During the mid 1800’s, something happened in what is now the western United States that would dramatically shift the economic landscape of that developing nation. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall struck gold in California.
To give you an idea about how dramatic this discovery was, San Francisco was a town of about 200 people in 1848, but by 1852 there were 36,000 people living in that boom town. The folks that came looking for gold were called 49ers.
Of the tens of thousands of people that came looking for gold, the vast majority of them left worse off than when they arrived, since mining gold was not as simple or straight-forward as they anticipated. I was told a story growing up about an old prospector meeting a young new arrival. The young man was complaining that he had not found the large gold nuggets that he had imagined. The old prospector showed the young man his pouch full of tiny gold flecks that he had found in the river — amounting to a substantial amount of gold. The young man had been looking past these flecks, not realizing what he needed to be looking for. He needed to train his eye to see the gold that was there for the taking.
Light is Everywhere!
If your photography career sometimes feels like one of the failed gold prospectors, you’re certainly not alone. It seems like there are photographers constantly dropping off the map from the discouragement that can accompany starting your own business. The good news is that unlike gold, photography is not a limited commodity. There is literally limitless potential in the photography landscape, but you must train your eye to look for the light. The light? Yes, the light! Light is the single most important arsenal in your photography tool bag. If you don’t understand light — if you can’t dissect the light in a picture and how it was composed, then I’m sorry, you’re not a photographer.
Smartphone manufacturers have been using light to sell their product for years. When LG came out with their G3 phone a couple years ago, their tagline was “just shoot”. The images shown in the ad were people taking pictures of this guy running inside a neon lighted ball rolling down the street. I think the idea was to give consumers the idea that all their photography was missing was the phone. This is a lie. The thing your photography is missing isn’t the camera, if you’re anything like me you have more cameras than you know what to do with. You’re missing the guy in the neon ball. You’re missing the light. If you’re skeptical about my smartphone example, look at the latest google pixel commercial, it’s essentially the same thing.
Training Yourself to See the Light
Having good vision is a skill that must be acquired, just like any other skill you have. If you want to shoot free throws better, you have to put in the reps on the court. If you want to understand light, you have to train yourself visually to see it. Oddly enough, one of the best resources on how to understand light is through drawing books, or by taking a drawing class. Why? Because like photography, you can’t draw if you don’t understand light. The difference is that it’s more obvious in drawing if you don’t understand light — it’s less forgiving.
Once you begin to consciously observe how light reacts to a surface, you will then naturally begin to manipulate that light on surfaces of your own. The leading image for this article is a good example to follow. The photographer probably had a thousand cups of tea before this idea finally hit. The light is reacting differently to the various parts of the tea, so how can I use that to make an interesting picture. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was only one of a series of pictures. I could see pictures like these being used to make a calendar, with seasonal foods accompanying the tea and a different design within the cup for each month. A snowflake for January, a heart for February, a clover for March, etc. Lots of ways to sell your work once you find something interesting.
Start With What You Know
Having studied business for a long while now, it’s clear to me the best path to success is achieved through something that you are familiar with. You probably don’t know who Jack Simplot is, but if you’ve ever eaten a french fry, you have eaten his product. The man started out as a small farmer and found a niche in the potato farming sector. He later developed a good way to freeze potatoes and a hand shake with Ray Kroc made Simplot the majority provider of McDonald’s french fries.
There are thousands of stories like this. You must build on knowledge you have if you want to be successful. Don’t try and venture into the unknown because you think that’s where the grass is greener. If you go bowling every weekend, see if you can light up a bowling ball and take some pictures. Who knows what is lurking in places you’ve walked every day of your life.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary
Many people who aspire to be successful feel like they need to have something completely new and unique in order to be successful. It’s not true. In fact, you could say that the mundane things of the world are more likely to lead to success. If you have an idea for something that you think is revolutionary, by all means go for it. I just don’t want you to think that you have to do that. You can make a living doing headshots if that’s what you love, you just have to do them in a different light. There’s always a new angle to any shoot. Put the time in to seeing the light around you and you will carve out a path to success.
photo credit: Toa Heftiba