It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Justin Van Leeuwen!

Honesty, integrity, originality, and good old fashioned hard work. I like to think I possess all these characteristics, but there’s a good chance I don’t, at least not all of the time. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, a quest for the righteous at times; indeed, even the best of us can fall from grace. Jumping on the failures of others is so easy for many of us to do. It’s easier than producing your own content. And it’s not unique to photographers or our community, but by the nature of our work, out there for everyone to see, it’s a lot easier to be exposed to the potential negativity.

More and more sites are scraping every single set of images they can possibly find to showcase, blog about, and expose; like Flickr, 500px, Fstoppers, Petapixel, Tumblr, Buzzfeed, and Reddit.  This is wonderful stuff; absolutely anyone can have their work viewed by millions of people around the world. There’s pressure in this, for some, to perform. To produce content that’s as good as the last “big thing,” to get noticed like your friend did last week. “He has a million views on his photos, mine are better, why can’t I?” I think we could even mistake this for being competitive… but is it? Does it even matter? Is it a big distraction?

Let me be honest. I’ve struggled. I’m still trying to figure out my work, to find my place, to make a living. I’ve been incredibly fortunate this early in my career to have more positive than negative feedback, and a great amount of support from those around me to keep doing what I’m doing. I work hard when I’m on the job and I try to do right by my clients. I show and share my work actively in the hopes of getting noticed, of having someone see it and maybe getting that next big job from that someone. If nothing else, the big group-hug that is Flickr can make me feel good about myself for a day. Is that how it works?

Maybe it has for a few lucky folks, but in my case, I’m not working nearly hard enough. Doing a good job for my clients isn’t enough anymore, it’s the bare minimum of what’s expected of me as a professional photographer. I need to work hard for my next client; I need to work to GET them. And they’re not going to come from, being explored, or the editors' picks On a website. I need to find them myself, and I need to show them my work, and I need them to know that I am the right person for the job. That’s really putting myself out there, and I’m terrified of taking that necessary next step. I’m scared because it’s hard, and I’m scared because I might fail.

Integrity comes in many forms but to me it is an extension of an outward honesty. I give credit when and where I can, I pay my assistants faster than I get paid myself, I share openly and freely knowledge that I have and methods that I’ve used, trying to help mentor the next group of photographers coming up behind me. Secrets, in this industry, seem to be a way of trying to protect yourself, to make sure nobody can copy your work or business model like you’ve done something particularly unique or special. You’ll notice, as savvy readers, that the most unique and special photographers are absolutely comfortable sharing their methods because really, many of us couldn’t compete if we tried.

I’ve also copied. I copy David Hobby’s lighting setups. I’ve copied Scott Kelby’s Lightroom workflow. I’ve copied Joe McNally’s… sarcasm and love for naps. Little ideas, little methods: these guys have all shared their work and knowledge for years and I’ve copied them until I got it right. Then I went and I took their methods until they became my own. Now, I couldn’t work without the things I took from them if I tried. And still – STILL – I’m not as good as them. How come? Maybe I’m not good enough. That’s a pretty terrible outlook, though. How about the possibility that I just need to work harder?

There’s no escaping the time you have to put into this industry. There’s work to be done. People need their pictures taken. They need them taken well, or poorly if that’s their taste. On a tight budget or one that can afford a guy like Jeremy Cowart (I love his hair). I’ve had my photos seen by hundreds of thousands of people. My work is published, it’s been stolen, it’s been paid for. My mom thinks I’m great, and my wife thinks I take good photos of the kids though, oddly, never of her. I’ve been told all sorts of equally wonderful and horrible things about my work, and even about myself. I’m not a bad guy, I just pretend to be one on Twitter.

Is my work even good? Does "good" even matter? There are better photographers than me, by a long shot, who aren’t working and haven’t had the opportunities I have. There are also some photographers we all wonder how they got to be where they are. Are they even good? What actually matters in professional photography? Who gets to judge my work and, by some weird extension of my mind, me and my self-worth? Who gets to tell you your work is worth doing?

I do.

My clients do.

And both can get it wrong. So, let’s just get back to work. Work hard, be honest, have some integrity, and do the best we can; the rest is just a distraction.

If you’re up to the challenge, you can follow my over-share of a Twitter feed, check out my blog for the occasional tutorial and read my lens reviews on

  1. Great stuff here Justin,
    I continually feel that “I Suck” but others tell me different. Your thoughts on going after the work is perfect. Folks today typically don’t look for great work, they want cheap or free. It’s hard to feed a family on free. Hence, I still use photography as a hobby making a few $$ when I can while I work full time teaching.

    1. I think folks have always wanted cheap or free. It’s always been about finding the right match, it’s figuring that out that’s really really tough.

      1. HaHaHa! I like mine just fine too… but to fine a woman who likes a photo of herself, well it can be a long time a coming… ;-)

  2. First off, your work is top-shelf in my opinion. Secondly, I think we are our own worst critics. Aside from the narcissists out there, very few of us think our own product is over the top. We always find the flaws regardless of how insignificant they are, while others don’t, won’t, or cannot see them. This holds true for everything, whether it’s photography or woodworking or playing the violin. That notion became clear to me a few day ago when Scott Kelby posted his behind the scenes look at the ratio of keepers to throw away shots he makes at a sporting event. I was very inspired by this blog post. I especially like your last line…”So, let’s just get back to work. Work hard, be honest, have some integrity, and do the best we can; the rest is just a distraction”.

    1. Thanks Robert! I have to remind myself of this all the time because I’m *very* easily distracted. And while being too critical of yourself can be a detriment, I think it’s also very important to keep ourselves motivated to work harder. Who wants to be the person who assumes their work is the best and they’ve “Made it.” Those people are boring!

      1. I couldn’t agree more with you’re statements about being self-critical to keep ourselves motivated to work harder and the bores of the world!

  3. That was awesome. I have been wondering if I should try to become more “noticed”. However, I am paying the bills, I enjoy what I do, and my customers are happy. The rest, a distraction. Love to hear that advice from a pro.

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