We’re in the middle of a series for photographers and aspiring entrepreneurs called “Making the Leap” where we’re sharing our ten practical steps for going from part-time photographers to full-time. Or, as author Jon Acuff puts it, going from your day job to your dream job without it becoming a nightmare.
A long time ago, one of our pastors at church told us that you should always be playing three different roles in your life: teacher, student, and friend. The idea is that you should always be teaching and improving someone else, learning from someone else and improving yourself, and just flat out being there for someone to listen.
Today, we’re talking about two out of three: how to find a good photography teacher, and how to be a good photography student. After all, we’ve all had mentors who’ve changed our lives in dramatic ways, from parents and teachers, to coaches and pastors, to photographers in town and online. If you stop right now and close your eyes, there’s no doubt you can picture the person or persons who encouraged, inspired, and believed in you. It doesn’t take long.
But how do you find the right photography mentor? Last week, we told the story about how we found our first photography mentor, and even though our story won’t be the same as yours (no two stories are), there are some basic principles to watch out for when seeking out a good mentor.
As photographers, we all have popular, well-recognized, photographers whom we love and idolize. Celebrities among other photographers. They were our gateway drugs into this industry, the photographers we found online when planning our own weddings or helping friends plan theirs. They’re the photographers we still follow religiously to this day because they gave us our first whiff of inspiration, our first picture of what life could be like behind the lens. We’ll always love them, and that’s more than okay, but whether they live locally or across the country, they’re not the mentors we’re talking about here. Sure, you can learn a lot online (we know we have), but we’re talking about in-person mentoring, and most big time photographers just don’t have the time to do that for everyone who falls in love with their work. We’re sure they’d love to help, but it’s just not realistic with their hectic schedules. Plus, you could get the best online instruction in the world and it’ll still never compare to hands-on training in-person from a seasoned pro.
The good news is that for every “celebrity” photographer in your city, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of proficient photographers who’d love the chance to help an industry up-and-comer. The key is to look for someone with the heart of a teacher who’s not at a place in life where they’re fighting to grow their business, but instead are at a place in life where they’re comfortable with their business and want to give back. Our mentor was and is an excellent professional photographer. He’s in his forties, a barred attorney, a husband, and a father of two beautiful little girls. He loves photography and loves nothing more than talking shop and geeking out on technicalities and gear, but he’s also made his priorities clear: his wife and two little girls. He could be one of Arizona’s top wedding photographers if he really wanted to be, but that’s not his goal because he would miss too may ice skating competitions, soccer games, and school performances.
Since he was at a different stage in life than us when we met him, was financially secure and didn’t need his photography to survive, his outlook and perspective was totally different than someone who’s in the hunt every day. He wasn’t competitive. He wasn’t looking to hide his secrets. He loved photography and was excited for the chance to give back — and he gave a lot. He had the patience to show Amy the difference between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and explain what it meant to shoot “wide open.” He taught her little by little, one shoot at a time, and was always pushing her beyond where she was comfortable. That’s the kind of mentor you should be looking for, and they’re out there. Trust us.
Your future photography mentor might be a family member, friend, or even a friend of a friend. It might be someone you’ve never met before. Who knows!? Amy found ours while standing in line for school yearbook pictures! If you keep your head up and eyes peeled, you never know what could happen. Sure, you might have to dig a little and attend a good handful of photographer meet-ups in your local area before you find the right person, but it’s worth being bold to find the right one. Just make sure you find one with the heart of a teacher, and that when they’re ready to teach, you’re ready to be a good student, too.
Be humble and add value. We can’t say it any simpler than that. Once you demonstrate that you’re willing to invest in someone else and make their life better, they’ll be willing to send it right back — and the best way to do that is to be a servant. When you’re starting out, you’re an apprentice, and nothing is above you. Offer to tag along to a shoot or wedding as an assistant and just carry bags, get water, and be there to help with any situation that comes up. Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want,” and that couldn’t be more true here. Help your mentor be at the top of their game by helping to create a worry and stress-free environment while out on jobs. Be a good, professional representative of their business and talk them up in the most positive way. They’ll appreciate it.
Look for opportunities to learn on the job. When there’s a break and it’s appropriate, don’t be afraid to ask questions. As artists, we love it when other photographers ask us how we did something or what we were thinking/envisioning for a specific shot. There’s no such thing as a stupid question when you’re an apprentice, so fire away and make sure you understand everything clearly before you move on. This is your time to start at square one and build your photography knowledge base in a safe environment. You don’t have to feel scared or embarrassed to ask questions when you find the right mentor, because, remember, they’ve got the heart of a teacher, and they want to help you improve. Plus, as photographers, we always get better by teaching, so they’ll feel good about the conversation, too, because it will force them to evaluate whether they really have the answer you’re looking for. Who knows? Some of your questions might spark their interest in learning again!
As a student, you can never be too appreciative of your teacher. Believe us. We taught in a public school for four years! Every time you work with your mentor, thank them at the start of your time together for the opportunity to learn from them again, and thank them after the time together, too. Describe to them what you’re learning in detail. Talk about all the things you never knew before but now know. Reveal to them how their teaching is impacting you. Say things like, “You’ve inspired me to work harder than I’ve ever worked to be more like you,” or, “Thank you for be so patient with me every time we’re together. I’m learning so much from you every day.” Your mentor already knows everything that you’re learning, so their lightbulb isn’t going off over and over again like yours is. Communicate that so your mentor knows how much impact they’re having. After all, even teachers need encouragement sometimes, too.
If you have any questions about this second step, please leave your comments down below or shoot us an email and we’ll do our best to answer them!
Next, we’ll dive in to Step 3: Get Educated. We’ll talk about all the (mostly free) resources we utilized to become professional photographers without formal photography education or training.
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