I want to have a career as a professional photographer.
I hear this from so many people whether through email, at live lectures and events, or from my students at various workshops. But I must admit, in all, it’s a very tough competitive industry where the money is even harder to come by than it was 20 years ago-not to mention the oversaturation of the stock licensing market – can something be oversaturated? Is that an oxymoron? Can’t find it in my dictionary. I digress.
Back to the industry, from 1991 (when I graduated college) to today, the changes have been dramatic, some positive, some negative (I remember when my stock agency contract went from 7 pages to 27 pages in a matter of 6 years). As always, you must have so much more than a good portfolio to make it- and no one or company will do it for you- you have to do it all yourself. It ain’t easy, and sacrifices, luck, hearing “no” over and over, as well as risk are all part of the game. But more importantly, you need to be professional- and that means learning business (more an that later).
In 1995, I used the first digital SLR Nikon put out, the E2s, and could see the changes coming down the pike (there I am at the Eco-Challenge adventure race in ’95 using the camera above the Colorado River). And although some say digital has been a big positive to the industry (exact copies of image files instead of poor-quality dupes, fixing mistakes post-capture, and the famous cloning tool to add that third eye to your friend’s head), I would say that it too has it’s pros and cons – one of which being the fact that you have to buy new gear all the time, new software, and new computers- it’s an expense, not an investment everyone.
Plus, I carry more gear than ever these days in the post 9/11 hell that is airport travel – ugh- someone buy me a new shoulder and a couple of knees please – and a whiffle-ball bat to beat on the seven TSA agents when they decide to test every roll of film – all 150 rolls at midnight (true story in Las Vegas in 2004 after catchin’ six other flights where they didn’t do this).
I was asked recently what it is to be a professional photographer. If it was someone who made over 50% of their income from photography, or just someone who gets published from time to time. As a full-time commercial travel photographer for 19 years, I’d say a pro photographer is someone who not only makes a living from photography, but one who charges appropriate fees, is technically sound with their equipment and craft, respectful and professional with his/her subjects, and one who uses proper business practices. That, to me, is what this job is about.
Another example of this is learning the art of negotiating, and realizing that if you want to do this for a living, you have to go back and forth with clients about contracts, rates, and rights. I recently had a client want to license an image, trying to pay rates half of what we normally charge (rates that really fit into 1989 and not 2009). We respectfully declined when they said they wouldn’t pay higher fees than theirs- the excuse was the economy (as if to say my business is not affected by the economy – I love that new argument – “our tight budget” has always been a staple for low rates). The following day the client came back and licensed rights to the image at our quoted rate. If photographers don’t learn how to value their image and determine specific fees for their services, they won’t survive in the industry.
More to learn more? My Business of Photography workshop isn’t scheduled yet for 2009, but does run from time to time, and we hope to have a date in place soon. I also offer personal consultations where I can focus on your goals and interests, as well as discussing specific industry information. I can discuss some aspects of being a pro at other workshops (such as the one coming up in June in Seattle, or Santa Fe in July), although my time during these courses is usually dedicated to the topic at hand. Here’s our main workshop page for more info.
In all, becoming a pro photographer is possible. Here’s to your dreams and ambitions- make ’em happen, it’s worth it. Enjoy your week everyone!
About the author
I'm a 23-year commercial photographer, author (The Complete Guide to Nature Photography, The BetterPhoto Guide to Exposure, as well as numerous articles), photo expert, industry personality, and all around nice dude based in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.