It has been ten years since I started work as a professional photographer and I had the chance to survive in this crowded business over these years. Let me share some of my experiences throughout this journey.
Everyone has their own fancy story about how they started photography. My story is pretty simple. My dad didn’t buy me my first camera when I was five. Instead, I bought a cheap, used film camera at the age of 20. I was at the college, studying engineering, and film photography was getting expensive. It was also hard to find good resources for specific techniques. After deciding a career in photography, I started knocking on doors like many others. I was aiming to learn both photography and the business side from the masters. And as you can guess, I was rejected by almost all industry professionals in my city. That led me to practice self-learning deliberately for the first time and my career as an unpaid editorial photographer started afterwards.
To sum up, I landed my first photographer’s assistant job a year later which lasted about two years, and lucky me, I am still a photographer after 10 years.
Working as a Photographer’s Assistant
Gaining experience as an assistant is still vital, even though the internet is full of tutorials and many other resources about the industry. But at the end of the day, being an assistant is all about providing a technical work force to the photographer or the studio you work with. This period might be helpful when deciding whether you want to be a photographer or not. Because conditions and experiences affect your future choices.
Choosing a Mentor
I think this is the most important part of improving your skills and perspective. Your mentor doesn't need to be the lead photographer you are working with as an assistant. You can reach to photographers whose work you admire and learn a lot from them, even though you don’t work with them on their sets. Relationships are based on mutual respect and without being pushy, you can reach anyone. If you are lucky enough, you can have the privilege to work together with your mentor years later.
Never, ever rely on other photographers’ or artists’ success stories. Everyone has different lives, experiences, and personalities that lead them through different paths in life. Build your own path and don’t become a captive of your own ambitions and goals. Do your best and life does the rest.
Building Your Portfolio
This is the first step of building your photography business. Almost all photographers have “inspiration” folders on their computers and we all started imitating the works we admire. This is the best way of self-progress and a nice portfolio with good images can provide you commissioned work. But to achieve your goals, don’t underestimate the power of personal projects. Showing your published work is a good way of notifying your clients that you are still in business, but personal work is what most art buyers are interested in.
Value Time and Money
Photography is already a time-consuming profession, considering the time spent on pre-production, shoots, retouching, marketing, accounting, etc. Before starting full-time photography, you have more time than you think. Use it wisely. Invest your time in your skills, market research, business skills, and networking.
Photography is not a way of stable income. There will be times when you earn lot and sometimes you will even struggle to pay your bills. Managing your income and expenses is vital for the long run, and it will help you focus on your projects with a healthy mind when the market is off-peak.
Investing in People
Especially, if you are considering working in the fashion industry, keep in mind that fashion photography is all about team work. Even if you have the best technical skills, it is not enough for producing a good image. Get ready to know and hate lots of people along this way, until you meet the stylists, art directors, hair, and make-up artists that you’d always like to work with.
Investing in Your Business
Building your own studio might be your goal but think twice before investing large amount of money in studio space and gear. There are more studios out there than it used to be, and the hiring rates are affordable for many people. You can even find several studios providing discounts to students and amateurs. You also don’t need to own a studio for professional work either. Find a place where you feel comfortable and add the hiring cost as an expense to your rate. And, one last thing, whether you use a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, always invest in lenses, not bodies.
Learning the Business
Photography is not all about the skills, techniques, and portfolios. You should learn the basics about how to run a business. Including all your business costs and depending on your country of residence’s taxation, you should calculate your rate rationally to survive. Another important part is your pricing and how to deal with clients when preparing your quote for the jobs. For an in-depth solution, check out Monte Isom’s The Business of Commercial Photography tutorial.
Being a Swiss Army Knife
The time we live in is the Information Age and running a successful business requires multiple skill sets related to your profession. It’s not adding another genre to your services; such as starting architecture photography when you are a portrait photographer. Well, with enough dedication and education, that’s easy to do. Instead, learn another skill that is related to your area to increase your income from a single project. That’s why some photographers also work as a retoucher, videographer or even as a director. If you want your career last long, you should pick a second or even a third skill set.
Knowing What Photography Is
Photography is just another trade. So be humble, problem solver, and a good communicator. Invest in yourself as a human, improve your perspective. Don’t get angry with your clients, try to educate them. Keep learning and sharing your knowledge. Collaborate with other photographers. Become a mentor for someone else. Life is short, so just enjoy it.