Advice for those looking to start a career in Photography

Updated September 5, 2017: Some of the links I originally posted in this blog have disappeared so I removed one link and revised a few others. 

I get on average three to six emails a week asking basically the same question: “I want to be a pro photographer and travel the world shooting adventurous assignments. How can I do what you do?” I get so many of these emails I even have a standard “email” response drafted so that I can copy and paste it into a reply email. [Note: I do tweak this email for each person but the drafted email answers 97% of their questions.]

It’s an honor to get these emails, to see people reach out and ask for advice, and to hear from young photographers who are passionate about their craft and want to make a career of it. I was one of those young guns once myself. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the great advice several mentors gave me when I was starting out, so I thought I would write a blog post to make this advice more readily available. Hopefully this blog post will pay it forward.

Photography is up there with farming in terms of professions that are difficult for making a living. If you are looking to get rich then I would advise finding another career path. That isn’t to say that some photographers haven’t done very well for themselves; some have become millionaires, but they are few and far between. Those that can actually make a decent living in this profession are in the minority. According to the United States Bureau of Labor, the average photographer in 2013 made $29,280. That equates to an hourly wage of roughly $14/hour. Photographers making over $66,000 per year in 2013 are in the top 10% of their field in terms of income.

It takes serious passion, motivation, thick skin, and hard work to make a career in this industry. The key phrase in that last sentence is hard work. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have or how good your people skills are, if you don’t work your buns off, you aren’t going to get very far. If you don’t want a career as a photographer with every fiber of your being, then the bad news is you probably won’t ever make it really happen. I know that won’t be a popular statement, but maybe some other pro photographers can back me up on this in the comments.

Understand that it takes time to get established and actually make a living as a freelance photographer. Very few photographers have instant success. It usually takes 3 to 5 years to go full time, then 10 years to gain 90% of your skills and start making decent money and 15 years to really make it big. For some it takes longer and for others it is much quicker. Holding a long-view for success in becoming a pro photographer is important, especially in the first few years when it is desperately tough. You can’t give up.

The reality of working as a pro photographer is that shooting is a small part of the job. No photographer, no matter how well known or highly paid, shoots all the time. I’d say a good 80% of my work is sitting in front of a computer or on the phone setting up the next gig. The actual photography is the fun part of the job, though assignments can be extremely stressful. On high paying advertising gigs, where I have to somehow make it all work with the weather, the athletes and the client’s wishes, it feels like walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. One misstep and it all falls apart. See my book Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer, listed below, for a lot more on this topic and many others. Below is a graphic I created for Exposed showing the reality for a pro photographer compared to the perception (click on the image for a larger and more readable version).

I realize that here in this blog post I have barely even scratched the surface of this topic. I also know that those who make it as pro photographers are voracious when it comes to researching “how to make it” and they read everything they can get their hands on. I know I did when I started out and I still do. When I meet other pro photographers I recognize a similar intensity about their work — a drive they have to create incredible images, which is hard to explain. This drive is a mixture of ambition, passion and dedication to the craft of photography. If you don’t feel that drive, take a step back and seriously consider if this career is for you. I am not trying to persuade any one here to give up on a dream but to give a real accounting of what it will cost to make a career of that dream. As always, there is room in this profession for those who can create top-notch work and are willing to work extremely hard.

Instead of giving little tidbits of advice, I tend to recommend books because they contain so much more information than I can possibly give in a quick email. This blog post is just an introduction of sorts. Hence, below are links to other great blog posts and books that will offer way more information and inspiration than can be contained here. I have found these books and blog posts to be dead-on accurate and must-reads for anyone looking to launch into a freelance career as a photographer.

Links to check out and read before launching into a career as a photographer:

The following blog posts and articles are available online for free. They offer excellent advice to anyone considering photography as a career path. If you are considering photography as a career, I highly recommend reading every single one of these blog posts.

The Definitive Guide to Starting a Successful Photography Business
by Robert Seale

Robert Seale offers an excellent primer on how to start a career in Photography in this post. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

The 8 Keys to Success: An Essay And Thoughts on What It Takes To Reach Your True Potential
by David H. Lyman

This is perhaps the best article I have ever read on what it takes to become a successful pro photographer, or for that matter, to make it in any artistic endeavor. David wrote this article for many years ago and it is just as valid now as it was when he wrote it back in 2004. I read this blog post at least once a year.

