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What Does "Next Level" Mean to You? (and What’s Stopping You from Getting There)?

Jason, from St. Louis, MO writes:

“One of the things that I keep hearing about in photography is the idea of getting to the ‘next level’. I’ve always assumed that this meant getting better at taking pictures but I’m guessing this might mean different things for different people. I’d love to hear what ‘next level’ means for others.”

What a great idea, Jason! I’m also looking forward to hearing what others have to say about this, as the question can certainly have some depth to it. For me, my first clear “next level” came when I got over my irrational fear of off camera flash. My first attempts at using it were an abject failure. Like so many in our community, I started out by getting Scott Hargis’s Lighting Essentials book and I tried following his “getting it in camera” approach. It didn’t matter how hard I tried though, my earliest attempts were so bad that it affected my confidence, which in turn, prompted me to give up on off-camera flash. The result was a decision to go the Photomatix route.

While my clients were happy with what I delivered to them, those failures in using off-camera flash stuck in my craw and the longer I went without trying to get back on the horse, the worse it got. My phobia grew to have a life of its own! A few months later, I entered a photo into a PFRE Photographer of the Month contest (it was the best shot that I thought I’d ever taken, to that point, using Photomatix... looking back at it now, I cringe!). As fate would have it, Scott, himself, gave me a scathing review on that picture. Oddly enough, that review altered the trajectory of my career because it forced me to reconsider what I was doing. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but the sting of that comment made me realize that the fear of failure that I’d carried with me was the biggest obstacle to my success, not my inability to effectively use off-camera flash. So I decided to give it another crack. Luckily, over time, I got the hang of it and it helped me to create better pictures, which ultimately led to more and better opportunities in my photography business.

In thinking through Jason’s question though, I know that “next level” doesn’t necessarily have to mean trying to get better photos. So, I’m really looking forward to hearing what "next-level" means to you. I hope you’ll leave a comment and share your personal definition. More importantly, I’m hoping you’ll also share your thoughts on what’s getting in the way of you getting to that next level. Thanks for writing in, Jason!

10 comments on “What Does "Next Level" Mean to You? (and What’s Stopping You from Getting There)?”

  1. For me, next level is doubling my income not necessarily better photos. Any method you decide on can be financially rewarding. It's about getting the work. So, I've decided to do 2 things. 1) register all of my photos and defend them and 2) create an online system that makes my operation feel and look like a serious business. Too many realtors still look at photographers as less than a serious business.

  2. I'm also looking forward to hearing from some of the other more seasoned photographers on this. I would also like to go to the next level. I'm still using on-camera flash, although I did purchase a firing kit that is still sitting in its box in the anticipation of going in that direction! I really appreciated reading your comments on confidence issues when trying the off-camera flash! When I switched from Jpeg to Raw I was very nervous - I still shoot in Raw+Jpeg because of it! LOL My latest challenge is with shooting in full PPE! The mask fogs up the viewfinder, creeps up into my eyes so I have to hold it down, and the gloves are also a challenge! But I feel fortunate to be working.

  3. I moved from HDR in Photomatix to flash-ambient blend within months of beginning my career in real estate photography. I did try a short stint at Scott Hargis' method with mixed results. I know it can be done and done well, but maybe just not by me.

    For me, the "next level" means efficiency. I want to reduce my shoot time in a home. I'm constantly reminding myself that not every shot is going on the cover of "Architectural Digest." That doesn't mean I'm relinquishing quality, but at some point you have to say "good enough." I'm spending a little more time on composition and a little less time taking multiple exposure trying to get the perfect flash position or exposure.

  4. I'm going into my 3rd year doing this, and the "next level" for me means expansion beyond being a one-man band. I have already started this by hiring another shooter, and have my often "bored with retirement" mother coming onboard every now and then to do the backend admin stuff.

    I would like to outsource editing at some point, but haven't seen sample work that I really like. All the "my name Rojith, I edit picture good" emails I get are typically accompanied by photos showing such desaturated spaces they look gray instead of white, with the exception of the cartoonishly vibrant pulled windows. That's not really my speed.

  5. Hello All,

    Longtime stalker 1st time contributor. This is my 15th year shooting Real Estate here in Phoenix, AZ. We shoot 100-125 listings per month and could do much more volume but I have not wanted to grow it any bigger the last 5+ years. That being said, if you know anyone wanting to purchase a business like this in Phoenix please send them my way. I have an excellent customer base and have a "slow and steady" plan for a nice transition to the new owner. Phoenix housing market is solid and growth projections are thru the roof for AZ.

