Who Says Photography is a Piece of Cake?
Photography is tough work! With the advent of DSLRs and studio software, it’s easier than ever for a novice to take quality pictures without any formal training. People without the requisite creativity, training, and business acumen are calling themselves professional photographers. We asked some famous photographers what advice they would give these people, and what the most trying aspect of the photography business is for them.
The hardest part for people that can take great photos but may not have any business experience, is pricing themselves and making a profit.
All too often, people fall prey to, "Hey, it's digital, it doesn't cost me anything" and they end up under-pricing their work. They really need to look at all costs: The fixed costs of doing business, and the cost of goods sold. They also have to allow for a per-hour cost for their time. Even though they may have no employees, they have to account for the cost of their time, just as if they have an employee doing that job for them. When they run the real numbers, they find that selling that 8 x 10 for $5 will not sustain them in business.
The other problem is time management. When you are an amateur, you can take a week or two to work on photos. When you have clients and a certain number of sessions that you need to shoot in order to be profitable, you need to have a workflow down that allows you to get that work done on time, and at a profit.
1) Don't over-sell your services and your capabilities. If you promote yourself as a pro, you better well be prepared to deliver professional-quality results.
2) Set a pricing structure. Make sure your clients pay on time.
3) Embrace social media. It's free advertising and promotion.
4) Always, always remember that your name and reputation are everything.
Photography is so much more accessible now because of the digital camera. Owning a photography education center, The Charleston Center for Photography, I meet a half-dozen people a day that say, "I just got a digital camera and want to learn how to use it." I pride myself on the importance of education, and knowing the industry. It is that knowledge that I pass on to my students.
Simply owning a digital camera does not make one a "professional photographer." I teach my students that taking a systematic approach to their photographic education is the path of least resistance, and also the most successful. I structured an educational program, which starts at the very basics. Our students cannot move to the next course if they have not have that Introduction to Digital Photography class. After they have completed the necessary basic course, then they step up to an Intermediate Digital Photography class. It is that intermediate course, that is the stepping stone to others. Classes such as Studio and Conceptual Photography, require completion of the aforementioned courses.
The word 'professional', by definition, means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field. The title 'professional' is not sold standard with every basic camera kit. It has to be learned and earned. While I am a huge advocate of accessible photography, I don't agree in the fast-track photographer.
We would not have the audacity to claim we are engineers because we have a screw driver, or say we are doctors because we have a stethoscope. The same respect should be honored in the profession of photography. It is this message that I relay to each and every student I teach. I ask them to respect the industry and to understand that, as in other professions, there are standards in business practices and ethics.
Educating young photographers about the importance of business practices such as sitting fees, print prices and usage is the hardest challenge. Those who are true working professionals are struggling to compete with the cousin, sister or uncle who just picked up a digital camera. It is our job as professionals to enlighten our potential clients. We have to be good stewards of our work and educate consumers between the difference between a "hobbyist" and a "professional." In the end, however, the proof is in the product.
Yes, it's true that with digital photography, it's easier than ever to take pictures—since, unlike film, they seem to be free for the taking, and also you get immediate feedback.
But even with today's very sophisticated DSLR cameras, it's still a challenge to get truly great and inspiring photos. Although exposure is handled very well in 99 out of 100 cases, understanding exposure is still important. No matter how sophisticated the equipment, a camera's meter can still be fooled by bright highlights or dark tones.
While many images can be fixed in the digital darkroom, Photoshop just can't resurrect the detail or color in completely blown-out highlights. Also, there's no imaging software that can compensate for a lack of creative vision, for the wrong camera angle, for shooting in light that wasn't right for the subject, etc.
More importantly, photographers of every skill level still need creative mastery of composition, and a masterful appreciation for—and understanding of—light.
The challenge for pro photographers has always been to stand out from the crowd of people who have cameras. Mastering the fundamentals of photography is still the first step on the road to pro photography.
It's a matter of improving one's technical and creative skills, learning the business aspects, and mastering the mindset of the creative photographer. That's what ultimately leads to success.
Formal photography training is truly NOT necessary for success as a professional photographer. No one ever asks to see my college degree before hiring me for a shoot—they ask to see my portfolio. Although I did receive a degree in photography, political science and business from Syracuse University, I know many successful photographers that had absolutely no formal training.
As with many careers, personality and perseverance are far more important that formal training. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of wannabe photographers in New York City alone. Thousands of these create amazing work. The ones that succeed have solid photography skills, but also excellent business and people skills. The most creative or technical photographer doesn’t always ‘win‘—it's the person who can combine business savvy with their photo skills.
If you plan to succeed without formal training, you must be dedicated to working CRAZY hours (all day, every day), and be dedicated to always improving your skills and knowledge.
Below are five tips for photographers seeking to get started professionally, even without formal training:
1. Work for a successful photographer whom you admire: It's the best photography training you can possibly get. You can learn lighting, how they interact with clients, business practices, marketing, and all the things necessary to be successful in your field. You learn the practical approach to all aspects of the business, and this knowledge will guide you on the path to success.
For example, although I attended college and took lighting classes, I learned more about lighting by watching two shoots from a high-end fashion photographer than I did during my entire time in college. This doesn’t mean the college training was “bad.” It just means that hands-on and real-world training has much more profound value.
