What Does it Take to Be Successful in Photography?

Tim Layton Fine Art Landscape BackpackI am frequently asked: “What is the magic formula for being successful in photography?”  I suspect this question has been asked for generations, and in light of the technological advancements and evolution of the art, I believe it will continue to be asked.  This is something that each photographer must embrace and ask themselves.

As a dedicated analog photographer primarily using large format and sheet film amongst an overwhelming majority of professionals and amateur’s using digital technology, I feel like I may have some insight into how our forefathers may have felt in the past.  I think about the struggles the “Pictorialist’s” must have had fighting to elevate photography to an “art form”.  I think about the struggles Stieglitz must have experienced and the resources he invested in this quest.  I assume it was a very difficult time for the photographer’s at the turn of the 20th century.  When the next wave of change came, and it shifted to a more literal portrayal of subjects, the cycle continued just as it is today.  I think we have been in a new cycle since the beginning of the 21st century regarding the development and ultimate proliferation of “digital photography”.  Only after we are all gone and the people of that time will know its true impact on the art.

What does all this mean in relation to a photographers success?  I suspect it doesn’t mean much.  I believe it isn’t about the medium, it is about the photographer.  I will share with you some “nuggets” that I have learned along the way that may resonate with some people and my hope is that my journey can help other photographer’s reach theirs.

In no particular order, here are a few lessons that I have learned along the way as well as a few thoughts about how to find your balance and happiness as a photographer:

  • Photography is a delicate balance and interplay of art and science.  We all bring our life experiences to the table and it is up to us to look beyond these experiences and push ourselves to grow and continually evolve. This is a life-long pursuit.  It takes many years, and often decades to master any subject.
  • The best things in life are free.  This also applies to photography.  The moments you share with an old sage, or a tip that you picked up from a friend are free.  If you are willing to listen more than you talk, golden nuggets and kernels of knowledge are available.
  • Everything a photographer needs to know technically has already been written.  So go read it from a reliable source and stay off the photog forums.
  • There are no formulas that I can give you to ensure “success”.  Why pursue success anyway?  The pursuit of success is your worst enemy.  You may consider asking yourself what is the core of your passion relating to photography?  It isn’t about the money is my guess.  So, why we do chase it this way and put undo pressures on ourselves?  The answer is, we don’t need to.  The reframing of expectations are in order for most of us.  My suggestion is to reflect often and look deeply within yourself and ask the hard questions.  Keep an open mind and free yourself from modern stereotypes of “success”.  For example: Why do you love nature?  How can you help others by telling your stories via your images?  Who is willing to listen to your stories?  Answer these questions and you will be on a trajectory that will chart your course to a happier and more fulfilling experience as a photographer.
  • Trading time for money is a losing battle.  In the end, we will be out of time, and the money that was accumulated will have no value.  Invest your time as if it were actual money.  There are 86,400 seconds in a day (24 hours).  Think of the seconds as dollars and think about how to invest wisely as your plan your day.  The riddle with this conundrum is your bank account ($86,400) is back to zero the next day and you must invest and spend the money within the 24 hour period.  There is no guarantee you will be here tomorrow to invest the next $86,400.
  • You should notice a common thread amongst the greats of yesterday.  They told stories with their photos.  It is a very difficult task to convert a three dimensional world into a flat piece of two-dimensional paper and expect a human connection or emotional response to jump off the print.  It takes years of learning and practice to be able to tell a story.  It isn’t something you learn at school, it is a relentless pursuit and journey that only you can pursue on your own.  I believe Ansel Adams one said that if you make 10 or 12 good photos in an entire year, you were very successful.  I believe this and I would extend this thought with a star next to it and say, this count only begins once you have truly mastered your trade and are in a place mentally and emotionally, as well as have the skill to communicate your stories.
