I received a question the other day from a fledgling photographer. The question, a variation on one I get pretty regularly, was whether is was necessary to assist other photographers before putting yourself out there as a shooter yourself. Some of the variations on the theme are, “Is is necessary to go to college,” “Do I need to have a degree or will a certificate suffice,” or the classic: “How do I get a job as a photographer?” The answers to these, and similar, questions will be as varied as the individuals who ask them of course. With that said, there are some standard concepts that hold true. Please note that my area of expertise is in the commercial arena, many of the issues here will work across other photographic specialties though.
- Education. I believe a formal education is crucial. Anyone with a pretty good camera can take a pretty good photo. Let’s assume that you want to do better than pretty good. It will take education and hard work to make that happen. On top of the standard photographic fare you’ll need to understand digital processes and more abstract artistic and marketing concepts, none of which are easily learned in a self-taught environment. I personally lean towards the traditional college method. There are some great certificate and trade school type programs out there, but I think the wider range of information you pick up at college is very helpful. Will it help you be a better photographer if you’ve read the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist Papers? Probably not, but if you’re at Monticello for 2 hours waiting for the staff to clear out before you can start shooting it’s nice to be able to talk about things like that with the client as you both stand around. (OK, I admit it, I’m a geek.)
- Internships and Assisting. Even with a degree from a great school, there’s going to be lots of things you don’t know or fully understand. That’s fine. It’s a given you’re going to screw things up left and right when you’re just starting out. Wouldn’t it be better to screw up on someone else’s job? OK, that may be a bit harsh, but there’s a kernel of truth there. Also, you’ll learn how to talk to clients, suppliers, contractors, models, stylists, couriers, etc. Most importantly, if you’re lucky, you’ll see first hand that photography is only about 20% shooting. The rest is planning and administration.
- Staff Positions. Staff photographer positions seem to ebb and flow with the economy. When things are going great guns staff positions are relatively plentiful. When things turn, not so much. 2009 is probably not going to be a banner year for staff photography positions. Keep in mind that there are positions other than photographer that you might look into. Studio managers, photo editors, sales reps, and art buyers all touch the photography world regularly, interact and in many cases, hire, photographers. If you’re lucky enough to land a position like this it can be a great learning experience. It bridges the gap between being an assistant and being your own boss. Of course, you’ll be working for someone else and making someone else money as opposed to making yourself money, but then again, you’re letting someone else take many (but not all) of the risks associated with making money.
- Striking out on your own. Chances are at some point you’re going to consider hanging your own shingle and launching your own business. You got into photography because you’re creative, driven and have a passion for the work. All crucial characteristics of entrepreneurs. The most important advice here is to remember that you’re launching a business. All of the annoying little things that go with starting a hardware store, pizza shop or construction company may pop up when starting a photography business. Licensing, accounting, taxes, legal and insurance issues, office space, telephone service, sales and marketing, the list goes on. The fact that you’ve been in the industry a few years and have been watching what goes on around you very carefully will prepare you. You’ve learned from the mistakes that those around you have made. You’ve learned from the wisdom of your contemporaries and mentors. You’ve hopefully taken classes and seminars on business administration. You read industry blogs and at least are a lurker on industry forums. Oh yeah, and you’ve got the money to do it. A good rule of thumb is to expect to make about 1/3 of a staffers salary your first year out. (i.e. if you’re earning 45k as a staff shooter for a corporation, expect to profit 15k your first year out) If you do better great – but prepare for the worst. I know many will advise you to slowly transition into your freelance life and that can work in some industries and for some people. Just be open and honest with yourself and your current boss about your intentions and plans. It’s not easy but nothing worth doing is.
You’ll notice nowhere in this article have I mentioned photographic skills or styles. I don’t mean to belittle those parts of running a business, as they’re crucial. They’re so crucial that I assume they’re a given. But there will always be another photographer who’s better than you in your chosen field. The point is to continually make yourself better. I’ve known plenty of photographers who are reasonably good at photography but excellent at business. They’re successful, those who are the other way around, not so much.