I get this email all the time. I’m a new/aspiring/struggling/young photographer and I want to know what advice you have for me? I literally get this email or tweet or facebook message daily. I suppose that’s what I get for teaching at conferences and offering whatever possibly wisdom that I can share publicly. For a long time, I considered just making a form letter, but then thought that would also be very impersonal…so those emails and messages were placed into a folder awaiting a time I could give my personal input. Alas, here we are: I have just decided to do a blog post to offer some core key tips that may help you on your way in your new photography career. I hope this helps some of you.
So here you are. You’ve chosen one of the most challenging and highly competitive careers in the marketplace today. Are you crazy? Ah, that’s ok if you are because it is also supremely rewarding if you find your own success with it (I wrote an old blog post on my personal take on life as a workoholic photographer). Although, be prepared. It is HARD work. Most photographers statistically make poverty income if you consider the high expense of gear, insurance, and personal marketing. Not all of you will succeed as shooters in the end… and that’s ok, because you are going to give it your best and if its not for you, there are a bunch of other related jobs you can do with your photography knowledge (retouchers, producers, agents, creative directors, photo editors, etc). In the end, the odds are against you, but if you are willing to work, plan, be strategic, and be true to yourself creatively…you may have a fighting chance to really make it! Not trying to discourage you, just making it clear that this career isn’t all fun and games and you have to be willing to fight for it.
ALWAYS CARRY BUSINESS CARDS: My dad used to say the same thing, and he was right. Never leave home without them. You always have to be prepared to sell yourself. You see ANY chance to snag a photo gig from someone, you hand out your card. There is no excuse. Business cards are really cheap. Check out overnightprints.com and vistaprint.com for some affordable business card deals.
FOLLOW UP: Hand out your business card? Ask for one in return. Always follow up. Chances are, they won’t remember to message you. It’s happened to all of us. Send them a nice note or email reminding them of your meeting and offering your services. Same goes across the board. Following up on any lead gives you a greater chance of landing jobs rather than sitting and waiting for someone to call you. FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP (oh and thank you cards are effective too). Have a client you like working with already? Don’t forget to check in with them from time to time as well!
BE TENACIOUS: Want to work with someone or some organization or client? Be vigilant. Follow up, harass them (nicely), research them, find a way to reach them. Network your way up the ladder! There have been times in my career that I found companies and magazines and individuals that I wanted to photograph with or for and I did everything in my power to find a way to make that happen. That is probably one of the biggest keys to my career success so far. When I WANTED something, I didn’t wait for them to call. I found a way to get myself in front of them. You want it? TAKE IT.
CARRY YOUR WORK EVERYWHERE: Cannot count how many people ask me if I am a paparazzi or a wedding photographer or children’s photographer (and all these things I am not), when they hear I am a photographer. Want to wow someone? Carry your best work with you. I suggest keeping images on your smartphone or carry an iPod touch with you. Being able to pull out your work at the drop of a hat is crucial in this day and age. Say you meat a potential client. How are you going to prove you are worthy or make yourself memorable? It’s not like you are selling a basic retail item, you are selling yourself and your work. Show them what you can do.
MEETING IN PERSON IS BETTER THAN OVER THE PHONE OR EMAIL (EVEN MAGAZINES): Maybe I am old-fashioned, but if you want to really close a deal with a new client, see them face to face…makes it harder for them to say no Even goes for magazines. In NYC or some town that has one of the magazines you want to work with? Set a time to stop by with your laptop, portfolio, iPad in person. Don’t know how to contact a magazine? There are sites like Agency Access or Adbase, where you can buy contact lists, but there is an easy way if there is a handful of specific magazines you want to reach… Go to the bookstore and pick up said magazine. Go a few pages past the table of contents and there will be a list of staff. Look for the names of the photo editor or assistant photo editor or creative director if that’s all they have. Sometimes they have an email or phone listed next to the name. If there isn’t, there is ALWAYS an advertising department phone number (magazines thrive on ad sales). Call the ad department and say you accidentally called the wrong extension and if they could connect you with the editorial department. When you get the editorial switchboard, hit up the photo editors. An old trick I used to use. Shhhhh!
