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  1. #1
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    Default Aspiring professional with questions? Read on!

    I periodically get PMs from people asking me questions about what it takes to become a professional photographer. The inquiry in itself doesnít bother me, but the specific questions that are asked sometimes do. Believe it or not, the most common PM I get is ďI want to make money from photography like you do and get good looking pictures to give to clients, what camera do you use?Ē Never any mention of years of experience, suggestions, tips, portfolio, etc. Just ďI want to make money, what camera do I need to make that happen?Ē Seems the digital age has turned anyone who has a right index finger into a professional photographer.

    After two such questions waiting for me when I woke up the morning, I thought it might be time to create a stickied thread with some basic information for all of you aspiring professional photographers out there. Itís very long, but hopefully worth the read to some of you.

    My disclaimer is as follows: I have been shooting photos since I was 5 and won my first camera in a coloring contest. Iíve been seriously into photography for a little over 9 years. I have been a Ďproí for about 5. I spent two years pursuing post secondary education in photojournalism and shoot everything from weddings to portraits to events to products to artwork, all for both money and pleasure. I still have a lot to learn, but Iíve also put in a lot of time learning, practicing and working my butt off. There are others on here that are pros as well, and Iím willing to wager they will weigh in on this thread with their own experiences. If this thread interests you, read on.

    The basic definition of a professional of any field is someone who gets paid to do what they do. So as long as someone can find a person willing to pay them (no matter how researched or unresearched their choice might be) for photography services, then technically, I guess that would make them a professional photographer. That being said, I think youíd generally be laughed out of the industry if you claimed you were a pro because someone bought one print of a photo you took of their car on a cruise or your friend floated you a couple extra bucks for shooting some pictures at their budget wedding. Thereís a lot more that should (and does) go into the actual profession of photography.

    First of all, letís clear up the biggest myth in the world of photography. Iíve been a crusader against people with this mentality for many years and find itís only amateurs who disagree with me. BUYING A LOT OF EXPENSIVE EQUIPMENT DOES NOT MEAN YOU WILL TAKE AMAZING PHOTOS! I think most of the Ďprosí on here started (and some continue to use) film cameras to learn their basics or shoot their photos. Back when a lot of us started, thatís all there was. Megapixels and all that other digital crap you read in camera manuals and read about in equipment reviews doesnít mean much when it comes to taking a good photo. I started my Ďproí career in the digital world with a camera body that most people would laugh at these days, I couldnít even sell it now if I tried, but it still gave me some damn good shots. I know a photographer who took a fantastic photo while at the beach one day on a cheap 3 megapixel clunker DSLR and heís grossed over $11 million on that one photo alone, because it was a GREAT photograph taken literally at the split second perfect time and because he knew what to do to get the shot. A good photographer is 90% talent and experience and MAYBE 10% equipment. Arguably, the only piece(s) of equipment that are really worth investing huge bucks in over the long term are lenses, and even then you arenít guaranteed a good photo if you donít know how to use them. Equipment can only get you so far, especially if you turn your $$ camera to an auto setting and have at it.

    That brings me to my next point, experience. If you want a career in photography, you have to know exactly what youíre doing. You generally will have to have a vision in mind of what you want and you have to know how to get there using the tools you have, which optimistically, shouldnít include the ďoh well, Iíll fix it in Photoshop laterĒ mentality. You should be comfortable enough with your experiences that you donít need to take the time to chimp, you donít need to make a client sit there with their smile growing more and more fake by the moment while you figure out how to change your ISO and aperture. You should have enough hands on experience and time invested to know how you and your camera are both going to act when shooting in pouring rain, dusk, pitch black, +40 degrees and bright sun, and of course the Calgary winter trademark of -30 degrees and blowing snow. Trust me, the way both the photographer and the equipment act together changes in all of these conditions. My advice? Spend a lot of time reading, getting ideas and then times that time spent by 5 and thatís how much time you should spend out practicing. Friends and family members often make very willing participants and volunteers for people shots, weather changes all the time in Calgary, lots of opportunities there. I still use free volunteers when I get a new shoot idea I want to try and itís awesome. Find some photos you like that were taken by other photographers and try to emulate them. Itís one of the best practicing tools out there; because it exposes you to a lot of different styles and creative paths and helps you find and develop your own style and process. It helps you learn composition, which is often peopleís hardest obstacle in photography. It also helps build a good portfolio, which is everything when youíre looking to be hired by someone to take photos that could potentially mean the world to them. It is incredibly rare to find someone who has held a camera every day for 6 months or even a year (I actually think itís a hell of a lot more time than that, but I know some would disagree with me) that is ready to become a pro and start charging people big bucks for photography. You absolutely must be willing to put in the time and practice for a while in order to make your dream come true.

