An aspiring photographer wrote me…

An aspiring photographer wrote me: “What advice might you give me on how to find opportunities (no matter how small), where I might find some interest in my work, or how to best focus my efforts.” Such a question leaves me wary because answering it takes away from what little time I have left between earning a living as a photographer and nurturing this site. As I pondered how to answer him, I realized the answer was really another blog post in the making.

He wrote:

“I would like to do assignment photography that is line with my strengths as a photographer. I think editorial photography would be the best fit. I recently did a portfolio review. During the review I was told to expect a lot of criticism. I did. Some was brutal, but I also got a lot of positive comments about my eye and compositional abilities (I’m not trying to blow my own horn here.) There was a general consensus that at I am a solid photographer, but I need focus. The review experience bolstered me in my desire to pursue a professional career.

From my long career as a software engineer, I’m quite accustomed to researching hard problems and working my way through the muck. I’ve never encountered a problem that made me give up. Despite bringing all my brain power to bear on the photography-for-money problem, using my people and networking skills, taking classes, reading books, and creating stock photography, I’m still on the outside looking in.

I’ve tried many approaches to find work; some based on my own research and others recommended by professionals (at the portfolio review and elsewhere.) I’ve contacted galleries, media outlets, book companies that hire contractors, and advertising agencies. I know that using Craig’s List is certainly not the way. I have no illusions that building a career is going to be easy. What advice might you give me on how to find opportunities (no matter how small), where I might find some interest in my work, or how to best focus my efforts.”

Two things caught my eye and prompted me to reply (and make this into a blog post.) First, much of what he asked about is something I have heard from many other photographers. Across a dozen styles of photography, the questions were remarkably the same. Some points are also points I have raised myself over the years. When he wrote about being “accustomed to researching hard problems and working my way through,” that was equally or even more important than the first.

So Jason, here goes:

First, you are going to need tenacity in large quantities because that attribute is frequently the one that separates the successes from the also-rans (in the world of photography or anything else. Independent wealth would not hurt either, but since that is hard to come by, I will assume that is not a possibility.)

The first thing you must understand is that being able to take a “good picture” is a skill that is no longer perceived to be of any value. Digital imaging in general, auto-focus lenses, sophisticated automatic camera settings and Photoshop in particular have created a situation where everyone believes they can take a good picture.

With that in mind, what should you do? First, if you can, you should keep your day job for a while longer. The most important thing to do in the short-term is to try to understand how the photography market works and where you might fit into it.

As a rule, ignore what friends tell you and be suspicious of what you read on-line. Like everything else in life, if you cannot get two or even three sources to back something up, it is probably not true. Clinically analyze the various ways photographers make a living. Ignore the puff pieces you read in many of the photography magazines and how glamorous their lives are. Hone in on how they fit into the market they are working within.

In particular, spend time studying the career paths of successful photographers. The question you really want to have answered is how did I get from where you are, an aspiring photographer, to where I am now, an established professional? Each successful photographer’s career path is different so study as many as you can. Even if you are not interested in wedding or fashion work, you can often learn something from photographers who are successful in other specialty areas. Remember, every career path you study will teach you something.

You can hear a presentation on my own particular career path at: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/01/28/one-photographers-career-path/ You can also read other blog posts exploring some of these same issues on this site at:

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/05/01/top-ten-keys-to-be-a-successful-photojournalist-part-one/

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/05/04/top-ten-things-needed-to-be-a-successful-photojournalist-part-two/

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/04/06/what-kind-of-tools-do-i-use-and-why-part-two/

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/02/06/the-workshop-i-always-wanted-to-attend/

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/01/05/the-questions-i-would-ask-any-accomplished-photographer/

(This is not intended to toot my own horn. One reason I have built this site is because I want it to answer some of the questions that I had when I was starting out. The “gear related” questions were easy to answer back then and are even easier to get answered now on the web. The more open-ended questions, like what career path to take, those were harder questions back then and are still difficult to find answered on the web now.)

If you burrow deep into various web sites and blogs, you will learn a lot. It takes a lot of reading. The web-site http://www.sportsshooter.com has a wealth of information on sports photography. Sports photographers are an interesting example. Most of them have a love for the sport(s) they cover, a clear understanding of the rules and an in-depth familiarity with the players. If I wanted to be a sports photographer, I would drill in on the career path of one of the photographers on staff or under contract to Sports Illustrated or Getty, for example. The best fashion photographers are more interested in the clothes, the culture and the lifestyles they portray then they are interested in the gear they use on the job.

