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I Coulda Been a Contendah…..

Sep 17

In Rants at 11:34am


Gotta love The Onion. First rate reporting.

It’d be great to be a Blue Angels pilot, I think. But having flown in formation with them a couple of times and having my head scrambled to the point of not being able to find my ass with both hands while these guys are flying wingtip to wingtip at several hundred knots, I know that’s not happening. Ever. Just ain’t got the skills.

Everybody has occasionally wished to be something else, or perhaps something they cannot be. I wanted to play center for the New York Knicks many years ago. My meager athletic skills and tendency to remain steadfastly governed by the laws of gravity made that unrealistic.

I’m sure all of us who endeavor photographically have met folks who want to be photographers, which is totally cool. I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all in this mix together. It can be a tough gig, but also a wonderful one and thus very alluring, so questions and aspirations abound. And, once the photographic cat is out of the bag, a gear discussion often ensues. Also cool. I’m a gearhead, so hey, let’s talk f-stops. But then there are those folks who don’t discuss wanting to be, or the fact that they love shooting and are thinking of dipping a toe in the market waters, or they are working on a project and learning and seeking advice and pushing and getting better. There are those folks who coulda been.

Met a pretty confident, aggressive guy recently, while shooting this Geographic job that is currently turning me into an angst ridden pretzel. He went the equipment route immediately. No wonder. He had lots of turbocharged stuff, like, I don’t know, the Canon 3D Mark4S with the Eddie Bauer camo coating and the fast glass with the low rider flame decals. I was, you know, respectful, saying intelligent, pithy things, like “Whoah.” And, “Cool.” Maybe the occasional, “Yeah!”

It was an extensive recitation, to be sure. He flat out said he really had the gear down, knew how to work all of that stuff and that he could be a photog. Lock solid. Done deal. Shoots lots of pictures.  Then, he got thoughtful and said, “My big problem is content.”

You know how you’re smiling at someone and there’s that moment where your face just kinda gets fixed and slightly immobile, cause it doesn’t know what to do next? You keep smiling, but it feels like somebody just slapped on a quick facial mask, one of those gooey, crusty, pomagranate, blue green algae seaweed paste numbers? A glazing, if you will.

What do you say? In my head I’m screaming, like, “That’s a pretty big problem, dude!” But I think I mumbled something about just hanging in and working it.

Happens, right? I had someone once, swear to God, say to me that they could be a photographer, but they just didn’t have the time. I kind of spluttered a reply, something like, yeah, wow, it can be time consuming. You’d have to take fewer shifts on the lube rack.

I love photographic dreams and aspirations. Got a ton of ‘em, even still. I love looking at pictures and sorting out ideas. Especially at a workshop, where there is one essential element in the room all of us share–the desire to find the next level. It’s great looking at work, especially a project, ’cause that set of pictures is really a road map to how that person thinks and feels. That’s why picture editors I came up working for wanted to see your contact sheets, not just your greatest hits. Your contact sheets show very clearly where you hit it right, or where you went off the rails.

I especially love the fact that I still feel overwhelmed in the field. There are time I am so completely bereft of inspiration and ideas I say to myself, “I wonder what a really good photographer would do right now?” I’m not kidding, or being self effacing. There are some jobs I just feel like I’m standing there, the last human in a horror movie, and the zombies are closing in.

So you have to be confident, to be sure. (Or project confidence even while inside your head the insecurity meter has gone to DefCon Five.) But a healthy dose of anxiety and self doubt (“I’m using a 200–maybe I should go wide?”) are also important tools in your bag. Causes you to double check yourself and remember how fragile photographic success is, and while your last frame was Fat City the next one might be a ticket to Pismo Beach. The fact that you rarely have THE answer is a good one to remember. No need to focus on it to the point of paralysis. Just remember it.  You are only as good as your last job. The next one may just eat your lunch and your soul.

So I don’t have too much patience for the odd person or two or three or dozen who gives you that kind wink and cocksure nod about how they could do this bang on full time and you should see the fantastic stuff they just shot. I used to just smile and nod. Now, thirty years on in the struggle to be good at this seemingly easy thing to do, I think I just nod.

Oh well, just part of the human condition I guess. I mean, I coulda been a brain surgeon. I just always had a little trouble with math and science. More tk….

90 Responses to “I Coulda Been a Contendah…..”

Alexander says:

on September 18, 2009 at 8:34 am

Great article. I’m a amateur and have lots of respect for the pro’s out there. However I enjoy photography a lot, I think I’ll keep it as a passion, exactly as it is now. My job was also a passion one day, and it’s my job now. I don’t want that to happen to photography. If I can make someone happy by shooting and even get paid for it, I only do it when I will love it to, and take the monny as a bonus making up my cost funding my passion. That’s it.

