7 Life Lessons Learned Through Photography

A little history about myself: I don’t have any professional training or education in photography. I went to school for aerospace engineering and didn’t even pick up a serious camera until three years after I had my BS. Everything I know about photography I’ve learned through seven years of passionate practice, and lots of lessons from the school of hard knocks. Along the way I began to realize just how many of those glib, overly-simplified sayings that corporations use to get you to buy their crap are actually true. Here are seven of my favorite cliche phrases that turn out to be pretty great tenets to live your life by.

Lesson 1: Image is Everything!

(i.e. the Peter Lik school of thought)

For those of you who haven’t heard of Peter Lik, he’s probably the most commercially successful landscape photographer of all time. A few years back he traveled to New England for the fall color change, took a single frame of some pretty trees reflected in a pond, made a single print of that shot, and sold that print for a million dollars. Yup, a million. He has galleries in major destination cities like Honolulu, Aspen, Vegas, and Miami, and each is immaculately presented: the photos are huge and beautifully lit, with ridiculous wow factor. The galleries reek of upscale chic and you can expect to shell out at least a couple grand if you want to hang his work on your wall.

Personally I’m not a huge of fan of Lik’s. He’s a decent photographer but often I find his colors over-saturated and feel that he could do more with his compositions. And the guy himself is uh, somewhat over the top. He presents himself as an extreme wilderness adventurer with an unparalleled dedication to his craft, which may be true if you come at it from a standpoint of an armchair photographer, or it may not if you come at it from the standpoint of someone like Marc Adamus, who just spent weeks by himself backpacking and photographing in the Yukon Territory. But as much as Peter Lik’s extreme persona rubs me the wrong way, I admit to having a huge amount of respect for his business acumen and marketing savvy, because he understands one thing very clearly: how you present yourself to the world is how the world will see you.

I’m not saying you have to be a caricature of awesomeness to be successful in life. I am saying there are some fantastic lessons to be learned here, one of the most important of which is how you value yourself. Do you approach your work with an attitude of self worth or self doubt? Let me give you an example. When I was first starting to do art festivals I had the most rinky-dink, cheap booth setup I could make: a back wall for displaying framed prints and a handful of wooden boxes for displaying matted prints.

First go at an art show booth - please pity me!

What this setup said was, “ooh, I’m just starting out, please pity me!” It smacked of self doubt. But I learned my lesson, and now my booth says, “I respect myself, I respect my work, and so should you.”

Professional art show booth - respect me!

Another great example for all the artists out there is pricing. The tendency is to say “I’m just starting out,” or “I’m just a beginner,” or “I’m not trying to get rich from this,” and to set your prices super low. And true, if I can make a 12×18 print for $6 and sell it for $7, well then I’ve made a profit. But what does that say about how I value my work? And how other people should value my work?

A second great lesson to take away from this is not just how your present yourself, but what you present in the first place. I once heard that the difference between a professional and amateur photographer is that the professional takes way more bad photos. But the question is, what photos does the professional show? Consider two guys of equal talent. One shares all the photos he takes, good and bad. You know what happens? He builds a reputation for himself as a mediocre photographer who occasionally produces good work. The second guy is brutal in his self-editing and only shares his absolute best stuff. Even though he’s not a better shooter than the first guy, he builds a reputation as an excellent photographer. Here are two sets of images I took. What does each set say about me as a photographer? The first says that I shoot a random mish-mosh of stuff, not that impressive. But the second set says “here’s a guy who takes seascape photography very seriously.”

What does this jumbled portfolio say about you?

Seascape photography portfolio

So what’s the moral of the story here? You don’t have to be disingenuous and pound your chest, saying “I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread!” But if you value yourself, your work, what you do, and you show people that then people will value you too. And that goes for life as well as art.

Please leave your own thoughts in the comments below.

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13 replies
  1. Jason Rogers
    Jason Rogers says:

    Thanks again Joshua. Lesson #3 is a personal testament to the bane of our landscape photographer existence; the Cosmos not doing what we want it to WHEN we want it to! So many of my non-photographer friends have the misperception that I just roll in to the location, whip out the camera, take the shot, download, and voila! They don’t realize how many hours, or days sometimes, of effort, tenacity, patience, and acceptance of failure that it takes to capture one moment in time. I have been a fan of yours for a while and have travelled to locales like Banner Peak and White Pocket directly because of your images and inspiration. Thanks!

    Jason Rogers

    Reply
  2. Patricia Kelley
    Patricia Kelley says:

    Absolutely right on! Go the max while you are physically capable, because take it from me, THAT doesn’t last forever. Now I feel a little better about the $$$ I’ve been spending on building up my basic gear set and revamping my editing studio. You’re an inspiration!

    Reply
  3. Becky
    Becky says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading, and learning from, each of your Lessons. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and insight – very helpful and very encouraging. Absolutely love your photos!

    Reply
  4. Rob
    Rob says:

    Great points and very well made. Nothing like images to illustrate and drive home a point!

    I’ve been preaching this for years to fellow artists, photog and painters alike. Usually falls on deaf ears. But when I go to art shows/events in parks, the ones that get the traffic and the big buyers are those with the biggest and most dramatic displays. I’ve also observed that those photogs/painters with a “willing to engage” about art and their work also are the most popular. I’ve never understood why someone who loves what they do would not be bubbly-excited about discussing it all with enthusiasm. When I wander into an aloof artist’s booth, I exit stage left as quickly as I can. Great insights and perspective, many thanks!

    Reply
  5. Eric
    Eric says:

    Lesson #2 particularly resonates with me. It is even easier to give in and stay home now that I’m lugging a large format kit around.

    A month or so after I did that private lesson in Santa Cruz with you, I was just dying to get out and take pictures. It had been storming all day and the clouds were thick and dark. I figured I wouldn’t waste the gas to get out to Abalone Cove, so I went to a local pier, planning to shoot some long exposure black and whites.

    As I was parking, color started to peek through the clouds and the sunset turned out to be nuclear. What a rare treat, and needless to say, I was glad I went out, despite my misgivings.

    Reply
  6. William
    William says:

    You are a talented writer in addition to your photographic skills. I particularly liked your points about rigorously culling your work, categorizing it and presently it properly.
    I know these things because I have been a creative director and copywriter in the advertising field all my life and the same principles apply.
    I’ll be following your posts with interest.
    Thanks,
    William

    Reply
  7. Rena
    Rena says:

    Thanks for the article….I will be watching for the next one! I have only taken photos for my pleasure, but have steadily gotten better (I think). I was recently thinking “wonder if anyone would ever purchase any of these?”….your ideas about presentation and pricing set me to thinking about such things!

    Reply
  8. Van
    Van says:

    I think you made a good point. After reading your article and seeing how you separated your websites out between landscape and portraits, I’m convinced I need to do the same. I take alot of pictures of the southwest and I want to be known for that. As much as I love to get paid to weddings I would rather be known as a landscape photographer. Besides when people go to my website they’re always looking at my landscape photos and not my portraits unless they’re a potential wedding client.

    I totally agree with showing only your best stuff. I have a few friends that show all there stuff and I think that perception hurts them overall.

    Anyways good articles. I can’t wait to see your other ones.

    Reply
  9. Chuck Jason
    Chuck Jason says:

    Josh-I enjoyed this article very much. I also think along the same lines as you and after visiting Peter Lik’s Gallery here in Vegas this week it really hit home. Thanks…looking forward to the next installment.

    Regards,
    Chuck

    Reply

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