You Are a Second-Rate Photographer: What Can You Do About It?

You Are a Second-Rate Photographer: What Can You Do About It?

There are many reasons why a photograph can go wrong. But to be a photographic flop takes a special skill that most failures don’t even know they have. If you don’t want to be a second-rate photographer, here is how to avoid it.

Don’t Be a Diluted Annie or Ansel, Be Both at Once

There are some great photographers out there creating astounding work. Just look at the galleries here at Fstoppers and you will see some skilled photography. Consequently, there is a huge pull to take photos in the style of one of those photographers. Don’t do it! You won’t ever be better than them, and when others look at your pictures, they will see yet another wannabe failure. You will be nothing more than yet another insipid, watered-down copycat, never as good as the original.

I am also going to give the opposite advice. Do it! However, only do so to learn from those great photographers. Read their autobiographies and interviews, study their portfolios, and hear what others have to say about them. Then, mash up all the different ideas and techniques from different photographers into something new.

This is what creativity is all about. It’s not about copying, or discovering something entirely new, but taking things that already exist and blending them in new and inventive ways. Look at every great art movement or every music trend from the past. Each has grown from what came before.

I like working with birds in flight as part of a seascape.

Everything Is New Under the Sun

But I can hear you shouting, “With the more-than-a-trillion photos shot this year, most things must have been tried already by someone, mustn’t they? It’s nigh on impossible to find a subject or technique that somebody else hasn’t already tried, isn’t it?” No, that’s wrong.

I’ve been living in this little town in the Northeast of England for nearly twenty years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shot a seascape at sunrise. No two pictures are the same. There are uniquely shaped clouds overhead, and maybe none at all. The sky’s colors change constantly, and with it, the sea's too. Sometimes the water is rough with pounding waves, and sometimes it's calm with barely a ripple. Occasionally, the wind is blowing against the waves, brushing spray from their tops. The tidal state is also different from one day to the next and, what is more, on each morning the sun rises in a slightly different direction. Solitary seabirds skim the wave tops, while others might soar high overhead.

On top of all that, there are all the choices I can make regarding focal length, exposure, and camera positioning.

It doesn’t matter what you shoot, there are infinite variables that make your photo unique.

Even Lawrence Olivier Rehearsed

Laurence Olivier, arguably one of the greatest to have lived, rehearsed everything to the finest detail and would hone and change each performance to improve it. Every great artist rehearses. They practice time and again and are rarely happy with what they have achieved so far.

A rehearsal. The sun should have been a tiny bit lower and to the left when the gulls flew in front of it.

Treat every time you go out with your camera as a rehearsal for next time. As I said in the last section, I can’t remember how many times I’ve been out to photograph the sunrise over the sea. But I do know this, if I look back at the shots I took nineteen years ago, they were not as good as those I shot ten years back. And as for those pictures from ten years ago, the ones I take now are better. If I am still here in ten years, I hope those will be better yet again.

When What You Do Becomes a Trend, It’s Time to Move On

If you do find something new, or shoot something successfully, it’s likely to start a trend of other people wanting to do the same as you.

A long time ago, I started to photograph the moon rising behind the island off the coast from where I live. I would usually be the only person on the beach. Now, every full moonrise, the shoreline is packed with photographers. More recently, I have been shooting sea and shorebirds at slow shutter speeds; it was a technique I discovered by accident and then improved on.

I was probably not the first person to do that, but it was not a common approach to capturing birds in flight. Since publishing my photos online and in an exhibition, I’ve noticed a growing number of people doing the same. I’ll shoot a few more, but I’ll find something else to shoot soon; it’s time to move on.

How You React to Being Copied

I could have one of two reactions to others doing what I’ve been doing. Firstly, I could get in a bad mood and let ill feelings about these copycats fester within me, or I could celebrate the fact that others are building upon what I have done and help them to succeed. I choose the latter. Firstly, imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery. Then, secondly, I find it rewarding that I have helped photographers to achieve taking good photos. Perhaps they will build upon what I have done and branch out into something new. Fantastic!

