In the age of social media, it feels like it's easier than ever to reach out to photographers and connect with peers and those you admire. With platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, reaching out for advice and feedback is quick as a DM.
However, this ease of communication and the lack of formality is a double-edged sword. The competition for time and attention of photographers with any kind of following is at an all time high. From the side of an aspiring photographer looking for advice, it can be hard to get responses or receive meaningful feedback. For those being asked, it can be difficult to give the time and attention to each and every request.
For anyone seeking out advice on their work or their career from photographers they admire, here's my suggestion for what has worked for me — both as someone who has asked for feedback from my idols and given it as freely as I can.
For busy photographers at the top of their game, it can be a daunting prospect to try and keep up with every portfolio review or request, despite all best efforts and intents. As we all text and reply to comments on the go and when we have a free time, it's all too easy to give answers that can fall short or miss the mark.
As a professional music photographer, I personally try to respond to as many requests as I can, whether it's from students, amateurs, or aspiring pros looking to get to the next level. I do so because I feel that I owe my career to sharing what I have learned along the way in my journey as a photographer. I've said it before and I'll say it here: every big break I've had has come from this very site you are reading now, where I have tried to share as much as I can about music photography.
I've also been in a position where I've asked peers and photographers to whom I look up for advice or time to pick their brain. I understand that as much as I've tried to give, I've also benefited tremendously from those have been generous enough to share their time with me, and these acts are never taken for granted.
Here are some things that can help from both sides — and particularly if you are a photographer looking for advice.
On Getting Asked for Advice
For those being asked for advice and feedback, there are a few important things to consider:
This person looks up to you!
It should be understood that if some person is asking you for advice, they admire your work and what you've accomplished. More than that, they value your opinion, which is why they've asked you for a favor in the first place.
They took the time to reach out to you specifically
It should not be underestimated that this person took some time and effort to contact you. It might not seem like a big deal to you as an established photographer, but it might be a huge deal for them to work up the courage to even contact you.
They are asking for help
There has been a time when every single person has needed and asked for help, whether it's just in life or as a photographer. Not only are they asking for advice, but they are at a point where the advice you give can make a tremendous difference in their work and lives. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't be asking for advice in the first place. This is an opportunity to help someone's career and to inspire them, and that is honestly a gift.
To Those Asking for Advice
Now, some considerations for those asking for advice. If you're contacting someone compelling enough to get your attention in the first place, there's a good chance that this individual is:
Short on time
Receiving requests for advice frequently
Answering the same questions repeatedly
In addition, if you're reaching out via a direct message on social media, it should be understood that these are generally a mess for notifications and keeping track of conversations. There's no ability to mark as unread or star a conversation like email, and due to the mobile use of these platforms, they're also far from ideal for long messages.
Now with all that said, here are some pieces of advice to help connect you with getting answers, advice and feedback from photographers you may admire.
Comment instead of DM or Email
Instead of an email or DM, considering responding to a social post first. This is a good strategy for a couple reasons.
First, commenting on an Instagram post or replying to a tweet are public facing messages and the ability for others to see the answer may be a motivator. It gives an opportunity to share the answer with more than one person, which amplifies the reach of the advice — and from the standpoint of efficiency, that's far more attractive than privately replying to one person. It's not about trivializing the individual, it's simply about benefiting the most people with limited time and limited energy.
In addition, a public comment or reply to a social post feels like way less commitment and is far less intrusive feeling than a direct contact like a DM or email. This aspect can be a huge benefit and potentially make a big difference in the ability to get advice IF the question is appropriate for a comment-length response.
While you risk not getting a response in a public channel because it's not as direct, this is honestly a possible outcome with any kind of communication.
Consider the Medium & Method of the Request
A comment is different than an email is different than a DM is different than a phone call. Consider what the kind of response or advice you want to get and what medium would best suit it.
Email is better suited to long form answers and more formal in the format itself, which might be best for certain requests. With social media like an Instagram DM, there are no drafts to go back and edit, so take this into account. You can even consider asking whether how someone prefers to communicate. This is a courtesy shows you're considering the person's time and efforts. Options are always good.
Be Efficient in Your Ask
With the understanding that photographers you admire may have a lot of competition for their time, aim for efficiency in how you write your pitch for advice.
It's probably quite natural to want to ask the following, simply because it feels like the polite thing to do.
“Do you mind if I ask you for advice”
“Can I pick your brain?”
The reason to reconsider an initial question like this is that they don't really give the person on the other any context for setting expectations of the time commitment.
Instead of asking if they have time to answer a question, save a step and ask up front. If they have the time or can easily answer your question, you've already saved time on both ends.