9 Things to Think About Before You Become a Professional Photographer
by Jay Goodrich

Jay’s advice here is direct, honest and to the point. He pulls no punches. His advice is not far off from Laurence’s blog post.

Great Advice and Hard Truths
by Michael Clark

I originally wrote this blog post for the ASMP Strictly Business blog but they have since changed the blog and deleted a lot of the old blog posts. Regardless, I included this same blog post in my Summer 2014 Newsletter. The article is at the end of the Newsletter, on page 36. It is a quick read packed with good advice. This article isn’t anywhere as comprehensive as those listed above but gives a good overview.

Recommended Books

While the above blog posts and links are easily browsed for free, there is nothing like an in-depth book to really get into a topic and discuss it thoroughly. The following books are ones that I have found incredibly valuable.

Visionmongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography
by David duChemin

David really outdid himself with this book. I read it after nearly 14 years as a working pro and still learned a lot from it. David is a phenomenal writer and lays out everything from starting out and dealing with cash flow issues, to marketing your work and much, much more. I highly recommend this book when you get serious about launching your career.

The Real Business of Photography
by Richard Weisgrau

This is the most straightforward, no-nonsense book on how to actually make money as a photographer that I have seen anywhere. Richard knows his stuff and lays out the complicated process of licensing your work and making a profit in this industry in great detail.

Best Business Practices for Photographers, 2nd Edition
by John Harrington

While this book isn’t a scintillating page-turner, it does give an incredible amount of information on the workings of a photography business and it will explain just about anything a photographer might need to figure out on the business side of things. This is often considered the “bible” for running a photography business.

Negotiating Stock Photo Prices
by Jim and Cheryl Pickerell

This book is out of print so you will have to find a used copy. There seem to be plenty of used copies available on Amazon. This book has more details about how to price your work than any other book I have seen. The last half of this book details standard pricing for licensing your images for just about any use. Also, the first half of the book is hands-down the best explanation of how to price your work and how to negotiate with clients. Do not think of starting a career in photography without reading this book. Trust me, you will pay for the book on your first assignment or licensing deal.

Note: The pricing figures in this book are generally higher than what you can normally get now but are still good starting points. With the current economy and the massive influx of photographers in this digital age, the supply and demand curves have not worked in our favor. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Photographer’s Guide to Negotiating
by Richard Weisgrau

This is another great book on how to negotiate with clients. It is a bit more basic than Negotiating Stock Photo Prices, but it is still a great read and will help to improve your skills in this area. If you haven’t figured it out yet, having good negotiating skills is a huge part of making a decent living as a pro photographer.

Exposed: Inside the life and Images of a Pro Photographer
by Michael Clark

This book is a very open and honest look at the reality of working as a pro photographer. In it, I tell my complete story of how I got started, the difficulties I faced to get work and the challenges that I deal with on assignments. I don’t know of any other books available that give such an open and detailed accounting of the life of a pro photographer. I highly recommend Exposed to anyone looking to turn pro. I am not recommending it just to make money—I won’t really ever see another dime off this book. This book will give you a good idea of what you are in for. [Note: This book is now out of print but used copies can be found on Amazon.]

The Photographer’s Survival Guide
by Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease

While this book is quite basic for the seasoned pro, for someone looking to launch into a freelance editorial and advertising photography career, it outlines the basic strategies for marketing yourself and your work. It provides excellent information by two of the top photography consultants in the business

Wrapping Up

Finally, there is a ridiculous amount of information on my website about a wide variety of topics and most of it is free. Take a look at my Newsletters, the Press page (including links to talks I have given), and the Behind the Scenes articles. I have ten years of Newsletters, which are free downloadable PDFs, and are basically 20 to 40-page magazines that chronicle much of my career. There are a lot of nuggets in those Newsletters.

Also, you might be interested to read Part 2 of this article, Advice to Aspiring Professional Photographers: Part 2.

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