Cormorant taking to the wing.

Avoid Being a Grouch Photographer

The idea “Do as you would be done by,” is an old philosophy that’s proposed by many cultures. Sadly, in the world today, it seems to be not only ignored by many of those in power, but the very opposite behavior is adopted by them instead. The people who are supposed to set a good example to the rest of us tell lies, abuse others, and line their own pockets to the detriment of others. Consequently, these actions are considered acceptable, so they are then repeated. History has constantly shown, however, that leaders who live in a moral vacuum usually come to a sticky end, and those who behave similarly, likewise. Of course, the one thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history.

Your attitude to other photographers is very much reflected by the success you have. Becoming a successful photographer is a long game. If you spend your time criticizing and demeaning others, you’ll fail. Why? Success needs the support of others, and if individuals treat others badly, they’ll get no help in return.

Blue Hour Birds.

What About Those Who Are Grouchy to Me?

There will always be unintelligent idiots who make stupid and unkind remarks. That's because they lack the wherewithal to work hard and become talented at photography; they think their way to success is to try to pull other people down. Of course, they don’t succeed. Those who make snide remarks about others' creativity are not very bright, and it’s easy to highlight their stupidity and put them down. You don’t have to suffer these fools. You can either ignore them or point out to the world their nastiness and the ridiculousness of their comments.

Are you always encouraging others to succeed, or are you the type of person who writes snarky comments on internet forums or picks holes in others’ work? If you are in the former group, then it’s a clear sign that you are on the road to success as a photographer.

Turnstones during the blue hour.

Every Mishap Is an Opportunity

I’ve traveled a lot through Europe, Africa, and Asia. One of the great things about photography is that nice people come to talk. Usually, it's just when I am about to snap the sun poking its head above the horizon or a bird is exhibiting some extraordinary behavior and I miss the shot. I don't mind, though. The world keeps on turning, and the sun will rise again tomorrow.

More recently, I have started experimenting with photos of flocks of birds in flight to sharpen my skills. These are turnstones again. Who knows where it will lead next.

When I was in Helsinki in January, I was lining up my camera to photograph the Lutheran Cathedral. It was devoid of people, which was unusual. However, a group of excited women suddenly walked into the shot to take selfies. They spotted me with my camera and apologized. I said it was okay, and they asked me to take photos of their group with their phones. I chatted with them for a while. They had come from Indonesia and were heading up to Rovaniemi, hopefully to see the Northern Lights. I had just returned from the North, and it had been exceedingly cold. So we talked about that and gave them some hints on how to capture the aurora.

I enjoyed that interaction. Anyone who knows me will know that when I see I often stop and volunteer to take photos of couples and groups, so nobody is missing from their picture; I value these five-minute friendships, which are more important than the photograph.

By the time I had taken their photos with their phones and chatted with them, the scene was no longer deserted. Another group of people had gathered, which made it a far more interesting photo than just the cathedral.

Success or failure in photography very much depends on your attitude. Accept that when things don’t go to plan, you can still accomplish something else, and it will probably be better.

In answer to my title's question, you are not a second-rate photographer, you just don't know it. Keep on taking photos, enjoy experimenting and practicing, and encourage others. Then success will roll in.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Just take pictures of what interests you. And compose it the way you see it. Plus, do something odd to it.

I really needed this, Ivor. An article that is about creativity and art, and not about gear. Thank you. My soul is refreshed.

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While I agree with just about everything you have written here, there is one discussion that you have about midway through the article that I have found to not always be the case.

Here's what you wrote, in quotes:

"If you spend your time criticizing and demeaning others, you’ll fail ......

"There will always be unintelligent idiots who make stupid and unkind remarks. That's because they lack the wherewithal to work hard and become talented at photography; they think their way to success is to try to pull other people down. Of course, they don’t succeed."

