Every year, I go to my alma mater and give a lecture for 3rd-year
advertising-photography students on the business of photography. At this
two-hour lectures, I cover all sorts of points about the ups and downs of being
a busy commercial photographer in NYC, and also try to tell them straight facts
of what the “real world” is like. Here is a summary of some of the most
important words of wisdom I try to pass on to young photographers.
Please note that I’m talking about commercial photography in the realm of what I shoot. These tips may or may not be applicable to other photography fields.
1. School is Not the Real World
The fact that you did really well in school and that your teachers loved you means nothing at all in the real world. Yes, taking great pictures is really important, but even more important is how well you run your business. Are you good at marketing yourself, negotiating, networking, pitching yourself on a conference call, managing cash flow, etc? Do you like business?
2. It’s Really F-ing Hard to Become and Stay a Successful Commercial Photographer
Let’s say you work hard enough and are lucky enough to build a good client base. You will always be working just as hard to find your next clients and keeping your existing clients. A commercial photographer who becomes lazy is a broke photographer. The unfortunate reality of this industry is that fruits come to those who labor the most.
3. You Will Not Want to Be a Starving Artist in Your 30s
Real life is so complicated! I can’t even count how many students I have talked to who tell me they don’t care about money or making money. Truth be told, a few years later, once that student has graduated, gotten into credit card debt, and is tired of living with 3 dirty roommates in a shoebox apartment in Brooklyn, money suddenly becomes much more important. The sooner you realize that making money is important to your future, the better things will be. Even fine-art photographers need to make money somehow to support their art.
4. Live Where You Want to Work, Or Work Where You Want to Live
You want to be a fashion photographer and shoot for Vogue, but are planning on moving back to Cleveland because you really like the city and having your family nearby. That’s fine, but you won’t be shooting for Vogue living there. If you want to do the big jobs for the top bands and magazines, you need to be in the cities where people look for such photographers — cities like NYC, LA, San Francisco, and Chicago.
5. Commercial Photographers Are More like Carpenters than Artists
When a client is hiring a commercial photographer to shoot a job, most of the time they’re not hiring them to shoot because of their artistic vision, but because of their ability to problem-solve. They have ideas they want expressed in photographic form, and the photographer is the one who solves these problem for them.
6. Most of You Will Not Be Commercial Photographer in 10 Years
It’s really hard to survive as a freelance photographer. It is harder and harder every day to break into the business, and just as hard to stay in the business. You really need to love running a photography business. Of the people I graduated school with, maybe 20 percent of them support themselves entirely by taking photographs, and it’s been 10 years.
7. Nobody Cares How Good Your Grades Were in School
Honestly, when working as a freelance photographer, nobody cares if you went to school for photography, and even less what your grades were. School is a great place to learn about who you are as a photographer; nobody cares about grades later on. The photography industry is unlike most industries in the way people get hired. When you hire a contractor, do you ask them how they did in college?
8. Life Responsibilities Will Likely Overpower Your Artistic Vision
I hear lots of students claim they will never “sell out” and do work that isn’t part of their “vision”. These students are likely to work in something other than photography for a living and shoot their photography on the side, which is fine. Otherwise, they are likely the ones who sell out the quickest and do horrible jobs for almost no money and b**ch about it the whole time. If your artistic vision is more important than making money, then don’t become a commercial photographer.
9. The Photography Is the Easy Part
After years or shooting, promoting, marketing, networking, and more to get your first paid gigs, you realize that taking the pictures is the easiest part of it all. Getting the work, keeping the work, and running the business is the hardest part of a commercial photographers job, especially if running a business doesn’t come naturally to you.
10. You’re Not Going to Start a Career Because You Have a Lot of Facebook Friends
I know some photographers whose only marketing plan is putting pictures up on their Facebook pages. That may be great and fun, but it’s not going to get you work as a commercial photographer. You need to find a way to get your work in front of photo editors, art buyers, and art directors… that is how you get work. Many of my clients aren’t even on Facebook — they’re too busy.
11. I Hope You Made Friends in School
Some of my first jobs and some of my best clients are people I met while I was in school. Just like how people attend Harvard for an MBA to meet others who will help them in their businesses later on, the same goes for photo school. For every successful commercial photographer in a class, there will be at least one successful photo editor or art buyer. Make friends in school, not enemies.
12. Promos: Technology Changes but Your Message Shouldn’t
When it comes time to promote your work, don’t get caught up in the technology, whether it be twitter, email blasts, or any other new-fangled technique. More important than how your message is delivered, is that the message about your work is clear and concise and shows your work the right way to the right people.
13. When Things Are Slow, Life Is Difficult. When You’re Busy, Life Is Just as Difficult
Broke and idle photographers think life is great for rich and busy photographers; busy photographers sometimes wish for days off when they can rest and do some personal work. More often then not, a day off to a busy photographer is just as busy as a shooting day. I often need to get caught up on business matters, try to plan tests, meetings, etc… No matter what, both slow and busy photographers are working their asses off. Often in this industry it’s either feast or famine, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.
14. You Can’t Buy a House with Photo Credits
When you’re starting out it’s really exciting to get your work published, even if it means doing work for free. The reality is that it’s cool for a little while, but then really quickly you realize you weren’t really getting much out of that deal. As a commercial photographer, you need to be paid for what you do, unless it’s a personal project or you think you’ll make a killing in stock sales after.
15. There Is No Escaping Taxes
The worst part about being a commercial photographer is keeping track PF expenses, invoicing, bookkeeping, and taxes. Period.
16. It Takes Money to Make Money
Unlike writers, photographers need gear to create their work. When you’re starting out, most of your money will go to buying more gear or building your business. This can include portfolios, website updates, promos, photo seminars, and more. When you buy something that makes it easier for you to create work, you’ve made a good investment. I wish I could just save all my money, but the reality is I constantly need to be upgrading something. Also, photographers can make a good amount of money by renting the gear they own to their clients.
17. Not All Photographers Should Be Commercial Photographers
If you don’t think you can handle all it takes to run a business and also ENJOY running a business, maybe you should just do photography as an art, and find a different career. Otherwise, you will spend your life completely wasting your time doing things you don’t like doing, and what’s the fun in that? Do what you love, and become a master at what you love doing.
18. Who Cares What Your Parents Think
You have to live your life the way you want, not how they want. For better or worse, my parents always supported me in doing what I was passionate about, but not all parents are the same. If you really love doing something and are passionate about it, go for it, no matter what.