Be specific in your request
Considering the above — that popular photographers are likely short on time and may be answering the same or similar requests often, being very specific in your questions can be enormously helpful in receiving not just a response, but one that will hold value.
Instead of asking something very broad, such as, “Could you look at my work and give me feedback?” consider asking a more pointed question about a specific problem or challenge you have.
Vague questions are prone to produce vague answers, and the opposite is also true. Asking a very specific question will allow for a very specific answer. It also gives the person you're asking a very clear idea of how they can best help you. With very vague or general questions, it can be difficult to know where to start or what level of feedback one wants.
Consider asking something like, “I find myself really challenged by shooting action in low light — how do you get such crisp action shots?”
A question like this gives the reader a knowledge that you've already done the task of evaluating your own work and identifying a challenge. It also gives an opportunity to dive into specifics — using a high ISO, faster lenses, faster shutter speeds, etc. If I receive a email or DM from another photographer that contains a very specific question, I will almost always answer it, even if the answer is very long and detailed, because I know I can give a specific answer.
With a vague or general question, it's hard to understand the value one can provide at times, which can lead to either unanswered questions or unsatisfactory responses.
It reiterate: If there's one takeaway from this article that sticks, it would be to be specific in your ask. This suggestion is critical and it's my number one piece of suggestion when trying to get advice from a photographer you admire.
Create a Connection (AKA Flattery Will Get You Everywhere)
People are very simple — they want to put energy into the connections that have the most meaning to them. If you're cold messaging someone you're asking for advice, do your best to create a connection and give context for why you're reaching out to them for help.
“I've followed you for years and you're a huge inspiration to me” is much different than saying, “I was googling for XZY and I found you.”
Even if you haven't been familiar with their work before, the goal should always be to build a rapport. Compare “I came across your work and it really struck a chord with me — your kind of photography is exactly what I want to do” with saying, “I'd never heard of you before but I came across your work and it appears you have had success…”
Be A Familiar Name
Building off the point of making a connection, building an even deeper connection with successful photographers will give you the credibility to ask for even bigger favors.
Making a point to like, comment, and otherwise interact over social media can go a long way toward getting an answer. It's simply psychology. People are much more apt to engage with people they are familiar with, and photographers are no exception. Even with thousands of followers across different platforms, I know and recognize the people who are liking and commenting on my social posts on a regular basis, even if I don't follow them back, and I always appreciate that support.
If someone whose name I recognize hits me up, I will always try to make sure I get back to them. Even more, I'm more than happy to go out of my way to give extensive feedback and advice to the familiar faces I see online. It's simple reciprocity. I know they've put the time into me and my work and it makes me eager to want to put the time into them.
Do your homework
Along the same lines of the above, familiarity with the work of the individual you're reaching out to can be crucial in receiving a response.
Doing homework is especially critical if the photographer already has a blog or frequently shares advice on other platforms. If this is the case, there's a high chance that they may have already tried to answer the most common questions received. Do you own research to try and discover the information you need to the best of your ability.
Look for interviews, podcasts, videos of keynote talks and other info these photographers may have put out into the world.
In addition, referencing the work of the photographer or content they have produced shows that you have already tried to work to find the answer requested, but that more help is needed. The more familiar you can demonstrate you are with the work of the work of your subject, the better of a chance you have at receiving the advice or feedback you want.
Respond and Follow Up
If you do get a response and the advice you've asked for, take the time to acknowledge and thank the person for their time. It's a small courtesy but it tells the person you've received something they've put time into and it gives you the opportunity to ask for clarification or other small requests.
If you don't get a response and you have followed all of the above pieces of advice, simply follow up. Again, someone you admire as a photographer is likely to be busy doing the very things that have inspired you and non-business emails are likely to be passed over if time is short. Follow up any you may get luckier the second time around.
Personally, particularly if I get an email, I may open in a circumstance when I don't have the time to respond. I may mark as unread or flag the email, but it's all too easy for messages to fall between the cracks. This is even more true with a DM on social media.
That said, if you don't get a response, you should be OK with that, too.
My final suggestion — for everyone involved, is simply to be gracious. We live in a world that is increasingly connected and this photography community is what we make of it.
To all the photographers who may be asking for advice: Understand that you're asking for a favor. The honest truth is that even for photographers with the best intentions and willingness to help, time is a non-renewable resource. Social media has made making connections easier than ever, but respect for boundaries, privacy and time should be considered as well. You are not entitled to take advantage on people's generosity or kindness.
To all those who have experienced success: Remember to pay it forward. If you're in a position position to help and inspire someone on their journey as a photographer, that is a gift. It may be a few minutes of your time, but the advice you give may have tremendous meaning for the person receiving it — not just the advice, but the fact that you respond at all. Consider that the legacy you leave on an individual is no different than the larger one you create with your online persona.