Getting Started as a Professional Photographer
Glamour, excitement, fame, fortune, hanging around sexy models and famous actors – this is why you want to become a photographer, right? Reality and the public perception of what a photographer’s life is like are not necessarily in alignment, but yes, I have seen some of the above. It is the fortune part that most photographers seem to miss out on. There are huge amounts of money to be made, however there are also huge expenses in keeping up with the latest digital cameras, computers, lights, etc, as well the monthly expense of a studio.
The most common route to becoming a photographer today is to go to college and study photography, then work for someone in the field you want until you go out on your own. You will need a photography degree if you want to get a job working for most newspapers or companies, and a 4 year degree is better than a 2 year degree; however you can still get good jobs with a 2 year degree.
Some photographers who work for themselves are self-taught. They read books, practice, shoot for friends, and eventually hire their services out. Other photographers work first as a photographer’s assistant, and later launch their business.
There are several routes you can take in working as a photographer. You can work for a company, such as a newspaper, magazine, portrait / wedding studio or catalog company as a full-time staff photographer. Working for someone else seems safe, secure, and dependable – until you get laid off or fired. Then you will be scrambling for a new position, and let me assure you there are very few staff photography jobs out there, and there are 10 or 15 photographers for every one job. However, being a staff photographer is an excellent training for working on your own, and many great photographers worked first in someone else’s studio or in editorial photography before they went out on their own.
Portrait / wedding studios work directly with the public, and make their money selling prints and CDs. There are studios that specialize in children’s portraits, families, glamour, high school seniors, weddings, parties so forth. You could get a job working for a studio such as this, and then later launch your own similar studio. Some of these studio are run be someone really good at marketing, and they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Most of them are run by a “creative type” person not very good at business and marketing, and the photographer makes a lower middle class wage. The difference between the successful studio and the not so successful has more to do with marketing then photographic skill.
There are photographers that make some or all of their money shooting stock photography. Stock photography is images that are used for advertisements, brochures, websites and other published works that was not shot specifically shot for that company. Regular selling images might be couples having fun on the beach, families interacting, people working on computers and so forth. Most stock photographers have to invest their own time and money in coming up with ideas, models, locations, costumes, etc, and hope that the stock-buying public likes their images. Stock is a rapidly changing and many believe shrinking market, so investigate well before you go that direction.
Editorial photographers are not paid that well, but often get perks and benefits that make up for the lower pay. Travel photographers for magazines can be sent on all expenses paid trips to exotic locations, and given a budget to hire local models, guides, hotels, cars, etc. However, they have a very short time, usually 2-4 days, to come up with a full article’s 6-10 images and a cover photograph, so these are not vacations. Photographers for magazines that focus on celebrities, fashion models, musicians or politicians mainly travel domestically, but still get to meet the rich and famous and photograph them. Most of these photographers are freelance; very few magazines still have a staff. However the good freelance photographers work very regularly.
Regardless of what kind of photographer you become, you will need a great portfolio. Do not think that the images that you shot in school or while working for a client will do. You have to decide what kind of photography you want to do, then shoot images that will land those types of jobs or clients. For example, if you want to become a product photographer, you need to go to department, shoe, gift or cosmetic stores, and buy the products. Then you need to buy or pick out props and backgrounds to go with the products you are shooting. Don’t bother shooting catalog style photographs – products with flat, shadow-less lighting on a plan white background. Shoot beauty shots – dramatic images with amazing, mysterious lighting and exotic props and backgrounds.
If you are not working for a company full time, but rather working freelance for yourself, your portfolio is the only thing that matters. No one will ask what school you went to, or what your GPA was. Plan to shoot just for your portfolio at least 4 times a year if you are established, or 8-12 times a year if you are just starting out. This may mean planning a day with models, hair and makeup artists, scouting locations for your shoot, finding great costumes, etc. You can do this on the cheap by using models trying to break into the field, and makeup artists that need to expand their portfolio and will work for free – but it is still lots of work.
