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Talent Alone Isn’t Enough to Get You Very Far

Talent is a wonderful thing, but talent alone isn't enough to bring you success in the photography world. And let's face it, there are lots and lots of talented people out there. Here are some other things that you will probably need far more than talent to succeed in photography.

I should start off by saying that being primarily a landscape photographer, I am writing this article from that perspective, yet I think most of what I am saying here is applicable no matter what genre of photography you work in or aspire to work in.

Hard Work

Yes, there is really nothing to replace hard work. Overnight success does occasionally appear to happen, but what we often don’t see is the hard work that it took that person to get to that point. And even if they are that rarest phenomenon that we call an "overnight success," there will always be all the hard work that is yet to come if they want to stay working in their chosen field after the momentary light of fame dies down.

If you are endeavoring to be successful as a landscape photographer, you will have the lifelong work of learning your craft and honing your technical skills. Of course, this work should be the fun part and probably won't feel so hard. But it is continuous if you want to develop your skills and keep becoming a better photographer.

In addition to honing your craft, you will also have the work of getting your images seen by others. You may want to show your work to art galleries and other venues that you can possibly display it in. You may choose to start selling it at art festivals. You may want to call interior designers, home stagers, and other people who might possibly be open to using your art. Or you may choose to try selling your work as stock photography. There are lots of different avenues to pursue making a living, and every one of them will require effort on your part to get started in it. It will require patience, consistency, and an ability to accept rejection. You may even outrightly fall flat on your face numerous times. But get back up and try again. There really is just no getting around that if you want to make a living as a photographer.

Find a Mentor

Finding someone who can help guide you along your path or at least to give you good constructive feedback is invaluable. Preferably, it is someone who has made some of the mistakes that you are likely to and can help offer encouragement and perspective. A mentor can help remind you that you are not the only one who has ever faced some of the challenges of building a career in photography.

And as you progress, you may find that you are able to be a mentor for someone else. Some days, it’s easy to feel like you don’t know much and haven’t gone anywhere, but you can always be surprised at how far you’ve really come when you find someone who is just starting out and is enamored with your work or your accomplishments.

Connect With Your Peers

Find a place to be connected with other photographers, whether it is online or in the real world. There are so many great online communities for artists these days that this should be really easy. For face-to-face interaction, join a photography club. If you are starting to display your work, join an artist co-op gallery, or maybe even start doing art festivals. You will meet lots of other people who are probably at different points in their career and can give you support, insight, and hopefully encouragement. And don't discount learning from artists who work in other media.

Have Some Humility

Do you think that you’re all that? Well, you probably aren’t. A quick Google search of photography on the Internet will verify that there are a ton of talented photographers out there. Some humility can be useful in keeping you open to meeting other artists and benefiting from their insight and experience. If nothing else, you can give each other moral support.

And humility helps keep you open to learning new things. It keeps you open to being inspired and influenced by what others do instead of just seeing everyone as competition. Having a little humility helps make you approachable to others as well, and you never know what you may learn from someone else or what you can teach them.

One of my favorite images resulting from trying something new, with a Nikon D800 converted for infrared photography.

Try New Things 

Trying new things is critical for growing as an artist and to keep the creative juices flowing. Plus, when you try something new, you may discover that you really like it and are good at it. It may also give you new ideas to incorporate into your primary photography.

For more established artists, the likelihood of suffering burnout is so much higher if you just keep doing the same thing over and over, even though it may be working well for you right now. If that’s the case, you may find it useful to have your main line of work that you put most of your effort into and develop a side project that is totally different and allows you a different creative expression. This helps to guard against burnout and potentially gives you something to pivot to if the main income stream starts to dry up, all of which can help you expand and grow.

Do What Inspires You Most

By all means, make sure to spend some time doing what is most inspiring to you, even if you can’t make it the full-time gig yet. Sharing work that you truly love and are passionate about shows through to your audience and will ultimately give you the most satisfaction. And you never know who might see it and want to buy it or hire you to shoot more.

I love capturing images of storms and weather, like this one from near my home in Colorado one summer evening.

Develop a Style

As you progress as a photographer, you begin to find what it is that you gravitate towards. What things appear in your work over and over again? Maybe it's a certain subject matter. Maybe it's a way that you use light. Take a look through some of your best work and see what it has in common. This will help give you insight into what your strengths are and what you can pursue more of in the future.

Share Your Work

Wherever you are at in your career, make sure to use the opportunities you have to share your work, either online, in person, or both. Share it with both people who are potential customers and people who can give you critical feedback. You can learn from both positive and constructive feedback.

