I wish I could say, “Takes one to know one,” but being named a great photographer isn’t something you do for yourself. You wait until a variety of other, highly regarded photographers apply the label to you. But what makes a great, professional photographer? Well, opinions will vary on this question, but here’s a list of what I feel are the critical criteria.
There are many ways of studying photography these days. Some photographers choose to study in the classic fashion by attending a four-year university course and getting a degree in photography or photojournalism, etc. Others choose to study online through a variety of educational platforms, while others go it alone by studying through YouTube, Vimeo, etc. I’ll hold out my opinion as to which method is the best for you, but what I will say is that studying photography, in some way, shape, or form is a consistent theme with many of the best photographers. And when I say study, I’m not referring to just technical matters such as shutter speeds or aperture. The technical side of photography is the easy part. Studying photography is actually about a whole lot more. Great photographers study things like the creative process, history, art, and composition.
A LOT. Everyday. Jimmy Hendrix, considered by many to be one of the best guitarists of all time, was famous for taking his guitar with him everywhere. Even if it wasn’t plugged in. Clubs, dinners, social gatherings—Jimmy often bought his guitar along. This same level of practice applies to professional photography as well. I studied photography for four years and graduated with a degree in photojournalism, but it wasn’t until I had worked every day for ten years, that I finally began to understand who I was with a camera. Hopefully, it won’t take you that long, but the idea here is to photograph every day.
Great photographers practice at a relentless level: They test, they experiment, and they refine.
3. Looking at Photography
Again, there are a variety of ways to do this, but I prefer a somewhat “old-school” method. Look at professional photography books. Looking at photography online can be overwhelming, and often times involves looking at over-hyped images. So much of what we see online looks the same. Homogenous, clean, packaged content that might build a following on social media, but is not the kind of work you will remember in five years or even five minutes.
Here’s why I like books: A published photography book doesn’t happen overnight and is a very expensive endeavor that requires a tremendous commitment, both financially and spiritually. So, when you visit your local bookstore to view the photography section, just know what kind of effort went into making those books. The amount of time spent editing, sequencing, and designing in an effort to make the most powerful delivery of the work is key. A book is a combination of a professional photographer, editor, and designer, so you are getting a high-level, concise look at a specific project.
Great photographers are often book collectors for this very reason.
4. No Fear of Failure
One great photographer said, “If you aren’t failing on a daily basis you aren’t trying hard enough.” I also believe this to be true. It’s so easy to go out and copy what has already been done, but great photographers don’t do this. Great, professional photographers try things they have never done, and they aren’t afraid to fail in the process. In fact, most great photographers will openly discuss or even revel in their failure because they know they will get up and keep trying until they find what they are looking for.
Great photographers try things they have never done, and they aren’t afraid to fail in the process.
5. Getting Feedback
This feedback might come from a spouse, an editor, an agent, or a close friend, but most great photographers have trusted confidants who can help guide them when they most need it. Trusted companions who can save them from themselves. W. Eugene Smith, someone I consider to be the best documentary photographer of all time, was famous for his battles with the staff at Life Magazine, but it was the combination of Smith AND the staff that made the most of his work, regardless of how he felt about it.
6. Setting Deadlines
You might not have any interest in journalism, or photojournalism, but even if you are a landscape, still life, or portrait photographer, setting the occasional deadline can help you produce tremendous results. You’ve heard the old cliché, “Fear is a great motivator.” Well, it’s true. Sometimes a little pressure to finish something, or pressure to make a breakthrough can help you reach new levels of focus and creativity.
7. Acquiring Technical Knowledge. Then Forgetting it.
Truly great photographers rarely talk about gear. Great photographers talk about photographs, process, other professional photographers, great campaigns, exhibitions, books, and inspiration.
I’ve always felt the best camera is the one you never have to think about. My primary camera for my twenty-five-year career didn’t even have a battery, let alone anything electronic inside. Now, you might think this was a drawback but think about this: This camera required ZERO thought on my part, zero software upgrades, zero firmware upgrades, and zero batteries. All I had to think about was what I was seeing through the viewfinder. Simplicity.
Great photographers reach technical nirvana and then use this knowledge to make something unique.
8. Knowledge of History
Great photographers know what has been done before and how their work relates. It doesn’t mean great professional photographers don’t make derivative work from time to time, but when they do they are often doing so in reference to work that has already been done.
9. Total Commitment
Making it as a professional photographer is an incredibly difficult task. Making it AND becoming great, or a legend is even more difficult. To do so requires a complete and total commitment. Great photographers don’t dabble. Great photographers can be semi-difficult people to be around because they are often so obsessed with their work they have difficulty thinking about anything else.
The stories of unhealthy levels of commitment by photographers are common. I just read about Oliver Wheeler, who participated in the first topographical survey of Mount Everest in 1921. He would get up each morning, before sunrise in frigid temperatures, with a one-hundred-pound pack, and hike between 18,000 and 22,000 feet in elevation to expose glass plates. He did this for months at a time, isolated and often times shut down by inclement weather. Day after day. His resulting images are simply incredible. They were the first of their kind from that region, and there was no other way to make them.
To be a great photographer takes something special.
Great photographers tend to be around a while. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met many people considered to be great photographers, some of whom are in their 80’s and have been working full-time as photographers for over sixty years. To stay at the top of your profession this long takes total commitment, perseverance, tenacity, professionalism, and continual reinvention.
Great photographers are long-form thinkers in a short-form world.
11. Be Curious and Make Original Work
Great photographers make work that is immediately recognizable. You walk into a gallery or museum, or you see the pages of a book, and you say, “I know who did that.” Great professional photographers are originals. Making original work is difficult, and it often takes years to figure out. This is where tenacity and curiosity come into play. Many great photographers are curious human beings with a range of knowledge that spans far more than photography. Knowledge of science, technology, the arts, literature, space, history can all add dimension and scope to a great photography project.
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