How to Grow as a Photographer / by Alexander Ward

Since I first picked up a camera I vowed that I’d never stop learning and evolving what I do, and I’m a firm believer that as soon as you feel like you really know your stuff, it’s time to turn it on its head again.

Health First

The photography industry can be toxic, full of comparison and kit talk with a constant demand on producing and showing work, so it’s important we all take a healthy approach to developing. I’ve worked hard to evolve my work in a way that gains important experience, builds a strong portfolio and have a healthy connection with the community.

As I take on more tutoring and I’m fortunate enough for people to ask my opinion on various aspects of photography, I thought I’d put together a few broad pointers. By no means a definitive list, but a start.

1. Let go of the numbers

I won’t dwell on this because it’s a saturated subject, but it goes without saying that tying your happiness, your inspiration or validation to the numbers is a car crash waiting to happen. I’m talking about follower counts, engagement rates, income, sales - any of this stuff. It’s not easy, but try to remember your objectives should be around developing, telling stories, finding new angles and carving out your own way of doing things, it’s not about how popular you are perceived to be.

Networks like Instagram are the worst for this - they’re designed specifically to draw you in, focus on numbers and keep you on the platform. There’s nothing wrong with building your channels, but don’t attach your worth or your happiness to them. To these algorithms, you will never do enough, so put your energy into creating.

There’s two things I want to remind you of here:-

  • The very best photographers in the world who have work in The Tate have less followers than the average Manchester blogger. They don’t care about the numbers, nor should you

  • People around you will buy followers, use pods and engagement groups and beyond - numbers are easily faked, so don’t compare yourself to smoke and mirrors

  • Numbers like follower count and likes don’t validate you - and having hundreds of thousands of followers doesn’t mean you’ll be better, or happier

2. Do crap things

As you learn and develop and your work evolves, what you’re producing should consist of, quite frankly, crap. Lots of crap. If you’re shooting and there’s not a good element of stuff which doesn’t make your stomach turn and your toes curl, then you’re not doing it right. Simply put, do things which push you into the unknown.

If you think you’re really developing well in Portrait, you’ll naturally start to shoot more Portrait, so it’s time to get out and do some landscapes, or start shooting products, or gigs in pitch-black venues. Whatever you’re doing, do something different. Do that which is scary, which is hard and which you know very, very little about.

By pushing your boundaries and constantly moving forward, you’ll remain humble and help yourself learn in the quickest, most authentic way possible.

3. Have some faith in yourself

It’s natural for us creatives to tie ourselves into our work - after all, our work is as much us as it is our subjects - but remember the entire thing is [cliché warning], a journey.

The entire creative landscape is subjective so don’t get bogged down in impressing people, doing what’s on trend or getting you attention, do what’s true to you, what’s right and have some faith in that process. If you’re like me, you’ll never find perfection in your work, but that’s fine, just don’t hate it.

4. Celebrate

Recognising your growth is vital. Look back on where you were two years ago, a year ago, six months ago, last month, last week, and see how far you’ve come. Know that you’re moving forward and, importantly, celebrate the victories. It could be something tiny, or it could be something major, but celebrate it anyway. The likelihood is you’re already too hard on yourself so give yourself a break and devote the time to understanding how you’ve moved along. But of course, stay humble, be kind.

5. Say something

Story is king. No matter what you’re doing, think of what you’re saying. It could be a simple studio portrait, but what your subject is wearing, their expression, the lighting, the edit, everything pulls together to say something. It doesn’t have to be something profound, you don’t have to try and change the world, but say something.

6. Photography is never, ever, about kit

Of all the toxicity in our community, gear leer is one of the worst. You do not need expensive gear to take good photos, this has never been the case and it will never be the case. There are demands upon us, of course, to take shots which meet certain technical demands or allow us to get certain types of shots, but don’t allow those in the community obsessed with gear to convince you you’re not as talented or unable to achieve something brilliant.

Get new kit when you need it, and love every centimeter of it, but know that is just a tool. What you create depends on your head, not on your kit.

By way of an example, when we reflect on photos like these, do you think the message is lost because they were shot on a Canon 5d Mkii instead of a Canon 5d Mkiii? C’mon, the shot is the shot, find kit that does what you need to do how you need to do it, don’t blow your life savings on kit that distracts from what you’re really doing.

6. Compare yourself kindly

It’d be silly to say, don’t compare yourself to others. We’re creatives and the liklihood is (according to my analytics), you’re living in western culture, so of course we’re going to compare - but try to change that relationship from one of comparison and wanting to be equal or better, to stepping back and analysing what you like about someone’s work. With that, figure out why you like it, and how you can incorporate it, use it as a trigger to do something different or something new.

When you start to see other creatives’ work in this way, it stops being a barrier and starts being a springboard to creating new things. It you can get to a place where you don’t compare yourself, tell me how.

7. Grow Together

As photographers, we can be quite isolated in our work, often all aware of one another through Instagram and the like but not pulling together. There’s animosity too - the kit freaks who want to check the serial number of your kit to see if there’s is newer, the social devils that scream about their likes and sit in engagement pods and, of course, keyboard warriors, ready to tell you what aperture to use and what you really need to buy next.

Regardless of who you come across, of all these people wanting to put their oar in, be kind and grow together. Find people who you can help and help you, and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses with one another. Help out on shoots, on finding locations, or lending kit to the right people, on passing on work.

We have enough going on with our industry without the need to in-fight, so be kind, do nice things where you can and put the effort in where possible. If you like someone’s work, drop them a message and tell them, if someone needs help, lend a hand.

Everyone is different

You might find that the above doesn’t work from you, that you need different approaches and to exist in different spaces, and that’s totally fine too - but drop me a line and let me know how you get on, I’d love to know what has and hasn’t worked for you.