Why do people hire you? This is everything.
Why do you do what you do? This is more.
It’s almost common convention to say business wins over art.
And while I make no bones that business matters and matters a lot, I still consider the notion to be, in simplest terms, BS.
What is true is the more you enter the massive middle, where sameness dominates and differentiation dissipates, the more business becomes not just the best tool, but the only tool. In the massive middle need is baked in. Demand is strong, but supply is stronger, so success means business strategy.
But who the hell wants to be stuck in the massive middle?
The more personal the work becomes, the more everything changes. Difference is the ultimate advantage. It will protect you, define you, and distinguish you. But if you want the art to count, it’s not enough.
As much as you may hear about difference, more forms fail than succeed. Don’t get trapped by the notion that difference alone will get you the work, because difference without need is chaos.
Need anchors difference. In every marketplace. All of the time.
Denis Reggie brought liveliness to an industry that was static and staid. Jose Villa brought lightness and levity to a market that was heavy-handed and dramatic. People like Dan O’Day and Samm Blake captured ruggedness and heft as rustic hit its stride, giving the perfect editorial alternative to soft and flowy.
Understanding need isn’t just a business question, though. If you’re daring enough to forge your own path, you can only understand need through craft.
Why do people hire you?
It’s a question too few people can answer, because difference must precede style, so style can’t be an answer. Style only comes into existence once the conventions that were once difference become similarity.
Before every style becomes a style, it conveys a message. You have to have a reason to do what you do, and you have to know how your work makes people feel and what it makes them think.
That means flowing hair in the wind, backlit bodies in the sun, and even the most dramatic and exotic of locations paired with the smallest of people, as engaging as they may be, are not enough. These things are already becoming part of the canon of the middle.
Without the communication, things like film or digital, your toning, your lighting, and even your subject, composition, and timing are irrelevant. Your process and your choices are the byproducts of your message. They are not your message.
So what are you saying?
Great art grabs the mind like a vice. Great artists control that process, forcing thought and feeling. As it turns out that’s great marketing, too.
At the end the day, people want their problems solved, so knowing what you mean to them is everything. How would you position yourself, if you didn’t? And understanding yourself is the first place to look.
It’s ironic so many business people understand exactly why their products—things like flavored chips, soft drinks, and dishwashing detergent—affect their audience, when so many artists don’t. It’s odd that a group of people dedicated to communication in a medium where it matters the most, can so rarely answer the questions.
Not just for the craft, but for survival.
Most of us learn by throwing it out there, and seeing what sticks. And while that’s a start, it’s not an end. The problem isn’t that we just throw it out there or that we keep throwing it out there. It’s that we forget to really understand why things stick.
How do you survive?
How do you live instead of making a living in an oversaturated, high-volume world built on uninterrupted interruption?
If the answer is simple, the execution is not.
Survival in the here and now isn’t about value. It’s about distinction, because distinction drives value.
In a market with high demand and limited supply, everyone has distinction. But in a market where supply is extensive, distinction is put out to pasture, and nearly everyone becomes part of the hungry, massive middle. And the massive middle is exactly where businesses go to die.
Strategist Blair Enns says, “It is expertise and expertise alone that will…allow us to deal with our clients and prospects from a position of power.”
But the expert isn’t the person who knows more, shoots better, or wins the most awards. The expert is the person who dominates a field, and there are two ways to become that person. You either ascend a vast ladder through a large, established, and capable field. Or you invent your own.
That’s the power of difference. It eliminates competition.
Robert Frost’s famous description:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But it’s only a start.
Because the real problem we face isn’t that we choose the wrong fork in the road. It’s that we don’t even realize the forks are there. We travel down a chute in constant motion blinded by the rest of the herd, unable to see the choices we make and the strengths we have all in the name of comfort and security.
You have to find the fork. You have to be willing to access your own potential.
Difference is hard. It feels like a nagging uncertainty crossed with an unwavering commitment to the unknown, but this is the path of the explorer. Every step you take out of the chute is an act of self-determination and ownership.
How do you find difference?
You let go of good. Good sucks. Good is what everyone does. Let yourself get tired of you and tear the walls down. Don’t be one of the cool kids. And be ready to fail. Fear isn’t the end of you. It’s the beginning.