The main thing to realize is that building a career as a photographer is a marathon, not a sprint. A few setbacks along the way or some failed attempts can be an opportunity for learning, especially when you take the long view. And talent, while a useful and wonderful thing, by itself, is not enough to get you nearly as far as you think.

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30 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

You mention mentorship, and I think that could be extremely important, if only one could find a mentor who is actually willing to be of real help.

For years, I tried and tried and tried to find a mentor who could help me monetize my wildlife photos, but no one ever actually helped me. All they would do is to tell me the obvious, surface things that I already knew. They had information that would have really helped me a lot, but they never gave any of that info to me. All they gave me were vague generalizations that weren't any help at all. Frustrating.

All I can say is that when it comes to marketing and selling your images, it will be extremely difficult to find someone to mentor you in a truly helpful manner if they view you as future competition. They'll give you all kinds of help with the photography part of things, but when it comes to finding clients, they clam up and won't help you a bit.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Tom, no other industry would hand you all their details on how to make money or retain clients. It's a fantasy to assume photographers should, but for some reason many people expect it. I only help people who are not going to get in my way but they get very good advices.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Competition is one thing, training your replacement is another. Really, you can't tell the difference? Please post your client list here and revenue and any tip you like. No secret, but will you? Nope, but prove me wrong, please.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I agree, you are a spammer.

Stuart C's picture

In fairness he has a point, you are completely anonymous and the majority of your comments are inherently rude, arrogant and opinionated. So it can’t come as a complete surprise that you are attracting negative attention from other people surely? Unless you think you are doing nothing wrong of course?

I can’t imagine true professionals in many fields being that disrespectful to their peers, at least not the good ones.

Stuart C's picture

You misinterpreted my statement, I don’t think it’s ok to be disrespectful to peers in any situation. I was implying that the best people in the field would have the best attitudes to go with everything else.

And you are entitled to your opinions, but you also have a duty to convey them respectfully, you don’t need to use aggressive tones in an argumentative manner. You will probably find many more people will heed your advice if it was delivered differently.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

"If competition from them makes you scared, you weren't all that good in the first place!"
I'm sorry I called you a spammer, troll is much more appropriate. Don't expect better after your rude comment above.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

bye troll

Deleted Account's picture

Benoit, did you honestly expect Mr Davis to breach the privacy of his entire client list?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Check Tom's replies to me and then check the troll's replies. You will figure out the answer to your question on your own.

Deleted Account's picture

I did read them.

You're either stupid or a complete asshole.

God I hate you people.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

You are entitled to an opinion. All trolls do. And what people do you hate? I am pretty sure I know precisely. Prove me wrong, may be I'll decide to not categorize you as a troll. That's where Tom differs from you and the other troll.

Deleted Account's picture

Given that you spend a great deal of time and effort on here attempting to belittle others and provoke argument, in a transparent attempt to reinforce your poor self-esteem, you would appear to fit the definition of "troll".

You really are just another worthless troll, who attempts to discredit others by applying the label "troll".

People in this community such as you are the reason I detest the lot of you.

Go back to pretending you are superior to random strangers; however, we both know that you will still hate yourself when lying awake at night.

Don't bother responding.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

"Given that you spend a great deal of time and effort on here attempting to belittle others and provoke argument" - I can buy you a mirror if you don't have one. Would you like an instruction manual for it?
After a recent post on an other story J.D. had a tantrum and meltdown over 3 minus ratings. In my book, that's not a sign of being popular and he has a few minuses on this article as well. You have a problem with photographers who make a living out of photography, I get that. May be you should listen to people willing to share a little of their experience instead of expecting everything free on a tray (did you see this clip? - https://fstoppers.com/landscapes/how-top-tips-videos-are-killing-your-cr...). Grow up stop the blame and try to learn something. When I decided to go into photography, I presented my book to a pro who totally trashed me. His arguments were 100% accurate so I learned from it and have been making a living from photography the last 25 years.
If your profile shows nothing, to me that's a statement and of course you are totally entitled to it. When 3 out of your 4 posts are about arguing with me, I get the big troll warning flashing red. I've had many difference with people here, but next time they post something I can totally back them up or vote them up. I get that in your head it can't make sense but that's what I do. I don't get the point of negative votes and rarely use them, so when J.D. ask for explanations on another topic, I'm with him, I would at least want to understand what I am missing. The point is, hiding everything never works in someone's favor because you show no intention of building trust. Tom and I can disagree, apparently we can figure out why any time we do, but that's just because we have established trust and are open to communicate with real examples, not troll words.

