Here is the speech I gave to the students and instructors on Friday at the Capitol. Some of you asked to read it...

Please note that the written speech is never given verbatim but serves as an outline. Where I sensed more interest I fleshed out the content on the fly. Where I found things to be flat I edited on the fly. During the speech I had a slide show running with 135 images that I selected from work images, theatrical work and (mostly) favorite personal portraits and greatest hits. 

( What is my point in making the speech?  To inspire and motivate a new generation of professional photographers!)

Kirk's Speech ©2014 Kirk Tuck. Do not use without permission!

Welcome. Welcome to Austin. We’ve been keeping it weird just for you.

There’s just one thing I want to talk to you about tonight. And that is the fact that right now, right in this moment, we are experiencing the golden age of photography. 

It’s not something that old guys got to have all the fun with in decades past. It’s right here and it’s right now.

When I first started out the camera companies had just come out with affordable cameras that could actually set their exposures AUTOMATICALLY.

The photographers who had been in the business for a while were all moaning and complaining that this would make photography so easy that no one would ever get a paying photo job again! Well, that obviously didn’t happen. The markets just got better and better because people started to understand that there was more to taking a great photograph than just getting the exposure right.

Next up?  Autofocus. That too, according to the people already in the photography business, was supposed to destroy the commercial market…

And after AF got really fast and worked most of the time that was what might kill off photography.  Then we found ourselves plunging into digital and even phone photography. The technical stuff has never been easier but it still just as difficult to take an interesting photo and it’s still damn hard to make a photo that will make people sit up, stare and go, “Wow!”

You people in this room have to find your way to make people go, “Wow!” And it’s not going to be by finding some new technical thing to fix.


Lucky for you I actually know the secret to getting more interesting photographs. I do. And usually I charge people thousands of dollars for the secret but tonight I’m going to give it away for free. Why free? Because most people are too lazy to use my secret to make their work better. Or they don’t believe it takes anything more than mastering their cameras and lenses to get better. But if you are willing to listen I’m ready to tell you….

To make more interesting photographs you have to change yourself.

You have to become a more interesting person.  If you are a more interesting person you’ll take more amazing images. Because people will be blown away by your point of view. 

I’m sure you know people who love their cameras. The whole world for them revolves around knowing the stories of their cameras. Which sensors are noiseless, which cameras can shooting in the dark, which lenses are the sharpest….everything technical.

But I bet you know people who can take great, amazing, wonderful photographs with just about any camera. What’s the difference? These photographers are using the cameras to take photographs of things, people, places and performances that really excite them. And they are just using a camera to share the excitement.

The whole secret is to find what it is in your life that makes you want to capture it in the camera and share it with everyone you know. The secret is to find the subject, topic or object that makes you single-mindedly obsessed. 

I have a friend who loves art, design and architecture. He makes images of houses and buildings that are beautiful. His photography is a way to share that beauty with other people who value design and art.

And what do your think fashion photographers love? They love clothes. For them fashion isn’t just a good excuse to pull out a camera it’s the reason to have a camera. They want to share the looks styles that excite them and make their brain cells move faster.

The people I don’t really understand are the generalists who don’t have a favorite subject but will just photography anything. What I think that means is that they haven’t found their passion yet. That photography is just a job. But we can do better than that and you can do better than that!

So, how do you become a more interesting person? 

I have a list and when I feel like my work is getting boring I read the list.
It reminds me to try stuff that makes me uncomfortable. To put myself into situations where I don’t fit in. Where I have to try new stuff with new people.

Here’s some samples to try:

Read more novels. But let someone else pick out the books for you. We pick safe or fun stuff for ourselves. Reading a novel about someone different from you puts you in their shoes.
Try new food. Eat Sushi. If you love meat become a vegetarian for a week. See stuff from a different side.
Find some friends who are a lot smarter than you. And find some friends who don’t know the stuff you know. Hang out with them.
If you grew up on Transformer Movies and James Bond movies go and see some romantic movies. And vice versa.
If you grew up going to a certain church go and be a guest at a totally different religious center. If you’ve been a Baptist all your life try visiting a Jewish Synagog or a Buddhist Temple. Your mind is like a parachute—— they both work best when they are open!!!
Go to museums and look at paintings and sculpture. Try to understand how the artists used light. Leave your camera at home so you make sure it’s all about learning something new not just finding something else at which to point your camera.
Find a website that’s about something you know nothing about and dive in. What do you know about cooking? Have you ever baked a cake? Find a website about making salads. When you learn to love food you’ll have more to talk about to more people than ever before. And you’ll get some good meals.