    I have two people that subcontract from me so I shoot only close to my house. Leave at 8.30am and return by 12. Who knows, thought I would throw it out into the PFRE universe. I have purchased an online business and want to focus on that primarily.

    330 days of sunshine in Phoenix....

    Thanks, Dave

  6. I see the "next level" as a multitude of things. My photos, the business and my income. Part of a definition is reaching milestones in long term goals. If your master plan is to transition from REP to making photos for architects and builders, that could be your next level. If you want to stay in real estate, it could be anything from doing more jobs or doing fewer jobs for more money, only photographing luxury homes or owning your zip code and being the default person people call when they need photos made. I have a whole list of goals from the mundane "make more money" to making even better images. I would like to add more commercial, retail, hospitality and professional spaces to my portfolio. Since RE is somewhat seasonal, I'd like to have more work that isn't. I don't have a burning need to expand my business to having staff photographers and editors. At the most, I'd outsource bookkeeping/data entry along with scheduling if I were to get really busy and could afford it.

  7. For me, it has nothing to do with expansion, income, or adding employees. I'm a one man show in a single town, and want to keep it that way. For me, next level is taking a really good image, one that I am really proud of, patting myself on the back for 30 minutes, then going to Fickr and looking at other, better RE images until I realize that I need to be better. Then I wath tutorials, read books, and pick up the camera and shoot with the bar moved down the road.

    It's what keeps me going. And if I die on a Wednesday, it will be knowing I would have been a better photographer on Thursday.

  8. Like Ken, next level is a multitude of things for me. I think of it as sort of a ladder. The next rung I'm working on is efficiency, both at the shoot and in post. I am not trying to be a fast "run and gun" type of shooter but being able to see and choose the shots a little better/quicker will help me a lot. Also, getting my flash shots dialed on the first time more often will help too. Subsequent rungs for me include more business, higher end properties and ultimately shooting for architects, designers and construction companies, all the while, improving the quality of my images.

    To Tony's question of "what's getting in your way", I struggle with the same as he has, FEAR OF FAILURE. I've struggled with this all my life. It is something I am working on everyday. I am working towards a more healthy approach of being happy with my work, balanced with the desire to improve.

  9. I am 40 years old now. I have a very clear of who I want the professional side of my life to look at 65.

    So for me the 'next level' is really the 'next step'. Take the overall goal and break it up into major, multi-year phases. Then focus on whatever needs to be done now to "fill out the current phase" since that will enable you to move to the next phase.

    I see my work life in four phases. Someone once said we should begin with the end in mind. So here's the phases in reverse order:

    4) The Final Form - I see myself achieving the "final form" of my business at age 65. I want to have built it to the point where I have four "travel teams" of photographers/videographers who are sent out on airplanes all over the country to put cameras in front of the highest quality homes and commercial spaces. These people have been recruited out of college and have gone through a multi-year apprenticeship program where they are taught every skill necessary in order to create our company's "brand product". The customers know that when they schedule us to come out, any team can be assigned to them and they are fine with that because they know the skill and professionalism of all teams is equally high. This also means there is no cult of personality built around myself which causes customers to "want Brian". That has been trained out of the customers.

    At 65 I now can choose to continue working full pace, step back a bit and go into half-retirement and just cherry pick one or two projects a month I want to do, or I can retire completely and turn the management of the business over to whoever has been groomed for leadership while receiving the pay-out of being a business owner who really owns a business. Not just a glorified job.

    3) The Apprenticeship Program - in my mind it would be professional immoral to fulfill a major need of a dedicated client base, do it well, benefit them so much that they come to rely on your services.....and then just quit and retire and leave them out in the cold to find someone else. Or maybe they WON'T find someone else. Seems wrong to work so hard to get them to trust you and then betray that trust by retiring.

    So for me the idea of "succession' matters. There must be a plan in place to make my company immortal since I am not. It needs to be able to exist and serve the customers without skipping a beat when the day comes when I wrap it up. Because that day will come eventually.

    My plan then is to create an apprenticeship program. Likely a 3-year one-on-one program where young people are fished right out of college after participating in a summer internship program to see if they have a proper attitude. Train them for three years then turn them loose with the full authority and confidence that they are essentially... another "you". Where creating product for customers is concerned anyway. If the goal is to have 4 trained teams and each team takes 3 years to train that's 12 years. Essentially, I see this phase begining when I am 50 and lasting until I'm 65 years old.