2. Never stop learning: Whether you had professional training, or no training at all, you must always keep educating yourself as a photographer. You should read books, watch online tutorials, or attend workshops as often as you can. Particularly if you had no formal training, workshops can be a great investment. You can selectively choose the photographers and workshops that can teach you the specific skills and knowledge base you require (instead of the general knowledge you often gain in university training). Subscribe to industry publications and attend professional photography organization meetings and conferences (such as WPPI and ASMP). Education will keep you on top of your game, and help you find ways to differentiate yourself.
3. Network: The more people you know and the more you get your work out there, the more likely you are to find a great business opportunity. Networking is a very broad term, and can devour a lot of time. Yet, it is an essential business practice. Whether going to lunch meetings with art buyers, attending industry events, or just going to dinner parties with ‘important people’... networking is essential.
For me, I focus a lot of my networking activities online, including my blog, Facebook and Twitter. I help to solidify these online relationships by meeting up with potential leads and attending conferences or luncheons to network.
4. Do personal projects: If you only focus on paid work, you’ll find yourself feeling starved for creativity. Commercial work often doesn’t allow for you to show your personal style and individuality. Personal projects are your chance to really express your creativity and demonstrate your personal vision. They will also help you to build up a strong portfolio.
Personal projects are not just an exercise in creativity. You are able to create work that shows potential clients the talent and ideas you could bring to the table in a professional shoot. For example, as a professional fashion photographer, I am often shooting ‘free’ test shoots, and commissioned (and unpaid) editorials for magazines. These are not necessarily jobs for a client, but are intended to attract potential clients to hire me based on the vision and talent demonstrated in an editorial shoot.
5. Attend small business, entrepreneurship training: As stated before, photographers with a strong business and marketing sense having a big advantage in the professional field. Small business classes can help you help yourself in several ways. First of all, the better you are at menial business tasks, the less time those tasks will devour. Instead of getting weighed down by these business chores, you will be able to do them quickly and efficiently. Secondly, small business classes will teach you how to better manage your books and cash flow. Many small businesses fail within the first years of operation, not because of failure to attract clients, but because of failure to keep liquid and manage cash flow. Finally, and most importantly, small business courses will help you understand how to better market yourself and find more clients. Your work may be superior, but without being able to reach your target audience and market effectively, you won’t be able to grow your business.
1. Act less "Artsy" and shoot more "Pro" – I was visiting with one of my past wedding clients yesterday. Lauren runs a wedding consulting business in the area, and is in the process of working with her husband's sister on her upcoming wedding.
She was telling me stories of photographers she has visited in the Cincy area. One photographer they visited says she NEVER shoots with flash because she only wants to capture every image in its natural surrounds, exactly as it appears.
Sounds so "artsy" doesn't it? Lauren saw it as a "red flag" and asked if the photographer had any samples taken inside the sanctuary during the ceremony. She had NO inside wedding photographs to show—AT ALL! So how does this photographer plan to photograph inside a dark reception hall? Hey, I'm a high ISO shooter too, but every photograph captured without flash? NO WAY!
2. Look the part of a "Pro" – Lauren brought up another important point. She mentioned that in a number of weddings which she has worked, she was shocked that so called "pro" photographers show up at a formal event in their black jeans and black t-shirts!
Hey, I've seen that for years, and have voiced my opinions over many posts at DPT. My dress code rule: Dress the way the guests dress; never above them and never, never below them. If you want to be a "pro"—dress the part.
3. Bring a professional attitude to everything you do. Never become engaged in any kind of "adversarial" discussion with your client, clergy member, "church lady", bridal consultant, vendor, your assistant—never!!!
4. Present yourself as a professional. That means in the "gear department" too. Let me "fan the flames" one more time. No, I'm not trying to be argumentative—I'm trying to give you good advice.
To give your clients a "Pro" experience—and isn't that what true professionals are suppose to do—you've got to look the part, not just in your attire, but with your photography gear as well. A person walking onto a job with a Canon Rebel is claiming "out loud" that they are an amateur shooter, maybe making a few extra bucks on the weekends.
Now please don't barrage me with comments on this point. I'm NOT trying to tick anyone off with that remark. But what I am saying is that if you aspire to be a true professional, you've got to be using the right tools for the job.
A used Canon 40D costs less on eBay than a new Rebel now, and it let's you look more the part. This is about the time some folks will be commenting that the new Rebel has more mega-pixels, shoots video, yada, yada, yada.
5. Now you've got to learn the gear inside and out. You've got to be ready to handle ANY gear-related eventuality at a wedding.
You've got to know what shots to get at a wedding, and know what to do when you can't get them. What is your Plan B? Back in the '80's when I had two other photographers working for me, I stressed to them that they had to come back with the shots—NO EXCEPTIONS!!! No excuses. They always did.
6. Now you've got do dedicate yourself to this profession. Just shooting weddings for weekend cash does not a "pro" make. It’s your dedication to both your craft and your art that begins to raise your bar as an upcoming "pro" level shooter.
7. Want to call yourself a pro? You better know how to run your business successfully. This is usually the biggest differentiator between the "enthusiast" and the "pro." Is being called an "enthusiast" a bad thing?—of course not! Heck, I'm still an enthusiast in many ways—particularly in the DSLR video department—but I still keep plugging away.
But I'll tell you one thing about our business. There is a tremendous amount of turn-over in this business. They drop out as fast as they come in. The funny thing is that many that drop out after only a year or two were still labeling themselves as "pro." As my good friend Ms. Sarah would say, "Say it ain't so, Joe!