Should I become a professional photographer?
August 27, 2009 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Should I become a professional photographer?

I'm being encouraged by a friend to submit a quote for photography work for an art college end of year catalogue. There are 30-odd students, each needing a portrait and 2-4 photos of their work. She's seen my recent submissions to and on Facebook/Flickr and reckons I could do this.

Thing is, while I've been into digital photography since the mid-90s (I owned a Kodak DC-20), I got into it for the Web and have only recently concerned myself with print quality work. My cameras are far from what I would think is professional level, with my top three being; an Olympus µ725SW, a Kodak C513 and a Nokia 6120 Classic. (Although I'm increasingly considering the Kodak to be a write-off for anything other than full-sun happy-snaps. And the Nokia is really only salvagable due to the PhotoAcute software I mention below.)

I have (slowly) collected a small amount of (cheap) tools to compensate for these cameras. I have a homebrew lightbox for photographing objects: where you can see my lighting, such as it is. I tend to use a monopod for quick outside pics, but you can see the tripod I have in the lightbox photos. I also have a couple of nice bits of software. Photoshop, of course, although I'm still only using version 5, but really I'm only using it for colour balancing and general image polishing. PhotoAcute is also a really nice program for making low-noise, high-res photos of static scenes. (It takes multiple photos of the same scene and overlays them to reduce noise and double the res.)

Mostly though, I just take *lots* of photos and get the odd good one. For example, a recent outing saw me take around one and a half thousand photos. I considered no more than 10 to be really good photos.

I have no formal photography training, nor do I have *any* portrait experience. I don't think I will be taken seriously if I show up for a job with a pocket Olympus and a phonecam.

Should I bite the bullet and buy a decent camera with a nice range of lenses and some professional lighting equipment, and upgrade to the latest Photoshop? Maybe I should attend a photograhy course or two. Or perhaps I should try and find a job as an assistant to a local photographer. I have a casual job (in IT) that I could fairly easily do my photography around, so it wouldn't be a massive upheaval, although I don't have a huge budget to throw at my initial set of equipment, if I do decide to take the plunge.

What are people's suggestions?
posted by krisjohn to Work & Money (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Try to assist a local photographer rather than investing money in new gear up front. The professional photographers I know have all done this.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:21 PM on August 27, 2009

It's very difficult to make it in the photography business, especially selling art photography.

That said, why don't you buy a midrange dslr (maybe around 600, 700$)? Even if you don't become a professional photographer you could probably get a lot of enjoyment out of it, and it would probably improve many of your shots.

You could also consider selling prints on sites like etsy.
posted by kylej at 7:30 PM on August 27, 2009

assist a local photographer - preferably one who does senior portraits. i worked for 10 years give or take as a mall photographer and i'm here to tell you that shooting portraits is not as easy as sitting someone down and saying "smile!". there's a lot that goes into it - for instance - S-curves and C-curves, feminine vs masculine hand placement, minimizing shots taken, making the subject feel at ease, getting a natural vs staged smile (and learning when a staged smile is better than natural), learning how to light the eyes without overexposing the cheeks, and the list goes on and on and on.

the main thing i think working under a professional will help you with is this: "Mostly though, I just take *lots* of photos and get the odd good one. For example, a recent outing saw me take around one and a half thousand photos. I considered no more than 10 to be really good photos.". this is unacceptable in the world of portrait photography. when i started at the mall job we had 18 shots to get 6 sellable poses. it's more loose in the world of digital photography, but not by much. your subject is really only fresh in pose for 3 shots, after that it's a game of diminishing rewards.
posted by nadawi at 7:37 PM on August 27, 2009

. . . a recent outing saw me take around one and a half thousand photos. I considered no more than 10 to be really good photos.

Pick an interesting subject and shoot twenty different pictures of it. If four of them are good, congratulations, you've got what it takes. If you get one good one, that's luck.

