The questions you should ask before taking up photography as a career.

The world has changed. Over the last 20 years there has been a revolution: the information age is with us. The barriers to entry on desirable careers have dropped. Careers in fashion, photography design and writing are no longer expensive to start in (not that writing was ever expensive). If you have thought about making the plunge from enthusiast to pro, please first consider these questions:

Are you a great business person?

We think that photography is about making great photographs. It is not. It is about being great at marketing, book-keeping, invoice posting, suppliers and customer management. You are the sales person, quality assurance, web master, head of marketing and accountant. It will often feel like you don’t get to photograph. If you don’t enjoy all these other business aspects or you are not great at them, then professional photography is not for you.

Also note that setting up a business means a lot of paperwork in most countries. You will need to register a business name, apply for tax numbers and plenty of additional administration. A partner with a business background is a good move.

Are you ready for the sell yourself?

Americans are brought up to self-promote, most of the rest of us are not. We prefer the work to sell us. We would like to think that the customer will recognise our talent and reward us appropriately. They rarely do. They probably have a low opinion of the worth of photography as everyone has a camera, and they have been bombarded with the advertising message, ‘buy our camera and you are as good as a professional’. You will need to sell yourself and your photography’s worth to these people.

Are you good with people?

Photography is all about people, even when shooting packaging, it is about people. The key is to make everyone around you content. This means under-promising and over-delivering. You must be sure you can deliver that they ask for. Flying by the seat of your pants day after day is exhausting.

If you choose wedding photography, you will have to convince brides. If you choose advertising it will be art directors and they will have seen every other photographer in your city. If they give you the job the number of people you are there to please will increase. Can you work with five people looking over your shoulder?

What area of photography do you wish to work in?

When I started in the early 1990s it was the end of the golden age of commercial photography. If you trained in making photographs you could make a living. This was a time before stock images became overwhelming. Since then large sections of the market have disappeared. Car photography is with CAD images on photographic backgrounds. Stock has replaced most graphic design projects, as the marketers who now call the shots need to see what they are paying for before they sign off. Even advertising agencies are looking for the ‘ready made image’, for campaigns. Families no longer come to a studio in the same numbers for portraits. When I started we made money from our day rate ($A1000) plus 50% mark up on film/processing. Since that time clients want the retouching to be done within the day rate with no film/processing fees or any payment for SD cards or hard drive contributions paid.

Whatever form of photography you choose it must be something that is needed where you are and needed often. The areas that come to mind are Food, Fashion and Functions. These are all constantly changing. Needless to say that many people want to be in these areas, after all is anything more glamorous than fashion?

Once you have worked out the area you want to work in you need to know the numbers. Commissioned photography has shrunk over the last 25 years, yet the number of graduates of photography is increasing. You need to research what work is being commissioned and where there is a gap in the market you can fill. In a shrinking market this is difficult. Photography tends to be one area where people enter the profession because they are passionate about it. So few do the numbers.

Stock imagery was presented once as the savour for pro-photographers. We could submit images that were made from our down time as well as our personal work. At first it was great and it paid well. Over time the libraries realised that the value of photography was falling, thus stock libraries like iStock came on line, at first they gave a good percentage of the income back to the maker, now it is very small. Each image takes 10-15 minutes to prepare each for submission. Unless you are photographing nice middle class people with model releases, expect a lot of rejection. The people work is still selling but needs to be updated every few years, and that means finding people who are willing to appear in any sort of advertising, whether for instant noodles, beer or erectile dysfunction. I never could bring myself to exploit my friends like that. I also think that if a company wants people in their advertising the people should be informed as to what they are consenting to. Image libraries would never make it through a university ethics committee. These libraries are open to people who use photography as a hobby and have other jobs to support them.

Do you understand the technical aspects of photography and not just autofocus and programme?

If you are making a living from a trade you should know what you are doing, as much of your competition will. You need to know how to focus manually. How to make photographs efficiently in full manual settings. You need to understand the technical details of light and of optics so that you make the right compromises. Photography’s one constant is that all photography is compromise. You need to know your gear and be at one with it. Your camera needs to be an extension of you. You need to know its quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Most pro photographers will have several camera systems so that they have more choices for the compromises.

