Advance warning and disclaimer: I do not by any means claim to be an expert or old hand here, just offering my two cents (severely depreciated after foreign exchange fees and post-subprime recession currency devaluation) for those aspiring professional photographers. And by professional, I mean ‘makes most or all of their income for photography or photography related activities’.
Rather, I speak from the point of view of somebody whose professional aspirations started years ago, went through a series of abrupt attempts, starts and stops and encountered much frustration along the way. My regular readers will know that I’ve only managed to make this work since about a year ago; my position in the industry still feels rather tenuous at times, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are still occasional moments of doubt where I wonder if a) this is sustainable, and b) where it’s going in the long term. Perhaps the definition of success is when one stops having self-doubt (or perhaps that’s a sign of losing touch with reality and running the risk of losing it altogether).
First off, stop reading here if you intend to get wealthy from photography. Join an MNC and bide your time instead – so long as you’ve above average, avoid offending anybody and don’t break any major company rules, you’ll eventually make director and have a comfortable and reasonably certain paycheck, plus the cushion of severance pay as your tenure builds. Or you could attack that a bit harder and get there faster – I did – and be utterly miserable with your life. Yes, there are a handful of international pros who make big money, but those jobs are far and few between, and shrinking every day. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be defending that territory and those clients to the death.
#1: Have reasonable expectations. Set yourself an achievable short term goal to accomplish – it could be x number of jobs or a certain amount of monthly revenue, or making enough to cover your expenses. This brings me neatly to the next point:
#2: Cashflow is critical. The number one reason small businesses fail is because of cashflow problems: if you don’t have a buffer, you can’t sit out a dry few months, or you don’t have the working capital to take on any potentially large jobs that come your way – there are cash outflows for these things too – it could be travel, assistants, makeup, models, equipment…the list goes on. Make a budget and stick to it: know what your overheads are, and invest some time or effort into learning accounting. Cash accounting and accrual accounting are very different: as a small business, I recommend using the former. You could have billed $100,000 last month, but still struggle to make ends meet for the next two months because none of your clients have paid yet. Payment is almost never on time; at best, one month; at worst…well, let’s just say I chased one large job for nearly nine months.
#3: Value is relative. Although to some extent, your clients decide how much you’re worth, you should also have an idea of what this number should be – per image, per day, per hour, whatever. Either you can benchmark your work objectively against other photographers of the same caliber, or you can figure out what you need to make to cover expenses or meet your current paycheck and work backwards. Don’t price yourself too high, because this will turn clients off – especially if you have no experience. Don’t price yourself too low either, because this will make it difficult for you to increase fees over time, and it could potentially also spoil the market.
#4: You won’t be shooting all the time. In fact, expect to shoot less than half the time when you start out; a lot of time will be spent on meeting potential clients, pitching, marketing yourself, and just sitting around waiting for people to reply. It’s also important to factor this into your rates: if you’re going to spend only a quarter of your time shooting, your day rate isn’t going to be old paycheck divide by the number of days in the month you want to work. It’s got to be four times that. That said, you might want to use this downtime or low-load time to build your portfolio.
#5: Have a strong portfolio. Chicken and egg: if you can’t show that you can do the job, nobody is going to hire you to do the job. There are two options: either work for free/ cheap as a compromise so the client knows there’s a risk because it’s your first time (not recommended), or try to shoot a portfolio on your own time and at your own expense. The downside to the latter is that it requires some considerable investment on your own part, but at the same time, it means that your mistakes and experiments don’t have to be made public. More importantly, clients may not want you to shoot entirely in your own style (for various reasons) – you need to be able to demonstrate both that you know what your own vision is, and that you can execute it. Though I’ve got a reasonably healthy client list and number of jobs under my belt, my own portfolio is about 50-50 client work to personal work – for the precise reason that whilst I need to show track record, I also want to be able to show my interpretation of things.
