To Succeed in Photography, Today’s Students Must Chart Their Own Course

As a photojournalism student, I’ve gotten lots of advice from professional photographers. As well-intended as this counsel may be, it usually comes down to a simple admonition: Stay out of the business.

Newspapers are using wire photos instead of staff photographers. The market for stock photos has been crushed by microstock. Photo-rich print publications — from magazines to corporate annual reports — are going the way of the dinosaur. And of course, everybody feels free to steal your photos on the Web today.

OK, I get it. It’s a tough world out there.

But one thing I’ve noticed about all these photographers giving me advice is this: They are still taking photos.

Ultimately, we do what we do because we love it. We follow our passion despite the obstacles. We’ll do what we need to do to make it.

And what we need to do today is adapt to the changes around us.

Adapting to Change

Those who rise above the rest in photography today are those with smart and creative business practices. They’re resourceful, savvy and step outside the box — not just when taking pictures, but when making marketing and financial decisions, too.

My school doesn’t offer much in the way of practical business courses. We have the Business Institutions Program certificate and another one for Integrated Marketing and Communications, but the options are few and far between.

Still, I have friends who are already showing the entrepreneurial spirit they will need to make it as photographers.

One of my friends spent the last year taking photographs for Shop Evanston. Another takes headshots of theater and film students. A third not only photographs for the student fashion magazine, but also has established a presence in the Greek system, covering sorority socials and events.

As my friend John put it, simply: “You have to pave your own way in this business.”

Now more than ever before, perhaps.

Charting Their Own Course

My friend Justin has masterfully built his network through word of mouth. He was known as “The Camera Guy” within a week of showing up on campus. He was just taking pictures, and people asked him where they could find them online.

Before long, he was getting assignments from fellow students. At first, he bartered his services to attend events for free, to have a client build his website, and so forth. Now he is beginning to charge money for his services.

John has built a clientele by participating in online communities and through conventional marketing techniques. I see his fliers around campus, advertising headshots and directing people to his website.

Yet another friend got a jumpstart from a professor, who encouraged him to begin freelancing, which led him to his job with Shop Evanston.

Me? I look for opportunities when they present themselves. Volunteering to take photographs at large sports events and concerts, accepting an opportunity to intern at the alumni magazine, and taking on the job of photographing clothes for a friend’s friend who wanted to start her own clothing website.

All of this comes down to taking business initiative as a photographer.

I don’t claim to have all the answers about what it takes to succeed today. I am still learning. But I know that I don’t plan to give up before I even start.

9 Responses to “To Succeed in Photography, Today’s Students Must Chart Their Own Course”

  1. Excellent article!

    I, too am in school for photography and hear the same thing from working pros. These are the same people who refuse to adapt to other aspects of this changing industry and post articles like "don't work for free".

    Very well written!

  2. Sorry guys, but you can't work for free, not in the long run, anyway. The reality is you have to think of yourself as your first client, and whatever you do after that is the secondary client.
    The bank will want to see steady income for a house or business purchase, the tax man wants your local, state, federal, unemployment, self-employment, social security and various other taxes paid, so if you earn $20,000, you'll be lucky to keep $8,000 from it. You need to bring money in All The Time in order to break even, and the odds are you'll be unlikely to manage that.
    So, you end up doing something else on the side: it helps with the avoidance of genteel poverty.You diversify as much as you can, so that the loss of any one particular client isn't the end of the business. Weddings help, but a lot of people aren't marrying locally any more -- they've decided on a cheap trip to the Caribbean or some other hot spot with the nearest and dearest in the family. You can't overcharge, not in the majority of the small to medium sized markets in this part of the Northeast, anyway, because there's a lot of competition out there of people who are a lot more desperate for a job, any job, than you are.
    It's not about refusing to adapt to the changes in the industry -- it's about working incredibly hard to keep up with them, and survive the changes while all the others around you don't...
    And that's it.

  3. Besides at some point needing to charge enough to pay the bills and run your business there are really two things other than pricing affecting your ability to do this for a living.

    First of all you have to be able to make photos and second you have to service your client.

    I contend that the public knows the difference between bad and good photography and not as many know the difference between good and excellent photography.

    I also contend that the public knows the difference between bad and good service, but they are very much aware of the difference between good and great service.

    I think if photographers spent as much time on their service as they do on their portfolios they would be so busy they would be turning down jobs.

    Read all the books you can get your hands on about customer service. Know how to listen to your client and exceed their expectations--not just in your photos but how you talk to them, how you package your photos, your invoicing and anything that they will experience when they encounter you.

    The whiners are those who have no knowledge about customer service.

  4. I've been in business since 1988. I am glad I did a business degree and afterwards found my way into photography as it has helped me a lot. Some of the things I have found are:

    1. If I do something for free it has no value to the client. If you focus on the quality and value of what you do, rather than a going rate or the need to break in, there is no reason you shouldn't charge for your services.

