Top 10 Must Haves for Successful Photography

How did you get into photography? Can you really make a good living shooting photos? These are a couple of the questions I get asked by friends, models and trainees. I recently visited a family friend whose son recently graduated and had really become interested in photography. He purchased a nice camera body and a few lenses and had already shot a number of beautiful scenic shots. As we were visiting, the questions above surfaced. I feel like I have had this conversation a number of times, but I still love sharing what I have learned on the journey.

As a photographer and media designer, I get to do a lot of fun things and call it work. Few people get to wake up in the morning and do what they are passionate about day after day. Life is far too short to work an 8-5 job that slowly sucks the life out of you. I’m sure if you are reading this you are well aware of that fact, but the challenge is how to make the transition. It’s a scary endeavor to start a photography business. I have come up with the following list of tips to help the newcomer get off the ground and down the road towards success. I provide photography advice coupled with business advice. I don’t claim to be a photography or business genius and unfortunately have been taught far more through going down a road of mistakes then I have by nailing it the first time. As far as the completeness of my list, there are other great resources or recommendations out there, but I feel these ten make a very strong base from which a photographer can operate.

Buying Essential Tips

1. Passion is vital for success. Are you really passionate about photography? No, I don’t mean have you taken some pictures on your cell phone, posted to Instagram and found it exciting. What I mean by are you passionate about photography, is do you find it addictive? Are you continuously looking for opportunities to shoot, experiment and tweak to make that perfect picture. Do you desire to intimately know your camera, understand lighting, aperture, lenses, posing techniques and so forth? If you find yourself saying, “Mehh, maybe” then you might want to choose a different path. Clients can sense lack of passion like dogs sense fear.

2. Equipment is essential, but significant debt is debilitating. The easiest way to kill a passion is to water it down in debt.

3. Don’t be afraid to buy used equipment and work your way into better equipment. For years, I have bought and sold equipment used from Craigslist, Facebook photography groups, friends and even pawnshops. It may be intimidating at first and I recommend finding a photography friend to help you make sound decisions. I have found a number of people that did not follow rule number 2 and now need to sell their equipment. (Hint: When buying from Craigslist, never use PayPal and never ship. Always meet in a comfortable, public location like Starbucks for the transaction and review of equipment. Don’t be afraid to offer less, but discuss that before meeting. Also, for better deals, shop suburbs where the known income levels are notably higher.)

4. It is typically better to spend more money on a lens versus a camera body. This may seem odd but I have bought a number of lenses over the past 12 years. Amazingly enough, the lens I bought for $1350 over 10 years ago is worth about $1300. The Canon 5D body I bought for $1800 would be hard to sell for $500. Putting current values behind, I know how tempting it is to buy the best camera body you can and then find a second rate lens to save money. The problem with that methodology is you just reduced your cameras quality tremendously by adding poor glass. Make sure you buy the highest quality lens you can afford, as you will likely have it longer than your camera body.

Know Your Market

5. Knowing your market is essential to thriving as a photographer. You may enjoy taking pictures of families with a fake mountain in the background. It may be an incredibly crisp picture with great lighting but if nobody likes the 70’s theme, it’s time to move on. Don’t force your style where the market is not going if you hope to make a living.

Always Learn so You Can Grow

6. Get out of your bubble and shadow other professionals when possible. My clients have greatly benefited from the knowledge I have gained when working with other photographers. Sometimes, you have to put pride aside and look for opportunities to learn. Early on in my career, I worked with several photographers in a media design lab that I managed. Two photographers really stood out to me. It was interesting to learn their approaches to photography and dramatic differences in what they shot and how. Both were great, but had completely different styles. One focused on the technical aspects, while the other took an artist approach. Later in my career, I shadowed a photographer on a bridal shoot that transformed how I use the sun and natural light. I’ve learned advanced lighting techniques from other photographers by simply asking questions. I’ve learned Lightroom techniques that simplified my postproduction while also contributing techniques that I use with other photographers.

