What I’ve Learned in My Nearly 35-Year Career

What I’ve Learned in My Nearly 35-Year Career with Anne Geddes

When I first picked up a camera at the relatively late age of 25, I had no idea what my future held. And that’s true, of course, for anybody beginning any career that’s inspired by a passion, which is part of the magic. However, I knew I had my own story to tell.

At the start of my journey, I stumbled and made mistakes as we all do… but those mistakes were all part of a steep learning curve. For the first 10 years of my career, I exclusively did private portrait commissions. That experience was invaluable in that it taught me how to deal with children of all ages. It’s difficult at the best of times to connect with a child who considers you a stranger, and to draw out the uniqueness in each child within a very limited time puts huge extra pressure on that connection.

Now after many years of experience, I pretty much know that I can achieve results out of any difficult situation. Here’s some of what I’ve learned over my nearly 35-year career.

You will never continue to develop as an artist unless you have your own unique story to tell… your own voice

I say this time and time again when asked for advice from students and photographers who are just starting out. But this also applies to those who’ve been photographers for many years. My own work since the very beginning has centered on a continued exploration of the mystery and meaning of new life. I consider myself a storyteller and maybe you should too. So, what’s your story? Your work should speak for who you are, what you represent.

Think of your photographic equipment as simply a storytelling tool

Yes, get to know it well and then move forward with the story you have to tell. Great images are ones that you can look at for a long, long time. And when you look at a great image, right then I can pretty much guarantee that you’re never wondering what camera was used. Great images always come from the heart and make an emotional connection.

Just on equipment though, most of my book, Pure, was shot on a Sinar 4” x 5” film camera. I’ve also used Hasselblad and Mamiya cameras for years (both film and digital) and have lately been using both Nikon and Canon SLRs now that their file sizes are large enough and I’m getting beautiful results. I also have a digital Leica that I carry with me all the time.

If your work looks the same as everybody else’s, you’re not pushing yourself to be better every day

Everybody needs to start somewhere, but always keep evolving. Strive to find your own unique style. And it may take time for that style to develop. Here’s when it happened for me. In the very early days of my career, I was struggling with developing my own style. I was doing portraiture in people’s homes and gardens and it just wasn’t working for me.

Then one day, in my local newspaper, I noticed a very simple black and white portrait image of a young girl and I was so drawn to it because of that exact simplicity. I contacted the photographer and asked if she needed an unpaid assistant, which thankfully she did. And the moment I walked into a photographic studio it was like coming home.

I love the control of a studio, creating the setting and developing the lighting… the excitement of creating something that wasn’t there before. Like magic. Find your own magic, whatever that may be. I like to completely strike a set after each shoot and begin afresh with the next. For me, it’s a way to not fall into the same old lighting habits. I want every shoot to teach me something more about lighting, because that’s a process of endless discovery.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything can be fixed in post-production and resist the temptation to make your retouching totally unrealistic

Get it right in camera, because that means you’ll be learning new things each time and pushing yourself to be better. And it’s not the number of images you’re shooting, but the quality of each one.

I’ve noticed these days that a lot of “newborn” retouching looks totally surreal. As a professional photographer, your challenge is to create unique, yet realistic images for clients that stand the test of time.

Lately I’ve started using one of my old Softar 1 filters on my lens. I find that this very subtle filter takes the edge off the hardness of ever larger digital files, and it makes for less retouching in post.

Once a month, set yourself a day to create an image purely for yourself 

This is what I started to do very early on when I was increasingly in demand for portrait commissions. Working constantly with very young children is hard work, and I needed a creative outlet just for myself, which is where I began with a black and white image of baby Joshua suspended in calico (which used to be the traditional way of weighing babies). I remember taking a print home that night, placing it on my dining table and thinking, “I really like that,” and my own opinion was the only one that counted. The following month, I shot the twins in the cabbages and so on.

You need to be challenging yourself constantly, and those personal shoots once a month led me on a creative path I never would have gone down had I just kept doing my regular portraiture.

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Study the history of photography and the work of photographers who have gone before you 

I guarantee this will make you a better photographer because you’ll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of your craft. And great images from the past will always stay with you in one form or another.

Start with the beautiful work of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), considered one of the most important portraitists of the 19th century, and go exploring from there.

With every shoot, always strive to be better… to create something new and beautiful that didn’t exist before… but tell your story in your own unique way

If you’re creating exactly the same work, day after day, year after year, you can’t be calling yourself an artist. Challenge yourself every time you pick up your camera.

Mother Nature is always a wonderful reference point

Mother Nature is the greatest artist of all. She never gets her colors wrong and she never ceases to surprise and inspire. And that’s our job as artists as well. For instance, nature was my constant guide when I was shooting for my 6th coffee table book, Beginnings, featuring elements of nature that bring forth new life, alongside beautiful pregnant women and tiny babies. Essentially, I constantly look to nature for inspiration.

Studio rules I live by

 I’m often asked about my studio team, which is in fact fairly small. These days, I mainly do commissioned work and for this I have my regular freelance team of Producer, Production Assistant, Stylist, Digital Operator, and one or two Camera Assistants, depending on how big the job is. And I always work with the same studio nurse, who is, by the way, a legal requirement here in New York for all commercial shoots involving children. She is also my trusted person to be on set with the baby when I go back to the camera. Her sole function when she is on set is to never take her eyes off the baby.

Safety is paramount and I can’t stress this enough. In the studio, nobody handles the baby apart from myself and the nurse (apart from parents, that is). When there are lots of people in the studio, which is sometimes the case, the temptation for people is to pass the baby around, but this can never happen. You must have eyes in the back of your head and be experienced at reading a room. As the photographer, you are responsible for every aspect of the shoot.

On the subject of safety, it makes me go cold when I see videos online of photographers photographing newborns from above, with no camera strap around their necks. If you’re ever photographing from above, triple check your camera and always wear the safety strap.

If you have multiple babies in the studio at the same time, each baby should have their own clean and appropriate change space. Always wash your hands before touching another baby and use hand sanitizer. These days, of course we’re all more hyper aware of the need for hand washing, but it’s been my rule since day one. And absolutely no hot drinks.

I safety chain all lights, sandbag all stands, and I always double check this myself. Siblings of the baby models are never allowed to come to a commercial shoot. Busy and energetic small children running around in the studio is a recipe for disaster. You must always be in control and super safety-conscious. And you must completely trust the team you are working with. Brief them before every shoot.

I’m asked a lot about how my props and sets are made. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with the same props/styling person (Dawn McGowan) since my very first coffee table book, Down in the Garden (1996). Today, I live in New York and Dawn still lives in New Zealand (where I had my studio for 18 years). The wonders of the internet make continuing to work together possible.

Lastly, But most Important

We as photographers face a challenging future, with the domination of smartphones opening the door to the ubiquitous advance of millions of images daily. The word “photographer” has lost some of its magic, which is why it’s more important than ever to define yourself by your point of difference. Reach inside yourself, for your uniqueness, your story, your expression, your talent. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your profession.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the June 2020 magazine.