The most successful photographers produce iconic work that defines them, sometimes…
Dear new photographer,
I’m writing this post because I was up late last night on a Facebook forum, reading close to 200 comments about new photographers and what slime they are to the industry. How they’re stripping photography of it’s “art” and destroying any decent business practices. I read every comment, feeling more and more sick to my stomach the further I scrolled down the page.
“Who do these people think they are? Don’t they remember when they were new and making all the same mistakes?”
I know this year has probably had it’s ups and downs for you; the excitement of booking your first paid gig, the confusion of all that “must have” photography gear and the hurt and guilt of being single-handedly blamed for “ruining the industry.” I know the phrase “what to charge for engagement photos” is probably one of the first things to come up in your Google search bar, and secretly you’re still wondering why using the eraser tool in photoshop is such a horrible thing.
I also know that you’re afraid to ask for advice at every turn because for every established photographer that is willing to help, you’ve got 30 more breathing down your neck that are doing everything they can to cut you down. I’ve been there too – I’ve had my work ripped apart online by a “reputable” photographer (who went out of business earlier this year), I’ve bought things I didn’t need because some famous photographer endorsed them and I thought it would make a dramatic improvement in my work (it didn’t), and I’ve used the crap out of the eraser tool (layer mask, folks).
So what I wanted to do here is give you a heads-up. A bit of a rant mixed with some advice I wish I had known in the beginning, this is just about everything I wish someone had told me the first day I got that used and slightly beat up (but still very new to me) camera in my hands.
Beware The Vulture
Clients will use your for free photos.
Countless people are about to ask you for free photos. New parents will adamantly lend you their newborn baby to “practice” on or will offer up their family to help you grow your “portfolio”. Magazines and businesses will ask for those landscape photos of yours in exchange for “exposure”. Don’t confuse these requests with paid shoots or even as complements, they are neither. These are people wanting free shit, plain and simple.
Now in the beginning, you are going to have to do some things for free – you need the experience and you need to build your portfolio – but know this: anything you shoot for free that isn’t related to what you eventually want to be paid for, or a personal cause, is a waste of your time. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to shoot newborn photos, but I was interested in shooting weddings. So between two non-paying jobs, I took the one that added to my wedding portfolio and referred the newborn shoots to someone else.
Don’t take this to mean you should specialize immediately – you shouldn’t. You should shoot as many different things as you possibly can to try and find what your really passionate about, but don’t feel obligated to take any free job that comes along.
Other photographers will use you as an unpaid assistant.
I highly, highly recommend interning, but the point is to get something out of it. If all you’re doing is running errands, getting coffee and carrying heavy gear, you’re getting taken advantage of.
If you’re in an internship, ask questions. Ask about the camera settings, the lighting, the posing; everything! Why are they using one light when earlier they used another? Why do they keep telling the model to put her chin down? What aperture do they shoot at for large groups? Is there a reason they prefer one lens to the other? Some of these are questions better asked at the end of a session, when the client is gone, but if you have a question, ask. If the photographer you’re interning for blows it off or won’t answer your questions, find someone else to intern for. This person is after the free labor, not in mentoring an upcoming photographer.
P.S: Look out for any mentor that requires you to sign a No Competition Clause or a waiver saying you’ll work for free for any given amount of time. If they bring this up – RUN. Oh my god, run.
More experienced photographers will try to sell you things.
As a newbie, you are actually part of a growing market; a market where you’re willing to pay money for a short track to success, and there are a many other photographers ready to pounce. People are going to try and sell you workshops, gear, actions, presets, tutorials and more. All taking advantage of the fact that you’re willing to pay for something you don’t already have.
Now, I am a huge supporter of photographer education: I teach workshops, give online coaching, have tutorials and action sets and give away gradient and texture packs all the time, but you should know how to find the good ones. If you’re thinking of attending a workshop, ask to see references or testimonials from other workshop attendees. Ask to see an itinerary of everything you will be learning. Email the instructor to start a dialogue and see if your skill set is at the right place to be learning what they are teaching, and make sure any images you take at the workshop belong to you. You want to walk away feeling like you’ve actually grown in your development, knowing that all images taken by you belong to you, and that the money spent was worth every penny.
Seek Out Meaningful Criticism
Know where to go for the feedback you’re looking for.
