Thoughts and advice for those considering a career in photography

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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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Comments

  1. Man……amazing web site you have got here. A great deal of good posts as well as related facts!!!
    Do you provide any type of publications focused on study
    of photography?

  2. Hello,a few years ago I had a high profile job, I gave it up and went to university to study photography. I launched my photography business in 2009 and worked my socks off getting clients, contacting friends, selling my Swiss watches to buy lighting and equipment and for awhile it worked.I had customers a studio and apart for a few big challenges and learning curves I was employed for at least 20 days a month. Then my wife started to complain that I was not at home, that I did not have the time to book Holliday’s or I was on the Mac and not in the living room with her; as soon as I started to take her considerations into account and act on them I started to question everything. at the time I worked for 12 hrs a day I had a studio in reality my overheads and outgoings did not justify a thriving business, i needed better equipment to cut down time and could not afford it so I gave up. I got a job and In no time at all I was promoted to manager, unhappy manager who slept all the to at home and secretly harboured a desire to be a photographer again. I started saving and buying high end photography kit and worked hard at creating a portfolio that evidenced skill and focus. I bought books and went on specific training courses, visited other photographers and I’m back In photography again. I don’t have as many clients but I think the break made me realise that its not about the money it is about offering a service that (many) photographers can’t, and accepting that you can’t ever please all the people all the time; especially those closest. Many of my friends have lost their jobs or are on short term contracts, I hear negative stories about photography as a career every day. If you want to be rich forget it, at its peak I turned over £30 k and after outgoings had approximately £17 k at the end of the year. I accept that I will have to continue work elsewhere, but photography or any passion ads a spice to life, I am more interesting and interested in life I am warm and happy and what I do makes people happy. It is always a pleasure to read articles like this, like you I don’t know where my new found drive will take me, but I no longer fear Mondays.

    • Brian, that sounds VERY familiar indeed – hopefully the second round will go better for you!

      And a good reminder for both of us not to neglect our other halves…

  3. I liked everything you discussed in the above, except one small excerpt really struck a nerve with me “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…”

    I’m a huge Steve McCurry fan and he has a breadth of work that spans decades of consistent almost frustratingly-amazing work. The Afghan Girl is undisputedly a perfect shot, and it has become one of the most celebrated and recognized images in the history of photography. Surely you shouldn’t fault someone for making a photo of this caliber! Any of us reading this blog, maybe even yourself included, would be astoundingly lucky to be 1/10th as successful as Steve McCurry!

    And to use Steve McCurry as an example of what NOT to do in your artilcle on becoming a professional photographer seems a bit backwards. Among many other profitable facets of his career, he currently offers photo expeditions for $12,000 per person and his next trip is sold out! If anyone knows how to be a professional photographer, I think it’s him.

    Your next article should be on how to be MORE LIKE Steve McCurry…!

    • You’re misreading me. Is he successful? Undoubtedly. But is he known for only one or two types of images? Yes. You never associate him with several genres. I don’t want to be shooting the same thing my whole life.

      Look at his ‘last roll’ of kodachrome – sorry, but that was pretty mediocre. No variety and several images that were just average. Knowing full well that the results would be published in full and unedited, I’d have taken more care.

      Because everybody wants to copy somebody else, that’s the path to success. Obviously not: the successful didn’t copy others before them, did they? They were right for that time, place and era. Things change. We can’t be the same and expect the same results.

      • I agree with Aaron. Bad example. Professionally you have to establish a niche and if that means been known for one thing, then so be it. Peter Hurley is known for head shots. If you want variety, you can do that in your spare time. Specialists beat generalists every time.

  4. Ming Thein,

    Thanks for sharing, I have been thinking about this for some time, it does inspire me, but I doubt I would be your competition :)

  5. Great article Ming. I see this dilemma unfold everyday in my gallery and wish I could just sit some of the youthful enthusiasts down an explain it as well as you have. Patience is not a strong suit with many of todays beginners. You will be fine I am certain of that and thanks for all you help in putting integrity back into this art form.

  6. Dear Ming,
    Interesting read, thank you.
    In my opinion, it’s amazing how bad most of the popular photo-blogs are.
    I won’t mention any names. You have proven that there’s plenty of room out there to do things better.
    I’m new to your site and so far, and so far yours appears to be an exception, so keep up the good work with your new career!
    Photography is certainly changing rapidly. Not something most will ever do professionally. I shoot a film rangefinder. Finding decent courses to improve my skills is nearly impossible because everything is digital now, and you are expected to review your work on the same day in these courses…
    In my opinion, a lot of the cash out there in this business in the new age will be with teaching and learning others. People want to do it themselves. So you should definitely continue to expand on that. Something that could be done remotely, would be very popular.
    I’ll never be a professional, but would be very interested in taking up a good part-time course over the internet, with work reviewed and helpful tips received remotely at my own pace.
    Paul

    • Thanks Paul. Yes, popularity and traffic have more to do with how loud you can shout than whether you actually have anything meaningful to say or not.