There is no phrase worse than failure is not an option, because if you want to step up and be something, failure isn’t only an option, it’s a necessity. Throw out the rules, and start failing. Shoot the shots you’re not supposed to shoot, and find a way to make them work. Keep at it. Don’t stop.
That’s how you dominate a space in the world.
Creativity is not the repetition of the same. It is the discovery of difference.
For most of my life, I have focused on climbing the ladder, waiting to make it to the top. But what I forgot to ask along the way was whether that was a ladder I should even climb. The ladder is crowded and full and ready to fall. Find the courage and curiosity to see that everything is a fork in the road, then step into it.
Leave a comment, and let me know what you think. Next time, I’ll talk about one of the biggest pitfalls of difference.
Things have a way of hitting you when you’re not expecting it.
It’s not always the good stuff. But sometimes, just sometimes, it is. I got this email about a week back, and I was tickled:
Putting in motion your tips from your current sales series…..
Already I have gotten WAY better responses!!!!
Normally I give a price right out the gate because that is their first question; then it’s just crickets. I never hear back from them. This time, I was very interested, asked a lot of questions, and she instantly got excited and wanted to book before hearing a price!
THANK YOU! For all your hard work and sharing with the world!
I so love hearing things like this. Makes me feel useful.
It also reminded me of one last sales secret I wanted to share to round out the free mini-course I’ve been running. It helps get the type of reaction Cassandra just described.
I call it the 89% problem.
Now, for the record, I don’t know if it’s really done by 89% of the people out there. I suspect a fair bit more, to be honest, but I do know most people do it, and it’s costly.
See the last thing most people talk about with their potential clients in their meetings is price. It usually goes a little something like this:
“Here’s how much things cost. See what you think. Call me if you want me. See ya!”
This is a mistake.
Sales work best when people are excited. Very excited.
When you stoke the flames and people build a bond with you and your work in a way they feel in their gut and they can’t stop thinking about you, pricing becomes secondary. You don’t want to prove your value. You want people to feel your value.
But! Here’s what happens when a lot of people see your price: They choke.
It yanks them right out of excitement-land, straight back into woah-this-costs-a-lot-land. And if you don’t take them back to excitement-land, it may just be a one-way trip.
The first words the couple utters after you wrap things up should be “Oh my gosh! She was amazing!!!”
What you don’t want is “I don’t know if we can afford this.”
So, here’s what you do. After talking about pricing, bring the conversation right back to the work. Don’t let them walk out the door talking about pricing. If they’re not booking on the spot, make the first words after the meeting be about you and your work.
Ask some questions about the photography. The wedding. Their needs, hopes, and wants. Anything to remind them why they’re thrilled about you. Leave them dreaming, hoping, and wanting.
It’s not a lot, but in sales, small differences are big differences. You’re welcome.
Enrollment is about to close on the Momentum Sales online course. It’s a full-fledged wedding photography sales system, and the teaching begins next week. Take a look. I think you’ll like it.
How much does it hurt?
Sometimes, too much. Often, more than I want to admit. Most times, more than I expected.
I just wrapped up a presentation at Camp Go Away last week. Of course, I use the term presentation lightly, given that I was hobbling together the pieces up to the very last minute. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Camp Go Away is a small, back-to-the-basics shindig put together by the wonderful and talented Chellise and Michael of Chellise Michael Photography, and you can count me in as a fan. If you’re looking for a get together that smells like a warm fire in a cool morning breeze (quite literally, in fact) and oozes with heart, this is it. It is a beautiful thing.
There I was, talking about some of the pain I’ve experienced in my life – in career, in artistry, in expectation and hopes and the dreams of being more that too often were less, when it hits me. Maybe this feeling that I’ve nursed so much of my life isn’t mine alone. I ask everyone, “Is pain something you know as creatives?”
They say when you laugh, people laugh with you, but when you cry, you’re going to be doing it alone with a bottle of bourbon, and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess that it’s a feeling a lot of people know. But hurt has a way of making you feel small and isolated and very, very alone. So no matter how much I figure it couldn’t have just been me, it was a hard feeling to shake.
But I asked, and hands went up. Hands from talented photographers producing wonderful work. And I realized, we are never alone. If you’ve ever felt worthless, you are not alone. If you’ve ever felt trapped, you are not alone. If you’ve ever felt like a fraud or a failure or like you’ve hit a wall, and maybe this time, you won’t make it through, you are not alone.
