How to Get a Photography Mentor

I count myself fortunate and flattered to receive emails from aspiring photographers hoping to meet up and learn more about my business and processes, or offering to shadow/assist me to gain experience. Part of me says “really, me? You want to learn from ME?” while another part of me is firmly put back into place with a line that typically mentions how many rejections from other photographers the inquirer has already received.

(Pro-tip: leave that part out.)

It is true, though, that if you are approaching photographers to be your mentor, the majority of them are going to say “no.” It’s not because of you personally; it’s because of a cumulative set of situations and experiences. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to address all the questions put to me by a photography student, only to receive *crickets* back – not so much as a “thank you” in return. It’s disheartening! On the flip side, successfully striking up a mentoring relationship with someone does end up taking time and energy away from my business; while being shadowed on shoots can be awkward for both me and my clients. Finally, many photographers simply have no interest in being teachers – teaching is a whole different career, and that’s okay.

Oh wait, there’s one other thing too, that’s not talked about much: the awkwardness of having someone build a business on your work. Some people are obviously trying to use mentoring as a fast-track to building a photography business. Shadow someone for a week, take some photos, and boom! You’ll have a portfolio, business practices, and a template to work from!

*needle scratch*

Nah. Taking photos is the easy part, made even easier when you’re shooting over someone’s shoulder at their clients. It can be frustrating for photographers to be hustling, getting clients, setting up images, and then seeing another photographer filling their portfolio with that work.

Does this sound overwhelmingly negative? I just want you to know what you’re up against, and I want you to be realistic about what you’re asking. There is no fast-track to becoming a successful photographer. (Neither is there one definition of what makes a successful photographer).

With that in mind, I’ve written out these few tips – by no means definitive – to help you succeed in your search for a mentor. They’re written from my perspective (obviously), so just insert Your Prospective Mentor as required.

Know what you want. You already know that what you’re asking is kind of a lot, so what specifically are you hoping to get out of it? Constructive criticism, or ego-fluffing? Portfolio images? Business advice? Gear advice? When I get inquiries from students who are basically saying “I’ll take anything! Tell me everything!” I shut down because (1) that sounds like a HUGE commitment (2) I’m not a mind-reader, I don’t know what you need, and (3) I don’t have the time to write a Be A Photographer curriculum for you. Sit down and really think about what your goals are and what holes you are trying to fill before contacting someone.

Be honest. Sometimes I get mentoring inquiries that are written as though the person is, out of the kindness of their heart, offering to help me. The truth is that if I wanted help, I would be seeking it out, not the opposite! I shut these inquiries down because I am not looking for help at this time… but if you write me honestly about how you need help, that’s a whole other story!

Know that you will not be paid. Look, I’m against using unpaid interns as employees, but when you’ve contacted someone hoping to shadow or assist them, that knowledge is all the payment you’re going to get.

Spelling counts. Okay, this one is specifically for me. I have the fact that I am a grammar freak right in my ‘about me’ page, so if you can’t take the time to formulate a cohesive and coherent email – one with punctuation and everything! – I am probably going to dismiss you outright. I’m old-school like that.

Talk about yourself. What are you besides an aspiring photographer? Do we have anything in common? What do you do for fun? Part of the reason you might have contacted me is that between Facebook, Twitter, my website, and my blog, you already feel like you know me. I don’t know you, though, so help me out! Pique my interest!

Offer to take them out for coffee. Maybe it’s not the most gracious thing to admit, but sometimes when I get inquiries for mentoring I wonder what’s in it for me. Should I tell you everything it’s taken me years and who knows how many dollars to learn because you asked nicely? Here’s the thing though: I am happy to tell you these things! I’m pretty much an open book. All I really want is to create a connection with someone and know that the effort was appreciated. Emails are cold and boring and time-consuming, but I’ll happily meet up with you for a chat.

Be proactive about your own education. I’m a self-taught photographer. Everything I know about photography has been through years of trial and error, checking books out from the library, googling it, lurking on various forums, reading.the.fucking.manual. I’ve devoted countless weekends to sitting in front of my computer watching free online workshops; I flew to Las Vegas for WPPI. I’ve taken 10,000 photographs in the last month alone. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve started having the kinds of questions I want or need to ask other photographers (in fact I was in business for at least a year before I talked to any other photographers at all). So take the reins, fire up the intellectual curiosity machine and try to find the answer yourself first… ask someone second. If you aren’t self-motivated, a career in photography is probably not for you.

Hire them. You really want to get to know a photographer? See how they work? Find out how they interact with and pose their clients? See how they edit a session? Look at their packaging? Get their price lists? All of this information can be discovered by… hiring them!

That’s about it, but if anyone else has tips or suggestions, leave them in the comments!

Oh, and by the way… I am considering offering more formal coaching/mentoring sessions in 2013. Please email me if you are interested!