Digital cameras and the machine gun approach allow anyone to amass a collection of interesting images. I don't mean to disparage you or your interest in the field, but 10 photos out of 1,500 says to me that your "success" is due to chance. The ability to frame a shot and get reproducible results time after time is what makes a professional photographer.
posted by theroadahead at 7:47 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

nthing definitely assist a professional photographer. You'll probably have to do it for free/on a volunteer basis at first (no assisting experience), but that's where you really learn how a photographer works on the job. Tell them you'd be happy to hold their lights or help carry their cases or WHATEVER. And then, watch. Ask questions, but not while they're working, obviously. I can't tell you how much I learned by just watching, and paying attention to where they had me stand with the light, or how they interacted with their subjects and how they managed people to get the shot they need. No amount of reading about it or sitting in a class can teach you that. Plus, if the photographer decides they like working with you, they'll start calling you for paid assisting gigs. Either way, it's incredibly valuable to assist, and I don't know any other photographers who haven't/don't assist.

A photography class couldn't hurt if you can afford it. Of course, a lot depends on where you take the class - on weekends at the local camera shop, most people will be hobbyists and you'll learn what a shutter speed is on the first day. And honestly, if you've never taken a class, it might help you to learn that stuff, all the physics and math of it.

Regarding getting 10 good ones out of 1.5K frames: part of me wants to tell you that yes, obviously we shoot a lot more more than we like. When I shot my personal artwork that I used for my Thesis (as opposed to hired by someone), I'd be happy to get one really good image out of an entire weekend of shooting on 4x5 film. But on the job, that's just not gonna fly. Anyone can invest in fancy equipment and shoot until however many cards they have are full. Work on developing your eye, your style, your [whatever you want to call it]. That's what people who hire photographers really care about.
posted by AlisonM at 8:23 PM on August 27, 2009

I'm just a hobbyist, so what do I know? Still, I've read lots on the topic.

How to Go Pro: How to Become a Professional Photographer
Photography is Not a Profession
for starters.

I think there's a world of difference between shooting kiddie photos for Sears or graduation photos for the local college, and shooting for art or magazines or websites or even for catalogs. And yet all of those can be considered "professional" by someone. Decide what you want to do, figure out if you can make money at it. Probably it's gonna involve a ridiculous amount of effort and hard work. Probably it's gonna result in little to no income at all.

Frankly, from what I can see, you're probably better off keeping it a hobby. The general consensus I've seen from most people is that if you're looking to make money, this is the worst possible route to take. Photography tends to COST money, not EARN it. Not without years of effort&luck behind you already.
posted by nightchrome at 8:27 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's really hard to make money in photography. Watch craigslist, and you will invariably see professional photographers offering free shots just to keep busy/spread the name/(in the case of wedding photos, prints are an ulterior motive).

Digital SLRs have made professional level photography gear more accessible to the average hobbyist, and therefore, the market is flooded with similar people.

IANAPP, but I love photography and realized early on that my hobby wasn't going to make anywhere near enough money to support myself, even on the side.
posted by bradly at 8:43 PM on August 27, 2009

It's a terrible time to start a photography business. Everyone has a nice DSLR, and even if their pictures aren't good, they are doing weddings. So the wedding shooters are getting squeezed. Leaving them hunting for work. Driving down rates. Newspapers are dying all over the place. They are laying off experienced photographers. Those people are also looking for the wedding work, squeezing the wedding guys even more. With the economy not that great, advertising guys are also getting squeezed.

Basically you have a bunch of really experienced people in the pool, and not enough work to go around.

Now if you have a partner who works and you don't need much money, you can jump in and see. But I wouldn't be planning on making this your main source of money. At least not without a couple of years of learning, at least, the basics. This is going to sound snobby, but it's just so you understand: if you mention a Nokia phone being part of your kit, you are not in the ballpark of being close to being a professional. I don't mean to be a jerk, that's just sort of the way it is. If you want to get a DSLR to take pictures of things in your life, or to develop your skills, that's great. I wouldn't expect it to turn into a money making thing, at least not very much. And not very soon.

However, you may be able to pull all this off. There are always exceptions. But this is a hard road.

