The Worst Advice You’ve Been Given as a Photographer – Fstoppers

As a follow up to my article on the best advice in respect of turning pro, I thought it would be fun to dig into the worst advice we’ve ever received as photographers. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “one might consider always passing on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” So, what’s some of the worst photography advice you’ve ever received?

Photographer and cinematographer Jeffrey Garriock (who I work with at G Adventures as a photo guide) was quick to point out that the worst advice he’s ever been given: “don’t do anything for free.” As much as Garriock champions the value of photography, he’s still of the opinion that there’s a time and place to work for free. Garriock told me that he’s done some wonderful work for NGOs when no money exchanged hands. What else are you going to do when you believe in the work that’s being done and there is truly no money to go around? Related, these experiences afforded Garriock the incredible opportunities to shoot the type of stories he wants to be involved in. The experience he gained on these pro bono shoots has in turn improved his marketability when a related paid job comes along. Pro bono photography has resulted in Garriock working and connecting with like-minded people, helping to amplify certain voices, and improving his skills in ways he might not have been able to otherwise.

Michelle Valberg, Nikon ambassador and stellar wildlife photographer, was once told that if you achieve success within the first five years, you’re guaranteed long-term success. Today, Valberg would be the first to point out that sustained success in photography requires ongoing dedication, adaptability, and the ability to navigate a constantly changing industry. A drive for success should not be limited to a specific timeframe but should instead be viewed as a continuous journey of growth and evolution. In the end, it is your entire body of work that will define your photographic success, not your first victory.

For wedding photographers John and Veronica Park, the omnipresent narrative and online marketing that constantly suggests that the latest and most advanced equipment is a prerequisite for exemplary work is the worst advice they’ve ever received. Contrary to this belief, while contemporary tools might streamline processes or expedite tasks, they are by no means necessary for achieving excellence. The Parks exercise discretion in updating their equipment. They opt to upgrade only when the new gear addresses specific requirements or offers efficiency gains that are significant enough to substantially benefit their workflow.

Trevor Sherwin of boudoir studio Provocateur Images told me that listening to the one-size-fits-all approach from people who sell you marketing solutions is far and away the worst advice he’s ever heard. Sure, you can buy a modicum of success, but rarely do those plans ever work the way you need them to. There is a whole ecosystem out there that knows photographers will buy a get-rich-quick type solution. Of course, there are a handful of instances where this works, but, for the rest, it’s bad advice that will take you away from the task of building your business in a bespoke and sustainable way.

Aris Apostolopoulos, another photography guide I work with at G Adventures, was quick to point to a very common piece of advice as the worst he’s ever received: “the best light for landscape photography is during golden hour.” For Apostolopoulos, this limits photographers too much. For example, if you want to convey a dramatic feeling with your images, Apostolopoulos suggests that maybe it might be better to take a photo during midday with strong light, creating high contrast between shadows and highlights. Everything doesn’t have to be golden.

Related, Apostolopoulos was also told that the best portrait light comes from a soft box. Again, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. You have to choose between the soft light of a soft box or the harsh light of a direct flash depending on the mood you’re looking to convey.

Apostolopoulos wanted to make it clear, there is not a “best light” in photography, but there is the best light in relation to what you want to achieve.

Early in his career, travel photographer and Sony Ambassador, Esteban Toro was told that it didn’t matter so much if you identified with a brand. If you were asked to represent a brand, you should jump at the chance for exposure and a payday. For Toro, this was terrible advice that he’s glad he didn’t act on. Instead, Toro chose to represent a camera manufacturer that wasn’t very popular, at the time. Had he followed this advice and started representing another more popular brand that did not align with his values, his career would have been entirely different. For Toro, the lesson is clear: always be honest with yourself and only represent companies that align with your values.

There was nothing that Gere had been told or taught that he regretted learning. Even the bad advice taught him a lesson. Gere considers himself a collection of guidance he’s learned from the good advice he’s received and the lessons he’s learned from the bad advice and the mistakes of others.

The trick here would be to know what advice to take at face value and what advice to learn from without acting on. It’s a special skill to recognize what advice you shouldn’t go too far down the road with as your companion.

All images provided by and attributed to the credited photographer. Lead image provided by Jeffrey Garriock.

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

Not exactly bad advice, but certainly feedback that needed a giant grain of salt. I submitted four prints to a photo contest and won nothing. Glad I didn’t quit there, because I submitted them to a second, equally distinguished contest and got second place. Those prints were later purchased by a museum.

