When I became a photographer I spent the first few years in the trenches attempting to figure out the magic formula for success. As time went on I realized that there is no such thing. Being happy and successful in a creative industry is all about being honest to your own process. While that does vary from person to person I have found that there are a few things that work for me and, after countless conversations with close friends, I’m told may be worth sharing.

While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I do have a few that I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up along the way. Some I’ve talked about before, some I haven’t. These are all over the board and don’t necessarily fall into one niche part of the business. From clearing your creative headspace to the importance of surrounding yourself with the right team…here they are in no particular order.

1. Shoot What You Want To Get Paid For

Until the day I die I will thank Chase Jarvis for instilling this philosophy in me from the start. Whether you’re a newcomer building your portfolio or a veteran getting ready for your tenth assignment this month, always be shooting what you want to be paid for, commissioned and personal work alike. This has been a core mantra for me since day one and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.

2. Make Time For Personal Work

Being a photographer and a director these days means I’m constantly on the go. So much so that a month can go by before I have time to catch my breath. From music videos to album covers to editorial spreads, there’s a lot to do and I love every minute of it. In the midst of the daily insanity I’ve discovered how important personal work is to my creative health. The freedom of having no budgets, no pressure to deliver by a particular date, and being the only person speaking into the process is a chance to recharge my batteries. This type of freedom also allows for the highest degree of experimentation. Fresh ideas evolve my work. They make me better than I was yesterday. And it’s not only good for me but good for my clients. Bringing a fresh perspective equals more engaging content. So no matter how hard you’re working or how busy things get, make it a point to regularly set aside time for personal work.

3. Don’t Worry About Being Trendy – Worry About Being Good

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Trends come and go. Years ago every photographer I met wanted to replicate Dave Hill’s hyper-surreal composite work. Then a year or two later it became all about the Terry Richardson bare-flash-against-a-white-wall look and those same photographers jumped ship to hop aboard the S.S. Terry. They became so consumed with the latest trends that they never took the time to get really good at something. These days most of them aren’t even photographers anymore. I think Dave Hill, Terry Richardson, Joey L., Norman Jean Roy, Chase Jarvis, etc are all great at what they do. They spent countless hours to become masters of their look. Whether you’ve found your signature or are still looking for it, resist the temptation to jump on a bandwagon for the sake of popularity. Instead devote everything you have to being exceptionally good at what truly captures your creativity.

4. You Won’t Get To Their Soul

When I shifted from photographing friends to celebrities I became consumed with capturing the soul of a person, whatever that meant. I think I wanted to get something “different” than all those other photographers before me. It was incredibly pretentious and arrogant. Looking back it only put unnecessary pressure on everyone. These days my main focus is simply getting the subject to feel comfortable. That’s when I get the best stuff. Most of the time I won’t even pickup a camera for the first few minutes of a session. I’ll walk them through what I have in mind, show them where I’d like them to be, and then slowly work into the shot. This applies to every session whether I have 5 minutes or 5 hours. In fact, nearly all of my favorite work has come from sessions that only lasted a few minutes.

5. Don’t Stockpile

I tell this to everyone I know; don’t sit on content. Over the years I’ve come to realize that creatives have a tendency to store up work and let it trickle out slowly. While necessity for some most of us do it because, “If I release everything now I won’t have anything to post next week!?” and while true it’s also damaging to your creative headspace. Think about it for a second. What do you do if your bank account reaches $0? You find a way to go make more money. Having your content bank empty means you’ll be motivated to go create more. In turn you’ll find yourself invigorated about your work. Which leads me to…

6. Get Inspired And Follow Through (Create > Share > Sustain)

When I get an idea I write it down in Wunderlist. I take a few minutes to think through the details. Then, before I tell myself I won’t have time, I send a note to the crew and pick a date for the shoot, preferably within two weeks. It’s that last step of getting it out of my head that’s crucial. When ideas come it’s easy for them to get lost in the noise of everyday life and if they do you’ll find yourself six months down the road not having made anything new. Trust me when I say that can be soul crushing. By getting inspired, following through, and creating something, you are feeding your creative brain (and your actual brain). Chalk up another one to Chase Jarvis who preached a great formula a few years back that still rings true: create > share > sustain.