Good luck.
posted by sully75 at 9:38 PM on August 27, 2009

The difference between a pro and an amateur, beyond getting paid a living wage for photography, is the ability to take good pictures regardless of circumstance. I've had portrait situations where my time with the subject is limited to under a minute. I know people who've photographed Obama in a portrait situation, and they get about 15 seconds with the man. You need to be able to take usable pictures quickly, regardless of equipment failure or other circumstances, and then also deliver those pictures in a usable and professional and reasonably swift manner. This doesn't mean handing over a cd of 1500 pictures, or even just handing over a cd of 120 pictures (one portrait and 3 artwork pictures for each of the 30).

Think of professional photography as like being a stand up comedian. Just as anyone can tell funny jokes when everyone's having a good time, so to can everyone take a decent enough picture when people are smiley and well-lit at a late afternoon picnic. It takes experience and practice (and a little talent...but mostly experience and practice) to be able to do it on command, regardless of circumstance (bad lighting, bad mood for you or your subjects, bad equipment, a subject that you aren't interested in at all, etc.), and deliver the product.

And this doesn't even cover all the legal hoops you've got to jump through. The end usage sounds like it isn't editorial, so you've got to familiarize yourself with model and property releases. You've got to get them signed and deliver copies to the client. You've also got to make sure you've got a decent contract for the whole thing, and a reasonable bid. The contract will cover the terms of the shoot and the licensing terms for usage of the photos. If you bid too low, you're never going to get hired by that client for anything more than that lowball and you've lost money on the job. You probably need insurance, too, in case a lightstand falls on somebody or you accidentally break one of the sculptures when you're trying to get a good angle.

Oh, and before you ask, don't even think about not getting paid for this. Doing it "for exposure" or "to fill out your portfolio" is not proper compensation. You're providing a service, and just like any other vendor, your costs should be covered and you should make a profit.
posted by msbrauer at 9:41 PM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, there's a heap of really good advice on this page. Looks like my best option is to just keep taking photos when I'm out and about and leave the paid jobs to the professionals.
posted by krisjohn at 10:16 PM on August 27, 2009

A suggestion. Try photojournalism on a micro scale. It's not so hard to try, if you don't mind getting paid in Monopoly money. And it is, in my opinion, a lot of fun. An excellent way to learn about photography.

Go to your local newspaper. I mean the littlest one you can find. (The best newspapers have one publisher, one editor, and one reporter.) Offer to take pictures at some town event -- a parade, maybe a town fair. Or better yet, offer to take pictures at some minor event the paper feels obligated to cover. Senior centers and elementary schools should be good for this. Think 'senior proms' with the the emphasis on "senior," career fairs, art classes, science fairs. Pitch a few events to the editor. Tell them if they like the pictures, they can pay you their regular freelance photographer rate, and if you like each other you can keep coming back and working for them. Newspapers often expect people to "audition" for their jobs, but they do pay you if they print your work.

I'm essentializing, but here are the rules:

You'll get a few obligatory shots of the mayor or the principal standing with her arm around the event organizer: take four photos; as long as they're positioned well and they're in focus, they're usable. That's one shot out of an eight- to ten- shot photo essay -- if you're lucky. But at these events most of your focus should be on cute pictures of things like:

• Firefighters dressed up with little kids playing with the adults' uniforms
• Old ladies dancing with much younger folks
• Eight-year-olds marching in step while playing the clarinet or twirling batons
• Anyone getting his or her face painted

You get the idea. Those photos should look candid. Remember to get a parent's or school's permission before photographing any children at school events.

Never offer to photograph a school play, unless you photograph the kids getting their makeup done backstage in advance and get some time on stage with the kids before people show up and the show starts.

Ideally, you should spend no more than an hour and a half getting your photos, but on your first time out of the gate expect to double that time and arrive early. (At really minor events down the road, you needn't spend more than twenty minutes taking photos.)