7. This may sound like a contradiction to my previous recommendations, but be yourself as a photographer. By this, I mean don’t try and mimic other photography styles based on a client’s whim. Do what you do best and don’t be afraid to say you’re not a great fit in those cases. (This is certainly easier once you are more established.) Having said that, study other photographers and attempt to replicate photography styles that you find fascinating for the advantage of learning. Hint: It’s not always best to do that during a live shoot unless you’ve got the time and report with the client.

8. Educate your clients. Although it’s tempting to accommodate a clients every wish, you must gently educate them on what it takes to have a successful shoot. For instance, noon outside in the summer of Texas, presents a number of challenges that will likely lead to a poor photo and a frustrating experience. When scheduling natural light shoots, I learn more about the couple, family or individual to determine style. Then I recommend a place and time (usually during the golden hour). Then we build from there. If we are doing newborn photography, I will inform the client that we will move at the babies pace, which sometimes will take much longer than expected. Sometimes the baby needs to nurse or extra time is required to sooth the baby. You can’t rush a newborn! Telling this to the parents before they show up for the shoot, helps prepare the them for what may be a longer shoot and reduces stress of an unexpected long shoot.

Be Confident and Create Confidence

9. Guns and Cameras shoot. A photography instructor told me once that a good photographer directs a shoot like he or she is holding a gun. I laughed at first, but I found this to be some of the greatest advice I ever received as a photographer. Clients don’t want unconfident direction.


Unconfident request: “Would you like to try posing like this, maybe?”

Confident request: “Let’s try this pose next.”

Unconfident request: “Do you think you may like a picture with your left hand on your hip and arm across your body towards the shoulder?”

Confident request: “Put your right arm on your hip and bring your left arm to your shoulder… I love it.” (Compliments will inspire confidence – see next tip).

You get the drift. An unconfident camera man or woman yields an unconfident model and it will reflect in your photos. (Note: confidence is not rudeness but it is more direct and clear directions.)

10. Compliments create confidence. While working with another photographer, I noticed that he would provide excellent feedback and compliment the model or group when their pose was good or the picture looked good. He would say it with such confidence that the models in the picture could not help but stand taller and appear more confident in the picture. He would through out things like:

a. Wow, that’s a beautiful image

b. I love what I am seeing here. Let’s continue with this look.

c. What a glorious photograph.

d. Oh, I really like this one.

e. The lighting is just remarkable.

He didn’t make it an awkward compliment that could make the model feel uncomfortable or concerned that their photographer may be creepy. He mainly spoke about the picture itself but it was still exciting for the model to know they were getting good photos.

What makes a good photo?

In February last year I was looking around an entire gallery of competition winners and one thing that struck me was the fact that I struggled to find an image that hadn’t been heavily Photoshopped. Don’t get me wrong, there were some amazing images there and quite deservedly so but it got me thinking about what makes an image good!

I change my mind from one day to the next as to what makes a photo really good. One day I get annoyed at those heavily manipulated images that seem to be all the rage with many photographers these days and the next day I am loving them, processing and creating them myself!

For example, the following image from a recent wedding I shot was a set up from the start, from an idea I had when I saw the brides hotel bedroom. It was taken with just the camera and lens, nothing else. However, it has been through about 8 or 9 processes in Lightroom and Photoshop to get the end result. That result is exactly as I imagined it and I actually quite like the end result…

However, a short time later during another semi-posed session, things broke down during the set up but I carried on shooting regardless. The result was me getting one of my favourite shots from the entire wedding day which is 100% natural and has simply been converted to black and white…

It is slightly blurred, a little grainy and overexposed but during the rest of the day and night I didn’t manage to get a more natural shot of the bride and her mother together and to be honest, I don’t think I could have done if I had the whole of the next day and night too!

It shows the bride in a completely natural state when deep inside the nerves are wreaking havoc. For this one moment it is all forgotten, the nerves disappear and she is genuinely being herself.

For me, that makes a photo good…the “naturalness” and emotional aspects of a very simple image. I am having this printed and framed for my office.

A week or so later during a camping holiday with my family, we had an evening of exceptional light so I dragged my kids into a nearby field for some semi-posed stock shots…

…and the next minute things broke down (as they generally do with children) and I quickly snapped this photo before my kids jumped all over me…

Again, it is slightly blurred and grainy and I have just converted to black and white and added a vignette. Once again, for me, natural wins the day and this will become another print on my office wall.

