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A 10 Step Personal Development Strategy for Photographers

In this article I want to lay some foundations, on which I will build in future articles. I am not talking here about image development, but your personal and professional development as a photographer. As a full-time working photographer, I am well aware of the 10,000 hours I have invested in my art and craft – not just once, but many times over the last two decades – and it doesn’t end. This is ongoing and if you don’t continue to invest in your personal development, you will not improve and remain static.

Hidden Kingdom

Regardless of whether you are at the start of your journey, having just recently picked up a camera, or have been working in the field for decades, this overview will apply and help you improve.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t complain about the destination!”

1: Nobody is born brilliant

Pick any field: from music, sports, arts, academia, whatever, and pick the best-known people in any of them. They started off as babies playing in mud and sucking their thumbs. Yes, they applied themselves and made life choices to get where they are, but they are all the product of hard work and dedication. We all have a capacity to be brilliant in our own way.

2: Education should never stop

You invest the best part of your childhood in school and the better part of your 20’s and 30’s climbing ladders at work – whatever that may be. This is normal; you accept it as the necessity of making a living.

When it comes to hobbies and pastimes we vary in our commitment to study. There are plenty of folks who only do photography to wind down on the weekend and get away from the stress of a professional career. If that’s you, don’t worry, as I often say, “Learning should be Fun.”

Into the West

3: Effortless development

Be inspired – surround yourself with excellence. When I started to get serious about wanting to become a better photographer, I sought out the very best photography in the fields that interested me. This can be found in many of the excellent online forums these days – images are everywhere and you need to find the best.

Why? Excellence inspires excellence. It allows you to set the bar for yourself and establish a standard for which you aspire. I don’t mean to offend, but if you surround yourself with mediocrity, it will drag you down and create a “that’s good enough” mentality.

Inspiration should be used to help seek out styles you gravitate towards, themes, moods and forms of expression. Plagiarism is a great way to grow, we all do it, but I would recommend trying to develop your own style as soon as you can, rather than copying others. Why, because you’re the best in the world at being you!

4: Truly evaluate where you are right now

This is actually harder than it sounds, as you are trying to compare yourself to a massive spectrum of talent out there in the world. Many times I have gotten to the stage where I thought, “Hey, I’m not bad at this.” Only to find the work of some unknown guy from Romania, whose work blew me away! Honest evaluation can be very humbling.

Life on the Edge

Remember when you were a kid and you used to get your height measured with a pencil mark on the kitchen wall? Remember that feeling when you’d grown an inch over the summer? That’s what photographic development is like – you can feel the inspirational creative muscles stretching and growing.

5: Ask yourself WHY?

I can answer one question about every one of my images, “Why did I make it?”

To be honest, those reasons have changed significantly over the years, especially now this is my career. But typically the more you understand why you are making (or taking) photographs, the sooner you can begin to channel purpose, and specific expression into your work.

I have been through every stage of WHY in my own development. I know when I am forcing it and making images just because I have a camera in my hand. I know when I am making contrived compositions, because I feel I have to make images, even when I don’t feel like it. Equally, I know when I am on fire, running on instinct in the fast lane, charged up with a lot of technique and subconscious understanding.

Professional photographers often talk about utility, having a preset use for an image even while it is being envisaged. For example, while I am in the field, I may be thinking, “That image can be used to advertise a workshop, that one will work well in an eBook or article, that’s a portfolio image to showcase my work, that one is great for Social Media” and so on.

Symphony of Light

6: What is photography?

I am well aware that you could ask a million people and get a million different answers, but this is mine!

“Photography is a visual language: its aim is to communicate something to another person. That something is in the voice of the person who made the photograph. The clearer the photographer’s intention, the more likely the viewer will understand the intent.”

As with spoken language, the more articulate you are, the better you can be understood – by people who understand your language!

Leading on from the why in point #5 above, you have to ask yourself what? – “What am I trying to say with this photograph?”

7: Speak the language of photography

When you admire an image, think about words that explain why you like it. I would imagine the majority of those words would be adjectives, for example: Moody, evocative, dramatic, calm, reflective, soothing, energetic, sad, happy, etc.

Only photographers use technical language to describe photographs. Shutter speeds, exposures, apertures, noise, depth of field, etc.

When you make your images, concentrate on the adjectives. If you make an image to be moody, you can bet the viewer will think it is moody too. Advertising agencies do this all the time, they manipulate their viewers with subliminal messages in film, photographs to make them more likely to buy a product.

This was one of the biggest developments in my own images – I always try and instil a very distinct mood, or feeling, into my work. Start to think in terms of key words that describe your work.

The Wester Isles

8: Understand the creative cycle

Many people describe photography as a process – as if it is linear and follows a set path. In some regards this is true, and certainly from a teaching point of view it is the only way to explain it without melting your student’s brain.

However, recall what it was like learning to drive a car, especially a manual transmission with a stick shift. All those things you have to learn to do simultaneously: steering, mirrors, signals, brake, accelerator, clutch, gears, changing lanes, avoiding pedestrians and cyclists. Now, you manage it with ease, totally subconsciously while having in depth conversations with passengers, kids in the back, or on a hands-free phone to the office.

Photography is the same – the trick is to determine what can become subconscious, and what needs to be at the front of your mind. I call it the creative cycle because there is feedback.

You are unique, because when you look at one of your own photographs, it triggers memories for you – you were there when it was taken and you crafted it in-camera and in processing. When you see the final image, you get it. Other viewers only get what you show them – they have no experiential perspective. You need to be super-articulate with your images to allow a viewer to feel something.

The photograph itself forms an emotional bridge between the event experienced by a photographer and a viewer who only experiences it second hand – but gets it!

9: Disciplines

The First Dawn

Again, I’ve seen the whole process written in many ways, with lots of subsets. For me it is this:

Seeing – Shooting – Expressing

You see something; you organize it, get the light in the camera and then use a computer (typically these days anyway) to make it look the way you want. You can hold up that image and compare it to what you wanted to say about that moment in time, and determine how successful you have been in your expression.

How other people feel about it is a product of how well you get that message across.

The shooting phase is mostly technical and you should become very adept with your camera. Know what it does, know how to expose well and get the light into the computer where it’s useful.

10: Aim for second impressions

The world is full of images. We see thousands every day, and every one we see sparks a snap decision in our brains.

  • First Impression – Wow/Yuk – I like/don’t like that (formed in maximum two seconds)
  • Second Impression – Wait a minute, there is something about this one! (10-30 seconds)
  • Third Impression – This image changes my view of the world, inspires me, makes me want to change, etc. (one minute to the rest of your life)

The Heart of Me

If you are going to open your mouth, you normally think before you speak. It saves a whole lot of trouble. Do the same before you post an image online. You’re still saying something – just with an image instead of words. It represents you; it is a statement from you. Value your work and value what you have to say – then others will too.

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Alister Benn
Alister Benn

is an award-winning professional Photographer, Author and Guide, living and working in the North West Highlands of Scotland where he runs his company Available Light Images with his wife Juanli Sun. See more of his work on 500px.