Creativity is a stream. You can drink from the stream, take from the stream, and swim in the stream, but you can’t freeze it. You can’t pickle it and preserve it or hold on to it any more than you can hold on to your thoughts, and the harder you try, the more it will stop you from seeing the next swell coming down the pipes. But you can foster it. You can become aware of it and open yourself to experiencing it and putting yourself in places that make the visit from the muse that much more likely.
Creativity is a feeling we all know. When that certain something clicks, and life gushes, and you feel it pouring out into everything you do. When everything becomes interesting and meaningful, and you can crack open impenetrable ideas as easily as eggs into a frying pan.
But no one is creative all the time, at least not in that way with the capital C. In fact, more likely, almost all of us are distinctly uncreative most of the time, but if you listen to the voices in your head and open yourself to the world around you, a little bit of that beautiful thing inside you will seep out and make its way to the world. And that is enough.
Creativity is not about pain. In fact, if being at Camp Go Away told me anything, as I stepped out of my life in a place that gave me no choice but to do so, it reminded me that creativity is love. I was blessed in each encounter I had, in each person I met, and that chance to see just a little bit of who they were, experiencing the universe, one person and one moment at a time. And this is something that’s there for all of us.
Creativity is immersion. An openness to inspiration, and the pain will only cloud that vision, blinding you to the fact that you already have what you need. You are what you need. That if you accept that and let the journey take shape, you will find all the answers.
As Mick Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.
Holding on to the pain will only marginalize your power. It will push you to chase validation and lure you to the conformity lurking around the corner. One choice after the next, it is a slippery slope of doubt masked by further doubt.
Life coach Michael Neill compares this neediness to a game of fetch. He describes his two dogs. One loves to play fetch, and will chase the ball relentlessly, constantly begging and pleading for another throw. The other dog isn’t terribly interested in the game at all, and just enjoys where he is and what he is doing. Too many of us are like the first dog playing fetch, except instead of chasing a ball, we chase happiness, validation, and self-worth, moving the goal posts of joy so each time we accomplish something, we push our hope forward to tomorrow, instead of living in it today.
Growing up, I never had a pair of shoes that fit. My parents always bought them a size too large to let me grow into them. The only problem was by the time I would, they’d be worn out, and I’d have to move on to the next oversized pair. So I simply lived my childhood believing that shoes were supposed to be really loose.
Find your fit now. Revel in the craft. Love each step of the way.
Joy cannot be one step ahead of you. It is either there, or it is not. We either grab it, take it, and fight for it, or we dream a pipe dream of false expectations and unrealized hopes that someday, it will come. Don’t wait for the heavens to part so you can receive the divine right to simply be who you are. That day will never happen. Someday is always a day away, and if you’re to live a life of deep trust and true meaning, it will only come when you let go of the pain and take this thing you have and make it work, right here, right now, because that’s all any of us ever have.
I always thought I wanted it pretty bad. I thought I was willing to take the hits, but when I look back and really think it through, I’d be hard pressed to make the case. It was all just plausible deniability. It was never my responsibility. Always something else. Some reason. Some excuse. Sometimes – maybe more times than not – it’s just easier to think more of yourself than to be more of yourself.
But though you can tell yourself whatever you want, life has a simple formula. You do, it gives. You don’t, it takes.
They say the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and you see it all of the time. People hit the wall – great people, often the greatest of them – who can’t crawl out of themselves any longer.
And it’s only getting harder. It’s an age of virtual navel gazing and personal brand. Hell, I’ve burnt through whole days waiting for my apps to light up. New likes? Fans? Did I go viral? It’s like an accident. You just can’t not look.
Yeah, now more than ever, you have to stand for something. Be something. And, yeah, be proud. Stand tall. Do all of it. Don’t run from your shadow, and pack your achievements in a tiny dark box in the back of your brain.
But now more than ever, you also have to let it go. Thomas Szasz said:
“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self- esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self- importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.”
If you want to step into your future, it’s not about building, but tearing down. The walls being removed aren’t exposing you. They’re letting you go forward.
And if you’re not stepping into your future, then you’re going to have to ask the question: “Is this really what I want?” Because the hard is what makes everything great. The hard is what makes it all worth doing, and if you don’t want the hard, and you just want the fame or the fortune, maybe you don’t really want that future.