Deleted Account's picture

My last comment to you was my fourth (this makes five); and this is the first time I've logged in since our exchange.

Yes, I surely spend a lot of time on here provoking arguments.

I don't think the word "troll" means what you think it means. Worthless oxygen thief.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Haha, typical nothing in the profile, nothing to show... You sound like a no secret "pro" for sure.

Tom Reichner's picture

But I had some professional wildlife photographers publicly shaming me for selling my photos on microstock websites. When I saw these guys in person, I would ask them, "well, if I shouldn't be selling on those sites, then where should I sell my wildlife photos? Who should I be marketing them to?"

That is when they would clam up or just speak in vague generalities.

I would tell them that in 2010, I wrote to 117 different publishers - a mix of hunting magazines, calendar publishers, natural history magazines, and book publishers. Of the 117 potential clients I contacted, I only heard back from 6 of them.

4 of those 6 said that they already have photographers that they have been working with for years, and are not accepting submissions from other photographers.

1 of those 6 said that they would accept submissions from me, but to be aware that they already have tens of thousands of images on file, and that the odds of using any new images were slim ... they also said that they pay $35 for cover use, and $15 for inside use.

The final 1 of those 6 that actually got back to me said that they looked at the photos on my website and were very impressed. They welcomed me to submit to them and sent me tax forms and an agreement to sign. I sold two photos to them over the next few months, and then they went out of business.

I told all of this to the pro photographers who were shaming me and criticizing me for selling on microstock. I asked, "if you don't want me selling on microstock, then who do you want me selling to?" That is when they would clam up or speak vaguely.

I have always believed that if you tell someone not to do something a certain way, then you should be able to tell them what way to do it - that it is wrong to criticize someone for something unless you are willing and able to offer a viable alternative. Don't tell me what not to do unless you are willing to tell me what to do instead.

If trying to sell directly to publishers was a big failure for me, and if selling via microstock was a success for me, with good royalties being realized, and they are going to bitch at me for selling microstock, then they sure as heck better tell me who to sell to besides microstock. If they are not willing to help me contact clients, that is fine ..... but then they have no right to bitch at me for selling microstock, either.

The truth is, they didn't want me selling my images at all. Because every sale that I make is one that they don't make.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

That is exactly what they do, but you have to think that probably nothing was handed to them either. So why would they give it away to you when there are thousands of other people who are trying to get the same info you are seeking. Why would a doctor work for free, why would Canon tell you what they are planning to do in 2-5 years with specific details? Were you willing to pay good money for the specific info you wanted? What do you do for a living? For most magazines, you have to develop relationship first and that can take awhile unless you are lucky to knock at their door at the right time with images exactly matching what they are looking for at that time. It's possible that they can get your pictures via microstock for even cheaper than $15 or $35.
I think you'll make the most money selling prints and frames direct to individuals. You are on your own and need to work on marketing, but first you need very unique images of birds that will interest people. Lots of people will pay very good money for nice prints, but you have to find them first.

Tom Reichner's picture

Benoit,

I didn't just ask these guys for help out of the blue. After they criticized me and attempted to shame me publicly for selling on microstock, that is when I asked, "well, then, if you don't want me selling to microstock, then who should I sell to?"

I hope that puts it into context for you.

By the way, I already do rather well selling via microstock, and derive 40% of my total livelihood from that. I make another 10% of my living from selling independently to a couple of publishers and interior designers.

So I am making 50% of my total annual income from selling usage rights to my wildlife photos.

By the way, trying to sell prints of wildlife photos is not something that I would recommend to anyone who wants to make good money in wildlife photography. Anyone who specializes in wildlife and has tried to make serious money selling prints realizes, at some point, that actual profits are miniscule, and not at all worth the effort. One's time is much better spent selling usage licenses. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions, but by and large, selling prints is not a viable business strategy in the wildlife genre; at least not for North American wildlife.

