The Hard Truth Why No One Will Hire You As A Photographer

Let's face it; the industry is changing. Art directors and potential clients are not looking to simply hire a photographer anymore. They do not care about your lighting, your gear, or even your previous clients. So what do they care about then? Photographer John Keatley sits down with artist rep Maren Levinson at Redeye to discuss the future of photography, and there is a very good chance you are not going to like what she has to say. 

A lot has changed since photography has gone digital. The days of a professional photographer being part of an elite underground darkroom society are long past.  These days it is likely your neighbors' 17 year old son can light a portrait better than you. Today everyone is a part time photographer, and a large percentage of them are pretty darn good at it too.  

It's time to face the hard cold truth: people do not hire you because you are a good photographer

When John shared with me this video he produced with Maren Levinson, I found myself thinking "yes, yes," every 45 seconds. You see, Maren is an agent who represents some of the most in demand photographers on the west coast. She sees A LOT of photography on a daily basis, and her observations of the state of photography are pretty much dead on point.  To sum up the video above, agencies and clients are not looking to hire someone who can produce a sharp looking photograph anymore.  Instead, art buyers are looking to hire a brand, a style, a quirk, or more plainly put, a vision.  The advertising world thrives on being able to turn heads and grab people's attention in a split second, and in today's grossly over saturated visual market place they need more than just a pretty photo.  They need something with teeth.  

Unfortunately for a large percentage of photographers this means they will never be hired by one of these dream brands. Just because you have a "good" sports portfolio or a "solid" food look book does not mean that Nike or McDonalds are going to come knocking on your door. Being successful in today's market looks a lot different than it did just 15 years ago.  Just as Maren candidly suggests, you and your work are often going to be reduced to a single sentence, and what you are known for is what is going to ultimately land you a successful career in photography.  The question then becomes, "what ARE you known for?" Are you the super shallow depth of field portrait guy who uses only a single hard light? Maybe you are the iconic country music album cover photographer with the high contrast processing? The messy and sloppy food photographer who desaturates everything to 20%?  Maybe you are the sadistic portrait photographer who tazes everyone (okay, I'm just trying to make this point clear).  If you do not have a unique and instantly recognizable answer to this question then your career as a professional photographer might be in dire straights.  

If you are just a "solid photographer" then this might not be sounding too good for you and your photography business. You should not stress too much over this however, as I believe there is a silver lining in all of my gloom and doom talk. Since most photographers only push themselves to be "good enough" it leaves the door wide open for those who want to knock their work out of the park so to speak. Being an in demand creative professional means a lot more than simply showing up, throwing a light or two around, and calling it a day. If you want your work to land you a potential job with one of your favorite companies, you need to give them something that only you can produce for them. In the simplest terms, you need to be YOU and only you.  It is entirely okay to go through different creative phases and imitate your creative idols, but at some point you need to narrow down your commercial work into a niche product that is not only uniquely you but also instantly recognizable. As Maren Levinson suggests in her interview with John Keatley, photographers might have been able to build a solid career in the past by being a jack of all trades, but in today's market you really do have to be a master of just one.  

For me this is great news because being successful today can free you up from having to cater towards all the genres and styles of photography you do not like. It means you can focus more on producing and directing only the projects you find interesting, and in turn, you will be hired for those very same projects you enjoy creating. Even today, so many photographers are resisting the movement towards video and motion which can be a HUGE selling point for your business if you offer it in some capacity. Never has there been such a demand for creative exploration than there is today, and if you push yourself to transcend the previous ideas of what being a photographer means you can reach levels of success never before thought possible.  So while the future of photography seems like it is in complete peril, the reality is the future is looking very bright and extremely liberating.  

In closing, for many of you I would suggest that you begin focusing on what makes you happy as an artist. Stop building a portfolio that copies and mimics other photographers you admire and instead take what you like about their work and make it truly your own. If you love Peter Hurley's lighting style, take that and mold it into a funny series of comedians making strange faces. Learn from John Keatley and take his approach to set building and build your own sets for your pet photography business. Adopt Mike Kelley's architectural light painting tricks and use them to produce interesting environmental portraits. The world's creative canvas is completely blank and the possibilities are endless. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it can also be the first nail into a career of mediocrity.  