There are going to be excuses, and there are going to be obstacles. Excuses you create. Obstacles you encounter. If you come across too many excuses, odds are you really don’t want it bad enough. Look where you are, and see if it’s the path that’s the problem and not the barriers. But if the things that are stopping you are in fact obstacles, then double down and push through with everything you’ve got.
In all cases, you either hang onto the past at the expense of the future or you let go of the past and find your future. That’s the choice. Pick carefully.
Sometimes, the shit hits the fan, and you’re stuck cleaning the mess. And it sucks. How much does it suck? It sucks to the tune of about 10.9 million results plus or minus a few when you Google “What to do when your client is unhappy.” As it turns out, there’s no dearth of advice on how to slink your way through the gauntlet.
And, yet, for all that, the first time I ever Googled those words was exactly 36 minutes and 12 seconds before I started writing this.
Here’s my small contribution to the mix.
When things go wrong, as tempting as it is, this is not your chance to get your passive-aggressive on. People sniff out self-interest faster than you can inhale glue. Carrie Bradshaw once said “Don’t forget to fall in love with yourself first.” And if a narcissistic, fictional character who spends $40,000 on shoes says it, then I’d say it’s a good sign to do the opposite.
There is no dearth of people who are already far too far in love with themselves. Angry clients hate defensive businesses. I like to employ the forget-being-in-love-with-myself-and-just-solve-the-damn-problem” strategy instead. It’s not as new age-y as acknowledging your self-love and living fiercely from the I, but it makes the pain go away a whole lot faster, and, guess what? It makes your clients happier too.
And when things go wrong, you want happy clients.
For real? Yes. For real.
Not because the client is always right and all that. Who really thinks that? But the real question is, does it matter? You’re in business. Some clients will be wrong, some will be right. You’ll have to deal with both.
Here’s the oft forgotten point:
SUPER SECRET SUCCESS PRINCIPLE #209
Unhappy people fight back. Happy people don’t.
This is important. It kind of flies by, and you don’t really notice, but here’s what it means. If you focus on making someone happy, they’ll be willing to hear you out and even accept what you’re saying. But if you focus on making people hear you out and accept what you’re saying, they’ll just get angrier.
Now, maybe you say “But they’ll blame me if I don’t defend myself!” In reality, they already blame you. And no matter what you say, they’ll make up some reason that you’re still wrong if they’re mad. All these years doing this, and not even one person told me I showed them the light, despite my proclamations of innocence. Not even a thank you. Sheesh.
See, on it’s own, Super Secret Success Principle #209 is sort of a “Fine. Meh. Got it.” sort of thing. But in the heat of battle, it’s everything, because almost anything you read from an unhappy client is probably going to read a little like “blah, blah, blah, you’re wrong…blah, blah, blah…I think you’re an idiot, and I blame you.”
And when someone hears “I think you’re an idiot, and I blame you,” whether it was in the words or not, it is very, very hard not to push back. But, see, that just makes them come back at you harder. See how the cycle works? All bad.
For example, I’ve noticed when I get in a fight with my wife (umm…you know…once in awhile that happens…) she’s a whole lot more willing to listen to me after we’ve made up than in the middle of the argument. Because she’s happy. Or at least not pissed.
Here’s a simple guide whenever things go south:
1. TAKE 5
Calm yourself down. Responses written in anger and frustration rarely read well. And absolutely no passive-aggressive-y stuff. People can tell when you say things like “I’m so sorry you feel that way,” that you’re really not. If you say, “I’m sorry we missed that,” people feel better. If you say, “I’m sorry we missed the shot that I wasn’t required to take according to the contract,” people don’t.
2. CALM YOUR CLIENT DOWN
A simple “I’m sorry. Do you have a moment to talk, so we can figure things out?” will do the job. And reply quickly. When someone is angry, minutes matter. Remember, as clients, we all have long histories of being treated badly, so a little care can go a long way. Sometimes, it’s so shocking and disarming, it’s enough on its own.
3. GET YOUR CLIENTS ON THE PHONE
Also, keep your emails short. No essays describing every sensation pulsing through your body. Who wants to read an essay? Email excels at efficiency, but it stinks as communication. Get them to talk. If people hear you’re sincere, people will let you off for a lot. Also, clients are often more reasonable than their emails sound.
