12 Tips for New & Aspiring Photographers.
By Gavin Seim
A few people think of me as a cranky old photographer who picks on newbies. This is probably because I’m pretty blunt, and I’ve written articles like A Style & Why Most Photographers Don’t have One and Stop Camera Abuse.
They have just not gotten to know me. Truth is, I’m just a guy in my late twenties, and it was not that long ago that I was starting out. I know what it’s like. I study a lot, know a lot of the hassles that can be avoided, and I see what’s happening in photography today. So I won’t simply play the part of a feel-good guy who says everything is great no matter what. We all deserve honesty.
Encouragement is a valuable thing, but there’s a lot of patting on the back going on because people don’t have the guts to be honest with their peers. In the end, the truth often comes out in the fact that they can’t make it in business. I say going bankrupt is terrible way to realize how hard photography is. Best to get to the hard truths right off, so you can make a business plan that works.
So that said, here are some thoughts–some observed, some learned the hard way–for newer and aspiring photographers. I’m going to be a little blunt, so don’t take it personally. It’s OK to be starting out. But you deserve honesty, and that’s exactly what you’ll get today.
It’s not like it was. Let’s face it. The standard of excellence is higher than ever. Everyone is doing photography. Yes, you can learn to take “good” photos pretty quickly. But so can everyone else. And with so many people doing just that, nearly as many trying to go into business, and a lot of those working for next to nothing, the market is totally saturated, and the value of photography has been driven to an all time low. But don’t lose heart. There is a market, but you need a brand and something with unique value to offer. You’ll need quality, personalty, and business skill to boot, or you’ll just be working for peanuts producing the same stuff everyone else is.
1. Take the Time.
You won’t be Ansel overnight. Don’t stress about it. Becoming a really experienced photographer takes training–a lot of it. It will not happen overnight. It probably won’t even happen in two or three years. Not that you won’t be taking good photos in that time, but don’t expect them to be the most amazing things every time. If you want to rise above just keep getting better. Keep training. Because you can, and you’ll feel great about that progress.
2. Don’t Rush Into It.
Make a clean, simple site where you can show your work and get feedback. Then keep at it, but take it easy. Don’t feel like you have to rush out and book gigs. It’s OK to be a photographer for the sheer joy of it, just learning, sharing, and having fun. As soon as you start hiring out, you’ll have to spend more time managing a business than making great photos. A lot more. In many ways, it’s actually less enjoyable when it becomes a job, even if you still love it.
3. Be a Real Person.
Resist that overrated urge to validate yourself by trying to be something you’re not. I’ve been there. Be real, and you’ll enjoy the rewards of real accomplishments. Enjoy where you are and keep that passion to improve. Don’t try to convince yourself you have it all down pat so you feel good. Don’t run around with your nose up at more experienced people and think you’re better because you’re the “new generation.” The only shame in being inexperienced is if you pretend you’re an expert.
4. Practice Like Crazy.
To be a master of something, you have to train. Go out and make photos. Lots of them. But slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully. Anyone can rattle off a thousand frames on a DSLR. Don’t take this as harsh, but a million people a day are taking “good” photos. You need to master the art of the breathtaking. The more you practice your skills, the better you become. It’s that simple. It’s not automatic, and no one is an instant master. Sometimes people think I progressed really quickly. But I worked with photography for four or five years before I even took a paying job, then for years after to actually get good.
5. Educate Yourself.
You have a great camera, you watch videos, you visit blogs like this one. Great. But photography has over 150 years of history. You’ve barley scratched the surface, and that’s OK. I realize frequently how much I have to learn. But I say, do something about it. No, you’re not good enough. We always need to get better, and, yes, that will mean paying for some workshops, taking the time to actually study, and getting out there and learning from others. I contend that becoming a good photographer is no easier than becoming a doctor or a lawyer. In fact, paying the bills with it might even be harder. Don’t think it will happen overnight.
6. Don’t Get Defensive.
Just remember there’s always something to learn. We need honesty. Imagine a world in which everyone tells you your art is great even if it’s not, or simply ignores it because they’re afraid they’ll offend you by giving you honest feedback. Wait, that’s what we have. It’s called Facebook and online pat on-the-back communities. And it’s killing art. We need to be able to be honest with others and take feedback ourselves. Then, take that feedback, not as gospel, but under fair consideration to see if it’s valid and can make us better.