7. Talent Imitates, Genius Steals

Cliché? Yes. True? Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stolen ideas straight from other photographs or films. By stealing I don’t mean blatantly copying shot for shot. There’s nothing admirable in copying something down to the last detail. But let’s face it, nobody is an original. Even groundbreaking artists like The Beatles or Pharrell have been influenced directly or indirectly by someone else. The irony is that more often than not the work you create based on the idea you stole looks nothing like the original. Case in point…

Back when I wrote and directed the “Multiplied” video for NEEDTOBREATHE, I was really into the latest Thirty Seconds To Mars video for “City Of Angels“. I loved the visual of Jared Leto performing against a colorful sky. As a result of my thieving ways I wrote the NEEDTOBREATHE performance to be against a sunset. The day came for the shoot and instead of clear skies we were hit with a massive thunderstorm. While initially disappointed, when watching it on the monitors it couldn’t have been more perfect. Here’s what I mean…

My video on the left, the one I stole the idea from is on the right. Now granted Jared Leto didn’t invent sunset performances for music videos. He most likely got the idea straight from somewhere else. A movie, photograph, or painting. The point is it’s ok to steal. It makes us better. By stealing from the best it forces you to deconstruct the process and in turn raises your bar. More on that later down the list…

8. Do Your Homework

When I am preparing for a session I take time to study the subject. I learn about their career in detail, study past interviews, and see what they are currently doing. It’s a small but important part of the process.

9. Go With Your Gut

Always, always, always go with your gut. Trust your instincts. You can’t please everyone and if you try you’ll find yourself having a very short career. Simple as that.

10. Learn To Meditate

While more of a universal life lesson I’ve found it an important part of my career. Taking time each day to meditate has become incredibly important for me. Personally I practice Transcendental Meditation but any time where you can live in the quiet is beneficial. On any given day I’m juggling half a dozen assignments and things are constantly changing. Major obstacles are popping up out of nowhere and I could easily find myself derailed in no time at all. Having a clear sense of the bigger picture and feeling connected to what’s most important in life keeps me balanced.

11. Keep It Simple (It’s Not About The Gear)

I used to think having the latest pro body, tons of Profoto packs, and every little cool new gadget was a representation of my success and the only way to make better photos. Then one day I looked at the gear shelves and noticed that nearly everything still had tags attached. The marketing machine of this industry had convinced me that the latest camera sensor and a new revolutionary light modifier was going to make me a better photographer. The next day I sold nearly everything. Today I keep things simple with an “old” 1DS MKIII (my personal favorite) and a Profoto kit along with a few light modifiers. I know that setup inside and out and it works for 99% of what I do as a photographer. Everything in my current portfolio was made using that setup. If I ever really need anything else…well, that’s why rental houses exist.

That being said, these days you don’t even need a pro body and expensive lighting. I took this photo of my good friend (and artist) Marc Scibilia using nothing but my phone and a table lamp. Didn’t even need Photoshop, just a little VSCO adjustment. Honestly, it’s not about the gear.

12. Know When It’s Not Working

There are times on set when a concept just isn’t working. It takes a clear head to see it, accept it, and move things along. Back in the day I would dig at an idea until I became irrevocably frustrated which did nothing but cause stress for all involved. It was all ego. I couldn’t cope with the reality that my idea had failed. It’s tough when you can see it in your head but it simply doesn’t manifest the way you imagined. Maybe the mood isn’t right, the clothes don’t work, or the weather fell apart at the last minute. Whatever it is don’t stress it. Keep calm and move on.

13. Learn When To Say ‘No’

If it doesn’t feel right it’s perfectly acceptable to say it. There have been plenty of times in my career when a client was too good to be true or I simply didn’t feel that I would the best fit. It takes time but knowing what you don’t want is just as valuable, if not more so, as knowing what you do. What’s the point in spending all of this time and energy to build a brand if you just end up diluting it with any project that comes your way?

14. Get Away. Read A Book. Have a drink.

Ok so technically that’s three things but…this took me a long time to accept and put into practice. As someone who absolutely loves to work it can be tough pulling myself away from it. Yet over time I found that taking a little time away meant I was coming back to the table stronger. Step away from the e-mail. Go read a book. Take a walk. Have a drink with friends. Be involved with the world around you past the square window of Instagram. You can’t be a great artist if you have nothing in life but your own work to inspire you.

15. Chase The Best

Pretty early on I decided that I wasn’t going to waste time competing with photographers at my level. My focus was, and has always been to chase the top tier players. Annie, Norman, Mark…these are the people dominating portrait photography and if I want to measure up I’m not going to do it by being a big fish in a little pond.

16. Be Selective About Who’s Around You

While at the bottom of this list it’s certainly one of the most important. Over my 5 years I’ve gone through a lot of different staff and crew members. In the beginning I figured the more people (especially other photographers) I had on my set the better. Hands down one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. As the years went on I discovered a few things about myself. When I’m on set I’m quite obsessive compulsive and incredibly vulnerable to stress. I need to implicitly trust that everyone in the room is doing their jobs. I can’t be worried if the hair stylist is paying attention or my lighting assistant is listening to the adjustments I’m calling out. Thankfully I now have a great team that allows me to focus on doing what I do best. The lesson here: make it a point to be picky and surround yourself with people who provide the kind of support that allows you to be the best at what you do.

I’m not great at closers so…

Sean Hagwell