4. KNOW YOUR GOALS
Know what you’re willing to give in on and what you’re not. Know what you want to achieve. If you don’t, it’s easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment.
5. FIND THE PROBLEM
Whether you can fix it or not, make your client feel valued. Listen to them intently and fully. When most people are heard, even if the problem can’t be fixed, they feel better.
6. LIVE TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY
As Gloria Gaynor would tell you, you will survive.
And there you have it. You’re welcome.
I just polished off The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last Friday. Not quite binge-watching, but when you have two kids, you can only go through things so fast.
That’s how the world has changed. It used to be, you watched a show once a week. Now, watching a season in about a week is nothing.
Kimmy Schmidt is a show for our times. Not only delivered instantly, but unrelenting. The references and gags fly fast and furious, as your mind races to catch up. It never does. Between Ellie Kemper’s pitch-perfect performance and Tina Fey’s break-neck pace, it just keeps going, going, going.
And that’s how the world has changed, too. Everything keeps going, going, going, burning through the burn rate. You don’t break orbit. You just stay ahead of gravity.
The magic of photography isn’t the preservation. I’m sorry. It’s just not. Preservation, at least without clarification, is a cliche of the highest magnitude, and it comes at too high a cost. To the viewer. To the creator. To the soul.
It’s a cop out that fails to answer the harder questions that separate good photography from bad. It fails to tell us what you or anything else is about. Just about every picture preserves something. So what? A good picture is not only a portal into another world, but a device to force people’s minds and hearts to take that journey. You have to ask what’s being preserved (a mood? a thing? an irony?), why it matters, and how to get that across. This in turn means you have to know what’s going on in the world and how to play both with and against trend and culture.
Making a good picture keeps getting all the harder. When nothing was preserved, everything mattered. Everything was fresh. But these are on-demand times. Everything is bits and bytes, and typing a few words into a box will produce more results than you’ll know what to do with. That’s the irony. We’ve created a society where finding answers is so easy, the answers have lost their value. It used to be that answers were insight. Now questions are insight.
Before Gutenberg created the printing press, a bible was a book for royalty, each one written out by hand. Knowledge came at a steep cost. In the 1840′s, a wallet-size daguerreotype cost in the area of a $100 (inflation adjusted). Getting better, but information still wasn’t exactly prime time. Now, information, image, and knowledge cost nothing. Hell, you can work your way through MIT’s curriculum online for free. The fresh and novel become cliches in minutes, days, and weeks instead of years and decades.
And what’s wrong with cliches? Cliches kill the imagination and rob us of the opportunity to engage with the past in a personal and intimate manner. They tell the mind to think of the cliche instead of the content itself.
When you see a couple dipping on the beach at sunset with fill flash, you can’t not think “wedding photography.” What you likely don’t see is an authentic gesture and moment. And while unlikely in this particular case, it’s fully possible to neuter true moments by showing them in a manner that is simply too familiar and too common. Clliches tell us more about the creator than the subject. It’s a little like those movies that seem so inauthentic, you’re sure the only place the screenwriter ever experienced those emotions was while watching other movies.
If you haven’t seen Kimmy Schmidt, I won’t ruin it for you, but I’ll say on paper, the dolphin gag (as one of many possible examples, shouldn’t work), but it does. It’s ridiculous. Which is the point. When a show moves with this type of speed, it makes high order of low comedy. It is constantly fresh, even when it’s not. It may not hit all the marks, but it owns its comedy, and that’s exactly what we all need to do.
Living isn’t just moving through change, but reacting to it. The power of knowledge is as much that it tells you what not to do, as what to do. How would you travel the road less travelled if you didn’t know what the road more travelled was? And in the modern day, it’s an occupation of constant going, going, going. Fresh doesn’t have to be big, brilliant, and massive. It doesn’t have to be cutting-edge nor can it not be classic. It just has to be specific to the thing in front of you. A well-worn technique in a fresh context is often enough. A new technique on an old subject can work. Personal is shifting life by one degree, but when the lure of the answer and the pressure of the style are omnipresent, that may well be the tallest order of all.
For a long time, whenever I had one of those dejected and down sort of days where you want to curl up into a ball, I would pull out a fresh, crisp 12″x18″ sheet of paper and write out my financial projections for the next five years.
