So you want to be a photographer?


So you want to be a photographer – advice for student seeking a career in photography.

So first off, I don’t know what I’m saying.  Feel free to brush off anything you see me saying and carry on. I’m no expert in giving advice to future photographers.  I didn’t have a photography career back in the golden years of photography.  I don’t work in the education industry.

Currently after having a career in publishing and market research I enjoy a modest income working as a fine art photographer but I’ve done so after putting in years of work building up my brand, audience and most importantly my work.

Art Prints

I sell fine art photographs to the public and license images to designers for use in magazines, record albums and book covers.

But I do enjoy logical thinking and analyzing markets as well as putting in a number of years talking to people in the industry.  The following advice is the same as I’d give my teenager and was sparked by questions that a teen posed to a forum.

Said teen is going to college for a photography degree and wanted to know which camera to purchase.

First off I have to say if someone asked me what it takes to be a photographer my rely quick reply would be “What’s stopping you?”  Because a degree is not what stops someone from being a photographer.  Perhaps not owning a camera would stop you but a piece of paper declaring that you have passed all the classes needed to deem you a “official” photographer is not what stops you from getting a job as a photograph.  A portfolio of work is what is important.  People hire photographers because of the work they do, not because they have this degree or that degree.

There are plenty of examples out there of photographers like Lara Jade the fashion photographer who just went out and did it with pure determination, talent and a lot of hard work.  You don’t have to wait for a teacher to tell you to practice your craft no more than you have to wait for a teacher to tell you to pick up a pencil and start drawing.

And there is no test to take. No board which will review you to see if you can work as a photographer. If someone needs a photographer to shoot their wedding, you show them your portfolio – show them that you can do the job – and you get hired if your images, your style, your price point, your salesmanship, matches the customers expectations.

My friend Rich Franco who actually had a long career as a photographer (and has two brothers currently still with active careers as photographers) gives this advice.

My advice to you and others, skip the cost of the class and find a Pro in your area and then go work for him/her, for free and learn that way. Much more comprehensive and FREE! – Rich Franco

After all the photography schools are going to take your money one way or another.  If work is shoddy or unimaginative going in and shoddy or unimaginative coming out, or if your work is spectacular going in and spectacular going out, it doesn’t matter.  If you end up with the drive to go out and get a job after graduation or sit on your butt waiting for a job to land in your lap, it doesn’t matter.  The schools will still take your money, pat you on the back and send you out into the real world. Next!

Ask the Right Questions

The teen who showed up on the forum was asking about which camera to buy and the gadget hounds (mainly hobbyists and retirees) were happy to expound on their favorite brands and the next wave of shiny new equipment that was in the pipeline.  This is the best brand, you need this and that, pixel count, megabytes, fancy new lens, mirror-less vs. mirror.  Its easy for them.  They don’t live off of photograph and don’t have to justify their purchases.  They can collect a shelf full of cameras and have the latest and greatest to show off at the camera club.

But not one of them could answer the basics questions of what this teen was going to do with all of this equipment.  That is what the future photographer has to figure out and figure out if they can make a living doing it.

Learning what you want to say with your photography is more important than equipment.

How can you buy equipment before you know what you want to do with it.  The question isn’t “what camera do the pros uses”, its what are you going to be shooting?  What kind of professional usage? Fashion? Food? Portraits? Weddings? Photojournalism? Product? Landscape? Architecture? Sports?

And don’t say you are going to be hiking around the national parks like everyone else on vacation.  Let’s get serious here.  You are about go into serious debt in order to earn that photography degree, don’t you think you should do a little bit of research on what kind of photograph is going to be in demand?

To make money as a photographer you need to shoot things that CHANGE. Think food, fashion, products, people, events, news. Trying to make a living shooting things that are thousands of years old is an uphill climb. Look at the inventory of images that currently exist in stock agencies. Millions of images of things that never change and have been shot over and over and over.

Does the world need any more images of Yellowstone? Not really.

Think about your future and putting yourself in the position to be valuable to companies that need images. Its not about equipment but the demand for new images. Look around – look at magazine, look at billboards, look around stores. Where do you see images and what kind of images do you see?  — Edward M. Fielding

People like to look at people

When ever I run across some who says they want to be a photographer but don’t like to shoot people, my stomach churns.  Pick up any magazine and what do you see? People.  There is always demand for portraits, fashion, wedding shoots, events, editorial portraits, advertisements.  People are fascinated by people so there is always going to be a big demand for photographer’s who can make people look good.

If you want to eat you are going to have to learn to shoot people. – Edward M. Fielding

The Moonshot

The reality of making a career as photographer is that it will be very difficult.  The pay is low.  The competition is fierce.  Equipment is expensive.  And these days you have to convince people of the value of hiring a professional.    My advice would be to make sure you get an education that is broader than just photography.  Be sure to study some business, marketing, graphic design, think of being well rounded enough to be able to do more than one thing.

Sell Art Online

Here are the depressing stats:

Median pay (annual): 28,490 USD (2012)
Median pay (hourly): 13.7 USD (2012)
Entry level education: High school diploma or equivalent
Number of jobs: 136,300 (2012)
If you have any doubt on how hard it is to make money at photography, look at the lifestyles of some of your favorite photographers.  Scratch the surface and you’ll see that very few make a living on their photography alone.  They write books, magazine articles, give workshops, lectures or teach.  The problem is there are not enough teaching jobs to go around to all of the graduates the photography schools churn out. So be flexible, be well rounded, be willing to do what it takes to succeed.

 

Resources:

Before heading down any path, its important to take a look at the type of jobs available for the skills you will be paying serious money to acquire:

Photography jobs on careerbuilder.com

Photography Jobs on Monster.com
Photography jobs on indeed.com

Another good resource is the professional organization that represents the industry you will hopefully join in the future:

PPA (Professional Photographers Association) site – http://www.ppa.com/

 

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