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45 Comments

Tim Fitzwater's picture

I get the point and I agree to an extent. But maybe this holds more truth in large, very competitive markets. Here in Akron, OH(a city of just under 200,000) being a jack of all trades is what keeps me working enough to not have to get a "real job".
Last week I lit and shot extrusion machines in a shop, a charity event with my flash, a corporate group portrait for an annual report, and an interview video for a children services agency. Specializing is great and having a very specific, mastered style is too - but I need all kinds of jobs to pay the rent.

Patrick Hall's picture

I think this is true with small publications, wedding clients, and small local companies. Maren works to connect major brands with commercial and advertising photographers and in that world her words ring very true. However, I believe this will eventually trickle down to even the smaller markets. I've def seen the requests for a single photographer/videographer rise in my local market and with cheap stock photo options, most local companies would be stupid not to simply license cheap images vs spend thousands of dollars on a professional photographer.

Tim Fitzwater's picture

I guess I'm lucky I still work for some firms who think stock photography is what looks stupid and see the value in original photography. I think you talking about major brands is the same thing as what I said about competitive markets. I think many photographers are also smart enough to not always charge "thousands". I have set rules on how low I'll go but I'll definitely adjust downward depending on the client. I'll make a few hundred dollars a day to just be working - sorry to anyone who thinks I'm "cheapening photography" - but in a place like Akron the cost of living is cheap and our population is shrinking.
The market bears what the market bears(and that definitely depends on location) so everyone has to do what works for them.

Tim, I think that's a great point about being a jack of all trades photographer. I think it would be difficult for a new photographer to specialize in one area and make a living off of it. I think you have to diversify in order to survive. However, being a jack of all trades photographer is difficult because you have to learn different skills for each specialty of photography. Real estate photography requires a certain skill-set as does food photography.

Had to stop reading half way through due to the pretentiousness.

Jacob Blick's picture

I understand what you're saying. You have to do your own thing and you have to be creative, however you can make it "just being a photographer". I've done and I'm doing it. 1 year ago I was in a completely unrelated occupation (oil and gas) taking pictures on weekend trips. Now, I'm a salaried staff photographer and it's all because of my photography.

Karl Taylor's picture

Hi Patrick, hope you are well. Great article and I very much agree with you on this. I've seen the same trends in my 20 years in the business and while I enjoy shooting a variety of genres, by and large I get hired for crisp clean product/advertising work. There are some exceptions, but todays market means I'm known for one type of thing and there are many less expensive photographers out there who can do an adequate job on the other stuff that I used to shoot 10 years ago. As there has been a huge increase in semi pro photographers who can adequately light and compose a picture many of them are so keen to see there work published initially that they will often work for next to nothing which has also affected the balance of power to the clients, especially on the lower level commercial projects. I do think however that there may be a slight swing back in the next couple of years, some photographers I've known who set up have then exited because the market was too competitive and the revenue stream too small for the amount of work they put in and realised that the grass wasn't as green on the other side as they first thought. As with all this stuff though 'it is what it is'... you can't change it you can only try to find a way to make it work for you.

Edgar Maivel's picture

...market will always fix itself, there always some changes and adjustments, and lower level is always over saturated, vision, creativity and style don't come overnight even if you "born" with it, also there is a lot of people enter the market with pure idea just buy camera and start making money, whereas a lot of people at first buying a camera to express their vision or other points of interest...

Michael Kormos's picture

There is MORE demand for visual media today than ever before. Prior to the advent of the internet, visual media was restricted solely to print, which had a limited run with, mostly weekly and monthly publications, commercial catalogues, trade shows, etc. With web (and mobile devices) marketing channels have diversified and grown exponentially. Just look at the number of stock photo agencies that have literally sprung-up overnight, to quench this ever-growing thirst. However, with the accessibility of digital cameras, the competition amongst photographers has grown exponentially too. Companies are recognizing this, and paying less and less, seeing as how many talented individuals are willing to "get their name out there" if only for only a photo credit. Hell, most editorial work pays little to nothing these days, unless it's a big name magazine with an original story.

What's more important today than ever before, is the ability of the photographer to sell themselves. Great photos alone are nothing if you can't sell yourself to your clients.

Our retail studio has grown steadily over the past six years, and we're excited to be opening up a second brand this year. And while only a third of our work is from commercial accounts, I'm probably the only photographer who's NOT dying to land accounts like Nike or McDonald's.

Ultimately, things will mature, settle, and the landscape will adapt. That's just... life.

Art Sanchez's picture

Great article!

Benjamin Thomson's picture

I would agree strongly with this sentiment. I work as a designer for a large media group. For big pitches, we look to put forward a talent with a strong following or narrative.

