The Ingredients for a Successful Photographer

This post is reposted with the permission of the AMAZING whimsical fashion photographer Jake Garn located in Salt Lake, UT.  Check out his website at JakeGarn.com and let him know who sent you! 😉

10,000 Hours

Awhile back I read a fantastic book called Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. The author discusses the notion that to become great at anything it requires about 10,000 hours of dedicated work to achieve it.  This number rings true for everyone from Tiger Woods, to the Beatles, to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Beethoven… superstardom requires a tremendous amount of work.  Work is only half the equation though…
Where and when you were born also has an enormous impact on your ability to achieve that next level of success.  Did you know, for instance, that the founders of Apple, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems were all born between 1953 and 1955?  Or that two-thirds of all professional hockey players have a birthday in February or January?  There is a very good reason for both of these and it seems to have very little to do with coincidence.
With names like AvedonAnselRittsMann, among dozens of others, you might think that the best time to revolutionize photography has come and gone, but I would make the argument that right now is better than it ever has been for any photographer.  Never before has access to photography been this open both to the photographer and to the viewer. Access that would have been unbelievable just over 10 years ago. What has made all this access possible?  Two things:
  • High Quality Digital Cameras
  • Massively Adopted Social Media

Digital Cameras

Let’s face it, some photographers will be better than others well before the 10,000 hour mark and some photographers may not be anywhere near great well after 10,000.  That being said, I think it’s safe to say that in order to start realizing the highest potential for greatness inside your work then you’ll start to see it around 10,000 hours of good, solid, brow-to-the-plow experience. So, to invest 10,000 hours into photography you are looking at doing 5 shoots a week (3 hours each) for 7 years give or take.  Not too bad actually.
Here’s the problem.  Ten years ago to achieve 10,000 hours (with a film camera) the financial cost would be significant.  Figure it cost at least $100 to process each shoot (film, develop, print).  So $100 a shoot, 5 shoots a week for 7 years would bring the bill for your 10,000 hours to roughly $182,000.   Ouch.  In other words, if you didn’t start making money at photography almost immediately, or had a spare $26,000 a year, you simply were not going to have the opportunity to shoot often enough to become good enough.  Oh, and this investment wouldn’t include any gear like cameras or lights or models or studio space.
Compare that to the expense of using a digital camera today.  You can buy the Canon 5D Mark II right now for about $2,500 (the camera I use).  That is about the same cost you’d incur to do 25 shoots back in the day.  I can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure that the Great Depression may have been caused by the enormous amount of money everyone had to spend developing photos from their brand new Kodaks.
Don’t have $2,500?  No problem, you can buy several cameras for less than $1,000 that are WAAAAAY better than the digital camera I was using about 10 years ago, which had an amazing 3 megapixels!

Social Media

Everyone has a facebook or a myspace account.  Well everyone except for that one weird friend (we all have one) that is holding out because they “don’t see what the point is,” even my grandpa is on Facebook for crying out loud!  This one simple fact has big implications in the world of fashion/beauty photography.  The biggest thing is there is a platform for budding new photographers to show their work off to thousands of people.  If you wanted to show your work off to thousands of people 10 years ago you needed a lucky break, win a big award, get published in a big magazine, find the right commercial client.  It required skill and quite a bit of luck to be seen, but now if your work is worth seeing it WILL be seen.  Sure, it still requires a bit of luck to land those commercial clients, get published in magazines or win those awards but now your chances of being seen by the right person are increased dramatically.
Being seen by more people has another effect. Things that were tremendously difficult ten years ago are now easier than ever before.  Take model scouting.  Ten years ago if you needed to find a new model you could call up local agencies (and in a small market like Utah I quickly found that most agencies had no interest in finding work for their ‘models’ – they simply wanted to sign new victims up and charge them for ‘modeling classes’ – but that’s another post) or you could hit the malls, dance clubs and movie theaters and try to find them yourself.  This was tedious to say the least, and when you finally did find someone they were extraordinarily skeptical about your motivations for approaching them… and thanks again to all the scam modeling agencies most of the potential models thought you wanted to charge them outrageous fees for modeling classes (if you are getting the impression that I’m not a fan of small market modeling agencies then you are hearing me quite correctly).
Facebook and Myspace changed all of this, in quite a dramatic way.  Now whenever I take a photo of a girl she posts it on her Facebook page and suddenly all her friends see her photo with my logo on it… as this happens several dozens of times it starts to become pretty easy to find new models because suddenly they’re all coming to me!  Not only that but hair stylists, makeup artists, wardrobe designers, body painters and all sorts of talented people ALSO start seeing your work because they’re on Facebook too.  Social media is the most pervasive form of networking ever invented.
As this cycle repeats itself you find a bigger and bigger audience for your work, which attracts even more talented people which attracts an even bigger audience and you soon realize that your work is being viewed by thousands without the lucky break.  This is a big deal.

But What About the Competition?

If you are one of the photographers that complains about the sheer number of photographers entering the market then stop, take a deep breath and realize something.  There is no better thing to push your work to new heights than good, old-fashioned competition.  In my opinion having so many people taking an interest in photography is nothing but awesome for the industry as a whole.
Out of all the places in the world you wouldn’t pick Salt Lake City Utah to be a hot-bed for producing amazing talent in fashion and beauty photography but you would be wrong.  There are some amazing photographers (and stylists and models!) here producing amazing work and I personally LOVE how they make me want to create better and better work, all of the time.
Here are just a few of my favorites that have been shooting in Salt Lake City for the past several years.  Go check out their work and while you’re there tell them Jake Garn said hello.  🙂
(these photos have all been posted with the respective photographers’ permission – and I’m certain I missed several more amazing Utah photographers, feel free to leave a comment with a link to your faves!)


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