    I know this will sound like Iím contradicting point #1, but Iím not intending to. When buying your equipment, donít buy the bare bones because itís cheap and itís what you can afford. The quality of your photos will suffer (remember a good quality photo does not equal an amazing photo) if you grab a canon rebel DSLR with a shitty kit lens and start on your way to pro land. As I said earlier, your lenses will be your biggest and best investment. Bodies can be upgraded at any time and when speaking in pro dollars, for not a lot of money as well. You donít need a huge arsenal of every lens on the market, but a few really excellent quality lenses paired with a good body will do wonders to improve the QUALITY of your images.

    Okay, so you kick ass with your camera, you have a decent set of gear (make sure you have two sets or are willing to rent an extra set for events incase yours craps out), your style is set and you feel really confident in your skills. The next part is choosing what you want to shoot and then go looking for people who would be willing to take you on as an assistant or second shooter. Another kind of experience is in the field and it is important. Practicing with your friend or sister or whatever is COMPLETELY different then being in the middle of a fast paced job with the stress of getting it right no matter what with nothing but your ass on the line. Some photographers thrive off of that feeling, others crumble under it. You wonít know until you try it, so make sure you have a lot of tries under your belt. A warning to all who think they will skip out on everything and just apprentice a pro: most pros will not take on more than one a year. Many already have one they like to work with, so getting into that position could be a challenge. And you will need a pretty good portfolio just to be considered. I myself have been asked 5 times in the last 3 months for an assistant position, and I know some of the other guys on here get requests a lot as well. I wonít even consider someone if they have nothing to show me, it just makes me feel like they donít care enough to have tried some on their own. Our asses are on the line taking on a second. Thereís protocol on how to act, how to shoot, when to shoot, what to say, the preparation needed, punctuality, the ability to commit to a long day and stay through the whole thing, itís a lot of attention to detail and if our second screws up, itís our reputation thatís damaged. Itís our pocketbook that potentially suffers. I can count probably triple the number of bad second photographers Iíve had compared to the number of good ones. Iíve actually just trained one person as my full time second, because I know sheís reliable and wonít leave me high and dry when Iím depending on her.

    Marketing is probably the last thing needed on the road to being a pro, but your best bet is to start out with word of mouth, working for friends and family first, then branch out from there. I actually have never done any advertising, and itís worked for me. For others, advertising is the key. Itís all about finding what works for you. One thing that is SO important to mention though, is that like any other type of career in art, PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT A STEADY INCOME! Depending on what you shoot, there are popular seasons (weddings for example), waves of business (Christmas, summer, valentineís, etc.), but there can be a lot of dead time with no income coming in. And there is only so much you can do in a week. Some photographers are doing really well, they keep steady enough throughout the year that itís not a big issue, and some charge enough during their busy season that they donít work at all during their slow season and still get by okay, but the vast majority do struggle for a good chunk of the year. Itís a lot of stress, a lot of work and a lot of worry, even if youíre only a weekend warrior. You still have bills to pay (equipment, insurance, etc.) If you do have another job, you HAVE to be flexible. If you have a client who wants a weekday shoot done, you have to be able to take the time off work to do it, at least if youíre serious about growing your business, or people will remember that you were the one who said no because you have another job and they wonít think of you for next time.

    I hope this has helped answer some questions. I know Iíve forgotten something, and Iím sure my fellow photogs will help me fill in some of the blanks. But becoming a professional photographer doesnít happen overnight. In about 99.9% of the cases of the best photogs out there, they never start out thinking, ďSome day this is going to make me a lot of moneyĒ because when you get like that, you might as well stop doing it. People need to remember that when it comes down to it, photography is art first, passion second, and a career a distant third for the lucky few who work hard enough and make it that far. It takes a LOT of work to start, learn, become passionate about and become good enough to make any money, let alone a living from it.