Learn to Speak Italian. Learn to make cowboy boots. Take a trip to somewhere freakishly exotic. And when you come back you’ll have stories to tell and a totally different way of looking at everything. 

A totally different way of looking at everything!!!! That’s the secret we’re looking for. Because if we look at stuff the same way everyone else does than why should anyone care about your vision. Who needs to make the millionth photograph of a coffee cup?
Unless that coffee cup is made out of a skull and filled with strange multi-colored coffee from a distant rainforest.

So the first part of my secret is to become a more interesting person. And I think you guys get it. 


The next secret I’m going to tell you is the secret formula for getting really good at photography. I don’t mean that your pictures of kitten whiskers get sharper I mean that everything you photograph just gets better and better. 

But first let me tell you a story.  I read it in a great book entitled “ART and FEAR.” 
At one of the prestigious universities there was a professor who was a great ceramics teacher. He turned out some of the artists who people call geniuses. 
And he did an interesting experiment.
He had a class of students who really, really wanted to be there and they all wanted to be the best. He divided his class into two halfs. And he said, All the students on this half of the class will proceed during the semester like this: You will only have to make one really perfect piece. Just one great sculpture and your entire grade will depend on that one piece of sculpture you create. But you have the whole semester to make it so it better be top notch. 

To the other half he said, “I hate to tell you this but I’m grading your work on a curve. And I’m grading it on the sheer volume. In fact, at the end of the semester I’ll weigh everything that you’ve done and the person with the most stuff will get the top grade. And so on. So you’ll need to really get some work done. The students got to work and the results were interesting. The group tasked with perfection were paralyzed. How do you make a perfect piece? The second group, the “how much can you make group” rolled up their sleeves and pounded away at the work for hours every day. 

And at the end of the semester a strange thing happened. The students who needed only one perfect piece didn’t do well at all. They were so afraid of failure that they had a hard time starting or committing. Their work was mediocre. 

But the second group had amazing results. Their group turned out hundreds and hundreds of great pieces because they were never afraid to try new stuff and possibly fail. As a result they took chances and tried everything. And they evolved. And their work soared. 

So, my second secret, the one that will lead you to photographic greatness is to jump in now and do photography all the time. Always be experimenting and trying new ways to do images. Don’t be afraid to fail. If you shoot ten times more stuff in a year than everyone around you then you essentially progress ten years beyond your competitors. Really. You are only limited by how much you can apply yourself. And really, you don’t need sleep, right? 

I know that by now you have me figured out and you know that their must be a third secret. Right? Well, there is but I’m not sure you’re ready for it. Maybe we should take a break from the secrets and have a discussion of which lens is sharper, the Canon 85mm or the Nikon 85mm. Right?

Well, I don’t have a clue so back to the secrets. But I will ask you not to share this one because it is so critical to finding a path that will make you great that it should be patented. But, if you think you are ready—- then let’s continue. 

A great writer, Joseph Conrad, once wrote “The treasure you desire to find is within the cave you fear.”
The way I like to say the same idea is:
The Passion is in the risk. 

Both phrases really mean the same thing. There are things that scare you in life and as a photographer. I know. I’ve been there. Some people are afraid to approach strangers and ask them to sit for a portrait. Some people are afraid to travel someplace foreign and different. Some people are afraid to show their work.

But the biggest thing I hear and the biggest fear I had to get over was to ask perfect strangers if they would let me take their photograph. Their portrait. And I wasn’t looking for just a chance encounter on the sidewalk. I wanted them to come to my studio and collaborate with me and give me an expression I loved. And I was scared to ask because I hated the idea of being rejected or people thinking I was weird or something. 

