Are there seven habits of successful photographers?

Rocky Mountain National Park

It was simply the rage back in the early 1990’s, reading Dr. Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Successful People or attending one of his lectures or being a part of one of the many workshops being offered.  The emphasis at that time on win-win-win at any cost, of unlimited ambition, of personal growth at hyperspeed – these were all wearing a lot of people out and they were looking for a way to discover and achieve their personal goals in a manner that didn’t result in short-term burn out.  Dr. Covey promoted some basic principles that would help people put their lives into personal perspective and control their destiny.  Mostly common sense, as even he indicated, but very useful in pushing away the public buzz and guiding you to make decisions that were helpful in the long-term.

These habits can be very effective for photographers, especially as the current time is abuzz with rapidly changing technology, push-the-limits-at-any-cost practitioners, media barrages all around and the ease for just about anyone to enter the craft.  With all respect to Dr. Covey, here are my thoughts on how to apply his habits.

Be Proactive:   Great images rarely show up in your windshield while driving down the road, or wander in front of your camera while strolling down the sidewalk, or come up and nibble on your leg while you are looking elsewhere.  You have to go find them, seek them out, hunt for the story and elements necessary to tell it effectively.  Many people pick up their camera only for “special” events or once in a great while, and then wonder why they don’t have many outstanding images.  You have to go to the image, not the other way around.  Which brings me to the next habit….

Begin with the End in Mind:  Ansel Adams called it pre-visualization, others say compose before putting the camera to your face.  My thinking here begins even before leaving the house.  What image to you want to make today?  What story do you want to tell?  What personal project are you aching to complete?  Get the answers to those questions clear in your mind first, in as much detail possible, and the rest will be just managing technology.

Put First Things First:  Dr. Covey talks a lot about Importance and Urgency, and points out that most people focus on the latter at the expense of the former.  Yet the former is where our passion lies.  Doing the important things first is a matter of planning and prioritizing, of recognizing the value of your time to make your images, of getting to the scene you want to compose and working it until you get the image expected.  Great images are rarely made by photographers rushing around and pointing cameras at subjects and then moving on.  If your craft is important then make sure you act that way.

Think Win-Win:  Most photographers are making images to share – to share the moment, share the subject, share the emotion.  Sharing can mean literally giving away images, selling images to others, licensing image use so a wide audience can appreciate it.  Paradoxically, most photographers I know are somewhat introverted, yet are most pleased when their work interacts with the largest crowd.  Images reflecting your passion will show that, and having shown that, result in value to everyone involved.

Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood:  This is a powerful concept, especially in the modern world of media that seems to exist solely to allow people to vent their frustrations at a high decibel level.  Have you ever looked at a photograph and thought, “wow, they really captured the essence”?  Photographers who take the time to understand why they are making a specific photograph will create images that are easy to understand by others.  It may be a loving gesture, or light that portrays a subject as everyone knows them, or a composition that broadens the viewer’s perspective on a subject.  Rarely do the good ones happen by accident – the photographer set out to include the viewer in the process.

Synergize:   The term as commonly used simply means “together we can do things impossible to us individually.”  Photographers are usually individualistic – it’s very hard for a group to look through a viewfinder.  We should connect with other artists, photographers or not, and see the world in an expanded way.  And then work to combine different visions to create a new perspective.

Sharpen the Saw:  One aspect of photography I appreciate is you can practice the craft with tools that are 100 years old or 1 month old, delivering wonderful images with either.  Great photographs don’t come from expensive, cutting-edge, just-released equipment – they are made by craftsmen who know how to get the most from their tools.  Continual learning, continual practice, continual stretching of abilities; these are the rasps we use to keep sharp whether we are re-creating scenes on wet-plate emulsions or high-speed, low-light digital.

Which of course takes us back to #1 – learn new skills and make time to apply them.

Imagery is a wonderful gift of technology, giving us snippets of time preserved for sharing, remembering, contemplating.  Photographers craft those snippets to maximize the value being preserved.  Great photographers push themselves to get every last bit of meaning into their images, since that moment will be gone by the next, never to return again.

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