What Advice do I have for Emerging Photographers?

A friend sent me a message the other day asking that question. He needed to do an interview for a class he was taking and sent me a list of questions, the last one was “What advice do you have for emerging photographers?” I was happy to answer the question and thought I’d share my answer, and and go a little deeper in this post.

A Thai Soldier during the Anti-Coup protests in Bangkok, Thailand, May 25, 2014. Published in Nikon Pro Magazine 2015.

First, second, third and foremost, you have to love it. I eat drink and sleep photography.” — Since the early 80’s I have carried a camera with me everywhere I went. In my early days, since I was a retail jewelry store manager I put foam in a Samsonite briefcase to carry my camera and lenses. I looked pretty “normal” to the casual observer with coat and tie and a briefcase. This went on for years, I can’t even remember when I switched to a real camera bag. Also, I always had a point and shoot film camera in the glove box of my car. My goal was to shoot 1 roll a week in the early days. This soon became 3 or 4 rolls a week. I was making an ok wage for a young 22 year old man, and most of my spare money was spent on film, lenses and the occasional photography book.

The cover and an inside image that appeared in NG Thailande special issue in 2014. One of my earliest dreams in photography was to be in National Geographic. The years went by, and I forgot about it. Apparently the universe did not forget, and so 30 years after my “dream”, it became a reality.

Next education. Read everything and anything you can about photography. Look at the masters work, analyze and study, ask how and more importantly, why.” — My first photography book was “The Joy of Photography” by Eastman Kodak. I found it in a bookstore in the mall where I was working. It became my constant companion, and it went in my briefcase with my camera equipment. I actually wore two copies out and had to replace them. In 1982 or 83, I started taking the New York Institute of Photography home study program. It was a huge set of books, covering every aspect and genre of photography. Back then it was before the age of specialization, and their idea was that if you want to call yourself a professional photographer you have to know how to shoot any subject or situation. I still believe that today, which is why my work is so diverse. I shoot color, black and white, digital, film, and even some video.
In 1983 I took a workshop that literally changed my life. It was a week long workshop with John Sexton, Ansel Adams long time assistant, and acclaimed photographer in his own right. John was the first person I met who shared the deep passion I had for photography, which was life changing. I started to believe it was ok to be intensely passionate and committed to photography.

Makeshift studio “Warrior” portrait of Ernest E. White, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq. This is one of my images that is on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum in London. I am forever grateful to Hilary Roberts, for her help, support and friendship.

Shoot with your heart, your brain will follow.” — I have heard and read this same statement from so many gifted photographers. For me it was not as easy as it sounds. I even quit photography for a while in the mid 80’s, I was frustrated that every decent image I made looked like a postcard on a drugstore rack. They lacked life and feeling. The image below was a huge breakthrough for me. We were camped at the Navajo National Monument. It was bitter cold. I rose before sunrise and set up my camera and tripod. The viewfinder on my camera kept freezing up, and to see I had to keep wiping it off. My friends Steve and Paula Cummings brought me hot coffee which helped me, but didn’t do much for the freezing camera. As the sun started to rise, I adjusted my camera angle, looked through the viewfinder and tears came to my eyes. If only, I thought, if only I could make people feel the way I feel right now, when they look at my photography. With my brain I adjusted the aperture and shutter speed and shot. The image is much closer to what I was feeling that morning, than any of my previous work, and so this image started me on a path that I would follow with the rest of my work through the years. I have to feel it – Then I can shoot it.

Sunrise, Navajo National Monument 1992

Make thousands, even hundreds of thousands of bad photos …. try to learn a little from each bad image, from each mistake. Always question your work, with one goal — how can I improve?” — In the digital age, I make a lot of images. It’s a wonderful time to be a photographer, as I can shoot so many more images than I did, and still do, with film. As any photographer, I make mistakes. Bad exposure, out of focus, camera shake, and some stinkin’ thinkin’ at times. When I examine the images in lightroom (I also always scan my film) I pay special attention to the failures. I ask myself what went wrong? And Why? I make handwritten and mental notes. Then I keep my failures in mind the next time I shoot, so I don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over.

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Camp, Chiang Rai

Never listen to critics, shoot for yourself, don’t worry or care what anyone else thinks of your work.” — So much easier said than done. But it needs to be done. All of us that are pro photographers have worked for someone else during our careers. The client has a vision, the art director has a stronger vision. Working with all these “visions” can be challenging. When I was in these situations I developed a good relationship with those I was working with, and I always kept in mind – I’m the photographer, and I’m good. I realized from my retail sales days that I need to have confidence, and yes, an ego. My way is not the only way, but it’s a damn good place to start. This confidence was felt by my clients in 2005, and led to a dramatic wedding portrait that was chosen as one of the winners by Fujifilm in their “Best of Wedding Photography 2005” competition.

Wedding in the Pines. Wedding Photography in 2005.

I’m fortunate today, because when I’m working on my Thailand project, I am always shooting for myself. The challenge at the beginning was to become accepted and make my subjects understand that my work was one of compassion and not foreign curiosity about their way of life.

Siri transports heavy bundles of rice to be hand processed in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

Lastly keep shooting. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Make images in the good times, the bad times and make images when you don’t really feel like it. Make images when you are sad and when you are happy. Let your camera be your words, communicate to the world through your lens.” — I’m dyslexic, I find it difficult to write, so I express myself through my photography. There are many days I don’t feel like shooting. I look at what’s going on and think “I’ve seen and shot this before. But when I force myself to just go out and shoot, my spirits lift, the fog goes away, and I am usually surprised that by finding a different angle a different time of day, or a different scene, that I can say, no, I haven’t shot this before, today was better than before!
Happy shooting … Lee

Siri, a 65 year old Thai woman farmer, works in her leased fields preparing rice plants to be transplanted into a larger field.

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