But when I started breaking through that fear I found the treasure. I found that photographing people in my studio was the thing I most wanted to do in photography. It was my treasure and it was hidden behind my fear of asking complete strangers to trust me and let me into their worlds, even if it was just for an hour or two. 

I’m going to bet that each one of you has one thing in photography that scares them. Asking strangers, showing a portfolio, sharing wild ideas that might get ridiculed. Or you are just so afraid of failing that you refuse certain kinds of projects. Learn to identify the biggest fears because those fears are the caves that hold the best treasures. And everyone’s fears and rewards are different

But I can guarantee that if you push yourself to go into the caves you fear you will emerge as a much more powerful photographer than you can imagine. 

So, do the things that make you nervous, push at the stuff that scares you. Do as much work as you can. Always be photographing.  And keep becoming a more interesting person. You’re 90% of the way toward being a great photographer.

But…….there’s one more thing. And it has nothing to do with gear and everything to do with all the stuff above. It’s the final secret. The one that makes Joey Lawrence and Zack Arias and Chase Jarvis successful and great role models. 

I will share this final secret with you tonight. It’s the easiest one to understand and may be the hardest of the four secrets to actually do. But if you do it. And you combine this one action with the three I’ve already disc used I can almost guarantee that you’ll be a successful imaging expert. A photographer of distinction. Here’s the secret: Go out and start now. Go show work now. Get work now. Find assignments now. Assign your self a project Now, Today. 

When I taught at UT I had a class with 30 students. It was a studio course. Most of the class put things off. They were waiting until they had just the right lens. They were waiting for the perfect camera. They didn’t show a portfolio because they were waiting for the perfect prints and better images. And many of them are still probably waiting for the perfect moment to launch their careers almost thirty years later. Sadly, most of them waited so long that they eventually gave up. 

But there were two students in the class who were so ready to work and shoot and play and collaborate with their photography that they immediately went out and put whatever they had learned that day into motion. 

They volunteered, they found clients and they launched. Immediately. By the end of the semester they were shooting for someone every day of the week and they were learning logarithmically. They might get stumped and when they did they’d rush back to the studio and figure out what to do and then go back out and shoot. One had one camera with one 50mm lens. He shot everything from fashion to head shots with it. The other person had one old Hasselblad that she mastered and she was still using it to shoot a Neiman Marcus catalog ten years later when I went to  visit her in Dallas. 

But their secret of success was to start now. Today. Not when all the stars lined up or when they owned every L lens in the Canon product catalog but right now with whatever was in their hands. And it became a habit. And now they always start. And 98% of people put off getting started until too late. 

So, if you always wondered why some people make it and most don’t you need to know it’s not a difference in talent or knowledge it’s the courage to go out right now and get started. 

I have so many friends who tried to do photography as a business when we all started out. I lived and breathed photography. My friend Will would used cheap cameras that were falling apart to shoot for Texas Monthly and other great magazines. He didn’t wait until he could afford the finest of all cameras. He went for it. And since he showed up and and had the desire he got the jobs. The jobs don’t wait until you are ready. Your projects won’t wait. What are you waiting for?

At the beginning of my talk I made the statement that these are the Golden Years of professional photography. How can that be when everyone in the world has an iPhone and everyone thinks they are a photographer? Magazines and newspapers are laying off pro photographers like crazy. Prices for work seem to be falling.

But. I think photography has finally split. We pros make what I would call Artifacts. These artifacts have a long life. They are meant to be used over and over again by advertisers and historians and that’s their power. That’s what gives them value. 

Most of the photography that’s being done casually by most people is what I would call consumables. Like coffee and hamburgers these images are just quick visual snacks that vanish into the web after one round of viewing on Facebook or Tumblr or Snapchat and then they are gone pretty much forever. 

We use talent, insight, intelligence and style to make artifacts. That’s what gives them their value. They are thoughtful and engaging images that serve a continuing purpose. And people will pay for sticky work like that.

