Learning to Say No

One of the first skills a photographer learns is how to focus a lens on a chosen subject. We look around our environment and see that there are endless things to photograph — but we know that to make a successful photograph, we have to choose a subject and focus on it, eliminating the unnecessary from the frame.

In this process, we are subconsciously saying “no” to all the extraneous elements surrounding our subject so that we can say “yes” to the subject of the image. An aerial photographer making an image of New York City could fly to 10,000 feet and in one frame include the entire city, but we know it would be more likely to be a successful image if the photographer focused on one or two specific features of the city.

This is the same way we have to think about our career options as photographers.

Just as there are countless subjects to photograph, there are many career possibilities for photographers. To create a successful career, we must learn to say no to some business opportunities so that we can say yes to our chosen subjects. This is not always easy; when someone calls and is willing to pay you to make images, it’s hard to refuse. But this focus can pay off over the long term.

As an early-career photographer, I’ve made a point to try many different things. In the last four years I’ve photographed weddings, commercial fishing, artwork, aerials of real estate, salmon underwater, sports teams, and theater performances. Many of these subjects, as well as others I’ve photographed, can develop into a career specialization. But to build a specialty, we must sometimes say no to work we enjoy, so that we can be available to say yes to work we enjoy even more.

Financial considerations can make it difficult to turn down available work — but remember that each time you photograph a given subject, you are building momentum. Every wedding I photographed seemed to bring two more calls for wedding jobs. It wasn’t easy, but this summer I didn’t photograph any weddings, because it took away from my focus on other subjects.

There are a number of techniques I have employed to improve my focus. For example, to reduce my workload in specific subject areas, I have increased my rates for these jobs. In my hometown of Homer, Alaska, most calls for wedding jobs start with “It’s just a small wedding; we don’t really want the big professional photography thing.” By raising my price to do weddings, I can avoid these jobs and only take on the bigger events.

This has helped me in two ways. First, I have been able to spend less time photographing weddings. And second, when a customer pays my higher rate, I’m able to use some of the proceeds to develop my aerial photography portfolio.

Remember, if you only photograph the subjects that you receive assignments for, you’ll likely just keep getting similar jobs. This is great if the subjects are those that you dream of photographing — but what if you want to photograph something entirely different?

It might not be within your financial means to stop photographing for your current clients, but you could probably afford to take a few less jobs a week and spend that extra time developing a portfolio in your chosen subject matter — and looking for jobs in that field. By helping you build professional momentum, your personal portfolio-building projects will prove just as important as your paying jobs over time.

Just like the images we make, our careers can be more fulfilling if we focus on the subjects we enjoy most. Without saying “no” to some jobs, you may find there isn’t time to say “yes” to your longer-term dreams and goals.

[tags]photography tips, photography careers, Scott Dickerson[/tags]

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