    2) Transition & Mastery - the goal is mastery of architectural photography. Making that happen involves connecting with a very specific kind of client and beginning to work for them. step at a time. No rush. Keep all areas of life in balance. What's the use of achieving your work goals if you end up divorced or disconnected from your kids? But make the steps and keep pushing. Fred Light has said you "Need to do whatever it takes to create the kind of work you want people to pay you for. Once you do that...and do it consistently...your ideal customer will magically appear in front of you."

    I have found this to be true in the current real estate side of things. I made video the backbone of what I do and magic I find myself working for agents selling higher-than-average priced properties who are willing to pay me my outlined fees. So I am looking to see the same happen with builders and architects. I also expect it to likely take 5 years before I really "catch my stride". Just like it took about 5 years to catch my stride in the real estate niche.

    This phase will likely be broken down into two sub-phases each in 5-year increments. The next 5 years will just be getting up and running. Starting the ball rolling. Making it happen. Time will be split between the current real estate work which pays the bills and getting connected with and starting work for architects and builders.

    The second batch of 5 years will be the main "mastery" phase. I believe that the key to mastery is....access. Access to the highest quality properties on a consistent basis so that you can create the kind of work you need to in order to be able to attract more of your target customer. Access allows you to adjust your workflow and learn new skills for solving problems in different (more challenging) lighting situations. This 5-years period will round out my 40's and have me ready to bring on the first of four apprentices in Phase 3 right around the time I turn 50 years old.

    1) Startup Phase - I needed to get up and running and going. Making money. Keeping the wife happy with the checks that come in. My idea was that of riding a bike. When you first get it going, it's a bit wobbly. But you can adjust course and balance and keep doing and soon you'll be stable and pointed in a desired direction. The startup phase for me has lasted 4 full years. This year was supposed to be the "transition" year where I started reaching out to architects and builders. Covid19 has basically put that plan on pause this year. I'll resume next year. So it looks like this phase will last 5 years before moving to the next one.

    This is path I hope I can force my life to follow. I have found that not always do plans play out as you hope though. So for me then, the "next level" is whatever the next thing I need to do is to move forward in my progression.

    Right now this involves training my brother so I can turn photos-only orders over to him so I can focus on photo/video combos only and free up time to meet with architects and builders. Later it will be training my brother to do video tours as well so I can hand the entire real estate side of things over to him as I move into high-end work full time and can give it my undivided attention. Then it will be mastering skills like travel and organization around travel and figuring out how to keep my relationship with my family strong despite traveling a lot. Then it will be recruiting the next generation and training the first apprentice. Then it will be taking what was learned while training the first apprentice and writing some kind of manual that can be used as a type of manual for training future apprentices. Then it will be managing succession. Who is the company going to be turned over to? Who is the person to trust to take care of the customers and not let them down? Then it is moving into the role of aged consultant. All of these things will be going to "the next level". For me anyway.

  10. @Brian, be sure to factor in dropouts from candidates that don't work out for one reason or another. In this day and age, three years is a long apprenticeship and if you train them well, the competition may poach from you. You need to find a way that makes the good ones stick with you with short term and long term bonuses in one form or another.

    When the Chicago Sun-Times axed all of their staff photographers, those photographers found out they had a profession that just went away and were so used to having top of the line gear supplied that many didn't even own their own cameras. That might be something to think about. If the company owns the gear, anybody that leaves may also have to buy a big pile of equipment to compete with you. They'd also be trained up to using top end equipment and likely plenty of it. They both have to make the gear investment and teach themselves how to work without a lot of the "nice to have" items. You want staff that is conscious of costs, you don't need them to understand all the intricacies of running the business until they've been with you to the point where they are more of a partner and participate in those discussions and decisions. The same goes for marketing and advertising. You insulate yourself against creating your own very competent competition by training people in stages and allowing them access to the details of the business only after they are well invested in seeing it do well. Some states uphold non-compete clauses in contracts and some don't. Those that don't may only not uphold them for rank and file employees but will allow them for junior or full partners.

    I can't remember the names of the books, but there is material out there for doing what you have described so you get the best people and avoid some of the pitfalls. One lesson I remember was to get rid of people that aren't a good fit as quickly as possible. Even if that means you have to work a bunch more to cover the bookings.

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