Do you really want to improve?
This is a topic that's been on my mind for about a year now and right now feels like the right time to collect my thoughts on this. I have taught countless classes and spent numerous hours doing one on one mentoring with people who are wanting to improve their photography. I also get loads of questions on social media from people wanting advice. I am normally happy to answer some questions here and there even though teaching is one of the ways I make money with photography.
So here we go.. This applies to brand new photographers and those that may feel stuck with their current skill level, so if you think this is directed specifically to you, please don't take offense. I'm only trying to help. The typical photographer that reaches out to me directly through social media has less than 2 years experience with their camera and the people that pay me for mentoring have 3 or more years experience. The people who pay for private mentoring understand that creating art requires refinement and a good understanding of the basic skills that go into photography. They are so motivated to improve their photography that they are willing to spend money for one on one sessions. These photographers experience exponential growth over the course of their time with us. The average student reports feeling that they found their style and feel comfortable enough executing that style consistently enough without the need to have us there as a safety net. They stay on as students even beyond this point because they know that their education and growth hasn't stopped. The mentoring sessions aren't all fun and games either. They regularly have homework and submit images to us for harsh critique. The images are critiqued harshly only because it points out where there is room for improvement. Feedback on how to address those items is also provided and if necessary we try again until we achieve success.
This brings me to the other group of people. It is great that they have a lot of passion right now, and if they focus that passion and take the time to learn the very basics that are out there, they can start to focus on the things that really matter. The 3 most common questions I get are what lens should I get, how much should I charge, and do you sell presets. I will address these in order.
If you need to ask me what lens to get, then you are still so new to photography that you absolutely need to spend more time doing basic research on photography and understand why photographers use specific lenses. Just because a lens works for me and the work I do, doesn't mean it will be the right one for you. Research what other professionals are using to accomplish the shots you like. I've used a wide variety of lenses, but as far as owning lenses goes, I am a minimalist, and only have 3 lenses in my bag. So asking what lens I recommend will probably get you an answer that is not that helpful. The better question to ask instead should be on the topic of lighting. No amount of camera gear and lenses will make an image shot in crap light good.
The question I will be least helpful with is regarding how much someone should charge. My answer, or lack of one, isn't because I want to keep my price sheet secret or anything. The simple truth is the moment someone tells me they charge, and that they want me to tell them how much they should charge is the moment I look at their work at the same standards I hold myself to. Chances are if you are newer to photography and you've asked me this question, I have looked at your work, and I have advised you to take 1-2 years to find yourself as an artist and develop some base skills. In my opinion a photographer needs to be consistent with their work, and if you are new or are still trying to figure things out chances are good that your work is not consistent enough across things like sharpness, color grading, and lighting. The reason why you need to be consistent is because potential clients will have no idea which style of work you will be shooting for them.
Presets.... I really don't even want to talk about this topic. 99% of my editing takes place in Photoshop because I feel like I have more control over my image in photoshop and I can layer adjustments to create the end result I want. I will not now or ever create a Lightroom preset. If I mentor someone that decides to buy a preset I make them figure out how it was put together. Photographers that buy presets from a different photographer and doesn't take the time to tear it apart and figure it out are stopping their growth as a photographer. It is a lazy shortcut that will catch up to you. Over the course of time styles change and things evolve. Once the color grading method of the preset you bought fades in popularity you will be left with a portfolio that is uninspiring and date, and you will be lacking the skill to stay current until the next popular style of preset goes on sale. Stop depending on other people to create your style for you.
If you are newer to photography or are in a rut trying to push yourself to new levels, it is absolutely vital that you not only look at and study the work of other photographers, but also the work of other artists like painters. There is a lot that be learned while looking at one of the paintings of an Old Master. The thought of an artist not taking in the work of other artists insane. Can you imagine a musician saying that they don't listen to music? If you really want to improve your photography, the answer is simple... Put in the hard work, and be honest with yourself.