Almost every single one of you reading this can become a professional, paid photographer. There has never been a lower barrier to entry to starting out with access to masses of free online learning tools, affordable professional quality gear and the ability to market yourself globally. The problem isn’t so much starting, as it is sustaining. Enter, the Photo Brigade, one of the best tools I've come across in months for those looking to sustain their photography business.
Starting a creative photo or video business is not hard - I should know, I did it a few years ago from nothing right here in New York City, one of the most competitive market places in the world. It’s staying in business that is the tricky part that we all need to figure out.
Against a backdrop where so many people are becoming photographers and are doing work that is either free – or cheap – that it undercuts the work you are trying to offer at a price that allows you to make a living off of it, resources like Photo Brigade are fantastic. They offer a reference point for anyone looking to sustain and maintain a business at a time when photography (and likewise videography) are some of the most competitive creative industries to survive in.
Enter Robert Caplin, a New York-based, full-time, freelance, professional editorial, documentary and commercial photographer whose client list includes The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal with his work having been published in National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek to name a few.
Robert came to New York 10 years ago, and quickly realized early on that a freelance career was the route he wanted to take. He established the Photo Brigade (then a regularl audio podcast, now a video podcast, written articles, industry newsletter, and gear reviews) 5 years ago as a means to foster a community of like minded, working pro’s, and to share their work and learning. To date he has interviewed and spoken with some of the best (and crucially, longest surviving) in the business, including Greg Heisler, Vincent Laforet, David Bergman, Joe McNally and David Burnett.
If you haven’t heard of The Photo Brigade, you really need to check it out and see what they are doing. Its one of the best resources I’ve come across for processionals and aspiring professionals alike.
Robert was kind enough to give me some time to explain his thinking behind the Photo Brigade and what follows are his thoughts on the critical aspects we all need to consider when starting (and sustaining) a career as a photographer today.
1. The Importance Of Being Business Savvy
“The key to making a living and sustaining yourself as a photographer is having a true business savvy. Knowing how to negotiate with a client, find new ones, spot and address red flags in contracts, understanding your cost of doing business, protecting your intellectual property, taking projects to the next level, thinking long-term, dealing with invoicing, taxes, etc. are all skills photographers must have. Through my own freelance career as well as speaking to my friends and peers I’ve learned that if you really want to be a photographer long term making a living through your craft, you must make sound business decisions and always be thinking three steps ahead. It’s also critical to know when to decline an offer and how to do so respectfully.”
If you’ve ever struggled with wondering how much to charge, how to handle negotiations, how best to market yourself or what you need to make to cover your cost of running your business, the Photo Brigade covers these sorts of topics. This is the stuff that helps all of us get a better understanding of how everyone is managing their business, and what we can all learn from one another.
2. Learn From The Best
“I’ve found the best lessons often come from listening to my peers and being open about our business practices, which is why I started recording my conversations and podcasting them. I believe that collaboration and transparency are very important in our industry. I have no problem sharing how I do business with others because I want them to conduct their business properly. I’d much rather lose a client to someone who charges more than I was charging, rather then by undercutting me.”
The most successful photographers are not necessarily the best photographers and the best photographers are not necessarily the most successful. The key is to be able to create both fantastic images and manage the business side of your business. The folks on Photo Brigade’s attendee list are the people you really should learn this stuff from. If you’re in any doubt as to whether or not the pros ever stop caring (or sharing), just check out the recent Joe McNally interview where Joe shares how he has grown from his humble beginnings and the struggles he still endures today – absolutely fascinating, insightful stuff.
3. On Using Video To Showcase And Learn
“Our first 55 audio-only podcasts are packed with great info, but the new visual component adds an entire layer of interactivity we didn’t previously have. Now you don’t have to imagine the photo we are talking about – there is a clear reference point as you can see everything we discuss on the screen. YouTube videos can be embedded on any webpage and consumed on almost any device – you can tune in on your TV, your phone, or watch it on the train to work. We have a lot of great programming planned; it’s a work in progress and we’re learning and tweaking the format, production, and building new concepts every day.”
I listen to a bunch of podcasts I’m still surprised by how little video input there is into some of these shows. As visual creatives, being able to tune in and see what is being discussed is invaluable. Not only photos, but now through the live stream and video podcasting the Photo Brigade offers, you can get insights into apps, tools and other sources of information and see them first hand, that are being referenced in the show.
4. The Importance Of Being Social
“Being a successful photographer and having a solid social media strategy are two things that often go hand-in-hand today, but the two are not mutually exclusive. There are so many social outlets at your disposal to build a following of people who care about you and what you put out. Image buyers, editors, and the fan base you create can and will follow you and your work…and this leads to work, it has for me, not just based on the content, but the knowledge of where you are posting from in the world. Once I posted an Instagram out the plane when I landed in NYC after a trip to Barcelona. Twenty minutes later an editor called, referencing the photo and asking, “I see you’re back in town, can you shoot an assignment in an hour?” Social media is a great way to stay on the radar of those who want to keep tabs on you. It’s also very important to know when self-promotion goes too far. This is one of the main reasons I built Photo Brigade, to share the work of my peers, as well as my own, and have the promotion come from a source other than the mouth of the photographer.”