While I appreciate you trying to help me by giving me advice, when you give me that advice, it seems like you think I am some rookie who has not been in this game for years and years and years. I know you're trying to be helpful, but geez - I am already way beyond some of the suggestions that have been directed toward me. I am not in the position I was back in 2010. When it comes to marketing and sales, I have advanced way beyond where I was at that point in my journey.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Okay, I get it, no problem. You probably should have explained before at what stage you are now because I would not have been able to tell. Your bio says you travel extensively when you do travel. That's definitely something I would work with if I wanted to be published and get closer to get regular calls, it can be valuable. But most publications today barely pay anything and have turned to small private and budget oriented model, often started by people who have lost their job when a publication closed. Also, sometimes, one of the owners is the house photographer and few images are purchased from outside.
From what I understand, bird and nature photography is hugely popular and I've seen spots in the everglade where it looks like there could be traffic jams in the winter and no one in the summer. It's probably a saturated market and you started right at the DSLR highest peak, so I can imagine it could have been hard to enter the field.

Tom Reichner's picture

Benoit,

You are right on the money with what you say here. Your sense of the wildlife photo market is spot-on.

You are also right about bird and nature photography - it is extremely popular. This has provided a lot of opportunities for advanced wildlife photographers to make income by doing workshops and leading tours for beginners and intermediate wildlife photographers.

But that line of work isn't really photography, because they are not making their living with their photos, but by guiding and instructing. If one wants to make their living as a photographer, but not as an instructor or a guide, then these workshops and tours are not for that person.

For wildlife photographers who want to make money with the photos themselves, it is extremely difficult nowadays - almost impossible - as the prices paid for usage have shrunk to preposterously low levels, as you noted yourself.

Mark Fa'amaoni's picture

Tom, the whiplash I got from firstly reading your response to the "gatekeeping" article (where you argued that you "actually like the gatekeeper mentality, at least for your genre of photography, which is wildlife") and this one (where you argued "For years, I tried and tried and tried to find a mentor who could help me monetize my wildlife photos, but no one ever actually helped me"), damn near took my head off :)

Tom Reichner's picture

I am glad that my comments only "nearly" took your head off, and didn't cause it to detach itself completely.

Casey Chinn's picture

Point taken. Business 101 would fall under hard work for me. I guess I alluded to the marketing aspect when I spoke of contacting galleries, etc etc, but clearly, there is more that could be said there,

When I was going to photo school (the second time around) to finish getting my degree my father tried to convince me to get a business degree instead. I was stubborn and resisted and went to photo school anyway. I thought that he just didn't get it. Now that I am in business for myself there are many days I wish I had listened to his advice.

Tom Reichner's picture

I was a business major for a little while in college, and took 3 semesters of the business curriculum. That was back in the late 1980s.

I must say, nothing I learned in those business courses has been of any help when it comes to selling my wildlife photos these days.

I think the traditional business courses only help when you are trying to run a "normal" business, where you offer products or services for which there is a known and consistent demand.

If you are determined to try to make money selling what you want to sell, but there is very little, or no, demand for that product or service, then all the business knowledge in the world won't help you, because all of those business models that we studied in college are based on there being a given demand and a proven market for what one is trying to sell.

There are lots of things that I could make really good money at, that have a demand and a market. But I don't enjoy doing any of those things. Don't enjoy them at all. The things that I truly enjoy have very little demand, and that means that I have only been able to make a modicum of money at them.

So, back to the article, I would say that it does take more than talent to realize financial success in photography. But it takes more than hard work, too. It takes a willingness to do things that one doesn't really feel like doing. And that is the big thing that messes everything up for a fantastical idealist like myself who wants to do something that is 100% upside without making any compromises at all. I don't mind working really, really hard, as long as everything that I work at is fun and exciting. But I have no interest in doing any part of the job that isn't fun and enjoyable.

Casey Chinn's picture

Good point Tom. I am a bit of a romantic idealist myself, and I've had to temper that tendency quite a bit. As usual, the discussion afterwards is interesting and thought provoking. Thanks

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Oh, this thing is so true yet so difficult to actually believe and keep in mind as we love miracles so much. It's said that success is 10% talent and 90% hard work and there are so many talented people getting basically nowhere because they rely on their talent only. Having a 'right eye' for photography or being creative by nature is important, but so are hours of learning Photoworks techniques and years of developing your own style. It's also very true that 'overnight success' may happen when artists got themselves to a certain point, but the trickiest thing here is staying hard working even after finally getting your success. I believe that's the most difficult part of it all and that's why many promising artists disappear.

Tom Reichner's picture

Catherine Bowlene said,

"Having a 'right eye' for photography or being creative by nature is important, but so are hours of learning Photoworks techniques and years of developing your own style."

What do you mean when you say "photoworks techniques". Do you just mean photography techniques in general?

Ken Flanagan's picture

I live ten minutes from Garden of the Gods. Nice photo.

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks Ken. It's a wonderful plaxe to have so close by.