VORTEX OF SHAME AND REGRET?”. For all I know, it was a dead link. Or when I click on it, I end up on that site for an indoor cycling class that Facebook seems to think I will enjoy even though taking an indoor cycling class sounds slightly less interesting than performing my own root canal with pliers and whiskey on my kitchen floor.
I’m not one for New Year resolutions, and not just because they often involve exercise. I have found that they easily end up being nothing more than petty promises you make to yourself that turn into guilt once it becomes evident they were unrealistic and therefore, unachievable. What I do love though, is goal setting and fresh starts; a new year is perfect for both. Specific goal setting is a very personal thing – one that no one, or any “How To” article, can help you write. I can however offer you some tips for what the most successful goal setting includes.
I know – realistic is boring. Realistic lacks that exotic appeal, that wild and crazy offer. But setting yourself up for disappointment and ending up in that burning vortex of shame and regret scenario, isn’t appealing either. I’m not likely to photograph a cover for Time Magazine this year. I’m not even likely to have a photograph on the front page of my local newspaper. Partly because I don’t work for either publication. Last year I had photographs published in one international magazine, two US-based publications, and a few images featured in a large gallery show. Every single one of those was a surprise – random opportunities that fell in my lap which I couldn’t have set as a goal because I didn’t know they were possibilities.
Practical goal setting should be flexible enough to accommodate opportunities you couldn’t have imagined and able to adapt and change as your business and your style does. Goals do not need to be small to be realistic. Shoot for the moon, but keep in mind that the idea of building a space shuttle sounds like a lot more fun on January 1st than it will in mid-July.
This is a goal I have every year; to not let it get so personal. I want to be able to hear constructive feedback about my images without feeling personally attacked, to not allow negative energy to kill my buzz, to not give away the farm, to keep office hours, to not edit with one hand and make dinner for my kids with the other. It’s a struggle. Possibly my biggest. Partly because it is personal.
I don’t know a single professional photographer who became one because they needed a job and photography was there and was easy. We get into this business because we love taking pictures. What a dreamy situation – to take an art, a hobby, and turn it into your career. It’s easy to keep dodging and burning the midnight Photoshop oil when you are having success doing something you love. To avoid burn-out and keep your basic love of photography intact, work at maintaining a life/work balance. If taking pictures is how you make a living, do the tasks that aren’t as fun creating images, during actual normal working hours. Commit to not taking on too much, or doing jobs for free or cheap just to be nice. Build your portfolio with intention so you are not just shooting everything that comes your way for no personal purpose. Hire out the tasks that keep you from being able to focus on the parts of your business only you can do.
Several years ago I was in a terrible funk and I couldn’t figure out exactly why. I was telling a close friend that every time I came home, I felt defeated and just wanted to crawl into my bed and ignore the world. She walked into my laundry room – the room I usually use to enter my house connecting my garage to my kitchen and said, “Of course you do. I imagine this being the first thing you see when you get home is very, very depressing.” My laundry room was a sad beige disaster of papers and junk, not to mention laundry for days. If you managed to shove the door all the way open, you were rewarded by something falling on you or having to do a complicated dance routine to step over whatever was on the floor. It took a candid friend to see that being welcomed home by that was enough to make me want to run away. It was the push I needed to organized the junk, paint the walls a cheery yellow, put in happy lighting, and install a shiny new floor. This was life changing and made coming home something I looked forward to, instead of dreading.
If I could, I would visit each of your work spaces and clean off your desk, dust your computer screen and throw away all of those scraps of paper you are saving in your top drawer that you just don’t need. I would make sure your chair was adjusted for optimal comfort and productivity, then place your favorite picture in a beautiful frame right next to you to make you smile and give you a little extra motivation when you need it most. I would untangle your electric cords and label your business folders and toss all of the nagging Post-It notes that remind you of what you haven’t done. I would go through your computer where I would first check out your music collection and judge you completely based on it and then send unneeded files, shortcuts, and applications to the trash bin. I would reformat all of your memory cards, charge all of your batteries, and carefully wipe down all of your lenses. I would send in the little elves to magically clean your camera sensor and careful wipe all of the grime and grunge off the viewfinder and buttons with the most gentle precision. I would even get you a big glass of ice water with a crazy straw and place it next to you so you could work productively for hours on end and never have to be thirsty.
Obviously, I can’t do any of these things for you – but you can. Give yourself the gift of working in a space that works for you. Whether it’s an office, a studio or tiny corner of a closet – take the time to make it a place where you actually want to spend time.
There is so much information out there for photographers. Some of it good, some of it opinion, some of it completely unnecessary. As a person who gets overwhelmed easily, I have to remember to not overindulge in the information I allow my brain to soak up. I like to pick one topic or area that I want to learn more about or focus on at a time. This way I read anything I find interesting, but if it’s not something I need to look into and not about my dedicated topic, I can let it go. Last year I learned as much as I could about copyright. If an article popped up about copyright, I would read it immediately. I spent time researching and finding ways to change and better my photography practices based on copyright laws. This year, I want to work on indoor natural light photography. This keeps me from overindulging in tips and ideas that will only drown me with information I’m not likely to need or use right now.
Starting any business takes time and money. The first couple of years are often about keeping afloat, and it’s easy to see basic needs as expenses that can be saved for later. Looking back, I wish I would have built a few things stronger the first time.
I wish I would have purchased a better camera body right from the get-go instead of trying to skimp where I thought I could save some money, only to end up needing a new one much sooner. I wish I would have taken the time to have my computer professionally fixed to accommodate running a large program like Photoshop all of the time. Then my editing would have been faster and I would have wasted less time waiting for large images to load. I wish I would have done my portfolio building based on the pictures I wanted to take, not the ones that people seemed to demand.
The little things I could have invested in would have saved me a lot of trouble, time, and often cash, down the line. Having the tools you need, the resources to use, and the abilities and desire to put it all together and work hard, is the difference between flirting with photography and making it a business.
Every January I have no idea what the year will bring, and every December I find myself in a place I couldn’t have even predicted, but often in a place I had hoped for. Goal setting is the closest you can come to actually (please forgive the corniness) writing your own destiny. This year I want to work on my personal photography project, write more, update my websites and blogs, and never, ever find myself in an indoor cycling class.
What do you hope to achieve this year in your photography?