The key is to analyze the advice and see if it is doable for you. Socrates gave free advice. They poisoned him.

The Pro-Bono, free photography thing is very difficult. Especially for museums and community groups. When I look around and see all the services that are getting paid, such as designers, advertisers, editors, etc., why is a free photograph or free photo services a given? Local Scout group, youth ski club, sure. But when you enter a dynamic where a number of professional services do get paid, so should you. In my community, the many photographers won’t touch community groups, knowing that they won’t get paid. Simple.

I understand your point. But there are times when I donate an image, knowing I will receive nothing, even if the others involved are getting paid well.

A case in point is something that happened last year. I was contacted by someone from the US Department of State. They said that the US Ambassador to Kenya found one of my photos online and wanted to include it in an ongoing exhibit in the embassy. The exhibit is about the differences and similarities between African wildlife and North American wildlife.

I was asked for a print of a given size, and I was told that there is no budget for acquiring images from artists. So, I told the liaison who contacted me that I would submit a full resolution file and they could have it framed and printed however they like, at their expense. They readily agreed, and I received a bunch of paperwork and forms via email that I filled out. I then received a letter of thanks and was asked for a mailing address so that they can send the framed print to me in a few years after the exhibit has run its course.

I am glad that I did this, as it is great to see our North American wildlife getting some recognition in Africa, and I like being a part of wildlife awareness. It didn’t cost me any money, and the time that it took to do the phone calls and the emails and filling out the paperwork was something that I was glad to do. I have TONS of free time, and usually spend hours and hours watching videos and playing games, so it’s not like that time was going to be used earning money or doing anything productive. My time isn’t valuable because I hardly ever do anything productive with it, so giving that couple hours of time was no problem for me.

A red flag to me is when they say there is no budget for artists, but there probably is for toilet paper. If artists don’t recognize the value of their work and encourage others to see the value of their work, then it will always be expected to be free. A commercial artist would either laugh at the request or have been approached quite differently. A cunning commercial artist would probably have been in front the of the request and have found a way to leverage it for value. (Past and present) Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe, Annie Leibowitz, etc. Would you have expected them to offer their work for free or would it be an honour to commission them? Once a photograph is given away, you lose all control. If your image is easily replicable, of a common subject and moderately noteworthy, then its value as a donation might be greater than its commercial value.

I have received advice, notably unsolicited, from a couple of truly good photographers, who have told me what shots to take or how to edit shots I have already taken. Although they are really good photographers and have had success with their images, they seem to not grasp the fact that I sometimes want to take images that are different looking than the norm. Or that I am taking some images for my own pleasure, and not to market to publishers.

One instance is a Whitetail buck that I photographed on a very foggy morning back in November. When a photographer saw my images, he immediately told me what I need to do in Lightroom to get rid of the fog and “make it punchy”. He was literally speaking down to me, as if I was a student at one of his workshops and not a successful photographer with thousands of published and paid for images. I explained that I WANTED the image to leave the “fog look” there, because I like the soft, ethereal aesthetic that the conditions enabled. His reaction was great, because it was obvious that he had never before even considered that maybe someone would want an image to look different than “the norm”.

Another truly great photographer does not understand why I don’t upgrade my gear so that I can get much better images of birds in full flight, due to the recent advances in autofocus capability. When I say that I am not all that obsessed with in flight images, he replies that that is the only thing that sells anymore. I patiently explain that I am not just shooting for “the market”, but that I shoot what I love, what appeals to me, and then if it sells great, if not, that’s find too. He can’t wrap his head around that, and continues to keep telling me how I need to get better gear so that I can connect on more of the rapid flight opportunities.

Personally I love photos of megafauna in the fog and I love photos of ducks when they are not flying, so I will continue to shoot these things regardless of what others try to make me do.

Well not advice per say but an observed thing on the many YouTube videos about Milky Way photography and that is you need to head somewhere where it is very dark like out west or a high mountain above the light. Well I do not travel for my photography I do it where I am at the time or plan someplace with dark skies but even on a lit parking lot. I found my first on the lit street in front of my house in the middle a lit city or maybe even a dark beach but lit from across a river by another island with a lighthouse. But I have found if you can see the stars then the path in the stars will be able captures IF at the right time of night for the time of year. Never fear the light!

I actually like images much more when the sky is not all dark. Your blue sky images are wonderful, and what I prefer to look at. Thanks for sharing!

Not sure if this fits, but on my way to a location I excited to take photos of, I received the worst advice I’ve ever had.
“You can go, it’s clear on my side”.