I sometimes feel proud to take a preconceived idea from its inception through to completion regardless of the fact that it is set up and manipulated in post processing. On the other hand, I simply love those fleeting moments that are caught without trying…the ones that you didn’t expect to get but did because you were on the ball with your finger on the pulse (or shutter) at all times.

After all, I could set up a shot, with models, lighting, correct camera settings and composition that anyone could come along and shoot with any camera and get a great image. Is that photography or have I just set up a nice scene which can be photographed?

Then there are the people that wade out into deep water, hang from rock faces or put themselves in danger for that one incredible image. The people that get up at “silly o clock” and drive for miles just to get the perfect light at the right time of year. The people that go the extra mile and do whatever it takes in the vain hope they may shoot a winner! Is that photography?

So what makes a good image and who is the judge of that?

Well, anything can make an image good and anyone can be the judge of that! You see, it is still and always will be down to personal preference. Beauty, or the appreciation of art in any form, is in the eye of the beholder and that is certainly the case with photography. Does it really matter how the image was taken? What makes a photographer good?

What about this famous image I came across once again during my research…taken in Vietnam by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams?

I have seen this image over and over ever since I got into photography many moons ago and have often studied it for ages over the years…

What was going through the mind of the executioner or the “VC”? Why did this happen? What is the story?

Adams said that he simply thought Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan was going to threaten the VC but as he raised his gun, Eddie kept shooting regardless and this image actually shows the point where the bullet is entering the VC’s head! On the pulse or what and once again, an amazing, thought provoking shot taken almost “by accident”.

The reason for me showing this is that the moment was also captured by TV film crews who showed the clip on the evening news but strangely, the photo has received more coverage over the years than the actual video clip ever will…why?

Some of the answers are possibly in this video which is definitely worth a look…

The point of this article is to try and get you to really study photography at another level. Look at a photo and ask yourself “Is it the photo or the subject that makes it good“? Has the photographer made the effort, had some good fortune or actually set up the shot to make it good? Right place, right time? Always alert?

Is it the beautiful model with perfect skin, perfect make up, nonchalant smile and eyes that touch the soul that makes the shot or is it the lighting and composition? Would the same shot be as good with a “normal” looking person? Could anyone have taken it?

I wonder if it is life…people or animals, that makes a photograph a good photo by bringing emotions into it? Without people present, photography takes on a slightly different angle. Sure, we can see beauty and destruction in what mother nature has created and torn apart and we can even see the horrors and fruits of man’s intervention, but people add a whole new dimension.

What makes a photo great then?

I would say that it is an image that shows something extraordinary. Something that makes us stop and think, become nostalgic or emotional. Something that not many people could take or set up.

With the overwhelming amount of tutorials and “how to’s” online these days coupled with the fact that just about everyone has a camera with them most of the time (in one form or another) and millions if not billions of images are shared online every day, I am fast becoming numb to good photography.

Sure, purpose made, set up and heavily processed images still rock my boat sometimes, as an art form, but it is still the natural, hard to get, spur of the moment, thought provoking and phenomenal images that really stop me in my tracks whether they were taken with a Nikon D4s or a camera phone!

The Beach – A Photography Haven

The beach scene is one of the most commonly photographed because the beach is a naturally beautiful location and also because people on the beach are usually relaxing and are casually having loads of fun. This makes it possible for photographers to choose between portrait photography, landscape or a combination. Beach photography therefore is versatile with a ton of options from the photographer’s perspective.

Beach photography is mostly about movement because you always have the moving waters in the background. It is vital that the photographer knows how to balance the stillness of the image with the movement of water. You would easily be able to master this if you keep the motion and the amount of it in memory when clicking pictures. When there is a lot of motion, this will actually overshadow the parts that are not in movement and so the pictures need to be clicked when the water is not much in motion.

The lighting in the beach photography solely depends on natural lighting. Many a times there is the brightness of natural sunlight causing issues with the pictures. However, people have started getting used to his interference. It is vital to remember that white sand can cause a lot of drastic effects to the photos because it has the tendency of causing a glare. This issue may result in the pictures not conveying the message well. In order to avoid this situation, it is better to click pictures either in the morning or evening because this is when the sun’s rays are oblique and thereby reducing the glare effect.