BE A SPECIALIST: Stop trying to be everything for everyone. Just because you can shoot dogs, cats, kids, celebrities, families, astronauts, magazines, product shots, etc doesn’t mean you have to sell yourself that way. Think of it in the terms of dating. Would you desire a mate most that will go out with just anyone or the one that stands out in a special way and is memorable? Yes, I can and have shot many things, but I push myself as an on-location portrait photographer and automotive shooter. Sometimes I really have to trim my portfolio to reflect that. You like shooting kids? Be the best kid shooter you can be. Same goes with cars, weddings, etc. Don’t try and sell and market yourself for everything. Be that mate everyone will want and remember…or photographer…you know what I mean.
SHOOT MORE PERSONAL WORK…REALLY: The biggest piece of advice I can give you. Shooting personal work hones your picture-taking skills, gives you purpose, and fills gaps in your portfolio with the kind of work you WANT to get hired to shoot. Clients are less likely to hire you based on your promise that you will do a good job. They want to see your portfolio and say “ok, this photographer knows how to shoot [fill in the blank with your specialty] and I want to hire them.” Art directos and clients also like to see passion in your work and personal work or a photo series is a fantastic way to accomplish that goal. I believe it’s good to practice your skill, why not practice with a purpose?
IT’S NOT ABOUT HAVING THE BEST GEAR, IT’S ABOUT DOING THE BEST WITH WHAT YOU HAVE: It is great to have the best of the best, but its almost as important to be able to make the most out of whatever gear you have. A friend of mind shoots FANTASTIC portraits with a base model Canon Rebel and a single prime lens (I think she bought a second lens now). It blows my mind what she can do because she made the best of the situation she could afford at the time. Get decent gear to get you started, but don’t upgrade unless you can 100% justify how it will help improve your craft or better serve your clients.
BE TRUE TO YOURSELF: I know, so cliche… but its true! Develop your own style. You like shooting something a certain style? Just do it. Don’t even think about it. I always loved the concept of hiding lights in different places on set and I would always experiment. I didn’t think clients would clamor to me for it, I just know I was fascinated by lighting and always was experimenting. Don’t try and copy or mold yourself. Be you. I think that’s all I need to say about that.
FIND INSPIRATION: Some of the biggest steps I made in my early career were the times I would go to exhibits or the library or book store and look at various photo books and magazines. I found great inspiration from a variety of photographers. I took note of why I liked their imagery and kept a little scrap book. I even keep a folder on my computer desktop of images I found that I really liked. I have no intention of copying those photos, but I take note of small elements here and there that I really use to improve my own work. The key here is to never stop looking at art. It’s amazing how other artists can inspire you to be better.
BE GOOD TO YOUR FELLOW PHOTOGRAPHERS: You never know when you will need an extra hand on set, a location referral, a piece of equipment to borrow, etc. They can be a huge asset, not an enemy. I write all about this here.
As I mentioned above, this is not going to be easy. Nobody can hold your hand or give you an amazing photography career. You are going to have to earn it. Hopefully the tips above will steer you in the right direction!
A few of my successful photographer friends have chimed in with some additional insight for you:
A few smaller points to help round out this awesome list that have always served me well:
13. Don’t be an ass!!!
“A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person” ~ Dave Barry
Drop the ego and focus on what you are creating. No one wants to work with a jerk or a diva. Everyone from your client to your assistant to the caterer should be treated like royalty if they are doing their job right. You are all one big team and need to come together as one no matter how big or small the job is. Be the kind of person people want to work for/with and it will pay huge dividends over time.
14. You are your brand
“It is not slickness, polish, uniqueness, or cleverness that makes a brand a brand. It is truth.” ~ Harry Beckwith
We work in such a collaborative field that you cannot treat your business like a faceless corporation selling widgets. Embody the ideals and experience that you want to infuse into your business, and that you would want to receive yourself. Your brand is more than your logo, it is more than your work, it is you and the complete experience that you build for your clients, fans, and viewers. Be real, be personable, be fun, be reliable, and be a smoldering creative genius
15. Your competition is you
“Success means never letting the competition define you. Instead you have to define yourself based on a point of view you care deeply about.” ~ Tom Chappell
Your goal is to never be generic or forgettable – you cannot let the actions of other photographers define you or why and how you make images. Likewise you need to focus on what works for you rather than trying to emulate the triumphs of others. Don’t focus on trying to be the next Avedon, focus on being so damn good at being you and doing what you do that people will say “Avedon who?” Make your work and always push yourself harder and harder.
Take time to not just build your skills but take time to just enjoy photography. Getting set up into business and wanting to make money out of it too soon leads to pressure which in turn takes away the fun aspect.