The other reason that I say this is the golden age of photography is that this is the first time in the history of the world that you can share your work with people from around the planet. From China to El Paso. If your vision is unique you can have fans from around the globe. And you’ll be the first image makers who don’t need to depend on magazines and newspapers to reach people. You can create your own online media and you can control it and you can figure out how to make money with it. 

There are legions of people making money from their blogs and there are countless people who make income from YouTube for their videos. 

They reach audiences that most photographers never dreamed of in the past. And they make connections that we never thought possible.

I write a blog and just last year Samsung reached out and asked me to test their new camera. The one with cell data on board. They sent me a camera and a case of lenses and then sent me to Berlin for eight days to shoot. In the days before I put photos and stories up on the blog I doubt they would have ever found me. 

I teach online workshops for a company in Denver called craftsy.com. They pay me a percentage of every class they sell. My blog generates income. And now we make video for clients. 

Every year is like starting over. And I love it because it’s a level playing field. It’s a golden age because you get to make your own rules for success. You get to expand into making movies. You  get to decide how well your images are used. 

There’s only one danger in all of this for you. That’s the danger that you’ll do what so many people always do. You have to be on guard not to get comfortable with the status quo. Not to get too invested in one way of doing things. 

The danger is that you’ll get warm and comfortable and you won’t want to change, you won’t even want to acknowledge change when it is happening all around you. And one morning you’ll wake up and there will be no market for the stuff you spent perfecting for the last ten years. There will be new markets and they will eat the old markets. This is why you must always work at being a more interesting person. Because interesting people keep up with their culture. 

The best treasures go to the people who create the new markets not to the people who have to be pushed into learning after the fact.

Don’t be afraid to fail and don’t be afraid to break from the herd. The lonely hunter  generally has a better hunt. 

Your training and your self education is preparing you to make the most of the market right in front of you right now. You must jump in fearlessly. You’ll love it. And in thirty years I hope one of you will stand up here and tell students like you that They are living in the golden age of photography.

The end.


Mike said...

Brilliant. I think most people don't shoot enough. I know a lot of people with cameras that never make time to shoot and wonder why they're not happy.

BruceA said...


Phillip Bond said...

Really great speech, Kirk.

I think all photographers – regardless of where they are in their careers – could benefit from listening to that talk... rethinking their approach to their work.
I've been in this business for a long time know that I learned something from just reading it.

Thanks for posting it.

Tom Judd said...

I hope those kids realized how lucky they were to have been there with you.

G Gudmundsson said...

Very, verry, verrry good.... inspiring... thank you, thank you....

Robin Wong said...

My mind was blown away, Kirk. Wish I was there to listen to all this!
Thank you so much for sharing. So happy to see you mention "the passion is in the risk" again! That was one blog article you wrote that I will always remember.

Chaz L said...

Bravo. Well said and well thought out.

I'm sure the audience loved it.

Dave Jenkins said...

Very thought-provoking, Kirk, and good stuff for an old-timer in the business like me.

It is really, really time for you to put together a bunch of your blog posts and publish "Kirk Tuck on Photography." And go with a hard cover publisher such as Amphoto or Allworth. You will sell a ton of copies.

Your speech ties in with the three points of a sermon I heard a few years ago, and actually amplifies some of the points for me. I have made these points my life motto. They are:
Start Where You Are
Use What You Have
Do What You Can.

George said...

Well said! Thank you for the inspiration.

Michael Matthews said...

Well said, Kirk. I hope your young audience responded with enthusiasm.

Interesting that you mentioned Joey Lawrence. I'm completely ignorant of who's hot and who's not in the business. However, after coming across his Kickstarter project and kicking in $10 toward the "People of the Delta" project, his work has become an object of fascination. I can't imagine lugging all that lighting gear into the wild areas he explores -- nor standing neck-deep in a river which has to be crawling with parasites while shooting with a Phase One camera. Gotta give him credit: he follows the passion and takes the risk.

Dave Jenkins said...

I think I need to add one more point to the three I have been using as my guide:

Do It Now!

Anonymous said...

Great speech, Kirk!