Portraying the beautiful contrast between the clouds and water on a cloudy day is made possible by turning on the cloudy feature of the camera. The images are sure to look amazing and will give you a dramatic effect. You may even be lucky to capture the formations of the clouds on the blue sky if the sky is not too overcast.

It is important to only capture as much of the background to allow the mood to be set because the sea is never-ending and flat. You would be doing injustice to both the subject and landscape if you try to go 50-50 with the picture. Focusing on the subject is very important.

A wide angled lens will help capture the open beach beautifully. You would be able to achieve a 3D effect to the photo with a small lens where you get the illusion of the sea stretching away beyond eyes reach. Using a wide-angle lens will allow you to keep everything in focus if you are shooting the beach. The subject, if being included, may seem far away because of the use of a wide-angle lens and so moving closer to the subject will do the trick.

It is vital to do a lot of experiments in order to learn beach photography as it is a matter of perspective. You can only achieve the knowledge of how to use the vast expanse of the sea and the flatness by experimenting with the depth and distance.

Seven Tips for Runway Photographers

1. Study the Field

In discussing photographing fashion shows with Ben, we took a look at the photographs of past runway fashion shows to consider what framing/composition ideas would work for the shoot. New York Fashion has a great section of runway images to study: notice the amount of room left below shoes and above the models heads in the full length photographs, and notice the relationship of model to background.

2. Position is Key

Expect a crowd fighting over the best positions to photograph from, and realize that you’ll need to get there early and also have the proper permissions from the organizers. (At the big events, of course, there is a process requiring a press pass and often you’ll need to request one months ahead.) If you get a great spot, do your best to keep it and maintain enough room to do your work. Before throwing any elbows or harsh words at the other photographers, though, remember you may see the same group at the next event. Probably better to make some new friends. If you can get access, also consider that “behind the scenes” photographs might also be useful. Consider also hanging out after the fashion show and handing out some of your business cards — you might make great contacts with hair and makeup people, and maybe the models as well. It’s a great opportunity for networking.

3. Develop a Good Workflow

If you photograph several fashion shows in a day, and download memory cards full of images at the end of the day, you’ll need a system for quickly cataloging and sorting these. Besides finding your best photographs now, you may find there’s value in creating a library of images searchable by keywords. You might realize a few years from now that you photographed the newest supermodel during her first runway show — wouldn’t it be great if you could go back and find that image? We’re fans of Adobe Lightroom, but there are other software packages that will work for this task just as well.

4. Check the Lighting and White Balance

In the biggest fashion shows, you’ll be working with the lighting that’s provided. Ben found a situation where the light level was very low, and he was able to add flash. That won’t always be possible. Remember to check your white balance, as you may need to switch to a “tungsten” or “indoor” setting. Also, taking some test shots early and checking the histogram — the graphic representation of the tones in the image — will let you know if you have your exposure right.

5. Consider a Monopod and a Bracket

Holding a DSLR and a heavy lens — or perhaps two, depending on the situation — can get heavy. There’s not enough room at the end of the runway for tripods, but sometimes you might be able to bring a monopod to support and stabilize your camera. Runway photographers often also mount their speedlights on a bracket, so if you’ll be doing a lot of this type of fashion photography, that might be a great addition to your kit.

6. Fast Lenses

You won’t be controlling the light level, and may find this is a situation where a fast lens — a lens with a widest aperture of F1.4, F2.0, or F2.8 — may help you keep a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Also, shooting at an aperture like F2.8 or F4 can let you create an image with the model sharply focused and the background thrown out of focus — a good effect in some situations.

7. Take Verticals

Runway photography means vertical shots. You are framing the model from shoes to hat, so turn your camera sideways. As well, this suits the pages of fashion magazines, especially if your goal is the cover. Most DSLR cameras have the option to add a vertical grip — which will make it easy to operate your camera in a vertical position. (Usually, they also let you add a second battery, which may be useful as well. It wouldn’t be a good idea to run out of power in the middle of the fashion show.)