Ten Commandments for Successful Photographers

ten commandments for photographers-IMG_9730-Edit-2Over the holidays I joked with a colleague, a devout photographer himself, that on the eighth day god created photography and that surely somwhere there was a buried glass negative or a piece of Daguerrotype tin that held the Ten Commandments for Photographers.

This got me thinking – what if the traditional ten commandments were interpreted by the Church of Photography? This is what I discovered:

  • Thou Shall have no other gods before me.
    It’s true. The pure joy of photography usually takes care of this one naturally. Photographic thoughts will quietly weave their way in to every aspect of your life—from what you read to how you see. Loved ones will think you’ve started speaking in tongues when you babble about “sunny sixteen” and “18% gray” while making your bed. Be kind, they do not understand. And a special note of fair warning: left unchecked your joyful devotion can easily reach cultish proportions. There is nothing glorious in that. Don’t let it consume some of those other important things – like family time and eating. In other words, have a life.
  • Thou shall not worship false idols.
    It’s easy to be awed by the many talented photographers that grace the earth and the galleries. But the only thing worthy of true worship in photography is your own enjoyment and practice of it. There are as many phenomenal historical and contemporary photographers as there are Hindu gods. They’re definitely worth knowing about, appreciating, and learning from, but when all your days are done let it be what you created during your time with the camera that counts for the most in your life.
  • Thou shall not use the name of god in vain.
    This is a biggy. This means when you speak the words Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica or whatever your flavor, they should never ever ever be followed by the phrase “is better than…” All attempts to debate or identify the only true gear in all the land will be in vain. Enough with the brand wars, and any other holy ones too for that matter.
  • Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
    In other words, give it a rest. Establish a routine that includes regular time dedicated to your craft that does not involve a camera. This could be time spent exploring other artistic genres like music, painting or poetry, or perhaps cooking or yoga or beekeeping. If your whole life is spent focused on photography it’s likely your photographs will be one- or two-dimensional at best. If you want to bring your photos to life you have to bring a life to your photos.
  • Honor your father and mother.
    It doesn’t matter who you consider to be photography’s founders or significant contributors, it’s good to understand historical work of the early photographers and what came before our current groovy mirrorless models. For centuries our photographic ancestors experimented and invented processes using equipment that did not fit in their pockets or, in some cases, did not even exist until they invented it. Studying the masters and forerunners in any industry can teach you a great deal about dedication, passion and ingenuity. Learn from them but remember it’s your generation of artists’ responsibility to be the new innovators. Go boldly.
  • Thou shall not kill.
    When you meet other, especially newly aspiring, photographers you will not squelch their beginner-mind enthusiasm by pointing out all of the technical reasons why an image they love may not be awesome. Your job is to build up others who are trying to master new skills. When appropriate, you can offer ways they might improve their techniques, however do not emphasize what went wrong with the last image they took. And for those of you who choose to teach or lead workshops you should celebrate the moment a student surpasses you, not envy it.
  • Thou shall not commit adultery.
    Be faithful to your own chosen vision. Don’t abandon it for the next sexy technique or flirty approach that comes your way. It’s easy to fall in love with a new project or vision and then once you’ve spent a lot of time with and it becomes too familiar you start to take it for granted. It’s easy to become bored or lose interest, or even doubt you ever loved it to begin with. You start to argue with it constantly, then you ignore it. Well, kiss and make up! If, after giving it your all, you and your artistic goal discover you truly have irreconcilable differences, divorce it and move on. Just don’t cheat on it with the next seductive idea to come along. Uphold your vow to give it everything you’ve got and see how beautiful a long-term committed relationship with a body of work can be.
  • Thou shall not steal.
    But thou can feel free to be inspired like mad. It’s great to appreciate another photographer’s work but don’t copy it. Ever. Whatever you produce will never be as good as the original. Producing < creating.
  • Thou shall not lie.
    If your work includes a lot of manipulated imagery, be transparent about it and say so. Hybrid images and composited photography is spectacular and awe-inspiring in both subject and technique! There’s nothing inherently bad about digitally modified images except when the artist tries to pass them off as authentic captures. And obviously never represent another photographer’s work as your own. There’s a special type of hell for that.
  • Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s gear, studio, or skills.
    Another no-brainer. The camera never takes an astounding photo, or a hideous one. The camera only takes the photos you tell it to. Incredible photographs can be made with any camera, including an oatmeal box with a hole in it. As my favorite former stand-up comedian-theologian-turned-humanitarian-photographer-and-author David DuChemin likes to remind us: Gear is good. Vision’s better. Quit jonesing for stuff you don’t have and go make something magical with the stuff you do.

There you have it, words to live by. Now, go out into the world and bear witness with my blessing. Oh, and about that whole don’t go toward the light thing—ignore that— you’re a photographer, go toward light – with abandon.


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2 Responses to “Ten Commandments for Successful Photographers”
  1. Craig

    Great read – dead on. I am guilt of not following the not using thy name in vain and the whole creative adultery. But I think I recall you once tweeting something about you being atheist? Thanks for the post, it came at a good time.

  2. Christine

    Heehee. Thanks Craig for outing me. Oh wait I outed me ages ago. Not committing creative adultery is a tough one, I’m with you on that one.

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