You don't need a high-powered camera for this stuff: you just want clear, illustrative images. Remember to take as many left-facing photos as right-facing photos in both your horizontal and vertical shots. Never take a shot with more than three people in it. Get names, ages, school grades or professional titles from everyone you photograph.

The key is that you need to reliably get twenty sets of scenes, with detailed notes for each, and do it all very quickly. You can get a lot of experience at these kinds of events, thinking of your photographs as a story.

At the end of the day (or hour, as it may be), you should have at least eight usable shots. Offer them up for a small fee/audition -- whatever the paper regularly pays a photographer (Think small. Really small. Fifty bucks for a full essay, tops). They may pay you ten bucks for going out on the assignment if they only end up printing one photo.

I once had a nightmarish photographer submitting photos to me at a local newspaper where I was an editor. He was famously disorganized, and would send me thirty photos of each event. Needless to say, I didn't use him much.

You shouldn't send more than ten photos unless you've specifically been asked for them. And you should clearly label each picture. And you should have great notes with exact spellings of all names, details in the correct format, every time. Indeed, if you're really interested you should try writing captions for each photo. (That's a whole separate art/science.)

Anyway, this is a very good way to investigate attempting professional photography without the stakes being too high. You can see if you can get the tempo down, if you can reliably take photos with the right tone for the occasion, and if you don't like it, you can easily quit any time.

It will only take one assignment to see what you would need to learn if you were to attempt getting into any kind of professional photography. And did I mention that it was fun? And, it's a service to the community. Even with newspapers shutting down left and right, community paper clippings still end up on refrigerator doors.
posted by brina at 10:51 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

I like the suggestions thus far - but I want to ask about you, the OP. A friend saw your work and suggested you submit some of it for a possible gig. Cool. Wonderful. Awesome. But what is your goal beyond that? What is your need for money like? If you're independently wealthy and can handle any travel expenses without worry of recompense, then go ahead. If you need a day job, remember that perhaps a trillion images a year are recorded on digital cameras. I couldn't tell you how many millions (or billions) of them are uploaded onto some social networking site. Are your photos better than the majority of these?

Consider that we're in the middle of a recession that isn't going away anytime soon. For better or worse, most people are cutting waaaay back on the non-essentials. Business and newspapers might need some photos taken, but portrait studios are many and paying customers are likely few.

I don't want to discourage you from pursuing an interest or hobby - in fact, starting out as a casual thing or the occasional professional gig would be great to get your feet wet. If you like it, take on the small newspaper assignments (do those still exist? LOL) and build up a portfolio / resume.

Best of luck :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 12:58 AM on August 28, 2009

No offense, but you could put a blind fold on and take 1500 pictures and get 10 good ones. Work on developing your eye more and try to assist other photographers.
posted by bradbane at 2:30 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

When you're ready, get your own website - to me Deviant Art isn't professional, more a place for fanfiction and goth art.
posted by mippy at 3:41 AM on August 28, 2009

I'm in a similar position to you - I can't practically go back to school, so am working on developing my skills by playing around and taking shots. I think the newspaper idea is a really good one - sometimes if I want a project for myself I head down to a local fete or a place of interest and snap away. Try things outside your comfort zone - nudes, wildlife, macro shots, staged shots.
posted by mippy at 3:44 AM on August 28, 2009

Being a professional photographer isn't all about the type of camera you own. It is a business and you have to be just as versed in running a business as taking pictures. That means knowing how not to get screwed by taxes to bookkeeping, pricing, invoicing, advertising, and maintaining business relationships. If you know nothing about that then you will most likely fail. It is a lot of work.

Don't invest in equipment now, whatever you do. Invest in some business classes. When and if you decide to try your hand as a pro then set up your business and then buy equipment which you can write off.
posted by JJ86 at 6:26 AM on August 28, 2009

Not to pile on, but I have to agree with mostly everyone else. The fact that you spent your first few paragraphs talking strictly about what gear you have leads me to believe that, like lots of people, you think the secret to taking pro-level photos is having pro-level equipment. Don't be lots of people.

