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).

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Turning pro: Six months in

Well, give or take a week or so, at any rate. As those of you who’ve been reading this site from the beginning know, I’d made the decision to be a full time photography/ creative professional sometime back in 2005; I subsequently spent the next seven years building up the courage to do it. In addition to sharing my knowledge, creating something a serious thinking photographer might like to read, and connecting with the global photographic community in general, a good portion of the objective of this site was to chronicle my journey as a photographer for others thinking of following the same path, or those who might like to live a little vicariously. This is where things like the On Assignment series of posts come into play.

It was pretty clear to me that to make things work – i.e. be able to pay the bills – I’d have to spread myself around a bit, and work on the logic of ‘a bit from many places’. Despite what it might appear, this site has not been my primary focus, and can never be; it’s simply impossible for me to write from the perspective I do if I’m not a photographer first and a blogger second. This means that whilst I’ll try to accommodate requests for gear reviews, particular topics etc – it might be a while before they hit the internet because I have to find time to do them, and find a slot in the posting schedule to put them up. Reviews of equipment are limited to what I can get loaned to me (if I think it’s worthwhile evaluating, i.e. I may consider buying it because as a tool, it does something my current gear does not) or what I buy in the course of my work. I’m not going to start reviewing Canon gear, for instance, because it simply does not make sense from a workflow point of view. By the time I get up to speed with it, I’ll have invested a huge amount of time, effort and money, and still not be as good as the established users out there.

I also don’t write daily, though thanks to the wonders of scheduled posting, you do get new content every day. That’s because I don’t have a fixed chunk of time every day, and writing – like any other creative pursuit – comes in fits and starts. I might do six articles in one particularly productive day, then nothing for a week. And yes, like a magazine, I have an editorial schedule and I also make sure I don’t repeat myself or cover something from the same angle somebody else has already done. (When you actually read this, I’ll be in Japan doing the pre-workshop reccie before I start teaching tomorrow.)

On the whole though, it’s been pretty exciting. And time has flown by. Yes, there have been boring moments, slightly bleak moments where the pipeline looks empty and the crystal ball cloudy – I’ve since come to realize that’s normal for every creative – on the whole, I’ve had a ball of a time. Even the people around me say I’m much smilier than when I worked for the man. Right now I’m just grateful that I can wake up in the morning, do something I enjoy, and make a living in the process. I don’t know how long this will continue, given the current state of the creative industry – especially in Malaysia – but I suppose it makes one appreciate it all the more.

I also want to say a big thank you to my supporters and readers; without you, I wouldn’t have written, or continue to write, and in the process push my thinking, understanding and experimentation even further; so in a way, giving back has helped me to grow creatively. Thank you also to my students of the Email School, workshop participants, DVD supporters and downloaders – what you contribute in reality isn’t money, but the freedom of time to enable me to create.

In true post-consulting style, I’ve also prepared a little dissection and analysis. MT

Things that worked out like I planned

  • Commercial work around my areas of specialization – watches, food, architecture.
  • Teaching and teaching-related activities have formed a nontrivial chunk of my income.
  • People like to read gear reviews.
  • I’m happier.
  • …and that’s about it.

Things that didn’t

  • The local market here for photography is tough: both very price sensitive, and quality-indifferent.
  • I’m not doing as much architecture, food and watch work as I thought; the commercial-type stuff has been getting more and more prevalent.
  • Payment collection is absolutely terrible, and difficult. The larger the company, the slower and more difficult.
  • I miss photojournalism.
  • The traffic volumes I have now. That said, I think I’ve reached a natural barrier: my audience is pretty specific, and definitely your more serious sort of photographer; I don’t know how many of them are out there worldwide, speak English, and would be interested in reading what I’ve written.
  • A lot of the smaller companies in the US and Europe who make interesting specialist gear have no interest in having their stuff reviewed, even if you are pushing a serious amount of traffic through their target markets (about 60% of my readers). I didn’t even get a reply from a lot of the companies I emailed – this is both rather disappointing and shortsighted on their part.

Things I completely didn’t expect

  • The friendliness, openness and civility of the international photo community. I’ve made a lot of great friends in the course of both working professionally and running the site, and it’s completely different to what the DPReview forums might have you expecting.
  • I’m working far longer hours than when I had an office – and I thought that was bad. These days, 14-16 hour days are normal. 7 days a week. But you know what, it doesn’t feel like work half the time.
  • Sometimes saying no to a bad client is the right thing to do. It feels odd at first to walk away from a job you have the capacity to do, but avoiding pain and having that veto power and control was one of the things I wanted over corporate. So I’d better learnt to make the most of it, I suppose. Happiness is now achievable.
  • Shooting full time for work doesn’t make you more creative. When there are clients on the line, unless they’re very, very good clients, you tend to be more conservative, if anything. This tends to limit the quality of your output somewhat. It’s tough to be creative on demand. And to make things worse, you don’t always feel like going out to do your own personal work afterwards – I almost have to force myself on some days. It’s not always easy to find inspiration for articles, or material for reviews. I think I’ve exhausted all of the places to shoot in Kuala Lumpur.
  • I didn’t think there’d be that many people interested in my Photoshop workflow…

Where to next?

  • I think the biggest change will be for me professionally: I need to differentiate myself from other offerings by going beyond photography into other creative spaces like video, design, copywriting, branding, layout etc – these are things I already do, but not in a widely publicized way. And I think having a consistent feel to all of your creative work is definitely a big value add for any potential client. Plus, it of course diversifies my income streams.
  • There’s an iPad app in the works. Not only will it feature some brand new content specific to the platform, but it will also let you read your favorite blog daily and search the archives in a much more meaningful way. And to go with it, there will be small video tutorial segments along with ‘request an answer’ type functionality – no more waiting for DVDs in the mail!
  • At the first year anniversary of this site, I plan to collate and publish the more interesting and time-independent posts into an ebook. I notice that a lot of questions asked have already been answered in detail in other posts, which says to me either people are lazy, or my indexing is rubbish – probably the latter. Plus it’s a shame to go to all that effort and just have things lost in the ether. According to WordPress, there’s over 400 posts and 600,000 words of content on the site – that’s the equivalent of three or four thick paperback books. I might even print a few if the demand is there.
  • I will continue to remain brand agnostic – using the best tool for the job – but in the interests of full disclosure, I have and will continue to work with Leica, Olympus, Shriro (Carl Zeiss, Profoto and Gitzo) and several other local partners.
  • Trying to figure out a better search/ indexing feature for the site.
  • More workshops! This time, I’ll go where you want me to, not where I think might be interesting. Big difference.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved