The shocking truth about what it takes to succeed in Photography

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[I]magine for a moment a world where talent was met with success. The most talented photographer in the world would be the most successful. It's only fair after all that the most skilled has the most success, right? Well, no. This world we are talking about is called Lala land and does not exist. Here's the shocking truth about Photographic Success.


The Shocking Truth
The best kept secret, the shocking truth about success in photography is that talent has very little to do with it. The beautiful lie, but a lie nonetheless is that If you are talented, you'll make it big. I wish it was true, but fact is, business and marketing trump talent at a rate that talent is a non issue in my opinion.

This surely is good news for some, but for most others, who actually work hard are their craft it's downright depressing. It should be the other way around, no? Those who polish themselves, actually doing the work should get the recognition, no? Well, no. It's not about what you do, it's how you sell yourself.

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I know quite a few people that do photography at the beginner level and are pretty damn successful, even as teachers believe it or not! Photography at it's core is all about images, and when I see folks being successful for everything but their own photography, it troubles me, I hate it. I wish so much that success was proportional to the level of photography but that is so not the case. That even goes for the Masters, Bresson is much more known than Kertesz while it should be the other way around. I don't like the photography industry for this. Photography should be about pictures but success has very little to do with the skill of the photographer.

With marketing a newcomer to photography can charge $3000 for a service, while an internationally known published and museum photographer can ask for $1000 (Real example, I just won't name names). Goodness, what's wrong with this picture? It despairs me that photography is so much less about pictures and so much more about everything else. Those who think it's about the talent, always starve waiting for their patrons. Those who are brave enough to stick their heads and denounce the photographer as average and overrated get branded as haters. (Note: If you say I'm average, you are a hater 🙂 )

Can I get some "Amazing shot" comments?
Can I get some “Amazing shot” comments?

I'm all about looking at your own photography, focusing on it. But when I see someone post by all means the most average of pictures and get high praises for it, I loose faith. Goodness, the kind of stuff I did when I first picked up a camera gets high praises? It's “Amazing” photography? Look, I'm not shooting for the sake of praises, but when someone starts clapping for stuff that's similar to complete beginner photography, and does not do a standing ovation for a spanking, well thought of photograph, I just get absolutely baffled.

I always knew talent is not enough, but today, I lost all faith and will say that Talent has nothing to do with Photographic success. I'm just baffled at people paying $20.000 for an average of averagest  wedding photographer while a 5 times more skilled photographer does it for $6000. I'm officially cynical about the Photography Industry, I spent years hoping, I'm done believing in Talent. The more I look at certain photographers, their work and their offerings at the rate of thousands of dollars for services, I just get angry. I won't anymore. Talent has nothing to do with it, a businessman will kill the craftsman photographer any day of the week. I'll start seeing too successful photographers for their skill level as marketers now.

Photography is a business, that's it. Has nothing to do with talent. How else can I rationalize a photographer putting out average photography, and get people to pay for it blindly? Of course, I knew it was a business, but I still had hopes for the value of the images, but looks like nobody cares. Don't believe me? Just look at the top blogs, most are not photographers. Shouldn't the real photographers with talent be on top? Nopes, all you need is a good dose of SEO, basic knowledge of content creation and piggy backing and you are on your way up. It's depressing.

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You don't even need to take your own pictures to make a photography article. Gather up some random tips about composition, link good examples from Flickr and you are done. You think people care if you took the pictures? Nopes. I've seen a few of these articles and “What a great article” is written all over the comments. This is where integrity comes in, I choose to respect my readers: if I need to make a point, I will go out and shoot it. That's the “Do” part. But in the photography industry people seem to be less and less interested in the “Do” part and focus on the teaching, completely disregarding the source of information. Most folks bent on selling you a photography product don't work themselves…..they will teach you how to work and not work themselves. What gives?

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I think it's disrespectful to th readers-followers to do so. How would you like to come to my website, where I claim to be a photographer, and in my articles only use other folk's pictures? But the again, Photography is a business, and success has nothing to do with talent. If it's easier to hunt Flick than to actually do the work, and people don't complain, can we criticize the author? Thank goodness, there's still some hard working photographers that are photographers first and businessman second. Sure they might not be in the top in the popular mind, but they do the work.

