If I were starting out now

I am an old photographer, (duh!) That means I have been taking pictures seriously for a very long time (forty years to be exact in 2012.) It also suggests I have some kind of wisdom to offer young photographers, which may or may not be true. Arguably, the most common question I get from young photographers is what would I do if I were starting out in today’s photography market. My answer usually starts with “I don’t know” and ends with “I’m glad I am not.” Since neither of those are a real answers, I owe a real answer to readers (and to a friend who asked me that same question recently.)

The first part of my answer would entail looking back at what I did when I was starting out and discarding much of that, since today’s publication photography market is very different than the market of thirty years ago. Back then, the skill and the gear component were primary, since relatively few people could focus a camera manually, could set their exposure manually as well as process the film in order to get the final image. Fewer people owned the kind of serious cameras required to make publication quality images. So, to some degree, I was in a seller’s market. Today, the market has been turned in its head and photographers are now in a buyer’s market.

Despite that change, a portion of what I did “back in the day” is relevant for today’s aspiring professionals. I would encourage the pro of the future to understand the logic of how photo-editors hire photographers. Whether you “agree” with it or not does not matter. Their logic is the only one that matters.

I would look carefully at the images used by the publication the photographer aspires to work for. Don’t look at the images in terms of how famous the subject is or how flashy their clothes. What problems did the photographer solve when they made the published images? Publication photographers, at the core, are problem solvers. The problem, in essence, is that the publication needs an image (technically they need a digital file) showing something that the editors have decided is important. The image needs to show that same subject in a way that compels the reader of the same publication to do something such as read the article, tell their friends, buy the magazine, or all of the above.

When I was starting out, many publications needed well lighted and dramatically posed/composed portraits, mostly of businessmen or other important public figures. Those needed to be made in a short window of time. Sometimes I had as little as five minutes with the subject to make the portrait (though I had plenty of set-up time beforehand.) The subjects were invariably in a hurry but they also expected the photographer to make them look important. Those kind of environmental portraits are still a big part of the business of publication photography. For the first decade of my magazine photography career, I kept myself fed by doing what we called “guys with ties.” They weren’t very glamorous and rarely won awards, but they subsidized the kind of in-depth projects that I loved to do, which were especially interesting and did win awards.

The core principle for all photo editors that they hire photographers who can solve their problems. They have a photo they need to have made somewhere of some subject/person/place and they need someone they can trust to make that photo. Some editors also hire photographers whose work the same editors want to indirectly support. With that in mind, an ideal portfolio should show an editor how a photographer can solve their problem AND the kind of personal work that the same photographer cares the most about.

Editors hire photographers that they trust, since each photo editor puts themselves on the line when they assign any photographer to a specific project. That seems obvious, but many photographers forget that simple fact. A photographer who makes an editor look good is the kind of photographer who gets hired again and again.

Editors also hire photographers who are frankly, grossly over equipped for most of the jobs they are given. Most editors work on a “just in case” model, meaning they know that any of a hundred photographers could do the job but “just in case” something goes wrong or there is some other challenge, they want the photographer they assign to be the to handle any kind of “just in case.” When I started out, right out of college, I all but stumbled into photographing candidate and then president-elect Ronald Reagan. I was working on speculation without any assignment or contract. The established pros standing next to me at many of the campaign events were getting largely the same images. But they had one huge advantage over me, which was that their assigning editors were paying them so, in a pinch, just in case, if push came to shove, the editors KNEW the pros would get the pictures. They simply could not or would not bet on an unknown like me, who may or may not have got the “must have” image. If you think of how much the typical publication has invested in each assignment, you understand why publications tend to use the same pros and breaking in is difficult.

When you see a young photographer who has broken in, I would look at the career path of those photographers newly hired by the publications in question. Those photographers not only can handle the “just in case” but they also have some kind of expertise that other competing pros do not. It may be a language expertise, access to a certain subculture, previous experience in the place to be photographed, etc.

Also, I would look to understand how the newest “hot” photographer was designated as such? Did they win an award? What did do to network their way into their position? Does their sister (or brother) work at the publication in question. These are the cold, hard realities in the business world and publication photography is after all a business.

Be careful not to take on bigger assignments than you are likely to successfully accomplish. I would not want to become a legend in the business for having screwed up an assignment for a a major publication by taking on more than I could accomplish. You really only get one chance to make a first impression, especially in the small world of publication photography editors.

Networking is important in any business, doubly so in the world of publication photography. Similarly, do not work for free (or at least not for something of real value and a byline is not something of value.) If you develop a reputation for working cheap, you will likely find it hard to get out of that position in the market.

Successful editorial photographers understand how the market for what they do is defined. Back in the day, that meant that the photo editors, who were mostly based in NYC, watched CBS TV news and they then expected that whatever their shooters in the field were photographing aligned with that same definition of what is news. Today, with the Internet as the news conduit, there are many definitions of what is news, be it that of National Public Radio, The New York Times, Fox News or Cable News Network. While they each may have slightly different takes on what is news, they all follow one another.

Though I work primarily in documentary photography, most of what I have written about applies to aspiring pros in the realms of food, sports, fashion or business publications.

The thing to keep in mind is that if I was starting out now, two opposing factors would come into play, which would likely determine my success. Being all of 21 and full of myself, which is what I was when I finished college, I know I would not hesitate to dive into the market if I was in fact again 21, fresh out of school. The real problem is that I have much better hindsight now than I had back then. I strongly doubt I would now have the maturity and wisdom to think of, let alone act upon, the ideas I have described above. I would NOT be smart enough to research and then act upon these very suggestions and thus likely would fail as dramatically today as I succeeded “back in the day.”

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