This may come as a surprise to you, but I have found several wildlife photographers here in the United States that are very condescending and rude, especially toward other wildlife photographers ..... yet they are highly talented and successful. One of them is perhaps the most successful wildlife photographer of my generation, and another is highly successful (albeit nowhere near the success of the first), with thousands of paid-for-and-published images and hundreds of magazine covers to his credit. A third negative, condescending guy is not a full time pro wildlife photographer, but he has had a lot of success with his images being published in highly regarded publications, and his work is admired by many wildlife photographers across the continent. None of these guys are afraid of hard work, as they have worked themselves to the bone for decades to be the best wildlife photographers they can be, and to sell as many images as possible to publishers, ad agencies, etc.

I would be careful about lumping everybody together by making blanket statements. Some of the nastiest people are not nasty because they are insecure. They are not nasty because they are jealous. They are nasty because they truly feel superior to others, and they loathe those who they perceive to be below them. They probably loathe those who are above them, as well. Some people just loathe everybody.

And yes, some of these surly, negative-about-everything, always-complaining people are actually extremely talented and successful. They may be the exception, and not the rule, but they certainly exist. I have seen these types too often to think they do not exist.

Surely you have seen this in other fields. A few of the world's most successful and admired actors, actresses, models, and musicians treat everyone around them horribly. They put everything and everybody down, yet they are at or near the top of their field. They work super hard and are immensely talented. Exceptions? Perhaps. But enough of them exist to make it impossible to write blanket statements that lump them in with those who don't work hard to develop their talent.

Thanks for that, Tom. I get your point and I have known photographers like that, too. However, I wonder how many opportunities they missed because of their attitude to life and others. I'm lucky to have helped many photographers succeed, both professionally and in the amateur field. However, I've always been far more inclined to help those who are kind and disregard those who are not, even if they are skilled with a camera. Sure, some grumpy old photographer may do well enough in his field, but how much more would he have achieved if he had encouraged others with friendly enthusiasm?

All my cliff top photos feature 40 yards of cliff top. It has nothing to do with being terrified of heights and not wanting to walk to the edge. It's artistic expression, and I'm sticking to that story.

I too was never that keen on heights, but then I took up climbing! Thanks for the comment.

Thank you, Ivor, for this article!
I am relatively new to photography and to Fstoppers. I find this article timely, appropriate and so true. It's base message should be trumpeted beyond Photography and would go far to helping the world become a better place. I too believe, building up others is a far better tool for growth than the blanket tear down approach which can stifle creativity and passion in some to the point where giving up becomes the outcome.
Keep chasing the dream, learn from others, learn from our own mistakes, keep improving, keep learning, keep modifying and adapting, and as you said, "... encourage others. Then success will roll in."
And also then we can smile about our life's journey knowing we helped some along the way.

Ivor is the main reason I haven't given up visiting Fstoppers.

That's kind of you. Thanks!

Thank you, Frank.

Rehearsal is the reason I have always a camera with me.
I'm just a hobby photographer and the photos that matter most to me are taken on vacations or family gatherings. I take every day photos to get better in capturing the "decisive moment" in situations where you don't have a second chance.

That's cool. Have you seen a steady development of your photography over the years as a result? It would be great to see your photos in the gallery.

Picasso, like everybody was flawed. Modern press concentrate on his behaviours that were considered normal for the time and for his Catalan culture but are not acceptable in the context of today's standards and, indeed, not by mine. But, at the time, many people found him friendly and generous, although some thought him aloof. "Absolute" is clearly not a word that is applicable to his personality.

On the other hand, if you look at any despot, they have almost all had terrible tastes in art, and those who have tried to paint have been equally terrible at it.

If you look at people who constantly make ill-tempered comments on articles here, they invariably are poor photographers.

On the other hand, I know many superb artists. There's a fantastic art community where I live and they are all kind, generous and supportive of one another, helping each other achieve whatever they are aiming for in their work.

So, I reject your counterargument. Thanks for commenting anyway. I enjoy a proper debate.