  • One downside that I think hinders new photographers today is the perceived ease of “taking photos” with modern digital camera gear.  In fact, this is what many photographer’s do.  They “take photos”.  Photographer and artists “create”.  They create images that tell stories that originate from within.  They have a burning desire to frame and tell their stories.  It doesn’t matter what medium you use, if you can’t tell your story, then a long and difficult road lies ahead.
  • Invest time in reflection and connecting with people and subjects that interest you.  What are you radially passionate about? This is what you need to be photographing.  For example, if your passion is sports, then become the best sports photographer that you can be.  Use the right tools to express your passion and forget about everything else.
  • Don’t get lost in the “technology trends” of today.  The best photographer’s have the mechanics of their trade mastered, and they focus on creating, not upgrading to the next “thing”.  If you are unfamiliar with Edward Weston, go learn about him.  His equipment and setup consisted of the absolute basics (bare lightbulb hanging from a wire, and a contact printing frame that he used his entire life).  But, when you look at his ability to transform a dirty toilet in Mexico or an everyday Pepper into “art”, then you begin to understand the quest you are pursuing.
  • It is impossible to know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.  Invest time in reading and viewing the works of our forefathers.  Some of my personal favourites, living and dead, include: Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julius Schulman, Elliot Erwitt, Alfred Stieglitz, and Julie Margaret Cameron.  Read their biographies, and view their prints at your local library in person.  You will walk away from your viewing of their work inspired and wonder how in the heck you will ever be able to work on a similar level.
  • Radical ideas create change.  Complacency is one of your worst enemies as a photographer.
  • Ignore common sense and the teachings of the world.  Pursue your art and your mission, no matter the current feedback.  If you live long enough and pay attention, you learn there are cycles to life, successes and failures.  These are only short chapters and your story continues to evolve.  Proceed with passion, an open mind, and a sense of gratitude.
  • If you don’t already know a very knowledgable photog that can tell you all the nits and bits about the latest technology, you will meet him at some point.  Go view their work and see if they can tell a story.  You may be at a place where you need this knowledge in order to shore up your own technical shortcomings.  I warn you, don’t rely on others.  Put the time in yourself and master the technical aspects of your craft only to the point you move to the subconscious when creating your photographs.  Any more more than that and you are off track.
  • You have a relentless passion to tell your stories.  This is a good place to start if you want to be a happy and fulfilled photographer.  I am writing this article today with a fever and strep throat.  I went out this morning to create some new images of a forest woodland scene.  I have been waiting for the ideal conditions (after a rain, proper lighting conditions, etc) to tell this story.  I knew the elements that I needed to tell this story.  After I finished hauling my 65 lb. backpack and gear, I went to the doctor and got some antibiotics to get feeling better.  Yesterday, I hiked several miles to photograph two specific waterfalls after a long week of Spring rains.  I don’t tell you these stories about my experiences to encourage you to ignore health issues and go photograph at any cost, I tell you this to illustrate my relentless passion and quest I have for art and the stories I want to tell.  The conditions were ideal in nature, and my health was less than ideal.  I made the sacrifice to push my body to the limits for these stories, and now I am paying the price for those choices as I lay here in bed sick.  But, I am okay with that and would not change a single thing.
  • Figure out a way to keep the world at bay (pay your rent and eat).  This may take many years or decades.  You may never be able to pursue photography full time, but this doesn’t mean your contrition or impact is any less than anyone else.
  • When it is time for your life to come to an end, what do you want others to share about you?  Did you stand for something?  Were you kind?  Did you share? Were you an advocate to help others? How can these questions help guide your trajectory as a photographer?  This is up to you.
  • Invest in others, give back, and develop an attitude of gratefulness.  It’s not about you.