But these were no ordinary projections.
Equal parts delusion and fantasy, grazed only ever so slightly by the constraints of reality, it’s not so much that I couldn’t achieve them, as much as the fact that I knew deep down, I wouldn’t. And I suppose it didn’t really matter a whole lot to me at the time. I just wanted enough to get the blood pumping.
What I didn’t see at the time was I was trying to kick start a car that was basically out of gas. The thrill of the future was enough to keep me running on fumes a few days. Sometimes even a few weeks, but inevitably, I’d always find myself back on empty as the wish fulfillment faded and reality returned.
Wishes are easy, but it’s the dreams we need. Wishes are the things we want without doing the work. In fact, in the face of a wish, work is nothing more than a meaningless barrier. Dreams, on the other hand, manifest our greater purpose. They’re the thing we’re put on this planet to do, and for dreams, doing the work is part of their fulfillment.
Not to say that there’s anything wrong with having a day where you need to pull out the carrot and put it in front of a stick, but at a certain point, it can become more work to keep finding new carrots than just to do the work itself.
Emil Ebers said, “Fame to the ambitious, is like salt water to the thirsty. The more one gets, the more he wants.” And that’s the real danger. Whether it’s fame, fortune, or pleasure, the wish is an addiction.
As has been recounted in innumerable gangster movies, the problem is life sticks to you like the residue you find when you peel off old tape. Not quite there, never quite gone, what you do becomes part of who you are. We are creatures of habit, and we love as we do as much as we do as we love. Every action you take will attach you just the smallest bit more either to the wish or the dream.
But we live in a slash and burn world that trades on the future for the now, and the jagged little pill here is that as much as we can understand the need for the work and the importance of the dream, we can’t generate the passion for it through intellect alone.
We can start, though, by recognizing the dream. By asking ourselves who we want to be. Because the thing that makes the dream happen isn’t the reward or the payoff, and the thing that stands in the way isn’t the work.
In fact, no dream is worth having if you don’t love the work. Not to say that the victor shouldn’t enjoy the spoils, but that you have to love the work even more. You have to be willing to live your life forever the beginner, always open, and always eager to know more, even at the sacrifice of showing more. This builds the dream.
And while we can’t simply will our way to passion, we can see where we stand and create a different world around us, placing ourselves in environments of growth. We can create situations that hold us accountable. We can spend time with those who hold us to higher standards. We can start new adventures, stop doing the same old things, and build new habits for ourselves.
In Chinese culture, it’s said you have to go past boredom to find fascination. Which is to say you have to make it through the hard before you get to the good. And it’s also to say that the wonder is inside of you. Not in projections or spreadsheets or money or fame. But in choosing yourself and the power you have over the sway of the temptation. And if you work towards the dream, doing it over and over again, pretty soon you’ll find that living it doesn’t take nearly as much as it seemed.
Be sure to share the things you do to keep yourself going in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
Better safe than sorry.
Those are the words I’ve known. Those are the words I’ve lived. A calculated existence, staying the course, climbing the hill, waiting to become all the me I could be.
Don’t fight windmills.
Don’t chase the dream.
I had a steady stream of clients, an office in the middle of Manhattan, and a brand new Brooklyn home.
Everything was perfect.
And if you were to ask me what perfect felt like, the best answer I could give is it somewhat resembles staring down the barrel of a 45-caliber loaded gun.
It looks like long hours with mismatched clients, constant insecurity, and a deep well of doubt. It looks like a big mess of yourself, never coming together, always falling apart, hoping to be more, but too afraid to be less.
I was a pregnant pause living off a catheter with a constant drip of hope.
I was desperate. Afraid. Ashamed of my ridiculous facade that mattered to no one but me.
There are three types of photographers in the world.
The first is the novice, and the novice lives by memorizing the work of others and replicating those pictures. He operates by the principle of substitution. Essentially recreating something that’s already been done without adding anything to the mix. You could just as soon Photoshop heads and bodies into other pictures to achieve the same. Instead of looking for differences this photographer finds similarities. Instead of revealing uniqueness, the novice renders everything as common.
The second photographer lives by formula. This is the amateur. One step up the ladder, he has extracted the rules that make pictures work and organized them into a set of formulas. He no longer needs to force feed his subjects into tired tropes, but his work conforms to commonly accepted rules. The amateur thinks of the world in terms of right and wrong. He looks for good light. Good composition. Good expressions. And these are absolute. He proves his skill by making pictures that include as many forms of goodness as possible – the more, the merrier.
