1. Find the Passion and Make a Plan.
Two types of people are more likely to find this PhotographyTalk.com article helpful: those that want to be photographers, but have very little experience and those that may have been shooting for years, but want to progress beyond the beginner’s stage.
Whether “success” for you is becoming a “serious” amateur photographer or acquiring the skills and experience to make photography your career, you must honestly evaluate yourself to be sure you have the drive and passion to succeed, especially if your goal is to be a pro.
The important first step, therefore, is to determine your current status as a “photographer” and use that as a starting point. Then, create a basic plan of what you must do to advance. The steps in this article may be many of the same in your plan.
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2. Be One with Your Camera.
Regardless of what kind of camera you already own, learn all of its features and capabilities thoroughly, so you’re never asking yourself, “I wonder what this button does?” or “What does that symbol mean on the menu?”
3. Learn Photography Techniques.
Next, learn all of the photography techniques that are possible with your camera. Even if all you can afford is a rudimentary compact, or point-and-shoot, camera, then experiment and practice with it until you’re able to manipulate its features to produce the best photos possible.
Recommended reading: Freelance Photographer's Handbook: Success in Professional Digital Photography
4. Learn Editing Techniques.
You can learn plenty of editing techniques with low-cost, basic software, so you’ll understand (and be able to control) the fundamental concepts and techniques before concerning yourself with professional-grade tools, such as Photoshop.
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5. Develop a Photographer’s Eye and Mind.
Once you acquire the true mindset of a photographer, you can shoot excellent pictures with the most limited equipment. Developing a photographer’s eye and mind is similar to what an accomplished painter or sculptor is able to do, which is to “see” the image of what they want to create in their heads, and then create it.
6. The History of Photography.
Read, and know, the history of photography (which is rather short compared to most histories) at least in broad, general terms. This may never help you compose a better photo, but having this knowledge is some portion of what it takes to be a successful photographer.
Here are a couple great books on photography history: The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present and A World History of Photography
7. The Great Photographers.
The same goes for the great photographer: You should know the people that made the history and how and why. This portion of photographic knowledge is often where a budding amateur finds his or her passion, in the example of a photographic pioneer, for a particular kind of photography and/or style.
8. Study Today’s Leading Photographers.
Don’t stop with the great photographers of the past. It’s equally important to know who are today’s best photographers, and in various categories: sports, landscapes, portraits, etc. These people are your contemporaries; they are occupying and experiencing the same world as you, so they have much to teach you about how to photograph this time and place.
For example check out these two books: Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash. - Joe McNally and Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera: Bryan Peterson
You also want to know why and how these photographers succeeded: “What were the specific steps they followed?” “Can I follow them too?”
9. Join a Local Photography Club.
Being a member of a group of like-minded photographers is one of your best success steps. You’ll have the opportunity to explore challenging techniques with other photographers similarly challenged and be guided by advanced photographers who know how to overcome those challenges. The club experience can be an excellent source of inspiration as well as stimulating competition.
10. Find a Photo Buddy.
Ask another member of the club to be your “photo buddy.” By shooting together, each of you has someone immediately available to discuss your images and suggest ways to improve or re-compose them. It’s often easier to learn all the many concepts and techniques of photography when two brains are doing it together.
11. Find a Mentor.
Find a photography mentor or more than one. One of the most valuable benefits of being mentored by a successful photographer is that he or she knows at least one path to success: his or hers. He or she probably knows many, and is willing to guide you every step of the way.
12. Attend Photography Conferences.
If you truly want to succeed as a photographer, then you must understand it as an “industry” as well as an art form. By attending local, regional or national industry events, you’re able to see all the latest equipment as well as listen to the professionals speak about what it takes to succeed.
13. Visit Photography Galleries.
Viewing photographs in a gallery setting, as prints, is a totally different experience than browsing through them on the Internet. Seeing photographs in the printed medium speaks to your brain very differently and will expand your knowledge about how success is defined photographically.
14. Create a Web Site.
Even if your photo portfolio is mostly filled with casual pictures of family, friends, events, etc., you can still create a Web site. The further you advance as a photographer the more important a Web site will become; therefore, now’s the time to learn the basics.
15. Learn How to Use the Internet.
You may already have a Facebook page and a Twitter address and you share photographs with family members and friends regularly. Spend some time, however, learning how and why the Internet is a critical tool for successful photographers. Understand how Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. are used to market photography and photographers.
16. Enter photo contests.
There are photo contests for every level of photographer and any kind of photography. You can start entering photo contests almost as soon as you start taking pictures with any kind of camera. Even if your entry is a picture of your dog, it’s a learning experience because successful photographers win photo contests or are recognized as among the best pictures submitted.
17. Consider Formal Education.
Many of today’s best photographers are graduates of photography schools. Obviously, it’s a stimulating environment, but it is also where you learn technique and how to refine it into a style. Part of your self-education is to research the various formal photography educations available. The New York Institute of Photography, for example, offers a free course catalog here.
18. Leaders Are Readers.
Create a reading list for yourself that includes photography topics, but also other topics, such as personal development, business and marketing. These will become more important as you succeed, especially if your goal is to succeed financially as a photographer. There are countless books, programs, seminars and online tutorials available. Research the sources. Search some blogs. Ask your photography friends for referrals.
Whether your goal is to be an excellent serious amateur or start a photography business, understanding what it means to be a professional and then acting as such, will definitely help you succeed.
20. Schedule Regular Time with Your Camera.
As a famous writer said, “A writer writes,” so a photographer photographs. If you expect to succeed as a photographer, then you must make it a habit, a regularly part of your daily or weekly schedule. Success in photography is similar to success in tennis or golf: You must hit millions of balls before you have the skills to succeed.
21. Challenge Yourself.
Don’t limit your photography experience to one or a few kinds of photography. Pictures of your family and friends (and pets) are important, but you want to try your hand at landscapes, nature close-ups, street photography, sports and all the other many other forms. Again, one of these experiences may be the source of your passion and developing your photographer’s mind and eye.
22. Find Enjoyment.
Regardless of your definition of success as a photographer, it should always be an enjoyable experience. This is just as much a sign of success as the quality of your photographs.