A few years ago on holidays I read a little gem of a book by advertising legend Paul Arden “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”

Arden was a creative director at London advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, and was responsible for some of the most famous British advertising campaigns of all time.

One of my favourite books!

To quote his obituary published in The Independent “Arden was the ringmaster behind the whole creative circus that saw British Airways become ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’, The Independent become the new intelligentsia’s favourite newspaper, Margaret Thatcher the nation’s favourite leader and Silk Cut their favourite cigarette.”

In the case of the British Airways , it’s said that Arden’s ads changed the fortunes of the airline. (He was also in charge of the Fujifilm account during this time, though in his obituary, there was no mention of that becoming Britain’s favourite film.)

I read this little book about once a year, it’s funny, insightful, and full of snippets of advice and inspiration for creative people.

Buy the book

Even the cover has a clever little play on words under the title… it reads “The world’s best-selling book by Paul Arden”. I was most impressed when I first saw this, was this really the world’s best selling book? Then it dawned on me, it’s the world’s best selling book written by Paul Arden.

Much of the advice in the book is aimed at copy writers and people working in ad agencies, but the book also contains many pearls of wisdom for all creatives from all walks of life.

Wynnum, Canon Sure Shot Supreme, Kodak Ultramax 400

Below, I’ve taken nine quotes from the book and interpreted them in a way that you can apply to your photography. I’ve added some photos to this page from my camera testing around Brisbane in the last couple of months.

“Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have.”

I love this quote so much. Arden follows that up on the same page by saying “Without having a goal, it’s difficult to score.” Words to live by.

So what is your vision of where or who you want to be? What is your ultimate photographic aim? To sell prints? To create zines? To start a blog or a podcast? To become a Magnum photographer?

Start talking steps towards that goal today.

If you want to become a portrait photographer, look at what skills and equipment you’ll need to succeed in that objective. It could be said that everything else is a distraction.

If you’ve always wanted to put your prints in an art show, or create a zine, or start a blog or podcast, map out a plan over six or 12 months on how you can get there.

Marshall Dalmatian, Olympus AF10, Kodak Ultramax 400

“To be original, seek inspiration from unexpected sources.”

What can photography from different genres teach us? Quite a lot actually.

Study another type of photography that you usually wouldn’t be interested in. If you’re a street photographer, look at fashion photography. If you primarily shoot black and white, look at colour travel photography.

Pickup some newspapers or magazines in your local library, or go exploring on social media. What can you learn from trendy wellness magazines? From Instagrammers? What do they do well in terms of how they present their photography? What can you learn from them? Probably quite a lot.

“The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.”

Sometimes when we make a mistake with a roll of film or a camera we do have a inclination to beat ourselves up about making an error, whether it be ruining the rolls in the development, dropping the camera, or having an entire roll of bad exposures or missed focus.

But failure is part of photography, just as it’s a part of life.

Here’s an interesting reminder: Scientists fail all the time, they call their failures ‘experiments’, and they’re allowed to fail multiple times before success.
Next time you have a disappointing set of images, take a close look at them. What worked? What didn’t work? What can you can you do better next time? it’s all part of the creative process.

Grounded Kangaroo, Nikon LiteTouch Zoom 130, Kodak Pro Image 100

“Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.”

How often do we post our photos to Instagram and Facebook hoping to receive an avalanche of likes and comments?

It’s natural to do this, something that social media companies have exploited with the design of their platforms, but it doesn’t encourage the most useful kind of feedback: constructive criticism.

The real value is by asking others how you can make something better.

Maybe you could ask a photography friend for an honest opinion of your work, or what do you do best? Ask them to be brutally honest about your strengths, and what you could improve. It might surprise you, and it might just make you a better photographer.

Palm trees multi exposure, Canon Sure Shot Tele, Fujifilm Superia 200

“If you get stuck, draw with a different pen.”

As an advertising man, Arden meant this point literally. Instead of using felt tip pens for layouts, he tells the tale in the book of when he used water colours for a layout and the client were so impressed they increased their advertising budget significantly.

“Change your tools, it may free your thinking” says Arden, and that point can be made with photographers too who are in a rut.

If you usually shoot large format, why not get out there with a 110 camera.

If you like point and shoots, why not shoot a few rolls with an SLR?

If you shoot with a Leica, why not give a plastic toy camera a go?

It may just free your thinking.

“Don’t be afraid of silly ideas”

We all get mental blocks… the way to get unblocked is by losing our inhibitions and stop worrying about being right.

Arden suggests two tricks to get rid of creative blockages

The first is to do the opposite of what the situation requires. That could mean shooting sports with a TLR, or portraits with a point and shoot.

The second is to look out the window and whatever catches your eye, make that the solution to your problem.

Yellow and blue, Contax G1, Agfa Vista 400

“Give away everything you know and more will come back to you.”

“Ideas are open knowledge” says Arden “Don’t claim ownership.”

Got an idea on how to do something or solve a problem? Tell people. Arden says that if you give away everything you know, it forces you to replenish and look for new things.

What does this mean for photographers? Share your knowledge. Get together with others and talk about what you do. Be generous and helpful to others. Generally, I think this is something that photographers do pretty well, though of course, there’s always room from improvement.

How could you make more of a difference with the knowledge you have?

“Don’t look for the next opportunity, the one you have in hand is the opportunity.”

Arden has some good advice: “Whatever is on your desk right now, that’s the one. Make it the best you possibly can.”

The same thing goes for photography. We’ve all been guilty of finishing off a roll in a camera we don’t particularly like to get it out of the way.

Test rolls – take photos of the dog in the back yard and a gazillion.

Now I make a special effort to drive to different places I haven’t been to before with the sole purpose of exploring and taking new images. As well as testing these cameras, I’m also building up a library of images shot in different colour negative stocks and I also have plans to create standalone reviews.

Love and rainbows, Capalaba, Canon Sure Shot Multi Tele, Kodak Gold 200

“You are the magic.”

In the book, Arden explains that you shouldn’t hand your work over to a supplier hoping they will produce the magic for you, rather, you are the magic.

The same could also be said about photography, don’t expect a film or a camera or a lab or a location to bring the magic by itself.

I’ve seen some pretty ordinary photos taken on some very expensive cameras, and I’ve seen some extraordinary photos taken on cameras that most people wouldn’t touch with bargepole.

Just recently, I took some really lovely images in Brisbane with a Canon Af-7/8, a cheap plastic point and shoot, and Kodak Pro Image 100, one of the cheapest consumer print films.

YOU are the magic!

Buy the book!

Buy “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be” by Paul Arden for around $10USD on Amazon. This is an affiliate link, so if you do buy anything you will be sending a small commission my way.

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