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What does this mean for you the reader? Simple: The most popular, the most expensive photographer is probably not the best, only the sharpest businessman & marketer. That even goes for the masters, the best ones aver very much unpopular. Actually it's ironic that the most popular masters always point to the more unpopular ones as their source of inspiration. That's just how things are, I wish it was not true, but that wish dies today: Photographic success has nothing to do with talent, I'm pretty darn sure of it.

 

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29 thoughts on “The shocking truth about what it takes to succeed in Photography”

  1. Hei Olivier, and thanks for this interesting post.
    One thing I notice is that you’re referring to successful photographers to those who make the most money. Well.. that’s where I disagree. To me, and from my personal and subjective point of view, the most successful photographers are those with most talent, those whose pictures don’t stop to amaze me, regardless of how much money they make with them. They don’t have the best blogs (or none at all), because they’re busy doing the real thing: taking photos. I’d be more satisfied and proud of myself taking one of those photos and selling it for 100$, than taking an average one and selling it for 1000$. Finally I also think that time will place each one where they deserve.. not according to what they earned, but according to the quality of their photographs. The best images will always float, while the average will just sink in the ocean of time, pulled down by all that weight of silver coin.
    Keep up the good work, and greetings from Norway.

    1. Your observation is valid but not limited to photography. In many endeavors, the most recognized and rewarded is often the best at self-promotion and marketing rather than the really best at doing the task or activity.
      But the really best at doing is usually rewarded sufficiently, one way or another, to be able to continue doing. Once one gets sufficient income for one’s needs, then the goal is to maximize the sum of the financial rewards with the non-financial ones. The best at doing usually gets non-financial rewards that also count. Personal pride of accomplishment is one of them.

    2. Hi Buscato
      Yeah you pinned me there, I think I should also have stated the difference between external & internal success.

      The article is mainly about the discrepancy between external evidence of success and internal success. I think photographers who are successful (internally as photographers) should also enjoy success externally (recognition). I understand what you are saying but it’s just bugging me that the average image is selling for 1000 while a superb one for 100.

      It’s mainly about the unfairness of it all 🙂
      Thanks for your valued input, and for the nice comments 🙂

      1. Obviously our societies inclination to use money as the only measurement of success is mistaken. Still, it’s fair to assume that there should be a reasonable relationship between the achievement and the payment. Of course selling an average image for a higher price than a superb one could also be called an achievement and for sure marketing skills are skills too. The question is: where is the end of cleverness and the beginning of deception? One could look at (self-)marketing as the art of getting the most (money) for what one has to offer. The other way to look at it is as a way to manipulate and deceive customers. The truth most likely is somewhere inbetween.

        1. “F8follower”? You are too kind 🙂
          Indeed, money is the only measurement of success in the minds of most. Forget values, family success, artistic success, etc.

          I’m just sad that marketing skills trumps talent by a landfill….Marketing in itself is not deceiving, but marketing DOES color the subsequent experience.

          With marketing, you might enjoy a product more than another….while both being the same. Marketing can completely overpower skill, unfortunately. The last statement is something to ponder long…..Thanks again for your comments 🙂

  2. Obviously depressing, but is it true only to Photography? I see the same thing happening in my field (engineering, consulting), where business skills are often more important than technical skills.

    1. You’re perfectly right Laurent. Just sitting down and doing a good job is unfortunately not enough for success these days in any profession – not sure if it ever was. (Self-)marketing is what counts more than anything else, in particular in consulting. This is very disappointing and also rather embarrasing. What do you do if you have children and want to make sure they lead a successful life? Do you really want to turn them into shameless pretenders in order to prepare them for a career?
      I still assume the situation is particularly bad in photography compared to other professions because a lot of photographers compete in a declining market. In most other jobs being really good is at least sufficient to pay your bills and to lead a decent life. In photography – or generally in arts – this may not be the case. But Olivier, with your blog and your magazine you’re on a good way to get more and more attention and reputation, so one day the money may follow 🙂

  3. Olivier,

    I empathize with the disappointment you’re feeling today. It’s like you’re mourning the loss of your idealism. That is very, very tough for anyone who goes through it.

    I have to say, though: It is very necessary for you (and for _all_ of us) to realize that “success” is not a measure of artistic value — not even close.

    “Success” is more like a popularity contest. Like politics! When we buy things and services, we’re voting with our wallets. The average person spends their money to get what they personally value. And the sum of everyone’s money-voting creates success for the most popular products & services, right?