    Good luck guys, hope that helped!

  2. #2
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    Fantastic post, Mel!

    I'm going to add my perspective on the whole thing, and point out that the getting there is just as important as the being there.

    What I mean by that, is that the road to shooting well professionally is just as important as the eventual goal. Anyone with a camera can convince their cousin to throw them two bits for shooting their wedding (poorly). If you want to stay professional, you have to become professional first. That means experience, that means drive, that means knowing how to manage your resources, that means acting as a professional. Especially with the advent of the Internet, word travels fast - and word of mouth and connections is incredibly important for independent pro photographers. If you take that job doing your cousin's wedding, and you screw it up because you didn't have enough practical experience, every family at that wedding is going to hear about it. And their families, too, just in case. You've just lost the vast majority of your starter clientŤle, and you don't even know how far word has spread.

    So, what's the key here? Professionalism, or parts of it. Being an independent professional means knowing how to do your job right, and how to do it consistently. If you're not 110% confident you can deliver excellent photos 100% of the time, you're not ready to go it alone. If you're shooting for free/fun, you can get away with it. If there's money involved, it's a whole new ball game. "Sorry I didn't get the shots of the ceremonial kiss, I'm new and I was adjusting my ISO" doesn't cut it anymore, you have to be accountable for your product. Being accountable means being able to back up the commitment you've made to take excellent photos. Remember what i said about consistency? 1 good photo out of 100 isn't good enough anymore, you've got to deliver enough quality frames to make your client happy. Photographers have been sued successfully for screwing up events - don't let it happen to you.

    Accountability doesn't just end there, either. You've got to be early, every time, and expect to stay late if necessary. You've got to be able to meet your editing/processing/delivery deadlines. If that means you're chained to your desk, slogging through 12 hours of solid Photoshop to get those shots done on time, so be it - that's what you signed up for, sunshine.

    And remember, that's if everything goes well. Are you ready for if things go wrong? Do you have backup equipment for if your gear breaks? Do you have the flexibility to deal with a multitude of potential problems and personalities?

    Know how to run an effective business? You'd better. I forget the exact statistic, but I believe it was 9 out of 10 photo businesses fold after the first year. That's a 90% kill rate, are you a member of the best 10% of shooters out there? You have to be. Do you have the business skills to network, find the clients, keep them happy, and price your time correctly? Do you have the skills to manage your money, know how to manage your equipment expenditures, and know when you need to farm the work to someone else? The answers to these questions have to be yes, or you will not be able to create a self-sustaining business.

    It seems like I'm painting a scary picture, but that's because this is no cakewalk. You have to be ready and confident in your abilities! If you're not there yet, learn! Practice! There's a million resources out there to better yourself.
    Last edited by BerserkerCatSplat; 06-19-2008 at 04:18 PM.

  3. #3
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    Excellent read!

    PM me if you want to know how to be a n00b.

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    Some very good points. And btw, your camera takes nice pictures!
    heloc that shit

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    Great addition Trevor, thanks!

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    Excellent post by both Mel and Trev. I think that in any profession experience is huge. I get the comment often "your camera takes really good photos" This drives me insane. You would not say to a painter "wow that painting looks good, your brush must be top of the line." Yes I agree that one should have good gear, but a camera can be much like a paint brush. Some choose Nikon and others Canon. Each camera takes a much different image, but it is the artist that takes the shot. it is his/her eyes that sees the show and his/her steady hand that takes it. and imagination is everything. I find it amazing that you could send 20 photographers to the exact same spot and all 20 wil come out with something different.

    I think to enter the pro world of photography you first need the skill. Practice on a point and shoot then an film SLR then move to the world of DSLR. The same as Mel I too have been shooting since I was 5. and only in the past year have I made the move to doing it for a money.

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    excellent read...i just started out and i've seen exactly what you mentioned in your OP with friends that have camera's. i'm in it for the hobby and to learn something new.

    i just did my first auto show and completely botched it because i had the bright idea of using a filter that dropped my exposure 3stops. now this isn't so much an issue but requires alot of PP'ing.

    sorry long story short, i completely agree with you.

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