It applies to much more than photography, by the way, it's an extremely thoughtful picture of our world these days...

+1 ;-)

Tommy Morgan said...

You have made this an easy comment to make, it is..."many thanks for sharing".

mgr said...

Thanks for posting this! Very thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

That's the most relevant article I've seen about how to become a better photographer, and a much more expanded version of what my teacher said: "Go and take an art class". Well said, sir, well said.

Eric H.

Nikita said...

Thank you for this post, Kirk.

I'm just a hobbyist, and have been at it for some time. The advice rings very true for me - my best work (and the most fun I've had) was when I was snapping with a 3.2mp Nikon point and shoot back in the day. It's all the gear I had, and all I wanted. Then DSLRs came along and I became distracted with gear, quality, pixel pitch, etc.

Anyway, I'm going through the transition now: from someone who shoots anything and everything, to someone with focus. I realized that I enjoy taking (and making) pictures of architecture/cityscapes the most, so I think I'll just focus on that and see how far I can get with it.

Thanks again, it was inspiration and succinct.


Jim Waite said...

Well Done!!!

Carmen Hong said...

This is amazing. I have been dabbling seriously with photography for a year plus and I came to a point where I questioned my pictures and why I was doing it.

It's great reading your article, gives me a different perspective. Thank you!

Ron Nabity said...

Thanks for sharing your speech. It is a simple and powerful description of what it really takes to move forward.

I don't think any one of us is too old to listen to those words. I know it rattled some cobwebs in my own head.

Again, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Nicely Done! But how was your delivery?

Anonymous said...

This is begging to be turned into a book sir'

Juan Carlos said...

Pretty awesome speech! Words of wisdom not only for photography, but for other things in life as well. Thank you for posting.

arg said...

Thank you Kirk. I have that book, Art and Fear. I bought it because I know the Fear.

Huw Morgan said...

Thanks for the inspiration, Kirk. I have a couple of questions/comments:

Loved the goal of becoming a more interesting person, but I wonder if it necessarily leads to better photography. I'm thinking of Vivian Meier who hid her personality from everyone and acted as a perfect mirror for the people around her. Was it the lack of Vivian's visible personality that lent itself to the objectivity to the work? Or, was she an interesting person, but well-disguised? Is it better to be an interesting person or an interested person? Are they the same thing?

The other comment that made me think was your last one about being a lone hunter. There is a lot of evidence that teams produce better quality output than individuals. In my experience, being a semi-pro enthusiast, enrolling in photography workshops is a terrific way to share an experience with intelligent, skillful people who are passionate about the same subject matter. Just because you are part of a group does not mean that your work needs to be similar. In fact, it is always astonishing that the same workshop group, creating images of the same subject matter, can generate such a variety of interpretations.

In reflecting on your speech and your blog, I think you naturally gravitate to lone pursuits, like swimming. Those of us who like teams and belonging to groups are capable of creativity as well. There is no hard, fast rule.

Thanks again for sharing the speech. It was very motivating.

Cheers from Toronto

Kirk Tuck said...

Huw, thanks for the thoughtful post. I think being interested and being interesting are intertwined and both can be internal, not necessarily external.

I will respectfully disagree about teams. If you are producing widgets and you want to increase overall "productivity" then a team might be the answer, but from Beethoven to Einstein and Penn to Elliott Erwitt all great creations are done at the hands (and minds) of solo individuals. No great creative mind would tolerate the homogenization of their original vision and none would want it altered by compromise.

The building of teams is done for the advantage of the herd, not the individual. The team ensures continuity not creativity.

We'll just have to disagree on this one.

Dave Vargo said...

That was a fantastic speech! Well done.

The bit about the artifacts got me thinking about the gear side of things.

I have humble gear, but do photographers compromise the potential longevity of their artifacts by not using the highest resolution gear that they can? What happens when Quad UHD becomes common? Will those stills hold up to being part of a slide show on a 100" TV that is 7680x4320 pixels. Do those monster megapixel cameras, huge and cumbersome though they may be, actually add to the potential longevity of the artifacts?

Mark W. said...

Thank you!