The Single Best Question A Photographer Can Ask

June 22, 2017  •  5 Comments

I have been reflecting recently on the last thirty years of being a photographer, and I discovered some things about myself that I suspect will apply and help other photographers.

Depending on some variables, in can be very easy to get caught up in chasing photography for a variety of unproductive reasons. For example, it can be easy to pursue subjects or topics that you think others will approve of or even just simply enjoy.  Based on personal circumstances, it can be incredibly easy to chase subjects based on financial drivers because you think the market will compensate you for your efforts in a particular area.  

I’ve noticed in other areas of life, unrelated to photography, that if people remain true to their original vision, often all of the things that we build up as problems, just tend to work themselves out.  Human beings have a very special skill that helps them transform small problems into mountains and rarely are they logical or true.  

In a society where it appears that success can be won in a day or week, it is, unfortunately, warping reality.  Success, however you choose to define it, is typically the result of consistent focus and hard work and being prepared for when an opportunity presents itself.  

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Success can have many faces, not just money, and it frequently comes as a result of many years of hard work and dedication to the basics.  If you look closely at successful people in any field, often you will find they are willing to do the small things that others are unwilling to do on a consistent basis.  This holds true whether you are an athlete, marketing professional, or a photographer.  The truth is that achieving your definition of success is linked to your ability to do the right tasks on a daily basis that forms the foundation for bigger successes.  It isn't some secret "thing" that will unlock the elusive success that has been escaping you.  Success is hiding in plain sight.

I believe the single best question a photographer can and should ask themselves is “What subjects or topics am I intensely excited about and why do they matter to me?”.  If you can honestly answer this question, it will provide the pathway to your creative plans and always keep you centered and focused on the right things.  I’ve started applying this question every time I head out in the field and create.  I let go of all the rules and no longer think about creating a portfolio of images that others want or expect.  I create prints of subjects that I am passionate about and are linked to things that are important to me such as conservation/preservation of natural resources, how nature improves the health and wellbeing of people, and inspiring people to get outside and experience the joy and benefits of nature.  The second best question you can ask is "What's your budget?"... 

I photograph with film in large format view cameras and make darkroom prints of subjects that matter to me.  In a digital society that appears to not place a lot of value on physical prints, I am committed to making handmade prints for people that love and appreciate them.  Why would I do this?  First, because it is my passion.  It is what I do, and I love doing it.  I realized that I would rather create and sell 10 or 15 prints a year to people that want and appreciate them vs. trying to sell more volume based on financial drivers or do it in a way that doesn't align with my inner most passion.  

The reality for full-time professional photographers is that you may have to do other things to earn money to fund your creative pursuits.  For some photographers, that can mean leading workshops, teaching, writing books, etc.  For others, it may mean working a part time job to follow your true passions vs. being miserable producing work that you hope or think others will either purchase or confirm is "good."  

By staying true to yourself, you will always create your best work and all of the other variables that people tend to worry about naturally fall into place over time. I encourage you to deeply think about what you are passionate about and let go of all the other baggage that can keep you from reaching your full potential.  I have lost family members and good friends, and none of them were concerned about money in their final days.  Every single one of them valued their relationships and hoped they had made a positive contribution to the world.  What motivates you, what inspires you, and what matters to you?  If you create photographs that are aligned to these questions, you simply can't go wrong. 

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Bob Dungan(non-registered)
A well written article. Pretty much sums up how I feel. I have shot everything from 110 to 4x5 and found my sweet spot is 120 medium format. It is a combination of cost-size-weight that fits well with how I like to photograph. I shoot the old folding cameras. They can slip in a pocket and still produce a large negative. I like to take the photo, develop the film and make the print. This makes the print all mine.
Hi Tim...Well I think certain numbers of your readers were thinking the same thing recently and count me in too. Seems I've just been chasing my tail lately, and basically in a funk with where my photography should go. Your article gave me the slap upside the head I needed. The past couple of years I was caught up in that dreaded disease called GAS...(gear acquisition syndrome), and paying little attention to my perfecting my own first photographic love, FLORAL. So I wanted you to know that this very afternoon I went to the closet and pulled out my 4X5 Tachihara field camera, placed a beautiful Schneider 150/5.6 lens on, and proceeded to adjust the movements, etc. Thank you Tim... I am rejuvenated, and a man with a mission. Haven't been this fired up in a long time!!
I found your article interesting. I'm in a position where I think a lot about money, and I feel what you had to say is exactly what I needed.
Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Katherine, thanks for your comment. Stay in touch.

Katherine Gillis(non-registered)
Well written and nail on the head. Thanks for reminding everyone why we do what we do.
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