What I wish I'd known: Nine golden tips from some of the world's best photographers

It's all too easy to look back on our lives and wish we'd done things differently. But at that stage, it's often too late to reflect on things that have already happened.

You can't change the past; or predict the future – you can only deal with what's going on right now. However, the rules of time can be bent a little, if we call upon the wisdom of those who have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and used it as a dish cloth.

If you're a photographer just starting out, or indeed anyone embarking on an exciting new career in creativity, you can learn from the masters who have already made the mistakes, learned from their hiccups and gained that invaluable wisdom... so you can avoid the usual red herrings.

We hooked up with The Photography Show (taking place 18-21 March at Birmingham's NEC) to pick the brains of nine of the greatest photographers of our time (who will be present at the event). We posed the following question – looking back, what do you wish you'd have known? And here is what they shared:

1. Be prepared

“Creative preparation is everything," remarked Albert Watson – the man who famously shot Kate Moss, Alfred Hitchcock and Steve Jobs. "It’s not just about having the kit ready to go, but going into a shoot knowing what you want to achieve creatively."

Planning will certainly save you a lot of time and hassle further down the line. It will ensure you have all the right equipment, the right lighting, the right camera setup. You won't be kicking yourself when the light is dying in the sky and you're running out of precious time to get the job done. Solid prep work will save you again and again.

Kate Moss – © Albert Watson

Kate Moss – © Albert Watson

The God Sign – © Albert Watson

The God Sign – © Albert Watson

2. Show some personality

"First of all, always remember to take the lens cap off," said Clive Arrowsmith on portrait photography. "Find something out about their personality – be an actor behind the camera – choreograph it all, then you’ll get a reaction."

In business it's all about people and making them warm to you. This especially rings true for photographers, who have the extra difficult challenge of making people feel relaxed in front of, what can be deemed to many, an intimidating camera. By showing your own personality and engaging with your subject, you'll get a much better portrait shot out of them.

Bowie – © Clive Arrowsmith

Bowie – © Clive Arrowsmith

3. Understand that you'll never stop learning

Think that you've seen and heard it all? In this game, you'll never stop learning. That's a fact. Whether you're five years, ten years or twenty years into your photography career – there will always be something new to discover. And that's only a joy to behold.

"There is nothing more I wish I'd known when starting out in photography, other than what I already knew, which was that it was for me. It has been a journey of discovery from the first moment, and still is," exclaimed Jill Furmanovsky, founder of the Rockarchive and someone who has photographed Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Oasis.

Liam & Noel, Oasis – © Jill Furmanovsky

Liam & Noel, Oasis – © Jill Furmanovsky

4. Realise that it never gets easier

If you're struggling with your photography now, and you think it's going to get easier – be assured that it will, for the most part. But you'll still have long days, face difficult obstacles and meet challenging people – it comes with the territory.

For acclaimed fine art photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, she feels as though there's always something to push her to the limits: "Starting out my career as a photographer, the foothills of the endeavour were hard work but relatively straight-forward, and climbing the slopes got increasingly difficult. As you climb higher, maintaining standards gets more extreme. It’s always hard work, but very rewarding."

Lap Dancer – © Julia Fullerton-Batten

Lap Dancer – © Julia Fullerton-Batten

5. Get in early with new technology

Only just getting to grips with Instagram and all the powerful marketing possibilities it opens up to your photography? You're not alone. Louis Cole said: "I wish I had known what a powerful platform Instagram was going to be to showcase photography, because I would have started using it earlier!"

If, like Louis, you're worried you've missed the boat with Instagram (we're not sure what he's on about; he has over a million followers) – don't fret. There are still plenty of opportunities to get noticed and build a decent following. For example, have you taken advantage of Instagram Live yet? Only a few brands and personalities are embracing it so far – now's your chance to stand out.

(Yes, we know we're only just getting to grips with Instagram Stories, but be the first to try new technology and social networks, and you have a better chance of raising your profile!)

Camel Stars – © Louis Cole

Camel Stars – © Louis Cole

6. Ditch the pride and ask for help

Worried about approaching other photographers and seeking their support? Want to ask someone more experienced a question, but scared you'll look a fool? Now's not the time to hesitate and avoid seeking help. As award-winning Matilda Temperley explained: "I wish I had known that by taking time out to assist other photographers I could have cut years off my learning curve."

Don't delay; approach someone you admire today and ask if you can shadow them or meet them for a coffee to pick their brains. Or volunteer to assist them – you'll learn an incredible amount of stuff from someone who has more skills and experience.

From Performance – © Matilda Temperley

From Performance – © Matilda Temperley

7. Stick to what you love

If you're not 'feeling it' with your work, then your lack of enthusiasm and passion will be obvious and your photography will suffer. We can't emphasise it enough – follow your passions and embrace the type of photography that gets you excited.

As geometry-obsessed photographer Tobishinobi eloquently explained: "Photography is as much about what's going on behind the camera as it is what's in front. What I mean is that the mind-set that you are in, your personality, your childhood all feed in to the type of photography that you're going to be interested in. In short – shoot what you love and love what you shoot."

Copenhagen Rail – © Tobishinobi

Copenhagen Rail – © Tobishinobi

8. Make sure you get paid

Yes, we all want those passion projects under our belt; the kind we're incredibly proud of and keen to add to our portfolios. But, and this is a big but, you have to pay the rent – so don't avoid or turn down any bread and butter projects that will help you keep the wolf from the door.

“If I could give advice to my younger self, among many things, it might be to understand that, photographically, there is food for the table and food for the soul," explained internationally acclaimed photographer Joe McNally, whose career has spanned more than 30 years. "You have to push your creativity and your passions, but you also have to understand how to stay alive in a tough, tough business."

© Joe McNally

© Joe McNally

9. It all comes down to you

If you think things are just going to fall into your lap, think again. Success comes from one key ingredient and one alone – hard work. That's right, sheer and outright daily graft. A constant onslaught of learning, developing, growing – and always pushing forward to improve and never rest on your laurels. That's what success boils down to.

"I wish I'd known that although passion is everything it is nothing without hard work and the constant hustle," said Bella Kotak, a fine art and fashion photographer who has taken the Internet by storm with her fairytale, mystical images. She adds: "How far you can go is entirely up to you."

Essentially, if you want to 'make it' in photography – then it boils down to you, and you alone. How far will you push yourself? Where will you be in 12 months' time? The world is your oyster.

© Bella Kotak

© Bella Kotak


If you enjoyed these golden nuggets of wisdom, then you can go and see these world-famous photographers at The Photography Show this March at Birmingham's NEC. Tickets are likely to sell out fast, so make sure you grab yours online via www.photographyshow.com.

Main image courtesy of Adobe Stock | All other images courtesy of The Photography Show, and their respective copyright owners

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