Stage 1: Falls In Love

The very first thing that must happen to get on the road to becoming great at photography is falling in love with it. This is about your motivation and what drives you. It’s about your ethics and your morals. If you fall into it for the money (ha ha), for fame, followers, to hang with models, to tell people what to do, to be conceived of as “an artist,” to be cool… then your compass is broken from the start and finding “great” will be difficult, maybe impossible. You must absolutely love photographing.

Love is important because there is no shortcut to greatness. I think of it like tennis — it starts out easy: (I just hit this ball over the net? That’s it?) Then, over time, you come to realize just how much can be involved in it (there’s a net game??!!) and that you can always get better. And that road is filled with setbacks and lonely, desolate moments of confusion and questioning. Photography unfolds before you, like a many-folded piece of paper and each new part of it comes with reams of possibilities, options and 6-point typed instruction manuals. If you’re lucky.

It is only love that will see you through the hard times. Only love that keeps you shooting when nobody is asking you to. Only love that makes you want to get better after yet another realization that you’re not as far along as you thought you were. And only love that will continually send yourself down the long rabbit holes of knowledge after discovering yet another element of the medium that you don’t understand.

The path to greatness begins with a true, lasting love. Let no man put it asunder.

Stage 2: Sees & Does

In the beginning, many photographers like to claim they are “natural light photographers” as that is the most convenient way of pretending that everything you need to know simply entails walking outside at golden hour with your camera. And natural light photography is incredible, to be sure. But there is a deep, dark underworld that unfolds from there.

It starts when you see an image that appeals to you and want to be able to get that look only to find that someone used a reflector, off-camera flash, or studio lights. Or perhaps a technique just beyond the basics, like a long exposure, double exposure or a low key portrait. Or perhaps a complicated post processing that involved things you don’t quite understand — retouching, color correcting, working with curves and dynamic range. Or maybe they waited two hours on a sidewalk for it.

And you delve in.

From there it gets even more maniacal as you start to want to match the right lens with the right environment, in order to achieve a desired look. Not to mention the long haul of affording said lenses after realizing that the kit lens, or 50mm/1.4, just isn’t going to cut it for that shot you want to get. What about under water? What about aerial? You start to realize that a Photographer is someone who can make a shot, not just capture a moment. And then you set out to make shots, trying to figure out what that even means as you’re doing it. Building the plane as it flies, as they say.

It’s not uncommon at this stage to find yourself buying things on a whim, thinking “if I get that light set-up (or camera, or lens, or whatever) then I’ll be able to truly master that look,” only to find that, once you do, it turns out that maybe you’re not interested in doing that kind of photography. Or you can’t get a gig doing it anyway. Or you figured it out and then got bored of it, craving something more fulfilling.

But you push through, learning the ins and outs of sports photography, with its longer lenses and faster autofocus needs. Landscape with its wide angles, patience and vignetting issues. Portrait, with those elusive catch lights and dreamy bokeh. Street photography with the understanding of light and shadow and how to capture that moment. Studio work, with some Profoto lights and a backdrop. And, and, and…

This can go on for years. It’s thrilling. It’s demoralizing. It meanders around and causes you to both question yourself and find yourself, but somehow keeps adding up to something, even if you can’t quite summarize it. Here, life and photography become one thing.

Stage 3: Gets Work

While all this knowledge you’re amassing is critical, it’s the putting it to use in real situations that starts to push you toward greatness. You take on assignments because they force you to apply the skills you have and step up your game in the areas you don’t. People are counting on you. They are emotionally and/or financially invested in you nailing it. The pressure and the guard rails of the assignment help push you toward establishing techniques that give you advanced knowledge. You learn to work with the talent, to pose people, to light environments, to work with a crew, with a client, with products. Perhaps you go on assignment somewhere — you have to pack, travel, work with a journalist and in difficult situations, or places where you don’t speak the language. You have to get images back to the publisher while on the road. Or maybe you are doing a fashion shoot and you have to decide on things like casting, wardrobe, lighting, gels, backdrops. What if you need immediate playback on set?

Or maybe you’re just trying to grow a social media presence and feel an obligation to thrill and delight a following with each new post.

These assignments, with the critical feedback inherent in them, start to round you out and push you forward as a photographer. Pardon the analogy, but without the assignments, you’re ARMY trained but without a tour of duty. It’s within the context of actually working as a photographer where you truly hone your ability. Years of getting and doing assignments teach you the ins and outs of photography and all that surround it. You become, dare I say, seasoned.

Stage 4: Goes Supernova

Some years in and you start to realize that you’re doing work that a lot of photographers are capable of doing. That’s both amazing and, for some, leaves you wondering… well, how far can I go with this? And then you hit the crossroads: you can either continue doing that kind of work and just simply out-hustle your competition (better marketing and networking), or you can decide that you want to go to a height that truly differentiates you — one where your particular style becomes your calling card.

The former decision — out-hustling — can make you a very good, successful photographer, by the way. There are a lot of portrait photographers out there, for example, who shoot the kind of stuff that many others can do, but they have YouTube videos, run workshops, really push their Instagram and word-of-mouth to hustle up more business for themselves. For the masses who just want to simply search and choose a photographer, a good hustler can get themselves ongoing work by being active, fun to work with and really do a good job of networking. That’s a career. And it’s a plenty good landing place.

The latter decision — to create a body of work that people seek out — is a game-changer for a photographer. It’s not easy, but it’s the difference between being very good and being flat out great. I don’t just want a really good portrait, I want a Peter Lindbergh portrait. I don’t want really good wedding photos, I want Jeff Newsom wedding photos. I don’t want really good editorial shots, I want Annie Leibovitz editorial shots.

From what I can tell — and I don’t speak from any mountain top in this regard — is that establishing your own unique style, one that people seek out by name (your name), is the end result of two things: honing in and digging deep into a specific genre (I’m sure Annie Leibovitz takes amazing wedding photos, but that’s not what she’s focused on) and spending some very deep, introspective time coming up with ideas, trying them out, seeing what works and pushing into new interesting territories unrelentingly. This is called developing a style and the best of them out there are usually not something that one achieves quickly. It’s not something that a recipe in Lightroom can create for you, for example. It doesn’t happen by adding a giant moon in Photoshop. It’s usually a hard-to-achieve look requiring some serious craftsmanship and effort, resulting in imagery that is distinct and emotionally connective.

That last part, to me, is important — finding a way to connect to an audience in a deeper way is the end result of all the hard work and the culmination of one’s love affair with photography. Finally, you are able to truly capture what you love about the medium and make that love shine through in your work. That, from my point of view, is what being great is all about.