I love my mom and I love my fiancé, but when I’m looking for good, constructive feedback on my latest work, neither of them are the best people to go to. For one, they’re incredibly biased, and two, they know nothing about photography.
When I need good, quality feedback, I approach a successful photographer that is knowledgeable in the field my photography is in. I shoot fine art portraiture; a landscape photographer or photojournalist that loathes the use of Photoshop isn’t going to get me anywhere. In addition, neither is a Facebook, self-proclaimed photography “Pro”. Seek out the people that will give you unbiased, professional, relevant feedback. That’s how you grow.
It takes a little bit of effort to get that kind of feedback. Email a photographer you respect or try and schedule an appointment with a local gallery or editor. Sometimes you have pay for these kind of things, but it’s worth it.
Be impartial about gathering advice, but very selective in applying it.
No matter the advice you receive, people don’t know you. I was once told that my images were far too commercial to be considered art, and I should instead pursue work in fashion. All fine and well, except I didn’t want to do fashion work – I wanted to sell in galleries. Convinced I needed to shoot more fashion, they gave me plenty of advice about how to further commercialize my images, so I sat there and I took all of it – and then did the opposite. Their advice wasn’t necessarily right for me, but the knowledge was still very valuable. Now gallery sales are a large part of my income.
Know you probably aren’t going to like what you hear, and shut-up when you hear it.
The whole point of feedback is to get better, which usually means something you’re currently doing can be improved. It never feels good to hear you’re weak in a particular area, but the sooner it’s pointed out to you the sooner you can do something about it. I’ve stated in other posts how valuable my time at Fotofest was – not because of the positive feedback I received (I did sell 4 pieces), but because of the feedback where I was slaughtered. Brutal honesty hurts, but I learned more in two weeks than I had in two years, and my work has made a dramatic improvement because of it.
Shrug off the jerks.
There are plenty of people out there just dying to give feedback to a new photographer, simply on the basis of cutting them down. Some old, jaded, bitter photographer that still can’t get over the fact that this whole digital “fad” hasn’t worn off yet. Yes, film is awesome, but so is digital and wet plates and colloidal tin types and God knows how many other forms of photography there are in the world today. Be very aware of the narrow-minded.
Value Business Skills and Photography Skills
Just because there are a lot of photographers does not mean there is no room for you.
As with any other business, the quantity of vendors does not determine the success of a new vendor. A new vendor’s success is determined by the quality of their product or service, their reputation, their marketing plan, their community involvement, their prices and countless other things. Every business is different, just as every photographer is different. Figure out what it is that you can offer that is different than what is out there already and run with it.
Get ready to work…a lot.
I can’t honestly remember the last time I had a day off. If I’m not shooting, I’m editing, or answering emails, or sending out submissions, or planning, designing, and budgeting the next shoot. Every ounce of free time is spent doing something photography related – which is pretty awesome…mostly because I’m utterly obsessed with photography. If you aren’t obsessed though, this isn’t going to be the best career for you. You need to know your workdays will be long and your days off will be few, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, than welcome aboard.
Use the business model that works for you.
Hey guess what, when it comes to client work, I’m a shoot-n-burner. I shoot entire sessions, edit out the best photos and give clients the digitals. It’s what works best for me. I don’t build my business around the idea that I need to make money on prints. I make money on the cost of the sessions. Could I be making more if I sold prints? Probably. Would it be worth my extra time? Not to me. I don’t want clients coming back 8 months from now asking for 8 x 10s. I’d rather focus on booking another wedding, teaching another workshop or emailing another gallery. Each of those things has a much better value to me than filling another order of 11 x 14s and 5 x 7s.
Don’t feel bad, for one second, about begin a shoot-n-burner, charging less than everyone else, shooting for free or doing anything else other photographers are going to berate you for. The fact is, you have to shoot some things for free in the beginning and you have charge less in the beginning. It would be unethical not to. You don’t have the skills, the experience or the portfolio to be charging what established photographers do. And in all honesty, if your low price is taking business away from them, they’re doing something wrong, not you.
Raise your prices when you’re worth it.
