Onward And Upward

The desire and drive to continually improve one’s craft is something that creatives share. It’s as though there’s always the next skill to master, the next step to take or the next level to reach. There are infinite ways to grow and evolve as artists, photographers and businesspeople, but it’s not always easy to know where to start. It may seem surprising, but some of the best strategies are the simplest.

Often when we’re on a quest to achieve “more,” we not only lose patience (with ourselves or our circumstances), we lose perspective and become overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed can lead to paralysis. When it’s time to move forward in our creativity or in our career (the two of which are often interwoven), it’s important to remember the sentiment of Lao Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Following some simple strategies can help move you forward in improving and enhancing your photographic journey, one step at a time.

Get Better. I’m not sure I subscribe to the adage, “practice makes perfect,” but I do believe that improvement certainly does come from repetition. Photography, like every other creative outlet, takes practice. Doing it over and over again, day in and day out, not only can help you get into a creative groove, it can help you learn how to best use the tools of the trade. Our camera kits (however elaborate or basic) are our creative allies. The better we know the ins and outs of our gear, the better we can use our equipment to its fullest and achieve optimum results. Beyond solo practice, you can attend classes, read books or study online tutorials. Sometimes hearing things from outside sources can illuminate those light bulbs and help you see things in a new (and improved) way.

Get Focused. Quite often, before you can answer the question of how to improve, it’s important to understand your what and your why. You have to really sort stuff out in your head and heart, and get focused. By asking yourself some simple (yet profound) questions about what exactly your motivation is, you can identify what steps to take first. Distilling the reasons “why” you take pictures can also help you set some goals for your journey. Sure, you can dream big and identify your ideal photo assignment, for example, but you can also set up mini-goals that you can work on toward that goal and achieve these milestones on a smaller scale. Knowing why you want to improve and in what capacity you want to see your improvement can help you to recognize your progress. Reaching your goal is a lot more exciting and satisfying when you have markers you’re able to meet along the way.

Get Connected. Art can often feel like a solitary activity, and photography is no exception. Oftentimes, we’re alone in creating our work. But, it’s important to remember that family, friends, clients, colleagues and even seeming strangers can help us reach that next plateau. I was recently asked by a graduating senior at my college alma mater what advice I would give her as she was about to embark on seeking employment. I told her not to be shy about sharing her interests and intentions with anyone who would listen. You’ll never know who might be able to help you unless you let them know what you’re interested in. I landed my very first photography job by striking up a conversation with a wedding photographer at the photo lab where I was working at the time. Had I not started small talk with him (about his work), I never would have been offered a job at his studio. It was one of the most memorable and pivotal moments in my early career, and it all came from simple conversation with a stranger, who ended up becoming my mentor.

Get In Touch. Beyond being open and congenial in your everyday life, you can choose to be a little more overtly extroverted about your goals with people in your field of interest. Make a point of tapping into resources and reach out to people who you think may want to help you. More often than not, people are excited and glad to help. Let this be a reminder never to burn bridges with people, especially those in the industry you’re interested in. The world can be a small place and relationships matter. You never know who you might work with (or want to work with) in the future. And, although many might think that cold-calling might be fruitless, it very well could be worth your efforts. I recently listened to a new photographer speak on how she finds most of her clients. Her secret weapon was the art of the cold call. Making connections, making yourself known and then reaching out when the time is right is one of the most effective ways to moving forward.

Get Tuned In. It’s critical to pay attention to the trends of the specific photography genres you’re interested in. Get to know the players, follow other photographers’ work, keep up with industry standards and developments, and read articles and books that focus on your photo interests, and you’ll better understand how you, too, might get more involved in that particular field of photography. I choose not to look at my photographer counterpoints as competition (there’s enough work for everyone!), but use them more as motivation. Paying attention to what your fellow colleagues are doing might help you take steps toward what you want to do (or might not want to do) next.

Get Noticed. If you’re looking to get hired for a photo assignment (or anything else), the critical part to your process is to be seen. No one will hire you if they don’t know your work. In the age of the web and the visual glory of digital images on glowing device screens, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be using that to your greatest advantage. A website (or even a simple web page) is an obvious “must,” but even still, how do you get people there? Social media is the name of the game in getting eyes on your work. You basically have to find the people you want to work with and see to it that they learn about you and your work. Engaging with people, companies and brands can be the key to getting recognized.

Once you get their attention, then you can let your work speak for you. Just make sure that you’re showing them the work you’re most proud of, the images that are indicative of your talents and passion, and demonstrate to them, through your engagement, that you’re the kind of person they want to work with. This form of social-media engagement is a modern (and more fun) form of cold-calling, and it can be extremely effective.

Get Inspired. Never underestimate the power of inspiration. When we’re inspired, our work is influenced in the best way possible. Motivation, expression, excitement, passion all can inform and enhance our photography, not to mention, make the process and the end result that much more enjoyable. There are all kinds of ways to find inspiration, from the simple to the extravagant. Take a class, take a photo walk, meet and shoot with a photographer friend, join a photography club, go to a museum, travel, attend a photo workshop (local or in a new area), try new gear (rent or buy), shoot a brand-new subject, follow photo prompts, etc. The list of opportunities and possibilities is endless. Tap into what you have the time and the budget for, and just do it. You’ll be glad you did!

TRACEY CLARK is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts, shuttersisters.com. Learn more about Tracey and her work at traceyclark.com.

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