In 1988 I began writing for photography magazines and in 1994 I became an editor-in-chief. Since that job ended I've written for magazines and on the web. Virtually all during that time, people have come to me regularly asking for advice about how to succeed as a photographer.
On one level this is somewhat curious, because I'm not a very successful photographer myself. (When I was asked during a lecture at a high school once what kind of photographer I am, I answered "I'm a writer." To paraphrase the old joke, as a photographer I'm a pretty good writer.) And I either don't know enough about marketing or else I just don't have much of a knack for it.
But if we take a somewhat broader definition of "success," then I believe I can speak usefully to this question. That is, this may not be the key to the making a living kind of success, but I believe it's the key to the being good kind.
It's a test that can be applied. And it's a backwards test. I've made a habit of this for many years: when I come across a photograph that's obviously by some well-regarded photographer but that I've never seen before, I simply try to guess who the photographer was.
I fancy that I'm surprisingly good at it. Without being totally immodest here, I believe I have a good eye for visual style. And of course practice helps. And I know a lot of photographers, at least those in the small subset of "historically important" ones. Most of all, of course, I'm helped along by the photographers themselves: it's the ones who project a strong signature or style who make my self-test easier. If I come across a Helmut Newton I've never seen before, I usually think "Helmut Newton." If I come across a Nick Nixon or a Shelby Lee Adams or a Doris Ullmann or an August Sander I've never laid eyes on, I can often peg the right name.
I think this is the key to success, from the point of view of each of those photographers. Do you have a strong enough visual style that someone who's familiar with your work can come across one of your pictures cold and know who took it? The photographers who do are the most successful ones, in my book.
"Style," of course, in the sense of a personal signature or trademark kind of "look," is a combination of factors. It combines the way you like to see with the subject matter you like to shoot and the technical choices you make in terms of your equipment and materials. There's nothing wrong with exploiting each of these aspects to cry to create your own niche. (And, incidentally, I don't believe it's easy to fake a style, at least not consistently. The reason is that if you develop a style but it's not something you legitimately love, you'll grow bored of it. Lots of competent technicians can create a style. But only if it really turns you on visually can you find the energy to keep on going with it long enough to create a strong, large body of work, all in that one, same, strong style.)
The wrong way
What follows is unavoidably going to offend some people, and to them I apologize, sincerely. (If you're one of those who feel thus perturbed, please consider that a) you're free to do what you wish, and b) I ain't so smart—I'm just one guy with one little opinion. The only thing I'm the arbiter of is what I think, not what anybody else thinks). Here's the rub: unfortunately, a lot of people who want to be photographers and who want my opinion of their work present me with what I think is exactly the wrong sort of portfolio or web page.
Instead of a strong stylistic signature, they present themselves as the makers of a wide variety of essentially generic pictures. Here's a typical one: it will have a couple of shots of kids or families; a couple of nature landscapes; some "abstract" closeups; a couple of "found color" shots, usually with the color goosed uncomfortably in software; two or three black-and-white shots, possibly with a "street photography" or "photojournalism" feel. Et cetera. Technically, they'll all be in "ADL," or the Anonymous Digital Look: clean, clear, everything in focus, brightly colored. I think you know the kind of portfolio I'm talking about.
This is, unfortunately, exactly the wrong approach. (Bear in mind, again, that I'm talking here about achieving success in the field—personal hobbyists need not heed or trouble themselves with this advice. If fun is the only goal, then whether you're having fun is the only criterion. Lots of people just want to have fun with photography, and I'm the last person who would criticize that.) It's the wrong approach because what they think they're saying with a portfolio like this is, "I'm broadly competent—I can photograph anything in any style," but what they're actually saying to editors, picture professionals, and photo buyers is, "I photograph the same crap everybody else does, in a style indistinguishable from a thousand other guys."
How to know
Here's what I suspect about the mechanism that permits and encourages this. I think that most people key their own style on the type of pictures that other people take. Not on the pictures they take. We're humans—we're social animals. Going along with a group is something we enjoy and value. But it's not smart when it comes to art. Tragically, many photographers might actually have seen pictures go by that were the real clues to who they really are, to what their personal style should have been; but, ironically, they reject these pictures for some reason, perhaps as being "not professional looking," or otherwise not like pictures they've seen before—and they hit the delete key.
In fact, you ought to do the opposite. Be on the lookout. When you find a picture you took that's odd or off but that you like, keep it. Treasure it. Use it as a clue. It's probably a clue to what you own real style is, or should be, or would be if you developed it and kept heading in that direction, kept working on it, kept pressing toward it.
If you use the 1-2-3 method of editing, you might consider starting a new category: significant failures. Whenever you get a picture that looks wrong but that you kinda like anyway, a picture that you like even though something about it bothers you, a picture that appeals to your eye but that you assume no one else will like, quietly put it into the Significant Failures folder. Don't show these to anybody. Use them as clues. Look at them frequently. Ponder over them. Over time, I'll bet the pictures in that folder can help point you in a new direction, and help tell you what you are really all about, and indicate what makes you different and unique and not like everybody else. And that is what you should be looking for, if you want to be a true success.