I must respectfully disagree with brina. First of all, most newspapers, even the smaller ones, already have a long list of reliable freelancers they can go to for those types of assignments. If you wanted to go to a fair on your own time, with your own money, to gain more experience in photojournalism and wanted a critique on the photos you took, I would applaud you. If you had no experience, wanted to literally learn on the job AND get published the next day AND get paid, I would tell you to get more experience and come back to me later. Only a publication that truly does not care about the quality of the photos would go for that.

One way I would learn is by going out on assignments with my father. I learned by watching him and taking my own photos, but the pressure wasn't on my inexperienced shoulders to deliver.

It's all harder than you think. Yes, even the local fair.
posted by girlmightlive at 6:56 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You've taken some nice pictures, but if you roll up with your Olympus, you will rightly get laughed out of town. You can get perfectly nice small prints out of almost any compact camera, but it just won't fly for catalogue work, where you'll need images at a much higher res. If you think about it, they'll be printed at 300 dpi, and you'll probably want them printable at A4, so the images will need to be 2480 X 3508, which is something like 9 megapixels. Yours tops out at 7.1 megapixels.

You need better equipment to shoot that sort of thing. You'll also need to know about lighting, as photographing artwork is much harder than people think. Without your brain to compensate for varying light conditions and colour temperature, a camera will produce pictures that are way off the mark. Taking formal portraits will likely require artificial light as well, as well as practise directing people and knowing when you're got The Shot.

I'd recommend saving up for a DSLR if you're genuinely interested. You'll find the quality of your images will take a leap ahead simply by virtue of the larger sensor and higher quality lenses. Definitely get a job assisting a local photographer - there's probably no better way to advance your knowledge.

Don't be put off - I think some people are skim-reading your post and assuming incorrect things. Good luck, and feel free to Mefi Mail me if you've got any questions - I'm definitely happy to help.
posted by Magnakai at 9:43 AM on August 28, 2009

I’m winding down my 33rd year as a full time professional photographer. Here are a few thoughts.

I’d never be able to make this a career if I were starting out today. Not only is there far more qualified competition than ever before, but there are astronomical numbers of photographers who are practically giving their work away. That’s the competition now.

I have a huge amount of non-billable time into the day to day matters of being in business; everything from ordering supplies, bookkeeping, to maintaining equipment. The percentage of my time that I am actually shooting is minor.

Last week I was paid $1100.00 for an hour’s worth of work shooting a environmental portrait for a major automobile manufacturer. I had another hour into post production and administration directly related to this shot. The bad news is that I can count on gigs like this one to come up only once or twice a year.

This morning I shot location headshots of 14 executives. After setting up a complete portrait studio in an office building lobby (backdrop, multiple flash units, etc.), I had each one of these people in front of me for less than five minutes each. The first words said to me by six of these people, paraphrased, were, “I hate having my picture taken. Let’s get this over with, because I’m supposed to be in a meeting.” I shot about 20 frames of each subject, and they’ll all have at least five or six flattering choices. And they all thanked me for making it relatively painless and very quick afterward.

A couple of weeks ago I had to do a photo of a mocked up scene with a patient being prepared to undergo a hospital MRI procedure. Due to the heavy scheduling of the MRI suite, I had five minutes to set up in the room with multiple flash units, and five more minutes to shoot a believable cover photo of the patient preparation. Due to the nature of MRI machines, which are very strongly magnetic, I had to keep my lights plastered against the interior walls of the room, and had to shoot through the open doorway with my electronic digital camera. Five minutes, almost to the second, into the session, the technician started carrying out my lights since the next patient was due for treatment.

My point with these anecdotes is that there are plenty of amateur photographers who could have probably matched the quality of any of the pictures I’m referencing above on a good day, but as a professional photographer, I’m hired because I can deliver consistently good work while under some serious pressure. I have a ton of equipment and backup equipment so that even if I have a malfunction, I’m covered.

I love my job, but I’ve probably never loved photography as much as I did as a high school kid many years ago who just took pictures for fun.
posted by imjustsaying at 11:01 AM on August 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

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