I hope this article reaches at least one photographer that uses this information for self improvement.  Be sure to send me an email if you have comments or thoughts.

Tim Layton

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Why I Still Create Fine Art Prints in the Darkroom

American Farmer Project 2014 - Tim LaytonI love when people, especially digital photographers, ask me why I still print in the darkroom and haven’t “gone digital”.  I am not quite sure what “having gone digital” really means, but I think I understand what most people mean by this question and inference.

I can only answer this question for myself, because I have no idea why any other photographer, analog or digital, chooses their medium and workflow.  I will forego any darkroom or film versus digital banter in this article because my time is more valuable than that.

First and foremost, I create.  I create with intent and my output is a fine art gelatin silver print intended to be viewed in galleries or via private collection.  I am primarily a large format black and white photographer that uses the zone system.  If you are unfamiliar with the zone system, it is a method used in the exposure of the film, along with the development and printing to recreate the my original vision of my scene or subject as I pre-visualized at the time of exposure.  In order to use the zone system you must have complete control over your film, exposure, development and chemicals.  This can only happen with scientific testing that ultimately unleashes your creative vision.

I am passionate about creating my work with my hands and the raw materials used in the darkroom process.  I am very computer savvy, however I don’t use the computer in any part of my fine art process, other than marketing.

After I pre-visualize my finished print, I rely on my technical skills that I have earned over the years to produce the components necessary to meet my vision.  This starts with my film selection, then moves to exposure considerations, then choice of developer, length of development, paper selection, and ultimately dodging and burning under the enlarger.  Making a fine art darkroom print is a long and physical process.  I print large gallery prints, so the process is even more intense as I work with prints that are difficult to even handle.

The use of film and the darkroom allows me to express how I see the world and how I want to communicate to my viewers.  The textures, form, and presence that I am able to utilize in my darkroom process is my mode of communication to my viewers.  One of my favorite photographers, Clyde Butcher, says “If you are going to create a piece of art, then why don’t you do it right?”.    As Clyde says, creating prints in the darkroom is the true artisan way of making fine art prints.  Every print is unique project within itself and every print is slightly different.

Another important aspect of my choice of medium and workflow is my target market.  I work with professional designers, galleries, and collectors that seek fine art silver gelatin darkroom prints.  They know what they are getting and seek out my work because it meets their criteria.

From the time I travel to a destination and locate a scene or subject to the time I create an actual fine art print that I am happy with, it may be weeks or even months.  This time allows me to think and reflect and improve my prints.  I see the slow and lengthy process as a benefit.  When I stand in front of one of my large gallery prints, everything that I have done up to that point is worth it, no matter how long it took to arrive.


Tim Layton

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Long Live Film – A Documentary by Indie Film Lab & Kodak

The readers of my blog are going to love this 46 minute documentary exploring why photographers still make the choice of film over the latest digital technology.  I wrote an article back in 2011 “Why Film in the 21st Century” that you may want to read as well.

Long Live Film – Background Info from Indie Film Labs

“Earlier this year, Indie Film Lab took a trip from Montgomery, AL to Las Vegas, NV for the annual WPPI trade show. After we decided it would be more interesting to travel via RV than plane, we started planning our trip around the places we wanted to see. Originally, we had an idea to create a 5-10 minute video of our trip, for fun, then Kodak came on board and our project has turned into a 47 minute feature. The film has now turned the focus less on the trip, to more on the photographers themselves and why they shoot film. We can’t thank Kodak and all our friends who helped and supported us and our project. We hope you enjoy the film and are inspired to create things you truly care for, in a way you are truly passionate. Long Live Film.”

-Indie Film Lab

Produced by: Indie Film Lab
Directed by: Luke Lindgren and Josh Moates
Edited by: Luke Lindgren

Tim Layton

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Attention Photographers – Adorama Customer Service is Horrible!!!

My nightmare started when I received my new and very expensive darkroom sink that I ordered from Adorama.  I opened the box with a great sense of joy, only to find the sink was broken!  I immediately contacted Adorama customer service.  My first attempt was via the telephone and I hung up after waiting on hold for 54 minutes!  This should have been an indicator to me how things would proceed from this point.  I elected to send customer service an email alerting them to the problem.  They responded the following day and informed me they would have to contact the manufacturer and would get back to me.  On the third day I sent a follow up email asking for an update.  Nearly three weeks later I am still exchanging emails with customer service with no resolution to receiving my broken darkroom sink. They are still making references about the manufacturer and obviously have no interest in providing a quality service to their clients.

Needless to say I am extremely unhappy and this issue has actually cost me much more money than I paid for the sink.  I would advise my readers and friends to strongly consider not purchasing from Adorama for the aforementioned customer handling shortcomings.  I will never buy anything from them ever again.

Tim Layton

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Video – Developing a Black and White Positive Print in the Darkroom

In this video, I take you in the darkroom to develop a black and white positive print.  Positive prints are literally one of a kind because the image is fixed on the paper during exposure as opposed to making a negative and then producing a custom enlargement.  This special paper uses traditional black and white photo chemistry without the need for a film negative or inter-negative.  The paper has a very low ISO rating of about 3 and is very high contrast.  I sometimes pre-flash the paper on very sunny days or high contrast scenes, but I often prefer the nostalgic high-contrast look.

B&W positive paper is often used by pinhole photographers, however I use it in my 4×5 and 8×10 large format cameras to achieve a classic and unique collectible print.  I am using this paper in my American Farmer 2014 – Through the Lens project as I tell the story of the struggles of the American Farmer.  More info at: http://www.timlaytonfineart.com/americanfarmer

Video made with the iPhone 5S and a red light light.

If you have any questions or comments, I am always glad to help.

