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Ask An Expert: How to Go Pro?

April 7, 2010

After a couple weeks with no questions for the Experts I received four in one day last week.  I sent three of them off and decided to tackle this one myself.  I’ll qualify my response by saying that unlike some questions which have very defined answers, this one is wide open and my answer is subjective.  It’s my opinion, which is based on my own experience.  Other photographers may respond differently.  In fact, I encourage you to leave a response in the comments section if you are a working pro (part or full-time) with some knowledge to share on the topic.

The Question:

As someone who is not new to photography but someone who has never received any formal training, I am wondering how to best go about turning my semi-lucrative hobby into a more permanent career. Should I invest in a better camera (I’m using a D40 currently) or newer lenses? Should I focus on the post-production aspect of things in order to make marketable images or more on going out and shooting? I’m really not certain how to prioritize steps in my pursuit of lucrative work. Thanks for your time!

My Response:

I’ll break down my response to cover all the little questions inside the big question.  We’ll save the gear question for last.  I am a confirmed gearhead but I’m also smart enough to know that more/bigger/newer/better gear is rarely the answer.  Sure, if you aspire to be a wildlife photographer and your longest lens is an 18-55mm zoom it won’t hurt to invest in some big glass.  But like I said, we’ll cover gear at the end.

Ask a dozen pro’s this same question and you’ll probably get a dozen responses.  Here’s mine: start by determining what kind of professional photographer you want to be.  Do you want to shoot for stock, do you want to make money teaching photography (workshops, seminars, etc.) or do you want to be a fine art photographer?  Maybe you want to do all of the above?  I think this is the first and most important step because it will determine the path you take as you develop your photography career.  For instance, if your goal is to own a gallery where you will sell your prints you should probably focus on learning post-production and printing techniques.  However, if you’re shooting for stock your time is better spent learning what sells, shooting tons of saleable images and researching how to best reach potential markets.

One part of your question I’d like to touch on is that marketable images aren’t made in post-production.  Yes, there are exceptions.  As a rule marketable images are made in the field and they are optimized in post-production.  If you photograph a scene in bad light or your focus wasn’t quite right all the post-production in the world is not going to change the fact that you photographed in bad light and your focus was off.  Get it right in the field and use the digital darkroom to make a great photo even better.

Here’s a thought to ponder: An average photographer who is also a savvy businessperson can make a killing in this business.  Do not underestimate the importance of schooling yourself in how to run a business.  The best photographer in the world who doesn’t know squat about marketing probably ain’t gonna make a dime.  At the very least, I recommend you read John Shaw’s “The Business of Landscape Photography”.  It’ll get you thinking about all that is involved with running a photography business.  It wouldn’t hurt to take a couple marketing classes.  Speak to your accountant about tax impacts of running a business and how to properly structure your business.

While on the topic of education, photography may not be a profession that requires a degree – like medicine or law – but getting some formal training never hurt anyone.  It’s not easy to learn all the ins and outs of using artificial lights on your own.  Trust me, I’ve tried and failed.  No doubt it can be done but you will save lots of time, energy and frustration paying someone to teach you the proper technique.  Also, most of the respected schools offering photography degrees require you to take lots of business classes (hint, hint) as well as how to build a portfolio, work with clients, and more.

Finally, the gear question.  Owning a pro camera and lenses does not make you a pro photographer.  Yes, you should use the best equipment you can afford as the pricier glass will resolve better detail with fewer abnormalities (distortion, chromatic aberration, etc.).  Yes, having a 40 megapixel medium format camera will allow you to make huge prints.  Take a step back and think about your business model, though.  Are you primarily photographing for stock?  If so, how large do you think your clients are going to need to print your images?  Most likely a two page spread, right?  You can easily print a 2 page spread from a 6 megapixel file.  Having said that, there are stock agencies and even some magazines who won’t even consider an image made with a camera resolving anything less than 10 megapixels.  So, here’s my advice for gear: buy the very best lenses you can afford and upgrade your camera every couple of years to ensure that you are staying current with trends/requirements in the industry.  You probably don’t need a top of the line camera body, either.  I started with Canon’s flagship $8,000 model.  When upgrade time rolled around I found that my $8,000 camera was barely worth $2,000 and had long ago been surpassed in image quality.  I opted to go with a Canon 5D MKII to replace it instead of purchasing the flagship model, saved myself about $5,000 and am still able to produce saleable images.  I’ve never regretted the decision.

So, there you have it.  A much longer response than you were probably expecting.  Hey, I wanted to be thorough!  Hope it helps and best of luck to you in your career as a photographer.  Don’t forget us little guys when you’re world famous and rollin’ in $500,000 cars.

Sound off, pro’s!  What are your thoughts on this topic?  Leave a comment and help an up-and-comer reach their goals.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 6:08 pm

    My tidbit:

    Learn how to value your time, value your efforts, and value your work.
    (Kinda like Location, Location, Location, and just as important.)

