I have a friend who devotes about the same amount of time to photography as me. He uses the same camera, has somewhat similar set of lenses. He doesn't do much marketing, just like me. Yet he earns 5-10 times more from photography than I do. Is he more successful photographer than I am?
Well, it depends on what you consider success. Would I like to earn 5-10 times more? Yes. Would I like to do photos like his? Certainly not. Not that he takes bad photos - no, for the average viewer, his photos make much more sense than mine. Would I consider myself a successful photographer if I made the money he does with pictures like his? Again no. I would be happy to earn more money with my work, sure. I don't consider myself successful, yet I'm fairly happy with the work I've done lately and the attention it's been getting. We all have different criteria for success and money is not always the most important one.
Defining that criteria for yourself is actually very important, because it creates what I'd call a feedback loop.
Once I got myself into discussion about stock photography - whether it would make sense to try to sell the photos at some stock sites or not. This is where I first came to the idea of feedback loop. Once you start selling your photos at these places and earning money, you'll start creating more and more photos like those which sell best. And what sells? It's a well known joke but "people in suits doing something". Maybe that's exaggerated, but there certainly is some anonymous soulless quality in most of the stock photos. That's not where I'd like to go with my work, quite the opposite.
When you think about it, similar scenario happens almost everywhere you look. You put your picture on Facebook and get 20 likes. Next time you pull the saturation slider a bit and earn 50. Next time you're certain that you've crossed the line with saturation, but you get 500 likes. What's your next picture going to be like?
Recently I saw a film titled Nightcrawler where the protagonist sold ever more gory self-produced videos of accidents and murders to TV stations for increasing prices - another example of feedback loop.
These are just a few examples where people tend to optimize themselves or their output according to what they measure and consider to be the criteria of success. You earn more money, reach wider audience or both. Seems like a dream come true, isn't it?
What you measure?
I've tried the Facebook thing and made pictures that are oversaturated to the point I want to throw up. Yet they're popular and all. In the process I had many inner dialogs where one side is saying "do it again, likes are good" while the other side is like "are you really happy with that work yourself?". I wasn't and I stopped doing what I wasn't satisfied with myself. I even did almost the opposite - I started making more black and white pictures which always loses on the popularity scale. Defiance wasn't the only reason for B&W of course, but it was part of the challenge (the main reason – for the sake of clarity – is that I like B&W).
So what should you measure so that you create a feedback loop that actually advances your work? I don’t have answers for everybody and some are certainly fine with optimizing their work to make more money. But I’m here not for money; from financial perspective I’d be happy if my photography could pay for itself – which is not the case either.
Some say reaching more people is better, but then again, I’ve noticed that some likes (as in Facebook) are more valuable to me than the others. It’s not like some people are less valuable, it’s that I respect some opinions more than others – some are experts in the field and some or just people who randomly saw your picture.
In some communities the exhibitions are considered to be the cornerstone of how good artist you are. Having done several exhibitions, I admit it’s a fantastic feeling seeing your work beautifully printed and framed and lighted in a gallery. And I want to have than feeling again, just for myself. Yet, in the big picture. exhibitions are another shot to reach the audience, throw your work at the crowd and see who it hits. But if I ask myself, would I shoot the photos knowing they’ll never be exhibited, the answer would be ’yes, of course’. Early in my career I never dreamed of exhibitions, I just shot what I found important.
Contests are a good way to reach wider audience – should you win (or at least a narrow, but important audience – the jury). There’s a certain satisfaction in winning, being better than others, but once again you should ask yourself the question if you would have shot those photos without knowing anything about the competitions.
Speaking for myself – I would. It’s about creating something. It’s about self expression. Something others cannot do not because they don’t know the places or people or how to use some specific lighting schema, but because they’re not you. And the criteria for the feedback loop would be – does it express ideas uniquely mine and do so better than before?