Tim Layton


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Building a Mobile Darkroom – A New Chapter for 2014

Sprnter VanI am super excited to start a new journey going into 2014.  I just acquired a Sprinter 2500 Van to sculpt and shape into my mobile darkroom and all things analog photography.  My initial plans are to just use the van on the road for a while and determine how I really want to customize it for my work.  I initially plan to process large and medium format E-6 with my Jobo, do wetplate, as well as black and white positives and alt prints such as Van Dykes and Salt. Depending on where the journey takes me, I could do some enlargement work as well.

Sprinter InsideThe inside is currently a blank slate and I plan to update the site here with new photos and info as I start designing and building things out.  With the Sprinter being so tall I can nearly stand up inside the van.  This is a huge advantage over normal cargo vans.

I am currently researching rooftop A/C-Heating options and roof rack systems so I can build a platform on the top.  My plan is to leverage the rack for the height factor to get unique perspectives, otherwise not possible.  I also found some very reasonable options to add solar power too.  With it being a diesel turbo I have endless options for power inside the van.  This is going to be an incredibly fun project and I look forward to sharing my new discoveries.

At this point I am currently thinking I will focus mostly on 4×5 and 8×10 in 2014 with a strong orientation on E-6 slides and for black and white, positive prints.  As many of your know my focus areas are architecture, floral still life, and nature.  I am in the process of outlining my projects for 2014 right now, so the tools and medium will be settled after I get the work confirmed.

If you have any questions or comments, I am always glad to help.

Tim Layton

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How to Begin Testing Exposures with Wetplate Collodion

Collodion-exposure-225x300Once you determine a good exposure with a specific camera and lens under specific lighting conditions with wet plate collodion, it is wise to write that information down.  It is always wise to minimize the number of variables when just starting to learn anything new.  If you work in a studio where you control the light, then this will become old hat very quickly and you will dial in your times quickly.  I will tell you that I learned the hard way to wait until my plates were varnished and completely dry before making any types of decisions on exposure adjustments.  For example, if you dry your plates and don’t varnish them (not recommended) then they will probably be one or two stops lighter.  Long story short, be patient and view the end product before making any fine adjustments to any part of your process, and especially your exposure.

I host a variety of wet plate collodion field tours and workshops that you may want to consider if you are just getting started or if you enjoy good company of like minded people.

Strategies for Exposure

In a studio environment when establishing exposure times with new lights and/or new lenses then you can use your dark slide to help you determine the proper exposure.  Start by pulling the dark slide fully out and expose the plate for the base time.  Depending on the shutter speeds you may need to cover your lens between exposures.  For the second exposure slide your dark slide in about 1/4th of the way and expose again for the same as you did on the base time.  Then for the third exposure push your dark slide in 1/2 of the way and exposure for two base times and then push the dark slide in 3/4th of the way and expose again for 4 base exposure times.  This creates a four stop interval.  Remember for each stop you double the light so in this test it would be the base exposure, 2 times, 4 times and 8 times base.  If you are working outside with a vintage lens that doesn’t have a shutter then this test is not very attractive.  But if you are just getting started with collodion or dialing in a new lens in a studio environment, then this may be an option for you to consider to establish your base exposure time.

Another approach is to meter the scene after you have a good exposure and find an EI or EV value on your meter that matches your tests. I don’t recommend this approach because I never use a meter, but I mention it for those that may want to work that way.  Use this as a baseline so if the light changes by one EI or EV then you know that is equal to one stop of light which is either twice the light or half the light depending on the change in intensity.  So, if it is brighter by one stop you would half the light and if it were darker by one stop you would double the exposure time.  If you have a lens where you can adjust the aperture then you could go that route as opposed to just changing your exposure time.  I’ve used this when I want to play with dialing back my lighting in the studio and in theory it does work as long as you have worked through establishing your exposure times based on experience first.

So much depends on your lens because if you are using vintage lenses then you are likely using them wide open because that is your only choice.  The only variable you have on controlling your exposure at this point is the shutter speed (time of the exposure).  As a rule of thumb for working outdoors or in a rich source of UV light such as a large window I have found that if you are using an aperture of f/5.6 in the open shade (sunny day, just not in direct sunlight) then a good guess is about 1 second.  In the direct sun a good guess would be 3 stops (f/16) and in open conditions with a few clouds a good guess would be 1 stop (f/8).  If you can’t adjust the aperture then you will have to adjust your exposure time as discussed above.  Keep in mind your plates will probably look different in studio lighting as opposed to natural light outdoors.  This is why some collodion portrait photographers use a natural light environment.  And, it doesn’t hurt that it is free.

If you have any questions or comments, I am always glad to help.

Tim Layton

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