    2. I make sure I give great service. The client buys the photographer not the photographs. They want someone who is responsive to their needs and easy to work with, not a prima donna who can't take direction.

    3. Re-invention and innovation is highly important. The job you will be doing in 10 years time probably doesn't even exist today. For example, for one client, I not only take product photos, I also edit them into instructional animations that run on their products. Instead of just handing over pictures, I have vertically integrated the deliverable.

    4. I am not a believer in luck. I think you make your own luck. A writer told me I was lucky to have been picked up unsolicited by an agent and given a book deal for a top publisher. If I hadn't put in many hours of writing and creating a professional website it would never have happened.

    4. Don't burn anybody. It's a lot smaller world than you think. When you are successful, pay it forward.

  5. I've been in business as a photographer since 1984. I am a commercial photographer doing advertising work. Now in my 50's I do find it a difficult time to counsel young photographers who are inquiring about our business. I have never wanted to discourage anyone who is pursuing the carrier of their choice of occupation. I do get pretty irritated at the schools who gladly take in as many students as they can attract, with little consideration as to weather there are opportunities for them after they graduate. Sure, it can be argued that you have to "make your opportunities", but some of these schools are indicating to students that once they graduate they can go out and get a job as a photographer somewhere. Really, who hires photographers as employees? Not to many places. Being a photographer and serving clients is an entrepreneurial activity. Most of us work for ourselves. This is actually a great part of the business, but most college graduates aren't ready for a jump from student to business owner. Still it can be done. It has always been hard getting started in photography, for many reasons. When the we "old-timers" suggest that it is going to be difficult it isn't because we are afraid of the competition from newbies. New photographers starting out generally end up shooting the "low hanging fruit" work, and trust me, established pros don't want that work.

    The previous poster commented about service. This is very true. And all of the reasons posted at the beginning of the article regarding the state of the photo business are true, and there are even a few more.

    So what is it going to take? Passion and the pursuit of perfection. Not much room for "good enough". I wish you an honest "Good Luck".


  6. I applaud your enthusiasm and energy. I am looking back on a 20 year career as a professional commercial photographer. I LOVED BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER. I hated being broke and in debt most of the time and I was a talented, busy savvy shooter with far less competition and price gouging than there is now. Look to the reasons for why you want to become a photog. I'll bet very few of them revolve around securing new business, paying bills, buying new gear every 3 years, etc. I do photography now as a sideline for myself to create beautiful images. I am MUCH happier. It's why I first got into photography. I work a real job to pay the bills and keep my household running. I have no regrets of leaving commercial photography. It is a much better balanced situation for all of us right now.
    Live to create. Take the pressure off yourself and those around you. You'll be happier.

  7. Emily, I have to protest that the previous post by Jeff M. There are plenty of photographers who "love what they do" and that have not, or are not " broke and in debt most of the time". Jeff's decision to exit photography as a carrier appears to be based on the failure of his business to meet his expectations. Running a business is not for everyone. It's an unfortunate truth that not all businesses succeed. This alone does not make the occupation an impossibility for one and all. I have many friends that are successful photographers, world wide. This profession certainly has it's successful players, and someone will be the players of tomorrow. I will concede that the road is difficult, but it is not impossible, or a pointless pursuit, as some will suggest.

    Don Farrall

  8. Hi Emily, I want to share a little bit about my story of my journey with you. I recently quit my ok paying 9-5 job in high tech and going full time on photography. it's my passion and I do take it seriously and I do intend to make a living off from that. The road of excellence gets really lonely and you are gonna get people (whether you know them or not) to disagree with you, tell you not to do such thing, or do something else. My father, he disapproved me going photography full time!! But, I still did it because I know I can prove to him that this is the right journey to me and that's the best for myself. I am 30 years old, been doing the corporate world for 8 years, somewhat successful in my corporate job..but tell you the truth, i hate every minutes of it. On the other hand, I love photography, that's what really makes me happy. it's so true I don't even know if I can pay bills next month and I am still trying to get people to book me for weddings and portrait sessions to pay next month's bills, but that's ok because at the end of the day, I am doing something I totally love and I am willing to risk my income for the experience. Whether I am gonna be successful or not, I honestly don't know, but I am gonna try do the best at what I can provide at this level and provide for what we charged.

    Anyway, I would love to connect with you on facebook and your article really speaks for me. Don't STOP believing!!

  9. Emily great article but I have to say being a student of photography couldnt you have a better photo of yourself in the column? as well as a better expression as the one above looks like the deer stuck in the headlights or you just heard your mom read your dairy... "Not picking your looks as you look fine" but the photo does not fit the bill of a image of a photographer or journalist. You deserve to have a better image..

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