At the very beginning of my career, Life Magazine picture editor John Loengard delivered one of the best pieces of career advice a photographer could receive when he said,“Shoot what you can’t help but shoot.”
At first the advice didn’t make sense to me, but what Loengard was advising was to pursue the types of subjects that you would naturally shoot without regard for anything else. He believed that if you shoot the subjects that come naturally to you it’ll likely be your best work. As you follow that path, the most authentic version of you as a photographer will come out in the pictures and other people will see that. And since the pictures you’ll be making will be your best work, you’ll eventually be hired and paid to do the type of work that you want to shoot and the cycle will continue. It’s a brilliant insight for the beginning photographer, but also for any photographer who might have lost their way.
“One day I opened my portfolio and realized that it’d been years since I produced anything that I was proud of.”
Several years ago, I experienced what might be called an early-career crisis. Slowly and carelessly, I had allowed my career to shape me rather than shaping my career. The work I was doing at the time was very lucrative but my soul had gone bankrupt. One day I opened my portfolio and realized that it’d been years since I produced anything that I was proud of.
At that moment, I remembered Loengard’s brilliant advice and it was instrumental in getting me back on course. I asked myself, “What types of pictures would I choose to make above all others? What did my camera and soul naturally gravitate toward? And if I pursue that path, will there be people who will pay me for the resulting pictures?”
The specialties and disciplines in photography are truly endless and in many ways that’s what makes it such a wonderful career. Architecture, food, sports, weddings, adventure, product, fashion, landscape, celebrity, fine art, illustrative and countless other specialties make it possible to experience the life you choose through your viewfinder.
Whatever that specialty is, you should be shooting what you can’t help but shoot.
That process begins by asking yourself whether you prefer to take pictures or make pictures? Are you a control freak who needs to mold and shape every element of a photograph so that’s exactly the way you want it, or would you rather capture the world as it exists as a photojournalist or a landscape photographer might?
“What kinds of images do you find yourself saying, “I wish I’d shot that?”
The next question is which types of subjects do you want in front of your camera? Are you endlessly fascinated by the human face the way a portrait photographer would be, or do you drool over the shapes and angles of architecture? In other words, what kinds of images do you find yourself saying, “I wish I’d shot that?”
The final question requires some introspection and soul-searching about who you are. Are you the type of person who thrives on hiking into remote locations to show the world what you find, or are you more suited to spending hours and hours in a studio perfecting the reflection on a bottle of wine? Would capturing the action of the Indy 500 be invigorating, or would the thought of missing a critical moment overwhelm you with anxiety? Do you have what it takes to endure the physical and emotional challenges of an assignment for National Geographic, or are you more suited to the comforts of an air-conditioned studio and spending evenings with your family?
Loengard’s guidance is simple but profound. If your career feels like it’s been derailed, or if you’re just getting started down your path, take a moment and consider his advice. The direction you go will be good for your portfolio and good for your soul.