7. You Can Be a Great Enthusiast.
So after all this, you may just want to keep doing photography because you love it. We put way too much stock in this fad of saying “I’m a pro.” We debate when it actually happens, who is, who is not. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. If you want to be a pro, that’s fine. Understand the work, the planning, and the endless labor it takes to run your business. Then go do it.
On the other hand, it’s fine to be an enthusiast. Most people who love photography already have jobs that pay better than photography. It’s OK to just keep doing it because you love it, to become a really great photographer who makes images for themself. Maybe in the future you’ll sell them, maybe not. But either way, there’s no point in pursuing something you love, if your approach will make you no longer love it. What is it you really love about photography? Think about that.
8. Booking Paying Jobs.
Yes, it will come. Maybe it already has. There’s nothing wrong with taking on a project for someone, even if you’re nervous. Just don’t fake it. Don’t pretend you’re a great wedding photogtapher when you’ve done a handful. Don’t say you’re a full time pro when you’ve done six paid gigs. There’s nothing wrong with taking on work, but don’t feel rushed to do it and don’t sell yourself as something you don’t have the experience or confidence to be. It comes back to bite you in the long run. I didn’t take on a paid wedding till I was over five years in. And even then, I was not very good. Start small.
9. The Business.
So you’ve made it this far, and you really want to make a go. Cool. Keep working on all the elements of photography, and start taking all the quality marketing business workshops you can. You have to learn business skills to make it. A few paid jobs for a quick couple hundred was one thing, but if you want to go pro, there’s a lot more to consider.
Taxes, record keeping, display samples (you can’t sell what you don’t show), studio or home meeting space, cards, website design and upkeep, logo design, and on and on. It’s really crazy. In truth, most people would enjoy photography more if they never went into business. I don’t mean that in a cruel way. But if you’re not really ready to build a business and make it in one of the most saturated industries, you’ll just waste a lot of time and money.
10. Get a plan.
You can’t make up for a $60k a year job by doing a $1000 wedding every weekend or five $100 portrait sessions. That sounds like a lot, but by the time taxes, expenses, gear ,and all the other stuff is paid, you might as well be working at the mini mart. Really, I think they even make more than the average “photographer.” This does not mean you should never do low cost jobs getting started. But don’t let that feeling of “Ohmygosh, I’m getting paid for taking pictures” get in the way of the “fact” that you’ll need to start marketing and selling a products and service that will actually pay bills. Giving yourself away will not pay the bills.
You could go into high volume and shoot hundreds of sports teams, seniors, and kids at 100mph (that works for some). You could go high end, get high quality samples, and find an approach to sell that type of product (this works for others, and is where I’ve gone). Neither is easy, and you may do a bit of both. Just sit down and start looking at numbers. Be honest and figure out what you need, how much you “really” need to make and how you can make it work.
11. Tough Realities.
I’ll being straight up. It’s very, very hard to make a full time living in photography, and sometimes it seems like literally everyone wants to do it. Oh, I know the workshops and speakers can make it all look easy, but it’s not. A lot of them are doing lousy selling photos. Truth be told, I can currently make more teaching, writing, and making Seim Effects, than selling photos. Though in part, I imagine that’s because Seim Effects has become a real success, so I’ve put a heavy focus there and been able build my photography business the way I want. I keep at it, and I’m still learning.
12. Stay Cool.
Listen. I’m doing some straight shooting here today. I may sound gloomy, but don’t take it that way. I’ve been in photography for nearly 15 years and in business for over half of that. I love it, but I’m giving some hard facts about what others and I have seen in recent years. Photography is still going places. It’s in flux right now, and, yes, people are going to have to work hard to stay afloat or rise to the top. But we can all help raise the bar. You can decide what you really love about photography and where you want it to take you. Just be honest about the what’s required so you can jump in your way and not be disappointed with what you find.
Finally, here’s a few more articles you might look at for continued reading:
- Wall Portraits. Why the 8×10 Is Stealing Your Impact & Profit.
- Branding – How to Mark, Logo & Sign Your Photos.
- 15 Tips for Wedding Photographers.
Good luck. And I mean that very sincerely.
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