The rest of this article will discuss commercial photographers, as that is what I am and what I know the best. Commercial photographers mostly produce images to sell a product or service. Their clients include advertising agencies, graphic design studios, web designers and corporations. Some of the images sold might be for annual reports or events like sales meetings, and this might be called public relations, but it is still selling the idea of the company’s brand if not directly selling a product. Commercial photographers work for themselves, and their income goes up and down as the economy rises and falls. Corporations tend to cut back on advertising during a bad economy, and use last year’s pictures again instead of shooting new ones.
If you are going to go to school to become any kind of photographer working for yourself, I recommend that you study the following subjects in addition to photography:
· Website design
· Search Engine Optimization
· Accounting (optional, but very useful)
· Public Relations
Yes, I know that many photography programs offer one class in marketing, but trust me; there are thousands of would-be photographers flipping hamburgers and parking cars that didn’t study their marketing well enough. It doesn’t matter how great, how amazing, how talented you are as a photographer, if your potential clients don’t have your work in front of them, they can’t hire you. If your photography business fails, it will be from poor marketing in more cases than from poor photography.
The single most important tool in marketing a commercial photography business is the photographer’s website. This is your window to the world, your opportunity to show the world your skills and how you think. How you present your portfolio online will determine how many clients you will get 9 times out of 10. This is why I recommend that you learn to build websites yourself. Do you really want to trust something this important to someone else?
Also, it doesn’t matter if you have an awesome website, if when a potential client types in the keywords “New York Commercial Photographer” and your website is listed as number 224,016 on the 84 page. If your site is not on the first page, you will miss most of your potential clients, and nobody has the time or patience to look beyond the second page of listings. This is why you need to learn about Search Engine Optimization, at least to read a book and a few articles on the topic.
There are many ways to reach your potential clients – advertising agencies, graphic design studios, web designers and corporations – but direct mail, telemarketing, magazine advertisements and email blasts are the most common. All of these methods usually invite the potential client to visit the photographer’s website. Some photographers mail out “mini portfolios” or small books of sample photographs. This gets more attention than a postcard with a single image. Many top advertising photographers have an agent who takes care of the marketing part of the business for them in exchange for a percentage of the fees. However, for every good agent that will get the photographer lots of jobs, there are three lazy ones that will do nothing and expect to get paid for it. Beware! Note that agents usually are not willing to represent photographers’ fresh out of school without an existing client base, so you still need to know the marketing stuff just to get an agent.
Commercial photographers need lots of gear, and none of it is cheap. A professional quality digital camera and three lenses will cost from $6,000 to $45,000, and most photographers have several cameras. Also note that like computers, digital cameras get outdated quickly, and the latest, higher mega pixel, better color digital camera is just a few months away. You will have to update your camera body every two or three years if the current trend continues.
Lighting gear can be just as costly. I own 5 lighting kits, two of them ProFoto kits with 4 heads each. One kit is the power pack type which I use in the studio; the other kit is made up of 4 mono lights which I travel with. I have a backup power pack, and a backup set of mono lights, and a battery powered lighting kit. All this lighting gear is worth more than $50,000, and has to be upgraded, maintained, insured, repaired and kept up. I usually spend several thousand a year just on repair of lights.
I had an assistant that graduated from one of America’s top photography schools, and paid close to $100,000 for her degree. She had a good digital camera body, but could only afford one lens, and had no lights several years after graduating, but still had to pay student loans. She is a great photographer, but needed to learn more about marketing and business – the school didn’t teach her enough on that topic even with a 3 year degree. She cannot shoot most of the jobs that come her way because she has no lights. So if you are planning to spend a bundle on photography school, maybe you should spend half that much and spend the rest of the money on photography gear.
I am a self-taught photographer; I read books and experimented with lights until I learned how to shoot. Three months after getting my first camera I was shooting for brochures for a nonprofit organization. I didn’t train with another photographer; I just read books and tried what I read. However, I think the traditional route of going to school and then working in a studio is a better and faster way to learn the trade. I think the definition of success in commercial photography is to be able to be in control of your own schedule, your own career, your own life and the direction you are taking. To be able to do what you love and get paid for it is a great gift, as most people hate or tolerate their jobs, and dread going to work each day. Even if you are only able to just get by, pay your bills, and have a small home, being your own boss is worth the lower salary.