#6: Specialize. If you spend your time shooting everything and anything, it’s likely you’re not really going to be particularly strong in any one area – unless you happen to have a lot of time to experiment, or a photographic genius. (Both exist.) This means picking one or two areas which are of interest to you, then focusing your portfolio-building and client-building efforts there. Interest translates to passion, which translates to going the extra mile for quality and experimenting, which will be visible in your images. You’ll also understand something about your subject, which both makes it easier to capture something unique, as well as demonstrate to a client that you know what you’re doing – even if it’s your first job. Most importantly, specialization gives you a competitive advantage: all other things equal, spending more time on one subject would tend to produce better images. Preferably also pick a subject whose industry has money: photojournalism is romantic and noble, but nobody can pay because the images don’t help to generate revenue – I learned that the hard way. On the other hand, weddings are popular because there’s a never-ending stream of clients, and they’re all willing to pay for the big one-off…
#7: Don’t neglect your own creative development. There are a lot of photographers, aspiring photographers and established pros. If your images don’t look different and have a distinct style, then they won’t stand out. If you look at the work of most of the big name pros, they have an instantly identifiable look; this is what clients who hire them, hire them for. At the same time, it’s also important not to get pigeonholed into doing just one thing – Steve McCurry and his Afghan Girl, for instance – you need to be able to develop and grow, both for personal satisfaction and to be able to meet the future needs of your clients. Practice makes perfect: as you get busier, it also gets harder to maintain this. And often the last thing you feel like doing after a day of shooting is…more shooting; you just want to get the images processed and cleared from the intray to make space for the next job.
#8: At the risk of sounding contradictory, diversify your income. The reality is that it’s very difficult to make all of your living from only photography these days; it’s important to have other cushions in case a) photography doesn’t pan out, or b) you run into a dry spell. This could still be photography related, such as selling widgets or teaching, or it could be something else (having a share in your sister’s internet fashion company, for instance). It’s not the same as saying shoot every subject under the sun, though it’s probably a good idea to be a specialist in more than one thing if your work is seasonal or lumpy.
#9: Shout, and shout loud. If you don’t make every attempt to promote yourself by every channel possible – one of the reasons why I started this site – nobody else will, and certainly not your competition. You have to be your best advocate; you will (hopefully) be your own brand. Think carefully about what you want that to be, how it should be portrayed, and be consistent. Preferably it shouldn’t drift too far from your natural personality, since you’re representing yourself. Integrity and honesty matters; don’t claim to be able to do things you can’t.
#10: Never give up. If somebody tries ninety-nine times and succeeds on the hundredth, then we admire his fortitude and commitment. If he dies on the ninety-ninth, then we call that stupidity and foolishness; the difference between idiocy and determination is measured only by success. This is currently my fourth attempt at making a sustainable career and income out of photography. Having been through the previous three attempts, I’m very, very conscious and appreciative of just how difficult it is to get here, and don’t begrudge any of the work or long hours I have to put in to sustain it – because I know the alternatives are worse. If something – and it doesn’t just have to be photography – is your passion, then try to pursue it until you really can’t anymore – otherwise, you’re probably going to regret it for the rest of your life. Regret is internal, and probably about the only thing worse than other people calling you a fool.
We now come full circle at the end. I debated if I should write this article at all, since it might increase my competition; then decided to go ahead because educated, fair competition is better than an industry that has no standards and just tries to price itself to death, and worse still, gives the overall public a bad impression of what we do. Professionalism is something that’s sorely lacking in most photography now – and I feel it’s also one of the major reasons why in developing countries especially, we’re viewed as contractors, not specialized service providers – let alone artisans. If I can contribute towards achieving this in any small way, then I’m more than happy to do so. In the end, it’s good for the industry, which means all of us.
I scratched my head to figure out what image would best represent this article; in the end, it came down to a watch. A passion for mechanical watches is what started me down this path; it continues to be my main speciality to this day. It’s important to have consistency, a strong portfolio, and even more than that, good relationships with regular clients – without that, business is unsustainable. Photography is a relationship game as much as it is a creative one. I can only offer some objective encouragement that might help to serve as a gatekeeper – either you are passionate enough that you’re willing to make the sacrifices and put in the hard work, or something might not sit well and the return won’t feel like it’s worth the risk. Only you can decide; it’s not a career for everybody, but for some, there isn’t anything else. MT
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