This is an old blog post of mine, which I have relisted, as It still has a lot of relevance for today.
Learning the craft of photography is one thing, knowing the finer points of the business is another and these skills away from the camera itself are often the key to success. To make a career in this volatile business, takes time, skill and dedication. However, no school or college ever teaches you the life lessons you need to survive as a professional photographer. There are certain facts that every budding photographer needs to know when embarking on a career, yet sadly no one ever tells you. Until now.
1. 95% is office work, 5% is actually taking pictures
The glamorous perception of being a professional photographer can seem appealing to any newcomer. Travelling the world on assignments, taking pictures of beautiful models, stunning landscapes or products for blue chip clients and generally making a living out of what was maybe once a hobby. The reality though can be quite different. Before you even think of loading the camera bag for that next assignment or pre-planned shoot, there is the small matter of the paperwork, the phone calls, emails, letters, editing, processing, manipulation and filing. And that’s just the start of it. Next you need to think about balancing the books, tax returns, chasing invoices, assuring the Bank Manager the money’s on the way, re-chasing the invoices and uploading images. It’s all part of the business of being a photographer and yet all these inconveniences stop you from actually being out there taking pictures. Don’t undervalue them though, as you wouldn’t have a photography business if you didn’t keep on top of these tasks.
2. How to market your work
Just being a capable photographer doesn’t make the images sell. Before you even press the shutter, you have to know where and how that picture is going to sell. Trying to sell a picture that you have already taken, you’ll soon find is very much the wrong approach and less likely to gain you a sale. Having a definite or at least potential market to sell your work is obviously the key to success. However, marketing is a mystery to most photographers but has to be learnt from day one if you are going to be a success, as it’s just as important as taking the pictures. Promoting your work is all about promoting yourself and if you get this wrong, you and your business will suffer. Don’t try and make up potential markets for the images either. If they are to sell, there has to be viable markets and trying to sell a pretty landscape to a magazine with no story behind it for instance, is often going to reward you with a cold rejection.
3. How to price your work
Knowing how much to charge is one of the most frequently asked questions by photographers new to the business. The answer to this surprisingly, is that there is no answer! You have to figure out yourself how much you think you are worth. Of course, not wanting to price yourself out of the market is your goal, but at the same time, charging too little is not going help you survive for very long. Clients/customers will often want to pay less than you think you are worth, that’s inevitable, but undercutting your rivals is going to set your bar to low, which you’ll find raising is more difficult than the first approach.
You need to consider several factors, such as what is the value of the image and what is the value of your time? Also, consider just how much are you worth and how exactly you are going to convince a client of this? If a client doesn’t want to pay your rate, then it’s probably best to walk away, rather than lower your prices. Principles are going to hold you in good stead in the long run. Well, that’s the idea anyway! There are some jobs were you may have to accept what the client is paying, working for certain magazines for instance, however, knowing the pro rata rates should help you decide whether that magazine is worth dealing with in the first place. Again, some are worth walking away from, as there’s often better around the next corner.
4. Handling rejection
Rejection can be the hardest thing to deal with in any business and having your work rejected can be like a knife in a fragile ego. Remaining positive and using rejection as an incentive to improve yourself, is the only way to deal with it. All photographers have to face rejection, experience failure and handle criticism some time in their career, but you need to have enough confidence in yourself to absorb it, build on it and move on. It often isn’t a personal attack, but more often a matter of bad timing or targeting the wrong market (go back to point 2 and miss a turn). If you can rise above it and actually improve your photography on the back of a rejection, it will make you a better person and hopefully avoid the same mistakes again. Being able to accept twenty rejections to get that one yes, is what makes a strong-minded and successful photographer.
5. It’s the photographer, not the camera
This is a great lesson to learn for any newcomer to the profession, when you are trying to get a lucky break with the limited equipment you have acquired so far. The wrong perception can often seem, that to make it big, you need all the latest kit and equipment that the fully established pro’s use to match the success they have, but it’s important to note, the equipment doesn’t make the photographer. So, fortunately, you can still get that foot in the door by making the most of what you have got and allow your photography skills to create the picture, not the camera.
Having hi-tech gear worth thousands is more about making things easier for yourself, rather than a necessity and often the most memorable and saleable images you see, will not be taken on the most expensive camera in the world, but instead with a simple manual camera and with very little else in the set up. Preparation, dedication, determination and importantly, knowing your subject are key to getting prize-winning pictures more than anything else. People should comment on your image, not what you used to take it.
6. You don’t have to be perfect
There’s a difference to perfection and getting an image that your client is happy with. New photographers will often strive to create the best, most perfect image they can, but don’t be afraid of making mistakes or not producing work that is mind-blowing everytime. Things aren’t always perfect and learning to accept ‘good enough,’ can be sufficient to earn the fee or make it to the next step.
However, don’t think that passing any old rubbish off is going to work. Knowing what other people see as perfection, as opposed to your own interpretation and differentiating between the two is a good skill to learn. Times will come when that perfect image is presented to you and you should grab it with all your worth, but day in and day out work needs to be to a certain high standard, without being a prize winner each time.
7. Re-invent yourself and evolve
Moving with the times is an important lesson in your photography career. Trends come and go in all aspects of photography and keeping ahead of these or at least up with them, will help you greatly. Keeping one eye on the photo libraries and how photography is being used in magazines is crucial to keep you in the game and not be left behind whilst others evolve. Magazine styles constantly change and new editors like different styles of pictures to their predecessors. Agencies want work that will sell tomorrow, not yesterday. Pictures that sell today, will not necessarily work tomorrow, so keep your work fresh, your ideas creative and evolve your photography so that it doesn’t become stale.
8. Find stories and ideas.
You can’t always rely on clients to offer you work with commissions and a lot of the time they are ready to snap up those who come to them with a bright and creative idea. The challenge then is coming up with new assignments and fresh ideas and luckily, you don’t always need to travel far to find them. The best stories they say are always under your nose. So, working close to home is another point worth remembering and for the photographer, using what is available on your own doorstep can save you time and money. Local knowledge is a vital tool.
9. It’s not what you know, its who
This has lots of relevance in the modern world of social networking, but has played a part in all photographers’ careers over the years. Having inside knowledge or a friend who does, can often be the key to successful commissions and long-term jobs. So, keep contact with those you do meet, build up friendships and let people know who you are and what you do and those unexpected encounters will be sure to appear.
10. The fine balance of career and family life
It can be all too easy to devote 100% of your time developing your career at the expense of others around you. This is especially so in the early years as you work hard to build contacts and increase your flow of work. Even when established, there are times when you may have to say no to work if there are too many compromises to ignore. Keeping a happy medium is the key to a happier life, but the pressure to succeed can be so great that you can easily get caught in the trap. Waking up one day and realising that you have missed your child’s early years, can never be replaced, but even just making time for friends and family is as important as your career, as no job is worth sacrificing your loved ones for.
Remember these ten key points and you’re sure to go far in your career. You’ll find they apply in some way or another whichever area of photography you specialise in and they should be in the back of your mind as you go through the highs and lows of building your career. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not etched in stone and you may find that you are able to rewrite the rules they lay down. But at the same time, some will become very familiar to the situations you encounter and for that they are some of the most valuable tips you will ever need.