The final type of photographer is the professional. The professional knows there is no good and bad and knows what counts is not being good, but communicating powerfully. Most people call this voice. He will do whatever it takes to make that communication come through. For the professional, every moment, every occurrence, every expression is something new and valuable, so it must been seen with open eyes and explored as fully as possible. There are no rules, just what works, which also means that the professional lives in complete uncertainty. Everything must be figured out. The only safety net is a well-honed instinct and being deeply in touch with his beliefs. The professional knows the power of trying and getting things done, and works constantly to grow.
The true artist is a professional. The true business person is a professional. Those who find their value are professionals. The professional puts subject first, bringing insight, surprise, and joy into the world.
No one who was ever been hired just to get a job done will be paid the full value of what they are worth. There has to be more.
And very few of us are professionals for one simple reason.
The more we learn the rules, the more we like them. They’re comfortable and familiar and easy, but in the end, if you can’t let go, they’ll stop you dead in your tracks and blind you to possibility. There are no rules. If it works, it works. The greats make the rules, and you can’t do that, if you’re not willing to walk out on a ledge and jump.
The truth is most people would rather look good than be good.
And this is a tragedy.
Because the moment we give up our vision in favor of the common and the accepted is the moment we lose touch with our dreams, hopes, and even our purpose. The things that make us the most human and the most powerful.
The way the professional differs from the amateur is the way he handles fear. Instead of turning away from it to find safer ground, the professional steers right into it and takes it down. The professional lives a life of trust, while the amateur lives a life of doubt. The professional sees opportunity, where the amateur sees danger.
And to add insult to injury the very security the amateur seeks is a lie.
The middle class is dying. You’re flying or crashing. There is no holding pattern. That’s a relic from a bygone era, when you could spend your lunchtime sipping martini’s and your weekends manicuring your lawn.
Living out loud isn’t just a luxury now. It’s the minimum you need for skin in the game.
This isn’t a world we can know any longer. Change is too fast for that.
You can only know how to listen to the surf, feel the swell, and ride the waves. If you crash, you crash and get right back up. It’s not ready, steady, go. It’s go, go, go, and deal with being ready and steady the whole way through. That is the skill of the here and now.
And that is exactly the skill of the professional: living in the present.
Success, is an activity of constant change. You have to learn how to live ahead of the curve and create things no one has seen before. That’s the rocket fuel.
Yes, knowing the rules will get you business. So will slick marketing. These things will get money in the door, but what it won’t get you is control. It won’t get you passionate followers who insist on spreading the word.
Insecurity is now the only path to security. More than ever, this is the time to experiment. To play with new ideas. To dive deep. It’s time to find your edges and discover your voice, because in this hyper-connected, over-saturated, technicolor world, being noticed is harder than ever.
I thought I wanted safety, but I was wrong. What I wanted was relief. Relief from the pressure. Relief from the fear. I wanted permission to be myself and to try not being myself.
That permission never came. There’s no one to give out the gold stars in real life. There is no one to tell you it’s OK. It just is. You go out and do things, and see what happens, and believe in yourself and your ideas enough to know that you can take whatever happens, whether it works the way you wanted or not, and use it to move yourself one step further into the journey. It’s taking the step that counts.
Great people make life work. Sometimes they fly. Sometimes they crash. But they know something most of us don’t.
Being sorry is better than safe.
The problem with wedding photography has nothing to do with photography. It has nothing to do with exposure and f-stops and whether this looks like film or that works as a print. It has nothing to do with light and composition or even emotion or feeling on their own. The problem with wedding photography, in fact, is distinctly non-photographic.
The problem is Iceland.
This is an industry where there isn’t a week that goes by where the stakes aren’t ratcheted up a notch. Where the landscapes don’t loom a little more dramatic, where the couples don’t get a little smaller, and the compositions grow more impressive. A high stakes game being battled across the globe in locations near and far and so commonly settling in Iceland, as the hills sing with the sound of shutters clicking and couples trekking.
Each year, the light gets prettier, the cliffs become steeper, and the pictures are stunning – more than enough to satiate the wanderlust in every flip-phone toting, card-carrying, hipster heart. Raggedy-yet-graceful couples walking up hills, down hills, staring at oceans, and standing in forests.
But for all that, no matter how stunning and how impressive, the question isn’t about how well you take the picture. The prettiness may make it all go down a hell of a lot easier, but it will never be a replacement for what really matters: having something to say.
While it may be the age of unending fetish, no VSCO filter, no stock of Kodachrome, no place, no space – none of it means anything if there isn’t a point of view stirring inside the person who clicks the button.
Yes, pictures have improved. But as the haze lifts and the talent grows, what becomes clear is that the plague of the wedding industry isn’t its sheer crappiness. We’re finally starting to steer clear of that. It’s the pervasive sameness that has defined this industry from the start. Where craft is concerned, crappiness and sameness are worlds apart. But insofar as the art, heart, and soul of the medium goes, they remain one and the same.
This is a time of a thousand variations of couples center-framed, space-enclosed, holding hands, and looking somewhere, anywhere, and everywhere. And I’ll fess up now. I, too, am guilty.
What’s wrong with sameness? It sells. It’s sexy. It’s hot. Why not?
Because people are more. Couples are more. Because we are more. If you buy the party line – and this is a line I’ll buy hook, line, and sinker – that we all have something to say – that we all have something to offer – then sameness is most certainly a problem.
We are defined by how we are different. No one says you’re you because the things you do or the beliefs you have are just like everyone else. You are you, because of all the ways you’re different. That’s how it goes. We are our exceptions, not our conformity.
And we all have something stirring inside of us. Everyone has a way of doing things. But many never put it to use nor pay it heed, instead, chasing the chase, looking for better in all the wrong places.
You see it in the battles of the moment and the talk of the times. There’s the white hot fight to see who can produce the truest film emulation. The crusade for printing prints. The unending litany of discussions about the cameras we use. Do we stick to a DSLR or go mirrorless? Do we shoot digital at all? And what format, if we go film? Check out the Leica M Edition 60 if you want to see the ultimate conceit of the now. All digital, no LCD viewfinder. Get the hardness of digital and the limitations of film for $19K. Nice.
This all misses the point.
The question isn’t how good a film emulation is. It’s why you use it. I’ve seen many a conversation comparing film stock presets. I’ve seen all of none telling us why it matters. If you don’t have an answer why getting 98% of the way to Portra 400 is better than 96%, then who really cares about the rest? Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t matter, but that the question of why needs to come first, or else it’s the chase for the sake of the chase.
Authenticity is only valuable when you understand it well enough to let go of it. The moment we cling to the authentic for itself is the moment it loses its original purpose.
It’s not digital or film. Print or screen. It’s what you have to say with them. How you use them. And if the answer is only going to go as far as the mysterious beauty of the grain structure or how a different technology makes you slow down and think, that’s not even close to far enough.
Beauty for what? To say what about the world? About your subject? Slowing down and thinking, though great, did all of nothing to make every film photographer anything close to brilliant before digital hit the scene. Most people were just slow and bad.
Thinking about light, composition, and timing is one thing. Thinking about what life, love, and living is for is another. And that is the problem with Iceland.
Not that so many have gone to the ends of the earth and back to find the ultimate shot. That, in and of itself is fine. But that so many people wander through the mist and climb the hills – whether it be in Iceland, California, or across the street – only to bring back something so similar to so much without asking what their own private Iceland was. That we chase the look and not the meaning.
Great photographers find novel ways to show similar subjects. Sameness disparages the complexity and beauty of who we are.
Live life first.
Not through the camera. Not for the camera. But with the camera. Sit on a sidewalk and watch the people pass. See how you feel about them. Not what looks like some shot you’ve seen before from a hero of the past. But what YOU feel. Put that in your pictures.
Read a book and think about what people are. What is marriage for to you? What is love for to you? How does your choice of framing, composition, filtering, and camera make this opinion – this belief in your heart – indisputably clear? Step out of your role as the photographer and forget about what you’re supposed to shoot. Find what you need to shoot.
Be conscious of your possibility.
The world doesn’t need you to solve what’s already been solved. It’s waiting for you to solve what hasn’t. It’s waiting to hear what you have to say. Don’t check yourself in at the door. Don’t run from who you’ve fought to become. Wear it. Show it. And make that lead the way.