But reading the article and the post’s I got a thought…

If there are talented people out there, who only let them hold back by the bussiness side of the jump into the adventure of being a photog, wouldn’t it be great to have the next book of McNally, him telling abbout the bissiness side of the job, and teach us what you have exerienced in your 30 years? It might clean up people minds and take their passion to the next level… making it a Life Style.

Sam Fifer says:

on September 18, 2009 at 9:03 am

It is reassuring to know that someone that has been in the business as long as you still gets ‘stage fright’. I have a possible (extended) gig shooting a local band and I am feeling the pangs. Thanks to you, they have subsided some.

Alan B says:

on September 18, 2009 at 9:17 am

Just awesome. BTW, I could probably write something this good too if…okay, so I can’t.

Cindy Farr-Weinfeld says:

on September 18, 2009 at 9:39 am

Great post, Joe! And lots of great comments afterward. I couldn’t agree more. I have only started the working for magazines gig in the last year or so, but already I have had those same wingnuts tell me how they coulda been a photographer “if only. . .” AND the person who recently told me (after I told her that I’d heard Downeast Magazine was actively seeking new talent)that she would NEVER work for a magazine–she wants to be “inspired” by photography, not “assigned.” She had just finished getting a whole 2nd bachelor’s in photography at the local art school and put her kids through hell while she wasn’t around, and she’s still not working on any photography a year later and has no plans to. sheesh!

Patricia says:

on September 18, 2009 at 9:44 am

I love that you are a great photographer and a great teacher. I’m a wanna be. Your writing takes me into the world of photography and for a moment in time, while I read your blog, I’m a photographer.
Today’s blog reminded me of another great teacher, Robert Halper. I had to show him my best shot during a workshop. After I showed him my favorite, he said, “Show me another.” I did. This went on for about 10 frames as he patiently asked me to show him another of my “best” shots, which I thought
peculiar because my “best” shot was right in front of his grim face. FINALLY, it hit me what he wanted to scream at me–”I see nothing good.” I had taken every photo in a 20-min. session from the same point of view and changed nothing other than the model’s pose–had same camera angle, lens, etc. It was like my tripod was on super glue.
Hats off to wonderful photographers who shake up our thinking and squeeze better photos out of us. You’re like little gremlins in our minds when we turn on the camera. You make it memorable!!

Sam Gordon says:

on September 18, 2009 at 9:51 am

Woulda, shoda, coulda- I’ve had 38 years as a financial services guy after a few years of failure in the Electronics business who picked up a P&S a few years ago, moved up by stages to a Nikon D300. I study the books, read the blogs, take the courses on the net, almost but not etc. Why not? Ain’t got the guts to take a workshop because someone might find out that I don’t know nothin. How to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. One thing I learned in business is that every one feels they can do what you do only better. Anxiety? Try talking to an actor or an artist, they lay it all out there, too, with less opportunities to make money. I’m lucky, I got the “calling” when I had the time and money to follow the path. It would be interesting to parse the the word “focus” Its what we do in our heads as well as our eqipment. Thanks Joe, for the insights; knots, by the way, are a measure of speed to the fly boys as well as us poor devils that went on and below the waves. I got scared at 30 kts.es.

Bryan Lathrop says:

on September 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

That’s why I love ya, man…great sense of humor, incredible honesty, and a willingness to share. Thanks so much for doing whatcha you do, Joe.

Alicia says:

on September 18, 2009 at 10:12 am

Love this post! The part about feeling like the last human in a horror movie hit it right on the head. It’s comforting to know that someone as amazing as you still secondguesses himself sometimes. Funny and inspiring- thanks for letting us peek into your world.

gene lowinger says:

on September 18, 2009 at 10:21 am

Love the point of view. Reminds me of a comment Rick Sammons always makes, ‘When you aim the camera, it’s pointing both ways.’ When it points back at me, if I have nothing to say, the shot will have no content, no matter how good the subject is.

David H. says:

on September 18, 2009 at 11:12 am

Read both your books. Watched your videos on Kelbytraining. Know all your tricks. I understand your anxiety.

Chris says:

on September 18, 2009 at 11:19 am

Thanks, Joe, for making me better friends with that little gnome in my head that screams “You don’t know what the f… you’re doing, do you?” at almost every shoot.

Why don’t they make films like “On the Waterfront” anymore?