      Actually, I already teach remotely – the Email School has about 85 students at the moment. Courses are tailored to the student’s individual requirements. Film or digital is not a problem, with the caveat that my film processing experience isn’t quite as extensive as digital. I’ll send you an email with more info.

  7. “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.”

    This hit home for me. Thanks for putting it so strongly and clearly, Ming. I admire your images and words tremendously, and I hope I have the guts to pursue my passion as you do.

  8. Insightful, inspiring and practical… like most of your writing. Thank you for your time and energy thinking, investigating and especially sharing.

  9. What kind of crazy watch is that! Isn’t the essence of a watch to tell time as quickly and easily as possible. This watch defeats the purpose of telling time and is essentially a piece of mechanical engineering. Beautiful but useless as a timepiece! I still like my Omega “moon” watch for it’s sheer beauty and functionality.

  10. Great article! Can you elaborate a bit on what a portfolio means these days? At one time it was a big box of prints, or a giant binder with prints in sleeves. Is it now an iPad? Or maybe a Blurb book?

    • Thanks. A portfolio is – and has always been – a series of images that are representative of your skill and style, and show a prospective client straight away what you can do. It’s a living collection and should be updated regularly (I desperately need to redo mine, but honestly haven’t had time) as and when one makes images that represent a significant shift in ability or style.

  11. Well-thought-out piece, Ming.

    Photography is just another creative field where technology (digital) has made life tougher and tougher to compete. Back in the day, barriers to entry (like your Hasselblad, which was much more expensive) kept the industry relatively free of dilettantes, who now have a basic DSLR and try to undercut the established professionals. Many other creative industries have been realigned by technology too – you used to require massive amounts of components and equipments to record, mix, and master audio tracks. You can do quite a bit with just a laptop now.

    How come you haven’t tried to make photography a part-time gig? You can always shoot watches after work. People are a different story, though.

    • Part time doesn’t work when your day job isn’t 9-5 – the more senior you get in industry, especially finance and consulting, the sillier your hours become. 14-16 hour days are routine and all-nighters are not uncommon. It got to the stage where I had to pick one or the other. And there’s no point doing a half job because you’ll always be wondering if you could have been more successful ‘if only’ you had a little more time to spend.

  12. Reblogged this on Le Café Witteveen and commented:
    Take a look at this, all you photographers.

  13. Lovely article, good quality stuff from you as usual. Well-written.

  14. Thank you for sharing from your experience. It’s good to get a realistic picture, that sets one straight once in a while.
    Singing: I want to be a cameraman with my Hasselblad… ;-)

  15. Thank you for always taking the time to post something insightful and contemplative. Indeed, photography as a full time revenue stream is elusive and difficult. In the middle 2000’s, I had game on with an NYC publicist who produced a one-year tour for RJ Reynolds. While they wouldn’t hire me to travel with the tour, they hired me to shoot for them in LA and San Diego (where I was living at the time). What they did do, however, was use me to edit all the images from there other photographers around the country. Fed Ex was showing up weekly with disks. This is another fine way to add income… I was paid handsomely for consolidating and editing thousands upon thousands of files.

    This time around, I think that the diversification really requires video skills. I cringe every time I push the movie button on my A99, and I used to shoot video extensively with an HVR-Z1U. But I know it means a trip into FCPX… (can you hear the teeth grinding?) Motion is such a huge part of advertising on the web these days and if we don’t ‘get over it’ I think it will be even more difficult for a shooter to make money as the market is so saturated with really good and affordable gear. While being a bit too much of an evangelist for my tastes, Will Crockett makes some very compelling points regarding multi-media production and is worthy of listening to his shtick. Kinda hard to ignore, considering Facebook receives on average 350 million photo uploads/day.

    As always, thank you…

    • No doubt diversification is necessary. I don’t think the video scene is going to offer any relief in the long term – sure, it’s a bit more technically difficult, but at the same time, the cost of gear and barriers to entry in that arena are falling even faster than for photography. I’m still a believer in picking a few things to specialize in and focusing on those. I just hope that in the long term, higher general awareness also translates into higher appreciation for quality.

  16. Fantastic article (again!) Ming. Like Aino, I have a busy medical career to worry about, and as stressful as that is, I at least know (as much as anyone can anyway!) that my job is secure, and my paycheque stable. My respect to those of you who have the testicular fortitude to give up working for “the man” to chase your dreams!

    • Thank you. My brother is in the same boat – talented and interested hobbyist, but stating in the medical camp. I think the career investment – and payoff – is much higher for doctors than corporate types though. In fact, I think it’s much harder to be a successful photographer than management for many reasons; you’ve got to have a much more diverse range of skills, and far more real technical knowledge and the biliary to produce than I’ve ever required before – and that’s coming from somebody who made it almost to the very top of the pyramid.

