So, you’ve discovered a passion for photography and after lots of practice, you’re starting to feel more and more confident in your skills. Great! But what comes next? How do you take this growing passion from a hobby to a full-fledged career? When you’re trying to figure out how to make the jump from amateur to professional, figuring out the best way to get there can be a bit daunting, especially if you didn’t have a formal photography education. So we asked a few of the photography mentors at RookieUp to share a few of the major tips and lessons they learned while growing their own successful photography careers.
Try Everything and Focus on What You Love
When you’re early in your photography journey, try as many types of photography as possible! You never know whether you’ll find an unexpected passion for portraiture, weddings, or something else!
Christian Rudman is a self-taught photographer and videographer who runs his own studio in Austin, Texas. He told us, "I spent many hours trying out what I liked stylistically, from weddings and fashion to portraiture and headshots, just figuring out if they did or they didn't float my boat. I’m still constantly refining my niche and focus, but I believe all photographers do that. Part of seeking to continually grow in your skill necessitates that you try out new methods of working, like constantly searching in the vast and dark tunnel of creativity with your little skills and technique flashlight to highlight the path forward."
Cody Min is a photographer and designer running a studio out of NYC and has been working for clients since the ripe age of 14. He responded, "Love the work. Make sure you love what you’re shooting, writing, designing, editing. If you don’t love it, your clients will see that, and you’ll both be miserable."
Maria Jose Govea is a music and lifestyle photographer who has toured with artists like Skrillex. "I was a DJ before I started doing photography so I guess music photography sort of found me. I’m lucky but I feel like finding a niche should come naturally to you if you keep your eyes and your mind open. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and when I started taking photos I organically ended up making images of what was around me: Parties, concerts, crowds, DJ friends. I was already part of a scene; I understood that world and I had access to it, which is pretty much key when it comes to finding your niche."
Never Stop Educating Yourself
Pick a skillset and immerse yourself in it completely, whenever you have free time. Create a list of online courses, articles, books, and blogs written by the top experts in your field and dive in, practicing as you go. Christian told us:
One of the most instrumental things was belonging to a creative community. Put your work in places that not only people can see it, but somewhere someone you respect has a chance to speak into it. Do portfolio reviews and workshops if at all possible. I am also reading through Dan Winter’s massive book called the "Road to Seeing." It really does feel like a mentorship in a book from one of the most popular celebrity photographers of our time.
Maria agreed, saying, "Read books and take online workshops. It’s incredible how much you can learn if you invest a little bit of time on education."
Practice a Ton, and Do Personal Work That You Enjoy (Not Just Client Work)
Practice, practice, practice, and be sure to spend time doing personal projects that are fulfilling to you outside of your professional life. If you just do work that other people want you to do, you’ll burn out and risk losing the passion that inspired you to pursue a photography career in the first place!
Maria says: "Always trust your vision, always follow your gut and never stop shooting stuff that makes YOU happy. Seems simple but it’s really powerful and it’s the only way I’ve found to make honest work and to build my own brand and style. We’ve all heard it before: Practice makes perfect."
Christian says: "Personal work is always the most important work any artist does. You could shoot paid gigs all day long, but in the end all you are doing is bringing someone else’s ideas to life. Clients want to know what your unique vision is and they like to see how you can come up with an idea and bring it to life through your own hands. I’ve rarely had someone notice me for work I did for a client, they mainly see me through the work that I created personally and want me to do something like that for them."
Build Personal Relationships and Show That You Really Understand Potential Clients' Needs
Most of the work you get, especially early on, will come from personal contacts and referrals. Put yourself out there in every community you’re a part of and the work will follow. When you do reach out to new leads, try to find common ground and be sure to demonstrate an understanding of their needs.
Christian says: "Most of my early work came through personal references. I started off like most -- doing small gigs for friends that moved into larger projects with people they knew, and finally I started seeing commercial clients as a result of networking. Almost never had a project come down the pike that I didn't put a lot of diligent pre-work into building that client relationship through mutual relationships first."
Maria says: "I searched for local bands on MySpace and approached them offering a super affordable photo shoot. A lot of bands actually got back to me and in a few weeks I had a decent portfolio of different bands and music."
Cody says: "Personalize all cold emails, and better yet, show up to their offices in person. Set up in-person meetings to show your work. People can delete an email with a click, but it’s harder to forget someone with a warm handshake. Do your homework. If you’re looking to freelance for X brand, make sure you know exactly what their product is and why you’re a better fit than the next photographer."
Find a Mentor
Being able to speak with someone who has been in your shoes and gone on to accomplish great things in your desired field is hugely important as you’re getting started. Mentors can give personalized critique and feedback and help ensure you’re on the right track.
Cody says: "While there are no formulas for winning new business, the one thing I can recommend across the board is finding a mentor (or two). You don’t have to find one person who will walk with you through your whole career — I’ve had a series of people who I consider mentors, that have been at my side at various points in my career."
Christian says: "I had a mentor and it was hugely instrumental in my career. I had someone who rather than teaching me a ton about camera use -- as I had already learned a considerable amount before I came to him -- taught me about storytelling, which is such an integral part of photography that I fully believe every photographer, no matter their niche, should have a significant amount of training in. I wouldn't have the ability to draw out a story from a concept and know how to work alongside a full creative team if it hadn't been for this time spent learning from a master storyteller and leader."
Stay Focused. Be Humble. Take Chances.
No matter what area of the photography world you decide to focus on be sure to stay true to yourself, stay humble and willing to learn, and always take calculated risks.
Maria says: "Stay very focused, use every resource that’s available to you and never be afraid to make risky decisions when you know they’re the right ones. The answers will come to you."
Christian says: "One of the most valuable things I believe an artist can possess is character that is vulnerable, honest, and willing to be humble. I know that many people do well and are not these things, but who wants to work with people like that? No matter what, there is always someone better than you in your skill and clients don't want to have to deal with a primadonna just to get a project completed. I’ve lost clients because I have let my ego and temper get the better of me and it’s simply not worth it."
Cody says: "Read everything thoroughly. This goes for contracts, invoices, as well as copy, feedback from your client, and more."
So get out there and find your photography niche! If you want to talk with someone who’s been in your shoes or are looking for a mentor to be with you as you explore a photography career, you can schedule online mentor sessions with any of the mentors from this article (and a whole lot more) at RookieUp.
Article written by Alec McGuffey.