Many of us don’t like being overly promotional, and your audience can certainly grow tired of it too. The original idea for the Photo Brigade was to help showcase the work of great creatives so they would be encouraged to be socially active and blog. Raising awareness of photographers work through this platform benefits the content creator as well as the potential audience for that work.
5. Focus On The Career, Not On The Gear
“Our careers are fluid. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and looking for ways to use photography as a way to get to places I want to be, both literally and figuratively. Whether it’s a workshop in Maui that I’m hosting this Summer, breaking into advertising, or finding new business partners and opportunities, I’m always looking 5, 10, 15 years out, that’s what any professional (photographer or otherwise) should be thinking about: the future. As a freelancer your revenue stream ebbs and flows. Figuring out how to create an additional, steady revenue stream means we don’t have to worry so much about the daily photographic income ups and downs. I’ve worked on this through business partnerships in different capacities, real estate and other investments, and saving for retirement. When I started in New York it was always just about making enough money each month to simply cover rent and expenses, but as I made new contacts, built new clients, created new business, things compounded, just like the interest on a financial investment. It’s inspiring to talk to others and compare how they’ve built their unique careers paths in photography.”
There is no where else quite like New York to focus the mind, where your annual rent on a small apartment can be more than many people make in a year. This is why I have found the Photo Brigade so useful because it helps all of us who are working hard to make a living focus on the areas that matter the most – and in many cases, this is simply not on the gear or the high overhead that comes with owning a lot of gear.
6. Helpful Advice
As we closed out, I asked Robert to share some final nuggets from his decade or more of experience, for someone who might be just starting out or looking to make the leap to full time professional work. These are his four areas of parting wisdom he shared:
- Overcoming the fear of stepping out and starting is hard – prepare yourself for a financial rollercoaster. Many photographers I speak with who are interested in starting a career as freelancers are making the transition from a consistent paycheck to the unknown. You need to look at your income month-to-month or year-to-year vs. day-to-day or week-to-week – maybe one month you make $500 and the next $20,000 – it varies drastically, but the longer you stay in the game, the larger your network and client lists will grow, and your median income should creep ever higher and higher giving you more flexibility to steer your career in the direction you desire. Have faith, be ready for a rollercoaster, and plan for it.
- Focus on the business - network with other professionals; understand what’s going on in the industry and your local market. That’s what the Photo Brigade is about – sharing this information amongst a set of like minded professionals so we can all benefit. These interviews are really like mini internships with my guests on the business of their photography. Don’t underestimate the importance outside business opportunities can play in helping support your photography career too.
- Be sociable, online and off. Understand people follow you online and work can develop from it. Be tactful and have a personality. The best way to use these networks is to incorporate them into your life in a way that it doesn’t feel like work. I use Instagram as a daily iPhone journal while others may use it as a portfolio. Figure out a way to use these platforms to express yourself and your work. Also, take your social life offline and press the flesh...meet your peers in person. It’s amazing how so many relationships these days are strictly digital. Adding a personal touch and real life interaction can mean the difference between getting that assignment, being referred for a job, or planting that seed that turns into an amazing partnership down the road.
- Diversify – I believe the diversity in my photography, not only in genres (documentary, portraiture, travel, sports, etc.), but also across industries (editorial, commercial, corporate, advertising) has enabled me to make more money and sustain my career. This year the majority of my photography income will come from commercial clients versus 90% coming from journalism just a few years ago. Guess what? Commercial jobs pay a lot more than editorial jobs, so that means less work, more money in the bank, and more time to travel, which is what I truly want to be doing. A lot of people say to not generalize and rather specialize in something, but I like variety and it’s helping me create numerous revenue streams from different photographic projects. For instance, some photographers refuse to shoot weddings or events, but I’m a huge believer that every job can lead to another job or relationship that could blossom into something far grander than you’d ever expected – it happened to me many times now and I’m proof it can happen to you. Specializing can certainly have its benefits, but so can diversification.
And on starting out:
You’ll never know unless you make the leap. The sooner you go into business for yourself the quicker your business will grow. I am much more willing to waste my time trying to build my own business than building the business of somebody else. Every minute you’re working for yourself, you’re building your own brand, your own network. Don’t fear speaking and reaching out to your peers or those you look up to. The photo industry is a small community and there are many genres of photography, but all in all we’re a very small community and we’re all willing to help each other. Keep an open mind and start handing out business cards and have faith in the product you put out. When you have confidence in yourself, your work, and your pricing, clients will notice and will appreciate that. The key is to actually do it.
I wish I had known about the Photo Brigade when I first came to New York a few years ago. In the last few months I’ve devoured dozens of the Photo Brigade’s podcasts and they have been fascinating to really see how other professionals manage their affairs and their philosophies on what has kept them going. The problem for many of us today isn't "how do I start" but rather, "how do I survive, and thrive?". As a tool, the Photo Brigade offers superb value (particularly as it’s free) for anyone pondering these questions, and considering making the leap to a full time professional career.
Thanks to: Robert Caplin