Yes, stay away from Craig’s List jobs. That is a market that is completely price driven and a market that is involved in a downward spiral racing to the bottom. Look for markets where the end-user perceives the photographer as someone who brings value to the job they need to have done. Architectural photographers are one example of that. The best people working in that specialty have a love for and an understanding of the built environment, something that others simply do not have. Those skills are the extra thing that they bring to the job and they are what the clients know they have to pay for when they hire a good photographer. The best cultural, nature and travel photographers have similar expertise in their respective subjects.

Editorial photographers used to have a fairly straightforward career path. A few years of newspaper work (and a few high profile awards,) then you graduated to freelancing for magazines. Success at some magazines (including a few high profile awards) usually meant you could work your way up to bigger and better magazines. Today, that still holds true but some magazine photographers are coming into the business from the fine-art side, after establishing themselves in that realm. If I were starting over, I would try to understand how that process works to see if that might be an equal or better way to enter the editorial market.

Similarly, the lines between editorial and advertising work are continuing to be blurred. Editorial photographers like Lauren Greenfield also do a lot of advertising work. Read Photo District News to understand this process better. More importantly, get a copy of the Communication Arts Photography Annual for this year and for as many years back as you can. Start reading about that at: http://www.commarts.com/Competitions/Photography

PDN can be useful but it tends to be read by photographers mostly and read by end-users less. Start reading about that at: http://www.pdnonline.com/pdn/index.jsp

The CA Photography Annual is read primarily by end-users of imagery and read by photographers second. The CA Photography Annual is where you can see the best photography being done today AND you can see what kinds of outlets are using that same photography.

After you get a clear understanding of the market(s) where you want to build your career, then pay attention to how others who went before you did the same thing. Once you have made it this far, hone in on a couple specialty areas and learn to shut out everything else. The generalist, whose real skill was mastering the camera, is a dying breed, except maybe in very small markets. In bigger cities, specialists are what end users want.

Do not put yourself into the market too early and do not under price what you do. Once clients get used to low prices it is VERY hard to raise prices. Similarly, you only have one chance to make that first impression. It is a cliché’ but it also has a lot of truth to it.

Should you assist established photographers? If that will help you get some of the information you now know that you need, yes indeed. Should you do it for the money alone? Absolutely not! Stick with your day job.

Unfortunately, most graduate schools in photography will teach you none of this so do not think that a degree will help you answer these questions. Although I only have an undergraduate degree, I have studied the points that I have mentioned for decades. What I know about other photographer’s career paths, the photography market and where I fit in to that market could easily make up a Doctoral Thesis. The PhD would make my mother proud, but I doubt it would get me any closer than I am now to making a stable living.

So, if I had to summarize what to do, I would say something like:

Realize that photography is a business and so treat it like a business. Before anyone enters ANY business they are wise to evaluate the market, define their niche, study their predecessors, prepare their marketing stratgey and evaluate their competition. They usually gather capital in order to survive the lean times while developing long and short-term strategies.

Ninety five percent of the photographers who are successful today will tell you (if you could ever ask them) that they took some or all of these steps. Some did it unconsciously, others more intentionally. The five percent who deny doing this probably enjoyed the independent wealth mentioned earlier, but are loath to admit that fact.

One response to “An aspiring photographer wrote me…”

  1. Thanks for posting my question and providing such a thoughtful
    answer. The summary of your answer makes complete sense to me —
    photography is a business; skills can be mastered by most anyone.
    Great photography, even if it’s truly inspired probably doesn’t make a
    big difference in the success equation. I’ve read bits and pieces of
    your advice in various photography business books I’ve read, but you
    summarized it quite nicely. I understand these pieces of wisdom from
    my years of experience in the software engineering business. Simply
    having a great product idea or even building your great product does
    not imply that customers will flock to you, buy it, and make you a
    success.

    As I read through your advice I was reminded of a funny Monty Python
    bit. It was a few lines from a skit called “How to do it”. It was
    advice on how to cure the world of cancer. It went something like
    this. “First become a doctor, discover a cure to cancer, and when
    people ask you about it, jolly well tell them what to do, and there
    will never be cancer anymore.” The irony, of course, is that there
    are a lot missing steps.

    I have no shortage of tenacity. I’m going to keep at it and try to
    ‘work smart’.

    Best regards,

    Jason Winshell
    http://www.jasonwinshell.com

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