    The average person is not an artist or even esthetically inclined. They value _other_ parameters of services they purchase (such as the prestige or personal impressiveness of a photog for their wedding).

    And honestly, it’s their right to spend their money on what they value. And it’s their right to not value artistic integrity as much as they value other stuff.

    Imho it’s an important stage of personal growth to realize that our own personal values are different than other people’s — and that we each have a right to create, and assign, our own unique values.

    A loss of innocence sounds like a regrettable thing. But ultimately it’s not. At a certain point in our lives it’s important to realize that not everyone is able to appreciate the things about ourself that we think makes us a little bit special.

    We have to pursue the qualities we value simply because we believe in them. It’s necessary to give up the futile dream that the masses will do our valuing _for_ us.

    This only needs to be sad at the time that we’re losing our delusion. Once it’s lost and properly mourned, we can go forward towards what we believe is worthy, without resenting the fact that most people are blind to it.
    On the side, we have to figure out how to put food on the table, without surrendering our values. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It’s good to keep in mind that a lot of very successful people have failed at juggling that dual task: they’ve abandoned their values. There are a lot of rich, sad people out there.

    Btw: Van Gogh only sold one painting in his whole lifetime. You are _far_, far more successful than he was!! 😀

    Keep evolving your beautiful, unique work, so that a few of us can keep appreciating it!

    1. That is exactly right,
      I was in denial and now I came to grips with it :/

      Yes indeed Fame and exposure trumps talent in a heartbeat. The more popular photographer can charge more while being inferior.

      I’m already done mourning 🙂 I tend to jump back up quickly, needed to vent tough 🙂

      That’s one thing I wanted to write: Never abandon the values. In the photography world you can shoot crap and make it, that will not happen to me, I won’t lower my standards just because everybody is…..

      Pretty clever the Van Gogh reference, I wanted to say that but forgot. Lots of artists where poor till they died.

      Thanks for lifting the spirits 🙂

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  5. Should be good news for me but unfortunately, I have even less talent for self-promotion than I have for art!

    OK, seriously, I understand and share your sentiment. However, why should photography be any different to, well, almost any other field? The fine arts, politics, and look at which books often sell best. They are usually badly written and unoriginal. Not to mention the music charts… When so many gifted musicians/ groups never make it, sometimes because they are just too good, or too much of an individual, or not pretty enough… Or the cra… er, stuff which succeeds on tv. And don’t even get me started on the current state of journalism…

    A saying in German is: “Success makes you sexy.” Not talent, or ideas…

    I try to create my own lala land. I watch channels hardly anybody watches (in the US, maybe a mixture of PBS and HBO would come close) and so on. Of course I wish things were different. Maybe they were, in times when there were less media, and everything happend / developed at a much slower pace?

    Anyway, food for thought, thank you for the article.

    1. R. I’ll be German starting today. That saying hits the nail on the head!
      It can be applied everywhere but can only speak for the scope of the blog (photography). It’s a sad fact that good looking people have a higher chance of making it :/ Good thing my wife finds me good looking 🙂

      I think the issue comes not from the slower pace but with influencers. There’s too much stuff out there and people (not willing to do the effort) will go for the low hanging fruit: Pre-curated content. Take music for example, people will not go seek music to their taste, they will trust someone above them (Dj) to do the work for them.

      Those influencer are hardly willing to do the work themselves and so on. Take journalism since you speak of it, “experts” are thrown at the people who rank high on Google.

      Thank you!

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  7. I agree with the article, but it does make sense. It is like the saying ” if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If I take the greatest photo in the world and it sits on my computer, it won’t be known. It has to be marketed to the world before it can be recognized.

    I came to a similar thought a few years ago when I posted photos on a site called PBase. The people with the most popular pictures are those that went out and “liked” other people’s photos. In return, a great deal of those people returned the “like”. While there may be very little sincerity in these responses, it does market your photos to others. Many great photos never get seen without this type of marketing. The question is whether talented people want to go through the effort to get their work seen. I have mixed emotions about it, but it is human nature.

