6 Lessons Aspiring Professional Photographers Can Learn From The Beatles

The Long and Winding Road to a Successful Career



Imagine success as a professional photographer: Find inspiration from The Beatles.
Photo © Mason Resnick


Music and photography have long gone together. I've heard stories of a war photographer who would play the soundtrack to "Apocalypse Now" on his Walkman while on assignment to get in the mood, and remember rocking to "Wild Thing" (Tone Loc, not The Troggs) when photographing a well-known Sports Illustrated shooter. Fashion photographers often use music to put their subjects in the right mood.

I have been a Beatles fan ever since 1964, when my 16-year-old baby sitter, Josephine (aunt of Jonathan Ielpi, a New York firefighter who died a hero at the World Trade Center on 9/11), would sing me to sleep with the Beatles' ballad, "This Boy." It was only a year earlier, that my 6-year-old self got an Ansco Cadet, my first camera. By the time I was 10, I had my own darkroom and was developing film while playing "Seargent Pepper."

You might say that I have a life-long, intertwined love of both photography and The Beatles.

Recently I was thinking about how the Beatles' success—the result of lots of hard work and strategic planning—holds lessons for professional photographers looking to build up their business. Aside from their talent, how did the Beatles become so insanely popular, and what can a photographer struggling to establish him or herself learn from their rise to fame and fortune?

Here are six aspects of the Beatles' rise to fame that I feel can be applied to many business models, but especially to photographers who are just starting out. Follow these tips—and browse the Adorama Business of Photography Book department to fill in the details—and one day, maybe you too can become a photographic rock star:

1. Start Small

In The Beatles Anthology, Lennon and McCartney discussed the band's strategy for growth: Start small. The band started out by playing small gigs for starvation wages, eventually building up to bigger and better-paying venues. When they were playing the Jacaranda club, their next goal was to play in the more popular Cavern Club. Then, on to larger venues. Then their goal was to get on TV. Eventually the Boys played their first televised gig at the Palladium. As their success grew, their goals got bigger. Finally they came to America and played to a record TV audience on the Ed Sullivan show. The rest is history.

Lesson for photographers: Don't do this for long, but start by being willing to work for very little and doing small jobs, especially those that a big pro shooter wouldn't be interested in. This will give you a chance to build your skills and portfolio while earning a bit of cash. As you build confidence with these smaller jobs, aim higher. While you're in start-up phase, you can work economically by starting out with used gear. The Adorama Used Department carries recent and older cameras, lenses and more.

2. Build Your Team

At first, it was Johnny and the Moondogs, consisting of John Lennon and a bunch of guys you probably never heard of. Then he met Paul McCarney, recognized his talent and added him to the band. Soon Paul's friend, George Harrison, proved he was a good guitar player and he joined as well. The trio realized it needed a drummer, and Pete Best was hired, and John's friend Stu Sutcliffe, an art student, was persuaded to play bass guitar. Pete was an OK drummer but Stu  was embarassingly bad and eventually quit the band. The Beatles got a savvy new manager who persuaded the group to replace Pete with the best drummer in Liverpool, Richard Starkey. With the addition of Ringo, the band was poised for greatness.

Lesson for photograpers: Build a team of talented, trusted individuals and if someone doesn't work out, replace them. And be sure that Adorama is part of your team. Not only do we stock entire pro digital camera systems, but we will support you with videos, workshops, and articles to help you choose the best gear for your needs and then to get the most out of it.

3. Don't Be Discouraged By Initial Failure

At one point in the Beatles' early career, a certain record executive working for Decca records infamously stated to the band's manager that the Beatles would "never amount to much" after hearing their demo tape. Decca refused to give them a recording contract, but they persisted, got a contract with Parlophone, and within a year, the Beatles would become the biggest act in the history in popular music. 

Lesson for photographers: There will always be naysayers—and some will be people with the power to hire you. Don't listen to them. If you are rejected, and you know your work is good, keep at it and keep pushing yourself to improve your work. Even though the field of professional photography can be a competitive one, if your work is good (and be sure to get your portfolio reviewed and look for constructive criticism), it is a matter of knocking on doors, building relationships, and proving yourself and your commmitment to your craft.

4. Invest In The Most Appropriate Instruments Photo Gear

When John's friend Stu sold a painting, John persuaded him to buy a bass guitar with the proceeds—something John couldn't afford. Similarly, Paul was given  a trumpet, which he traded in for a guitar. George had a side job as an electrician's apprentice and saved up to buy his first guitar. And Pete was allowed into the band because he already owned a drum kit, which was a gift from his mother. As the band became more successful, they put their earnings into (a) eating and (b) adding amps and electric guitars, to improve their sound.

Lesson for photographers: Buy the gear you need to get the job done. Get financing, loans, a Kickstarter campaign—whatever it takes (within the law)—to get the right lenses, lighting, tripods, and cameras that you need—and make sure you buy them at Adorama! Whether you need a Nikon D800, a Canon 6D, or a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 or any other camera, Adorama carries the entire system and will support you throughout the buying process. But be sure not to get the wrong stuff. The Adorama Learning Center's many Buying Guides will help you choose the equipment that best fits your needs.

5. Keep Re-Inventing Yourself

The Beatles' initial success was as a pop group, churning out hit single after hit single, and touring the world. Eventually, the group felt its creativity was beng stifled by touring and the constant demand for hit records. They stopped touring and became a studio-only band, and the first result was the revolutionary concept album Seargent Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, a record whose influence was felt for years to come.

Lesson for photographers: Don't let your creativity stagnate. Keep trying new approaches. Take workshops (if you are in the New York area, check out Workshops@Adorama and watch online tutorials such as those you can find on AdoramaTV, or check out online photography courses given by Adorama's online school partner, PPSOP.) Be a sponge! Incorporate lighting, composition and post-processing tips. And if you're getting bored doing one kind of photography, don't be afraid to transition into another area.

6. It's usually OK To Be Derivative

Quick: What was the Beatles' last song on their first concert tour? "Twist and Shout." Not their original recording. What British rock song influenced one of their biggest hits, "I Saw Her Standing There?" It was "Hippy Hippy Shake," originally recorded 4 years earlier by Chad Romeo. What song influenced their 1965 hit, I Feel Fine? It was a relatively obscure American R&B tune, "Watch Your Step," by Bobby Parker, and the drums in Ray Charles's "What'd I Say." The Beatles not only recorded other artists' work in their early days, but they let their own music be heavily influenced by their favorite songs an musicians.

Lesson for photographers: Look at good photography. Study the masters. If you're a photojournalist, look at Eddie Adams, James Natchwey, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastiao Salgado. Wedding photographer? Monte Zucker is the first person whose work you should study but don't stop there. Keep looking, and allow yourself to be influenced by the photographs that move you.

In fact, there's nothing wrong with paying homage to your photographic heroes—although there is a very fuzzy line between that and ripping off someone's work. John Lennon learned that the hard way when he was sued for using too much of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" in "Come Together," and George Harrison got into trouble in his solo career when he lost a copyright infringement suit that said he ripped off "He's So Fine" when writing "My Sweet Lord." So be influenced, but be careful.

And on that mixed message, good luck on the long and winding road that leads to your success as a professional photographer!


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