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What Life Lessons Can Teach You About Photography

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Image of my new crazy family by Mia McCloy

A few months ago I got married. (Confetti! Streamers! Cake if you have it!) In doing this, I took on a gorgeous husband and three darling stepdaughters. Add my two adorable sons to the mix and you end up with a total of seven people sharing a couple of bathrooms, a kitchen, and the lion’s share of my patience. All of a sudden things like meal planning and buying in bulk have gone from concepts I’ve heard about to the only thing keeping me out of an inpatient treatment facility. To spare my sanity and enable me to do a hundred loads of laundry each day, everything in my life has been streamlined either by necessity or default including my photography business.

While it’s a continuous progression I realized the other day, when I was folding a mountain of clothes remembering a simpler time, that I am turning-out some of my best work in over a decade of being a professional photographer. I have to assume this is partly from streamlining everything from my shooting style to my editing process, and partly because my personal life changes have forced my professional life to adapt as well. So far, all for the better if you don’t count the laundry thing. I love them madly but having five children isn’t for everyone. In the event you don’t want to take on a small army of kids as a social experiment just to see if it improves your photography, here are some lessons I’ve learned recently and how you can apply it to your own photography.

What life lessons can teach you about photography

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Work is more meaningful and balanced

This sounds so lovely but really it’s just a byproduct of my continuous lack of time. In the past, any image that caught my eye for any reason at all would be subjected to editing and delivery to the client. This would add hours to each job I took on. Now only the really, really good stuff ever sees the light of day, or my client’s eyeballs. Images that once would have gotten ten minutes of editing just because I saw one tiny bit of pretty in it, are now trashed because I know they will only bring down the finished product as a whole. I shoot with more purpose because I am on time constraints I never had before.

Are my clients suffering? No. They are getting quality over quantity.

Also, hearing “BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR!” roughly a thousand times a day puts fairness in a whole new perspective. It also puts having children in a whole new perspective, but that’s another ball of wax–unidentifiable and likely stuck to my kitchen floor.

It used to be that I had no real office hours. I shot when my schedule allowed and when the clients needed. I edited late at night after kids were asleep. I answered emails when I got around to it. I took every advantage of working from home one could. Don’t get me wrong–spending all day in yoga pants is still a giant perk, but now I have office hours. I return emails as soon as possible, even if that means from my phone, while waiting in the carpool lane at one of the three different schools at which I drop-off and pick-up children. I don’t see the sunrise at the end of my workday anymore because frankly I’m way too tired to stay up past 10 p.m. now. My clients are getting every ounce of me they deserve. But my photography business is no longer claiming my very soul. It’s fair for everyone.

TIP: Don’t let photography take over your life.

This goes for hobbyists and professionals alike. The work/life balance has always been a tough one for me, but as cliché as it sounds, we all need to reevaluate honestly and often. Shoot what you can, edit when you can, deliver where you can. Contrary to every photography quote I’ve ever heard, shots can be missed–there are a million more opportunities for an amazing picture tomorrow.

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Learn how to say no

It used to be that if you asked me nicely, I would take on about any assignment. Taking pictures of houses even though I don’t have the equipment, or know-how, real estate photography requires? You bet! Do some product photography for your best friend sister’s boyfriend’s cousin? Sign me up! You want a professional photographer to hang-out with on Saturday mornings for your kid’s little league games? Of course I will! Now, not so much.

Not only do I not have that kind of time, I don’t have the desire. I’m spending all of the “doing-something-I-don’t-want-to-do” time I can spare chaperoning middle school field trips and taking kids to dentists, doctors, play dates, and street corners with “Free To Good Home” signs. I don’t want to do real estate, product, sport, or a dozen other types of photography. I want to do the kind of photography I’m good, at and the kind that I enjoy doing. On the flip side of that coin, I just can’t do favors like I used to. The line for a minute of my time now starts here and goes back quite a ways. I allow people to cut the line all the time, so you’ll be there a while waiting.