    1. “It has to be marketed to the world before it can be recognized.”
      That’s true! I resolved to be a sharp marketer without compromising my Photographic values, got a family to feed!
      Doing this for them

  8. The best self promoters will always earn the most money, this will never change, but, this does not mean they are either the most successful or the happiest. When you charge big dollars for something it often means you, and those paying expect something ‘different’ than the midrange or cheap ones offer. If you ask 25K for wedding shots, they will expect you to turn up in a Range Rover with a 5 man crew, at least 20k worth of lighting, and all the rest of the bells and whistles. They will expect you to jump at their every whim, even with printing after the shoot, and they won’t hesitate to sue you if you miss even one important shot. I would never take a wedding job that paid 25k, it is not worth the stress.

    1. I see what you mean, but I think the opposite is true. The higher end things tend to be, the less people bug you. People expect the world when something is free or cheap.

  9. Dear Olivier, I have been reading your text carefully. I’ll think about it and I’ll post a reaction soon.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  10. Dear Olivier,

    In your introduction you’re writing: ‘…talent has very little to do with succes’.

    Of course you’re right and I would (as a teacher and a
    former student at Luca, School of Arts in Brussels) immediately conclude that
    talent has nothing to do with success
    or acceptance or even a small amount of attention or respect.

    ‘It’s how you sell yourself.’. This sentence keeps on
    echoing in my mind. It’s because it’s a summary of my experiences. (At the risk
    of being considered as a
    frustrated, failing, aging artist.) Some people say ‘it’s the economy, you
    stupid’, others would invite me to join their networks (a key to success). But
    I’m convinced so far that networking or just marketing knowledge won’t make a
    talented artist successful : to me it’s a matter of spirituality that makes a
    huge difference in being successful or not.

    Mostly the spirituality of art circles is badly known or
    even indicated as ‘irrelevant’. Still, I write from a Belgian point of view, I
    cannot deny that people in charge in art schools, museums, galleries, art fairs,… are claiming a vague
    spirituality, which embraces some and which excludes others. ‘People in charge’
    are mostly anonymous, mediocre artists themselves, but controlling the ins and
    outs at all levels of Belgian Art education, exhibitions, publications. ’It’s
    how you sell yourself’ means to me personally ‘how you sell your soul’ to those
    powerful people at the crossroads.

    I have been tending to be cynical too, seeing pictures of
    people who needed to be promoted as soon as possible. Looking at the ‘cultural’
    pages in newpapers I’m reading their names daily and seeing their pictures
    everywhere. Promoting extreme noise, unsharpness, vague compositions, exposing
    platitudes, telling stories which are copied from biographies of Robert Frank,
    Garry Winogrand… I could easily understand ‘old school’-photographers getting
    depressed and feeling deceived, loosing faith in the kind of ‘the photography’
    they once admired. Me too, I once found myself simply betrayed by people
    calling themselves ‘experts’. (It would be unfair to mention their names here –
    they can’t contradict my experiences). But I found a far better reaction: I
    keep on making pictures at a daily rate, while being led by ‘astonishment’ for
    people and things all around me. I keep on publishing those on my blog and
    making books to show to friends. I’m gratelul there is no need anymore to be
    part of networks or other anonymous organisations to show my work. That’s what
    I would call ‘successful’, pleased to be able to make pictures and seldom
    showing them to the people who appreciate personal integrity.

    Sincerely,
    Luc

    1. Hi Luc
      I’m glad you are in an even better position than I to talk about this. As a student and teacher you must know what you are talking about. Unfortunately 🙁

      I agree you can also sell your soul, in the sense of selling your values and or standards….more than once I considered just shooting the most average way as possible to see what would happen.

      I think just shrugging the crowd and just keep doing what you are doing is the way. I might not get it, but I know what to do: Work on my pictures and blog, I won’t worry about others too much.

      Well, I’m all ears, or in this case, all eyes, please post a link of your work up!
      Thanks for the very nice comment!

  11. Hi Olivier, I understand your feelings. But to your own detriment you are mixing too many things together – and you are stirring them with your own strong emotions. Talent, success, people’s reactions, money – these things all have strange relationships. One doesn’t necessarily lead to another.

    Talent is such a vague word. Everyone sees it differently. Talent-wise there are very very few truly exceptional people. For most talent is just having a unique vision that they work on hard to materialize. This vision is what makes people stand out. Not some mysterious power that we inherit. That’s what I think anyway..

    Then you have success. What is success? For everyone it is different. Not everyone considers it to be money. I think many people feel unsuccessful because they have not defined their own criteria for success. And we also make mistake of judging other people’s succes by our own criteria..