    Cheers,

    • April 8, 2010 6:11 am

      Really great points, Gary. To that I would add that don’t give anything away for free just to get your name in a magazine. At some point in your career you’ll hear that if you give away a photo to a magazine, book company, postcard company, etc. it will be great exposure for you. Bull! It won’t be. Don’t give away your work. At the very least, negotiate some kind of fair trade. I recently allowed a tourist company to use one of my photos on the cover at no charge. In return, I received a full page ad inside that usually runs for $3,000. I’ve already made a few sales as a result of that ad. Your work is valuable – make sure it stays that way!

  2. April 7, 2010 6:53 pm

    I would go with everything Bret & Gary said – very good advice.

    Other points to ponder:

    Training / learning can take many forms. Most people, especially if they’re over 30, will try to avoid another full college degree program because of time & cost. But many schools now have extension or adult education programs, some of which can be excellent. Useful for business as well as photography subjects. Also, consider working as an assistant to a seasoned pro for a day, a week, a month of Sundays. Make it plain that you’re there to learn; if they’re onboard with that, you could learn a ton.

    Never, never, never be afraid to ask questions. When I was an instructor, I always told my classes that the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. Yes, there may be some people who will make you feel bad, but they’re the idiots. The good guys won’t make you feel clueless – they’ll think you’re interested and want to learn.

    There is a wealth of information available on the internet, and some of it is even worth having. 😉 Find some photo blogs that are worth skimming every few days (hint: if you learn something from reading a post or an article, come back for more). Follow a bunch of people on Twitter and figure out which ones have good things to say / great shots to look at and study. You may trim the list as time goes on, but you’ll end up with some great photographers whose advice and info is delivered free to your computer every day.

    Take in all the advice, the info, the knowledge – and don’t lose sight of what makes you YOU. Don’t imitate others, except as a learning exercise. Find your own voice, your own vision, and go with it.

    Don’t assume that the only people you can learn from are photographers. The creative process is common to all artists. And business know-how is probably best learned from people in other industries – they will give you a non-artsy bottom-line perspective, and you never know, some of them may even become clients one day.

    And last point (sorry, I got a bit carried away), I’ll touch on the gear from a Nikon perspective. Bret is absolutely right that gear doesn’t make the photo, and I know people who are making money with a D40 or equivalent. However, as you begin to invest in more gear I think you’ll inevitably have to upgrade the camera, simply because the D40 doesn’t support all lenses / functionality and wasn’t designed to be a pro body. But you definitely don’t need a D3s to be a pro! (I’m still dreaming…) Beyond a certain point, the glass will make more of a difference than the camera. And the ground-to-camera interface module (that would be you) will make the most difference of all!

    Good luck!

    • April 8, 2010 6:13 am

      Thanks for this great comment, Moira! Fantastic information. I particularly like the bit about following photographers on twitter. I’ve found that to be an amazing resource. I also LOVE the “ground-to-camera interface module”. I laughed outloud. Good thing I wasn’t taking a drink at the time because it would have sprayed all over my desk and computer!

  3. Anna McEnulty permalink
    April 9, 2010 9:46 am

    Thank you for answering my question with such thoroughness and expertise! I really appreciate you taking the time to give me a detailed response. I also have read through the comments that others have left and have found them to be very valuable. In terms of the business side of things, one of my day jobs is doing accounting, so I understand the value of setting up a good business plan. My other day job is operating a tourist attraction, so in that manner I understand the value of marketing ones self. But, I hadn’t really considered it in terms of the bigger picture. Thanks for helping me put it all together. I am going to work on my technique, find some great resources, and persevere!

  4. April 9, 2010 10:30 pm

    I work with pro and consumer photographers as a photo lab owner. The success of my pro clients is important to the success of my own business so I’ve made a point of learning how successful photographers get that way.

    First, if your aim is to work as an independent photographer, the most likely option these days, make very sure you like self-employment. A good discussion of this is here:
    http://photo.net/wedding-photography-forum/00Fe5S . A good way to explore this is to work as an assistant to a working photographer. Wedding photography has many opportunities for assistant jobs.

    Now, while you are starting your business, definitely keep your day job. It is quite common for people to transition into full time photography by keeping a secure source of income flowing while they learn the ropes and develop their business.

    And I concur with everyone who says business skill and marketing skill (and a marketing budget, don’t forget) are extremely important. Over all the winning combination seems to me to be: business acumen, ability to sell yourself, ability to deliver the goods consistently, financial ability to survive during inevitable slow times and persistence. All that, assuming good technical skill and a good eye. Good luck!

    • April 10, 2010 8:05 am

      Thank you for the great response, Andrea. Your suggestion to keep a day job while building the photo business is an excellent one and is something I should have mentioned in my answer. THANK YOU for bringing it up!

  5. April 10, 2010 6:33 am

    Great answer. I have a masters in Visual Communication but no training in business. That’s been the biggest hurdle in getting my own business going. I’m going the route of a business mentor and also reading lots of books.

  6. May 3, 2010 12:12 pm

    Well written Bret. Great work!

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