All that shooting for free or at very low rates is no way to make a living though. As soon as you’ve got a decent portfolio together, you’ve got to start raising those prices to something more reflective of the kind of images you can produce. And yes, you’re going to lose some clients, but the truth is anyone paying you $50 for a full photoshoot isn’t a client anyway – it’s someone taking advantage of an exceptionally good deal.
Never underestimate the value of social media.
Learn how to use social media or get left in the dust. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a magazine, saw an ad for a company, remembered that company, went home and googled them, ended up at their website, searched for whatever product I saw in the magazine, and bought that product. I can, however, remember the last time I saw something scrolling through my Facebook news feed, clicked the link and bought it. That happened earlier today.
Other photographers are your best friends.
Great photographers slowly become more specialized over time. It’s only natural that the more we shoot, the more we begin to refine our skills in certain areas. Which means every photographer in your town won’t be shooting the same thing you are, and the ones that do, won’t all be going after the same target audience. If you’re a wedding photographer, be friends with other wedding photographers. There are countless weddings in various price points; way too many for one person to shoot them all! If you shoot weddings, refer newborns to the newborn photographer, lingerie shoots to the boudoir photographer, seniors to the senior photographer and they’ll all refer weddings to you. It’s a two-way street where everyone wins.
Get over your goddamn watermark already.
1) No one wants to steal your images right now. You’re not that good. There are a lot better photos out there that people could steal.
2) Putting a giant watermark in the middle of your photo does not keep people from stealing it, it keeps them from enjoying your work.
3) If they really want to steal it, a watermark isn’t going to stop them. Hell just last week I had to use one of my photos for a flyer, and I didn’t have the original on hand. So I took one from Facebook, cloned out the watermark and pasted it on the flyer. Worked for exactly what I needed it to do and it took all of 6 minutes. The watermark didn’t even slow me down.
4) “But my watermark let’s people know who took the photo! And removing it shows criminal intent!” Fair enough. In that case put it in tiny letters a corner somewhere, similar a signature on painting. If it’s not taking up the whole photo people will be much less inclined to crop it out anyway.
Redefine How You Feel About Failure
“Getting it right” is subjective.
So much about photography is finding your own personal style, and that’s usually done through making a lot of mistakes. I remember the first time I accidentally left my shutter speed too low (because in the beginning I didn’t know how fast a shutter had to be to stop movement) and a huge number of my photos were blurry – and I LOVED it! Soon I learned how to control that blur and use it in a way that I wanted. What would’ve been a complete failure by conventional terms was actually a huge step forward for me.
Welcome the mistakes.
Learning from mistakes now will help you from making them in later, probably more crucial situations, so be a little more liberal with risks in the beginning. A mistake in your first wedding probably isn’t going to kill you; no one knows who you are and you’re shooting it for free for a family friend anyway. That same mistake at a wedding where they’ve put down $6K and you have a business and a reputation to uphold is probably going to be much more damaging.
Learn all the rules, then break them.
As much as I hate rules, they’re there for a reason. The first time I heard about the “Rule of Thirds” my mind was blown. I quickly began rearranging all my images to fit, and I was pleasantly surprised. And then I was bored. The “Rule of Thirds” is now one of my favorite rules to break – but it’s broken with intent, not by accident. There’s a difference.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in this industry. A 365 day project or a 52 week challenge is a great way to change things up a bit. In addition, start shooting things you aren’t necessarily familiar with. If you’ve only ever shot families, take on a pet shoot. Take a drive to somewhere new and shoot a few landscapes or try your hand at some street photography. You may not completely switch gears, but you’ll no doubt learn some new skills you can apply to your current photography.
Keep Reminding Yourself Why You’re Doing This
I love my job. I love waking up every day to take photos. I even kind of love slaving away in front of the computer spending 40+ hours editing a single photo because I know at the end of it all it will be worth it. I also know that there is plenty of room in this industry for newer, upcoming photographers and the world would be a lot better place if more people loved going to work every day just as much as I do. So overall, dear New Photographer, don’t ever forget that end goal. Keep plugging along, keep learning, keep growing, keep researching, keep shooting and keep taking things one step at a time.
I can’t say that this roller coaster ever really stops, and I can’t say that you’ll ever stop feeling like a newbie, but in a way, I don’t think we ever should. The second we think we know everything is the second we should probably pack it in. I hope I’m a newbie forever :).