Are you obsessed with photography and business? Is it all you do in your spare time?

When I teach design and photography I tell my students if you are not obsessed, you are not going to make it. You need to have passion for photography, you need to be seeking out the new. Finding the trends before they are up on BuzzFeed. Knowing the history is also important, as we are in a post-modernist world and are constantly making references to things that have gone before. New trends and reading about the thinking behind photography is important. Knowing every new piece of equipment is not.

Likewise, reading marketing, and learning social media strategies is also part of the deal to be a photographer. If you make great photographs and the people who buy photography do not know about it, what use is it?

What makes you different from all the other photographers?

Most people with an expensive camera think of themselves as photographers. What makes your work worth paying for? What do you have that will bring in repeat customers? It is back to the how to sell yourself again. What is your point of difference? Why should you be hired over the other 200 photographers in your area? Why should you be paid when many ‘guys with cameras’ are willing to do it for free?

Can you pull a great shot from 2 minutes with a pissed off subject in bad light?

The lesson from ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be’ is it doesn’t matter what the job is, you have to make the best work despite the conditions. You will not get ideal conditions 90% of the time. You are the photographer, you will be compromised. If you want to be noticed you have to be great. If the magazine article has a celebrity, it’s a hotel room, they are hungover, got angry with your interviewer and have their minders in your face, you still have to come out with a great photo for publication.

Are you waiting for your next purchase to make you a better photographer?

It is not your camera or your lenses that make great photographs, it is your mind. If you know the strengths and weaknesses of your gear you will be able to get great results out of any camera. Many pro photographers shoot (part-time) with an iPhone. It is knowing your camera and lenses that makes the difference. Too much gear makes you slow. Some photographers shoot on a single camera/lens. If your photographs are not engaging before they go into Lightroom/Photoshop/onOne or another development programme, it is not your camera, it is you. Different cameras have different ‘feels’, at the moment I'm enjoying using the Fuji X after years of Canon FF SLRs. I've taken 3 months to become one with it. For the four months I only had the iPhone to shoot with, I still got good photographs.

Do you worry about your style?

Do not worry about style. At photography school we spent a lot of time discussing personal style. By the end we had a definition: style is the combination of the equipment you own, which compromises you choose and the way you see.

Do you have another job or large savings to get you through the first year?

Got some bad news: photography businesses take a while to get up and running. I remember a high profile American photographer in Australia telling me that it took him a year of putting his book on tables before he was considered there long enough to be trusted with a job. The same happens to most people when setting up or changing cities, they want to know you will stay in business. You will need to find income to support yourself through the first year or more.

The best advice I got was, keep your overheads low. This makes for a balancing act between outgoings and professionalism, as having home as an office is not a professional way of going about business. Other alternatives are group office space where you hire a desk and use the meeting room. Using a serviced office solution. Then there is the major expense of having a studio, if you need one for the type of work you are doing.

Clients will offer you ‘exposure’ for free, that is they will not pay you to photograph, is it worth it?

When you first enter this industry you will find many people who will offer you jobs without pay for ‘exposure’ or your ‘portfolio’. Do not expect clients who give you opportunities to ever give you paying jobs. As photography has always had more people wanting in, than the amount of work available, some clients have NEVER paid for photography. Some clients will test you on a shoot, and the reasonable ones, the ones you want as clients, will pay you.

Why are they going to pay you when the clients can get it for free, for exposure/portfolio from the 1000s of new photographers who are graduating each year?

Here you are getting the first understanding of the industry and its problems.

Final words

I own a laptop, I do not think I'm a novelist. I have a kitchen of the latest European appliances, but this does not make me a chef. Nor does owning a good camera make you a photographer. Being a pro takes out a lot of joy from shooting. Photography seems so glamorous that many new people enter the market each year, far more than is needed. The only reason to enter this market is if you are obsessed, trained and ready for the business challenge, then you stand a chance.

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