    People’s reactions. It is something you cannot predict. They are rarely rational. People can often praise an article, when in reality they are praising the article’s creator instead (for just being a cool guy/gal they admire for whatever reason). It is foolish to crave certain reactions from your public, especially if you are in the complex business of photo-blogging.

    Money. Aaah money.. So many people get worked up about money. Everyone has their own strong opinion about the ways the money flows around. Everyone would like the system to work according to their justice. But moneymaking is skill like any other. To make more money, you need to increase your money skill. And it’s not easy. For many people it’s not pleasant either. Especially for creative types.

    Take all of the above, infuse it with strong personal emotions, light it up wih your personal narrow view and what do you get? Burning mess that makes a lot of smoke that clouds your vision and prevents you from seeing what YOU want.

    What YOU want – define that precisely. Then find out how to get it and go for it. If success means to you making a ton of money, then find out how, become a businessman and go for it. If you crave blind praise from your readers, then find out what pleases them and serve them that.

    But I have a feeling that you really just want to be your self, want to be honest, want to focus on your photography, improve your skills. And you would like the praise and money to come your way. But that is something you have little control over – unless you specifically focus on it.

    So if you don’t want to become a self-promoting businessman, if you like being your self, then stop looking at others, be happy and content with what you are doing and wait for the exciting future that awaits you.

    Honestly I think you are doing great, working hard, you have great mind, great vision that is inspiring many other people to look at things differently – that is success 😉

    1. Sounds like you gave a response a motivational, feel good about yourself, we live in a Dr. Spock don’t spank your children kind of world. Wake up, the harsh reality is society in general has a broken mindset. If you tell some long enough that your work is good they will eventually believe it. I don’t think he is talking about success vs art…etc. He is making the point that a 3 year old can pick up my camera snap some pictures around the house, I could throw those images up on Facebook or some other ridiculous site where everyone wants a pat on the back and tell them I just shot these amazing photos and people would comment how great they are. I think, Peter you have been listening to too many Tony Robbins CD’s. And your response speaks wonders, basically saying, and let me paraphrase: “Your article is @#$%, but your a really great guy”. Its like in my area the have this Facebook Fashion Photographer Board….terrible photographers taking photos of women who will never be models on an ugly beach and people say how wonderful they are, then the photographer 2 months later is selling his equipment because in reality he didn’t know how to even shoot in aperture priority or manual mode (oh, and he didn’t own a flash either because he was a “Natural Light” Photographer, I am so @#$%ing sick of that term, and the other one where everyone is a photojournalist wedding photographer and don’t shoot one thing that even looks like photojournalism photography) …oh where was I, yes the model that he said was so amazing went to NY to try out only to find out the agency sent her home crying because they said with her look she would never be a model (but I forgot everyone on Model Mayhem is a model and everyone photographer there is a fashion photographer) told her she was beautiful because the perverts wanted to photographer her naked. So Peter whatever you were under the influence when you commented you may want to stop sometime soon. Would this stupid make everyone feel good about themselves world just stop, and NO not everyone is a photographer….about 75% of the people doing never even had a film camera but like to display them at there bridal show booth like they are some rock-star photographer that doesn’t even know what ASA is. End of rant.

  12. I just came across this article and you laid it out perfectly, what gets me is I try and discuss this stuff here in my area and I have the top photographers (income wise) jumping down my throat ready to crucify me, tell me how I am making myself look bad by trying to educate people, I haven’t been in the business long enough to comment about stuff…etc….etc. All I can say at this point is you are 100% right on, win the golden @#$% ticket!!!

  13. What are you talking about? Of course you need talent. Of course talent matters. Talent comes first. Anyone with eyes (even a child) can tell a good photo from a bad one.

    Y’know what happens when a “photographer” with no talent markets himself? Nothing.

    I don’t know what’s got you so disillusioned, but he hard cold fact is that you need talent AND marketing chops. One is useless without the other.

    1. I’m not saying talent doesn’t matter, if it was up to me it would be the only thing that matters. But fact is, Marketing > Talent, that’s the world we live in. Anyone with eyes will chose the popular, average stuff over and over again.

      I won’t name any names ( I really want to to make my point but it’s my policy not to) but trust me there’s plenty of photographers making it real big with no to average talent, a bunch live on Instagram

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