BTW, Pismo Beach is on the coast near the PRW (where I met you); and it is a lovely place. So stick w/ knocking Toledo (:<)



Rich Uchytil says:

on September 18, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Great post! I enjoy taking photos a lot, but have no dreams of being a professional photographer. I just want to take photos that provide us great memories, and know how to take photos that will make people go, “WOW!” I only have a nice point-and-shoot because I need to get better and understand what I’m doing before spending all that money on the really nice equipment. I mean if I gave you my camera you could take some really awesome photos. So while equipment does matter, HOW it is used that matters a lot too. I’ve known many people who have the really nice DSLR’s and glass but have no clue how to use it and take so-so photos. One of these days I will upgrade my equipment, but until then, I’ll just keep reading blogs like yours to better my skills, and get some fun insight and laughs. Thanks for allowing all of us to learn from you! :)

Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on September 18, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Timing is everything. I just sat through a group session I attend with 7 photographers. I saw one body of incredible work, 21 images culled down from 18,000 and spot on. I sheepishly put my 12 images up with little more than this part of what is what I shot this summer. No keepers among them, and I knew it.

The challenge is not in capture or the equipment, but in the work. You choose to make an image of something for a reason. Finding that reason, and making it a body of work, or a top image is the hard part.

I think that rating, self examination, and culling out the project is the toughest thing to do, and the least taught or done. I go to the critique to try to do this better. As Joe says, sometimes you have it and you can see the work. Other times in your head you wonder what you are doing.

The other issue is after you find something, and it is a great body of work, and perhaps your finest work, where do you go from there?

Sorry for the questions. Still struggling.

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Louis Pang says:

on September 18, 2009 at 2:22 pm

It’s incredibly hard and challenging to run a photography business. Not only that we need to shoot well, we need to sell our services/brand/artistry well too. There is so much about the photography business that is not about f-stop, shutter speed and that newly released kick-ass camera.

Great post.

Dan DiMuzio says:

on September 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm

I think that this hubris can be seen in almost any profession where pros engage with hobbyists. Average citizens who like to cook at home will naively decide they should open a restaurant. Those who make cookies or breads on weekends start an “artisan bakery” — though they have never baked professionally. In their own minds, they must be thinking, “How hard could it be?”

Pretty hard, as it turns out. I get no joy from seeing them fail at it, but it’s annoying when hobbyists don’t respect the commitment necessary to excel as a pro in your craft.

misty mac says:

on September 18, 2009 at 3:12 pm

i think you could be a blue angels pilot. all you need to do is get yourself a plane and some fancy flying attire…. then you should be all set. driving a car/flying a plane wingtip to wingtip… i mean, it’s essentially the same thing, right? ((choke)) ((choke))

Callum Winton says:

on September 18, 2009 at 6:08 pm

I could’ve been a photographer.

Oh hang on …. I am :o D


Ben Madden says:

on September 18, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Patiently listening to the gear-heavy ‘content’ photographer:
3 Karma points

Sharing your thoughts and experiences with us in such an entertaining way:
4 Levels of Appreciation

“I had someone once, swear to God, say to me that they could be a photographer, but they just didn’t have the time”:

RKPowers says:

on September 19, 2009 at 12:46 am

Sorry, I generally hate the blog comments that people leave…no offense….but Joe’s blog reminded me of the time a friend of my wife (so, some of you might recognize the implications..) said,” You’re a photographer, you know about nudity…!
Where do people get the idea that this is an easy job that anyone can do,if they’re not busy doing something important? (“Money for nothing, chicks…” taking there clothes off)
I don’t EVER get hit full force by 300 pound linemen, but sometimes at the end of the day I feel like I have been…..oh, never mind….

This is the part I hate…Thanks Joe, for your books…etc.

RKPowers says:

on September 19, 2009 at 12:48 am

I also hate typos and I mispelled ‘there’. Please insert ‘THEIR’

JohnS says:

on September 19, 2009 at 7:57 am

I’ll never be a pro, but I’m just as happy where I’m at. I have a real job that I love, and a passion for photography that keeps me sane.

By the way Chris, whats wrong with Toledo. I like it here.

Chris Bonney says:

on September 19, 2009 at 11:51 am

Haven’t we all met people like this along the way! This ought to be required reading for any aspiring photographer.

Amber says:

on September 19, 2009 at 5:08 pm

LOL. Got a big grin at “my problem is content”. Sigh…what’s the point of all that gear then? It’s reassuring to me that you still get overwhelmed in the field :)

Jason says:

on September 19, 2009 at 11:37 pm

As I used this very distinctive catch-phrase of a movie quote while blogging recently, I just had to stop by and throw a few cents in (where of course, pennies are meaningless) the mix.

Very sad but true post – and as with anything – content is always king. You can know the crap outta mechanics, but without the creativity, the mechanics become meaningless. Like a brush without a painter, a camera in the hands of one who lacks fundamental concepts on creativity is utterly useless.

Kevin Steele says:

on September 20, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Catching up on my blogs on a Sunday morning when the paperboy must have slept in . Comforted to hear that you can still be overwhelmed in the field – Thanks for the straight-up and humble encouragement to working photogs.
And hey, you gotta problem wit Pismo?