I am amazed that you made that sweeping judgment. As I said, some people found him personable and enjoyable company. Nobody is "absolutely" nasty. Some people do terrible things, and his treatment of women, not untypical at the time, was sometimes but not always unpleasant. But he also helped others and had good friendships, not least with Matisse. He was also a pacifist.

There's a great difference between trolling and writing provocative articles that challenge people's beliefs.

If you bothered to read my article above properly, you will see that I have no problem at all with people challenging trolls, which if you look at my comments is what I do when people attack me, as opposed to trying to healthily debate the contents of the article.

As for my hypothesis, it's backed up by thousands of years of philosophies from around the world. I'm hardly alone in that belief.

If you want to continue with your philosophy of being ill-natured, which seems to be the common theme of your historical comments, then that's fine. However, you will miss out on the benefits that being supportive of others brings.

Ha ha ha. Here we go, another troll, as usual, hiding behind a fake persona, pretending they are good photographers but providing no evidence and throwing insults instead. Hope you feel better soon.

Stephen, you really don't understand, do you?

"Stephen" lol

Ivor, your defensiveness in this and other posts is unnecessary and often over the top. If someone disagrees or has a different view, just say you agree to disagree, or move on.

If you look at the thread, I started off disagreeing with this person, which I am entitled to do, just as he disagrees with me. I also thanked him for his comment. I would have been happy with that.

However, he suddenly reduced his somewhat dubious counterarguments to insults and nasty accusations. It's a common tactic of trolls to (try to) hide behind fake names and make accusations to undermine others, often accusing them of the very same behavior they are exhibiting.

Let's just clear three things up here.

1. Given that every time (this would be 4 now; presumably, now to be 5. The first time under my real name, with years of images posted.) I interact with you, you end up running to mommy, and my account gets blocked, why would I make the effort of putting any of my images up?

But since you made such a point of it (as you do every single time), I made a list of my awards and commendations a couple of weeks ago, and they come to just short of a page. I feel OK about my images; but as I said, they weren't pertinent to the conversation, and so I made no assertions about their standard.

2. You said "you really don't understand, do you?"

Sure, success was left undefined in your article; however, one can't help but note the framing statement in the headline, "You Are a Second-Rate Photographer", combined with your subsequent comment, "pretending they are good photographers but providing no evidence". Yeah, I think I get it just fine.

But given that "success" is entirely subjective, I would assert you're the one who really doesn't understand.

3. You say that you're not a troll, you just write provocative articles. Let me spell this out for you (note the word "provocative"):

noun: troll; plural noun: trolls
1. a person who makes a deliberately offensive or provocative online post.

1. make a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.

You consistently troll, and then you periodically complain when people respond in a sub-optimal manner.

One can't help but note your use of the word "undermine". I'll just leave that one hang...

You end the first sentence of your first point with "... you end up running to mommy." and you end your post with another insult by calling him "a fragile little man".
And then you still claim that he was a troll and not you?
If these insults don't classify as "deliberately offensive or provocative" nothing does.

You don't seem to grasp; he's obtained the reaction out of me, and I couldn't care less if he (or anyone else) responds.

You get the point of trolling is to elicit a response, right? In this case, the only response I expect is for him to run to mommy, and my account to be blocked.

Also, you'll note I edited the comment significantly after you read that (I only saw your comment now).

That aside, I view the word "troll" as nothing more than a descriptor; you people view it as a pejorative (sorta like the word "obese"). And since you raised it, he is fragile, and he lacks the ability to handle even a mildly rigorous debate; my commenting upon his use of the word "undermine" was intentional - I don't expect you to understand.

All that aside, tu quoque is fallacious; but then, I stopped expecting rigor from photographers years ago. To be fair, any idiot can press a shutter button.

Love your concept of "Grouches".

I think there are two extreme points for types of photographers. There are those who constantly degrade work by others while prefering to shoot alone. There are also those who revel in teaching and sharing (and that's a two-way conversation). Neither is a "bad" person. A psychologist might call them introverts and extraverts, and each contributes to the world around them.

I have learned far more from the teachers, and they have made my world so special.