TIP: Just say no!

When in your gut it doesn’t seem like a job you want or can do, when the idea isn’t exciting or fun on any level, when you have to work with people that make you miserable, say no. When you are overwhelmed, behind and feel like taking on one more thing may break you, say no. When you are asked to do something that offers you no benefit, not even warm, fuzzy feelings, say no.

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Say “Thank You” more often

I’ll be honest–I have no idea where this comes from; perhaps me attempting to model good manners for five kids who are all allergic to the word “please”. Regardless it’s a great lesson. It used to be that when I was complimented for my photography I would immediately detract; it’s not that I’m a good photographer, it’s that I have really beautiful clients. It’s not that an image is exceptional, it’s that I got lucky. It’s that I have an amazing lens. It’s that I have a great camera. It’s that perfect light just happened. It’s anything but me. It has taken 10 years but I am finally able to just say, “Thank You”.

The truth is that I do have a great camera, live in a beautiful place of the world that allows for ideal background settings, and have really beautiful clients. But I’m also a really good photographer. I can find light, work a complicated camera to my every advantage, put people at ease, and edit a diamond in the rough (image) to perfection. As uncomfortable as it still is for me to say that, it must be true because I’ve been doing this a while and people continue to hire me. Lots of photographers have these same talents, and more, and it’s important that we (you as well) start realizing that they are in fact talents and not just random acts of luck.

TIP: When someone compliments your work say, “Thank you!” with a big smile, and nothing more.

If this is something you’ve struggled with, it will feel unnatural. Keep doing it anyway. Saying an honest thank you is one of the nicest things you can do in the face of a compliment. Explaining why you think you are not deserving of it is one of the rudest.  

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Play to your strengths

Having so many people need me (and only me) has redefined my objective. Much like saying no to photography jobs that are not well suited for my skill set, I have been pickier taking on jobs that are in my wheelhouse. Family photography falls into my lap often and most of the time it’s a perfect match for me. My love-hate relationship with weddings however has finally come to a close; weddings are no longer something I will do. Neither is endless editing to achieve fancy vintage (and similar) toning. My clients get a fun and spontaneous shooting atmosphere and final images in straightforward color or black and white. It’s my very best, and most honest work.

TIP: Try new things when it makes sense.

Challenge yourself when necessary, but play to your strengths–you’re good at them for a reason.

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Charge what you’re worth

Just like having a business partner forces accountability, having a personal partner makes me look at the big picture. At the end of the day, photography is my job. It’s how I make my living. There are glamorous and fun sides (though not near as many as people think), and there are dirty and gloomy sides too, just like any job. I can’t work for free. Granted I have pro bono projects I take on (my heart, it bleeds), although I now do them much more selectively, and when I know it will benefit me in the long run either with new business or free marketing.

Gone are the days when I could take on a very low-paying project with no other benefit just because it seemed like fun. I’m finally charging what I’m worth, I’m no longer part of that deadly middle ground of charging too much to be a good deal, and not enough to be considered any good. I read a while back that as soon as you could no longer afford yourself, you were charging enough. At the time I passed it off as greedy and mean-spirited but I have to say: friends, I’ve come to the dark side and the water is fine. The clients that can afford me, do. The ones that can’t? They save up until they can, or they are careful to take advantage of my rare sales. I haven’t lost clients and bigger than that, my work has more value.

TIP: Evaluate your pricing.

Consider everything from wear-and-tear of your equipment to your electric bill that keeps your computer running into the wee hours of the morn. There’s a good chance you aren’t charging what your are worth, if only because it’s hard to make that jump and put a dollar figure on something that used to be a hobby, or something people consider art. I promise you though, if you’re not going to charge, someone else will. So while I consider my business as personal as it comes, it’s still a business. Besides, it takes a lot of laundry detergent to keep my new family of seven in clean clothes.

What other things have you experienced in life that have helped you learn something about your photography? What other tips do you have? Please share in the comments below.

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Lynsey Mattingly

Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.