Clay Joyner says:

on September 20, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Joe, you inspire all of us wannabe “numbnuts” out here. An aspiring enthusiast myself, will never get paid for my photography, but truly love the adventure of trying. Thanks for your humility and down to earth approach to photography and……..life. That is why I keep going to Kelby training and rerunning the same videos over and over and over again…….

Michael Erb says:

on September 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Thanks for the honesty. I would imagine that the niggling doubt in your mind when you wonder how the pros would shoot something is exactly what makes your work so good.

Nigel says:

on September 21, 2009 at 2:38 am

I dreamed of being a photographer for a while, but I soon snapped out of it.

Sorry guys…..

Matt Austin says:

on September 21, 2009 at 9:15 am

I guess a lot of it is people being gearheads and totally forgetting/not realising that ‘photography’ is about telling a story and communicating ideas.

In the age of ever cheaper more-wizzy digital light-tight-boxes everyone is an expert because they know the spec sheet.. but i guess they forgot it was still just a light-tight-box with a hole in.

I’ve done a few wedding gigs now, something I got into as a favour to a friend but people seem to really like my photos and i guess i’m looking at it as something to persue part time, but i know i’ve gotta keep pushing myself and trying new things, thanks to you Joe and others like David Hobby theres plently of inspiration out there.

Bruce Thayer says:

on September 21, 2009 at 10:59 am

Joe, you are a treasure. I’ve lost count of the times I have laughed out loud reading your brainwaves. When your funny bone hits the reality nerve, I crack up, and when I stop laughing I realize you’ve illuminated something worthwhile, behind the lens.


Oliver Yu says:

on September 22, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Hey there Joe!

Another great article here as not only am I a new photographer, but I am also a new professional photographer. I think I am one that put lots of dedication, time, and money and was able to move from the amateur realm to the professional realm at a pretty advanced pace due to all the information on the internet and your books.

I am almost complete with my degree in college and I was lost in what I wanted to do for a living before I discovered your writings last Feb. and now I shoot for the Orange County Register!

The professionals I work with say my best quality is my confidence and enthusiasm, but many misinterpret that for arrogance. In the end, I am doing what I love and you have helped me indirectly, immensely along the way.

Mike says:

on September 22, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Your observations of the industry and world in general really lend perspective. Thanks Joe!

Jay Mann says:

on September 23, 2009 at 4:11 am

I am going to buy a D3X, and all new fast glass. Then I can be as good as you……. Sorry, fell of my chair.

Thanks for the good laugh, I needed it.

The Slow Learner

Rogier Bos says:

on September 24, 2009 at 1:29 am

Hi Joel, thanks for the article. Very helpful. I have a shoot today that makes me feel like I am totally out of my depth. Have been questioning myself and my sanity in accepting this job. Really thought that ‘real photographers’ never felt like that! Good to know that you do – and reading the responses here, many of us do.

flounderman says:

on September 24, 2009 at 9:22 am

Content is not the problem. I’ve got the same equipment you do Joe. I shoot alot and love it. It’s just….the damn color management!

Anna says:

on September 26, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Thanks for this. Totally get insecure when someone not trying to do this full time totally has better equipment then I do, and then I feel like a hack, esp since I’m still in my first year of doing this for moolah. But hey, if they have to talk that much equipment with you, they probably are feeling inadequate themselves :-P

Doug W says:

on October 16, 2009 at 12:28 am

Gee Joe, I might as well throw in the towel then. I guess I’ll never be as great as you. For that matter, I guess it would be a waste of my money to buy any more of your books and go to your workshops because well… I’m just a wannabe.

With one broad stroke of your cynical brush, it seems that you have alienated anyone who aspires to be a paid professional. I admit I am a gear head too, and I have a lot of great gear. Expensive gear. Does it make me better? No, I realize that to be good at anything (I’m a paramedic, a black belt, I have WORKED HARD for all of it) it’s a constant learning process. I don’t expect you to even read this, as I am sure it will get filtered out by your moderators. But I’ve said what I wanted to say.

The tone of your comment frankly offends me. If I never achieve your stature, and only make a decent living at this gig, I’ll be a happy man. Fame it seems, distorts ones outlook and maybe I don’t want that after all. There are a lot of great photographers out there that I look up to and get inspiration from, and try to learn from. I’m having a hard time even thinking of opening your book now. But maybe I shouldn’t anyway because after all, what’s the use, right?

tasha says:

on March 30, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Thanks, This gives me motivation that we are all human and have the same feelings no matter what the career discipline. So many careers look killer easy from the outsider looking in. But it is not till you sit down and say “I want to make a living only doing this” that you get that reality check of “oh shit what did I get my self into”.

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