The First Question You Should Ask Yourself When Starting a Career in Photography

The First Question You Should Ask Yourself When Starting a Career in Photography

In my never ending quest to state the obvious things that we all tend to forget, today I will talk about another simple truth. To get what you want, you first have to know what you want.

I was recently on a Zoom call with a younger photographer just starting out and she asked the question that all young artists ask in the early stages of their careers ask: “How do I get from here to there?” Putting aside for a moment whether or not I feel as though I’ve even reached my own “there” yet, there were a number of photographers on the call, all at varying levels, and I could easily relate as I had asked the same question nearly two decades ago when I first started. What guided my advice and made the question so easy to answer was the manner in which it was addressed.

I, myself, am an advertising and editorial photographer and director working mostly with lifestyle, fitness, and activewear brands and publications. Other colleagues on the call were entertainment photographers working mostly with celebrities and movie studios. Others were beauty photographers focusing on cosmetic products. And within each of those disciplines the aesthetics of each photographer and their working methods varied greatly. They were all very good at what they did. But they all did very different things. So if their careers were to be viewed as destinations they would be as different as Florida and Idaho.

To set forth an analogy, let’s think about your career as going on vacation. I laugh as I write that because making a living as an artist is definitely no vacation, but that’s a topic for another essay.

When deciding on a vacation destination, you first have to think about yourself. Are you a rustic person or a city person? Do you want to explore and learn about a vibrant new culture, or would you rather spend the entire vacation sipping an alcoholic beverage while splayed out on a beach chair? In short, what sort of things make you happy? What are the things that get you excited about going on vacation in the first place?

For our example, let’s say that you are a city person and want to spend the vacation searching art galleries and immersing yourself in local cultures. You’re probably not going to choose a beach resort. But you now have an endless number of urban cities to consider. Paris, New York, Milan, Rio, the list goes on. So you have to do a little more introspection and decide which of those destinations is the best fit for you. Only then can you buy a ticket, hop on a plane and head off into the world.

True, you could just go to the airport, plunk down your money and ask for a ticket. But the gate agent is likely to ask you where you want to go before processing the order. I suppose if you have a particularly non-suspicious gate agent, you could abdicate that choice and allow them to book you onto the earliest flight of their choosing. But the odds of that flight landing where you wanted to go are relatively slim.

The same goes for building a career. It’s good to explore your options. Especially early in your journey. But once you are starting to dig into your career in earnest and have decided you want to make this your living, you’ll need to decide on what you want that living to look like in order to know what path to take to get “there.”

Do you want to shoot for magazines? Do you want to shoot weddings? Are you inspired by newborn photography? Or do you only get excited by the sight of a couture gown? And more importantly, why do you only get excited by fashion and not, for example, landscapes? Early in your career, it is just as important to explore yourself and your own motivations as it is to explore photographic techniques. If you're building a career, hopefully one that will last for the rest of your life, it is essential that you really consider what it is that you’d like to spend that hopefully long life doing.  

With talent and hard work, you can reach any destination. But first, you have to know where you are going.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Simple, but oh so valid.
I definitely didn't think this through in sufficient detail when I started!
I'm (a lot) longer in the tooth now, and about to embark on a new project and believe you me, I know costing, time, destination and added in massive extra percentages to all the aforementioned because, let's face it, nothing ever goes to plan 😁
That said, an excellent prompt for me to revisit the influencing factors regardless of my prior planning, thank you.
This premise should be Chapter 1 / Lesson 1 in any course.

First question you should ask is: Do I really believe doing photography is a good choice and can I make money doing it.

Most photographers are not good business people. Maybe because those who are, understand that photography is a dead end.

Yes some still are making a good living, but I think less and less. And for each of those are a bundle of photographers who never will. Everybody is a photographer these days.

"With talent and hard work, you can reach any destination. But first, you have to know where you are going."
Very good motivational speaker line but is absolutely false. As with any business you need to make sure that five major components are analyzed and accounted for before you even start (per Forbes magazine)
1.Market need.
2. Enough capital
3. Good business skills.
4. Size of competition
5. Right pricing
Getting into photography business is probably worse than most other businesses.With market shrinking and competition growing, it would take a lot of money to promote photography business to the point of at least making a living.

Youtubing is probably the way to go.

Excellent article. I am 67 years old and currently retired. And very much an amateur photographer. But before I retired I owned a Video Surveillance business for 14 years. During that time everyone sold Security Cameras. Costco was selling 8 cameras with a DVR, all the wiring and a power supply for the same price I was selling 1 camera (by itself). And yet I was servicing 14 Whole Foods stores in the Bay Area. I did Police Stations, Corporations, Car Dealers and Private Homes to name a few. I was working totally by myself, selling, doing quotes, purchasing, installations (with part time help) and all the servicing and billing. I had over 210 installations with well over 2,000 cameras installed. So why am I stating this? Because I find photography (like any business) is like dating. When you walk into a nightclub you'll be in-dated by rigid competition. But with thoughtful planning you will eventually walk out with a partner. Make them happy and your telephone will ring. There is nothing better than a referral. Like this article pointed out, you just need to know what you want to achieve and work hard.