Where i disagree is that just as often we need solid photographers who can work with a brand that already has a strong styleguide. We like to rely on people we've used before, so there will always be room for reliable photographers with the versatility to nail many looks.

David Adamson's picture

After thirty year career I retired a couple years after digital took over and with the economic slowdown. Commercial photography today is so dependent on gimmicky looking branding and depending so much on post work to achieve that gimmick look. Digital has also, as the article stated, brought forth wanna be photographers and cheapened the art.

This image was taken in the early 1980's on 4x5 chrome film. All we had was lighting.

What you are talking about is craft, and a particular kind of craft. Post work has always been part of photography. The only reason it wasn't part of shooting transparencies is because of the technical limitations of the medium (essentially, you traded your ability to do post for the other benefits of transparencies).

Digital has removed the financial and time barriers to practicing photography which has made it accessible to everyone including both the talented and the untalented. There are some amazing young talented people out there who are able to be photographers simply because of digital. And the reason those 20 year olds are so "talented" is because they have been working as photographers (sometime professionally) for 5 or more years.

Besides, if you think there were no wannabe photographers before digital, you never worked with a camera club. It's just that with the internet, you can see them more often.

Hermawan Tjioe's picture

You nailed it, James.

I definitely agree with this. I have been in the image business since film. The industry has changed. The three gate keepers to being a professional (equipment, financial resources, and education) are gone. Photography has been democratized. So call it gimmicks, call it style, or whatever, with so many talented people now able to practice and develop their skills, it's going to take more than talent to stand out.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Yet you continue making courses and videos prophetyzing the photography you are now bashing on the article. Makes me wonder a lot! Commercial photographers keep complaining instead of enjoying photography as an art.
The main reason i've stopped wanting to be a photographer and become a programmer are articles like this.

So reading articles and taking others opinions to heart, rather than having confidence in your work and mastering your craft is the "main reason" you stopped wanting to be a photographer? That sounds like a "you" problem, not anyone else's. Opinions and point-of-views are everywhere.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Problem me? Nah, i was just making a point here. If i don't agree with something i don't hide it. The rest of the photography blah blah programmer is just a rant.

Anonymous's picture

It's no longer about quality, it's about original content. I don't understand why some people are getting so butt hurt over this. If anything, it should motivate you even more to pursue your interest in photography. If you are offended by this article, then you most likely aren't confident with your work.

Tim Fitzwater's picture

I'm not offended - I just don't 100% agree. Trust me - when a company wants a product shot for a box - quality is still important.

Anonymous's picture

Everyone can capture a high quality photo now. So the competition is about content and originality. Back in the film days and early digital dslr, as long as you had a nice camera and somewhat of an eye for photography..you could get paid gigs.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Competition in my market is about personality and reliability.

Matthew Odom's picture

I understand what he's saying but at the end of the day just work hard and don't give up!!

Richard Peterson's picture

Persistence almost always pays off! Good point!

Chris Adval's picture

I agree, for the photographers in the national or larger markets. If you're just state-wide, city-wide, or regional within the state then being jack of all trades may be the only option. I'm a jack of all trades but I still focus more in some than others dependent on market demands in the geographic areas I focus in. Of course most of us may want to be a nationalized (or larger) photographer so going this route of being super niche is and will be needed to grow. I can tell ya from experience, I got hired for a million dollar company that pretty much hired me not just for my skills but for being a block away from their facilities as the primary reason they only wanted me for their work for that facility.

Chris Adval's picture

Video I stay away from purely because it requires a different skill set creatively (like composition and video editing) and some equipment depending what you're doing. I know if I offer video it would just take out the focus from my photos, plus I really hate editing videos even for "simple" videos like interviews. I'll start video when my photo biz booms and then I can play with personal projects on video itself.

This is actually great news! It pushes photography more as an art than ever before and I think that's awesome

David Vaughn's picture

This article assumes that everyone wants to work in the commercial marketplace. While that may be the most lucrative area of photography, the professional climate within it is not always applicable to the rest of the photographic world.

I know many editorial (not advertorial) photographers who don't have a recognizable brand so much as the ability to communicate effectively and empathetically through photos as well as show up on time and be gracious and cordial to their editors and AP's.

But then again, I'm rather naive about things.

Patrick Hall's picture

This whole article is aimed towards photographers looking to step into the commercial world and work with big brands and major companies.

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