  17. Fantastic article!! One of the best articles I have read on the topic.
    As a full time professional (medical doctor) (and mother of two small ones) whose dream and passion is photography, but without the guts/knowledge/time to take the step into *real* business – all these points spoke to me on some level.
    Good for you Ming – I truly hope that the fourth time is the magical number – you certainly deserve it more than anyone I can think of.

  18. Some great advice! Too many people think it’s easy to make a living doing photography, and have to find out the hard way that it’s more difficult than it appears ;-)

  19. One of the best articles on creating a career in photography I have ever read and absolutely up to your high standards of writing. I hope that you will succeed and be able to help the world with your output for many years to come. There is one sentence that puzzles me though: “Regret is internal, and probably about the only thing worse than other people calling you a fool.” Cannot argue with the first part, but why would it matter the least if other people call you a fool? One knows if one is a fool. Other people’s opinions (bar loved ones) really should not matter as long as they don’t hunt you down and kill you; a threat getting rarer by the day I imagine. At the end of the day the only person’s respect one needs is one’s own self respect. You know what you did and did not do. You know what moral compromises, if any, you made. You know the workload you put in. This is of course based on the assumption that you are able to cover your basic needs in relative freedom etc. I am a very old f@rt (retired) and it seems to me that the immense amount of artistic (and otherwise) talent displayed by so many persons is often left underused by fearing what your neighbour thinks. In my experience most neighbours either think about themselves (and thus not about you) or not at all…

    • Thank you. What other people think matters, because they’re the ones who are making the buy decisions on jobs…not you, no matter how good you are. If you can’t convince others that you aren’t a fool, and moreover are worth hiring, you might as well not bother.

  20. Marco Borggreve says:

    All the right words chosen!

    Very good article, did you mention the support of your wife?? Will read it again today in the train leaving my family again for 5 days, this job affect a lot of people around you,,,

    Be well,

    M

    Send from a mobile device, please excuse brevity and typos

    http://marcoborggreve.com

    Op 20 feb. 2013 om 05:01 heeft Ming Thein | Photographer het volgende geschreven:

    > >

    • Well, not every aspiring photograph has a wife (hint: acquire before quitting your day job, dating is costly) but support is definitely critical. It’s a scary jump to make and quite easy to psych yourself into chickening out before giving it a really good run.

  21. Couldn’t have said it better than this; very pragmatic.

  22. If i may add, #11 — Cultivate your network. Not necessarily clients, but find a group of supportive friends and like-minded individuals (not necessarily photographers), and make a commitment to grow with them, or help them grow. You just never know. Karma makes the world go around, and business is nothing without connections.

  23. Thanks for the sage advice, particularly the cashflow part :-) Take care and I hope to meet you at one of the future US workshops!

  24. Absolutely brilliant. Thanks!

  25. Good on you Ming for following your passion. Its a business first, passion second once you decide to make $$ from it. Can’t have any bouts of GAS otherwise things blow out!!!! Concentrate on the “have to have” rather than “nice to have”…..and even then do you really need it…

    • Absolutely true. But regardless of all that…the market is becoming tougher. But at least that lets me off the hook for reviewing every pice of gear that gets released!

  26. Great article. I hope a lot of people read this and take it heart. This is NOT an easy business to succeed in.

    • Not at all, and to be honest, I feel that even now – a year in full time, and much more than that on other ways – my grip on it is rather tenuous. Don’t be surprised if I’m not doing this next year because it just doesn’t work financially.

  27. fantastic article MT!..couldnt agree more with it =)

  28. Jorge Balarin says:

    Don’t worry Ming, actually your work is not encouraging competition : ) Not everybody wanted to fight Mike Tyson at his prime.

  29. Not sure the Tyson analogy is quite accurate :) however, I’m just going by empirical observation: it would appear from the number of messages and emails that I seem to have inspired quite a lot of people to give it a try…

Trackbacks

  1. […] go for Pro… And check sites like these to get to know about the business "photography" Thoughts and advice for those considering a career in photography Sobering Truths About Making A Career Out Of Photography HOW I RUINED MY CAREER | People of the […]

  2. [...] I’m wondering where the happy medium between the pro and amateur camp lies; the pro has to be both, and the amateur wants to be a pro (usually) – until reality intervenes. It’s too easy for pros to slip into the ‘shoot only for pay’ mindset, and lose their sense of personal style and creative edge – which is probably what made them successful in the first place. And by the same token, it’s easy enough for amateurs to get a little paid work here and there, and either be disillusioned about how easy it is to make a living out of it, or not realize that doing too much of something can take the joy out of things very quickly. (If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading my advice for photographers thinking of turning pro.) [...]

  3. [...] 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'  [...]

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