I was in military boot camp when I first heard the expression, “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” When we think of leaders we tend to think of drill sergeants, CEOs and politicians. But to be your best as a photographer, you need to be a leader, too.
When you first picked up your camera, you were a follower. Someone showed you how it worked and gave you instruction on proper composition. From there, you’ve worked hard and honed your skills to a sharp edge. Perhaps you’ve even won contests, or been published in major publications.
You know what this means? The time for following is over.
Why Not Lead?
Go to your bookstore’s magazine section. Take three steps back, look at the rack and pay attention. What do you see?
In all likelihood, you see hundreds of magazines that all look the same. Same subjects. Same poses. Same lighting. Just different photographers taking the pictures. Next month, if you return to the bookstore, you will see the same thing.
Who is leading?
With our digital cameras, equipment and software, we are on the cutting edge of technology. We haven’t seen so many rapid-fire developments in our field since 1826, when Nicéphore Niépce unveiled the first photograph (and his future-photographer friends said, “I could do that.”)
There’s no excuse for cookie-cutter photography today. You have no reason not to develop and share a distinct vision.
You have no excuse not to lead.
Share Your Vision
While editing images in the newspaper photo department where I used to work, another photographer asked, “Which one do you like?” as he pointed to a couple of less-than-compelling images.
As we discussed the relative merits of each image, he conceded, “Yeah, I just didn’t know what the reporter wanted.”
In other words, the photographer was following.
I told him that he had been hired to be a visual storyteller, and that he needed to photograph the story as he saw it — not how someone else dictated it to him. By following, he sabotaged himself, and prevented others from seeing the story as it actually was.
Yes, we get hired by editors and by corporate clients. And yes, they often want a particular kind of shot. But there is almost always an opportunity to include shots that show your creativity as well.
Take what the client wants, then take what you want. You’ll be surprised how often your customer follows your lead, choosing your idea over theirs.
Just Do It
Someone once said that the only real training for leadership is to lead. You can start by doing things in a new way.
For example, if you always shoot with a tripod, try shooting without it; hand-held images captured in low light can be very beautiful. Shoot new subjects. Make new discoveries. Inspire people to look at your images and ask, “How’d you do that?”
A few years ago, I sat down with a photo-editor friend and handed him a portfolio that I had just printed and bound into book form.
“Do you want me to critique it?” he asked.
“No,” I told him. “I just want you to enjoy it.”
I had already made decisions about how the images were to be shot and arranged in the book. The portfolio was my vision, and it frankly didn’t matter whether he (or anyone else) liked it. What mattered is that I had made a decision to no longer follow.