Every year I meet with lots of students, assistants, young photographers, and photography educators and discuss the business of photography. Over the years I have complied a list of the biggest mistakes that most young photographers make when trying to become full-time money-making commercial photographers. I want to share those with you in the hope that people stop making the same mistakes.
Next year I’m going to stop assisting and start shooting full-time
Next month someone is going to hire me for a million dollar national ad campaign, and I’ll win the lottery, and become president. Why don’t you believe me? I have seen this mistake more often than any of the others. I even made this mistake! What I learned, is that it’s not up to you when you start shooting full-time, it’s up to the clients who hire you often enough for you to do so, unless you’re independently wealthy. The sooner you understand this, the sooner you’ll realize what you really need to do to start shooting full-time. It’s all about a slow and consistent plan of attack.
Photo jobs grow on trees
I often make the analogy that marketing in the photo business is like planting seeds. You need to plant the seed, then you need to nurture it, water it, and pay attention to it until it sprouts into a seedling. Then you must continue to water and nurture it until it grows up to be a tree. Then, you have to make sure you take care of the tree. You will then learn that not all seeds will become seedlings, not all seedlings will become trees, and not all trees are going to produce fruit every year or ever. The second you stop watering and taking care of the trees they will die and you need to start from scratch.
This is exactly like the photo business. You shoot new work, send promos, meet people at parties, show portfolios, cold-call editors, and so much more. The first time you meet or introduce yourself to a new person in the industry, you have planted the seed. Then it may take years and years of nurturing these seeds before they may possibly sprout into trees. Then, depending on factors out of your control, like weather, those trees may start producing fruit, or in this case, photo jobs. Some years will be better than others, sometimes you need to spend more time watering some trees compared to others, and if you’re a great farmer, then you can have a great career. I guarantee you one thing; you stop watering the trees and there will be no fruit.
Shooting new work
Young photographers especially assistants spend way too much time thinking about making new pictures and not enough time making new pictures. Photographers are like athletes in that photography is a muscle that needs to be exercised. You know what it’s like when you go to the gym for the first time in a year. You realize you are out of shape, that you should come more often, and that the people who spend a lot of time at the gym are so much better than you. The same thing goes for taking pictures. If you’re only shooting pictures for yourself once every few months, you’ll never be as good as the people who are always shooting pictures. Everybody wants that perfect beach body, but we all know it takes lots of hard work, and the same goes for a good body of work. Yes, if you’re a fashion photographer it’s a lot of work to put a test together; you need models, hair, makeup, location, lighting gear, etc. This is where meeting lots of people and building a good team of people is important so that it isn’t that hard to do.
I’m too good for assisting other photographers
A big part of why I am where I am in my career is because of the people I met when I was assisting. No, I was not the assistant trying to talk to the client behind the photographers back, and I didn’t come in and sneakily try to show the client that I should be shooting for them. I busted my ass for the photographers I worked for and put my best foot forward. I worked for them just as hard as I would work for myself and the clients took notice. Eventually the photographers I worked for were happy to have me show my work to their client friends and from there I got some of my first big jobs. Does this happen all the time, no, but I try to do the same thing for my assistants as I know other photographers who do the same.
Your first jobs
Your first jobs are something that must not be taken lightly. The fact that you’ve worked so hard to get that first job, this is the time to work even harder to make sure it turns into more jobs. It is not the time to be complaining about how much money they are paying you. I think I even lost money on my first editorial job because of the gear I felt I needed to rent just in case I needed it. Your only goal needs to be making the client happy and showing them how good you are at taking pictures and managing the delicate balance of a photo shoot. You need to be confident but not cocky, you need to be receptive to the clients opinions and make sure you make them happy. Most importantly, when they say they’re happy with a shot, move on, don’t try to show them that your idea is SO much better than theirs and spend another hour on a shot that as far as the client is concerned, is done. You have all the jobs after that to work on making money, this is the time to show them why they should continue to hire you.
All I need is a good rep
Your rep isn’t going to make you rich and famous, only you can do that. “Show me the Money” won’t get you very far in this industry. Often young photographers who have barely shot any commercial jobs at all tell me that they are just trying to get a good rep because they are lazy and don’t like handling the whole promotion, portfolio showing, client dinner, marketing thing. I’m sorry to say it, I love my reps, but nobody can sell you as well as you can. What most people don’t realize is that you don’t need a rep to get you work, you need a rep to help you handle all the work you already have, and work on getting you more work. Good reps don’t want young photographer who don’t have a good client base, they want good photographers who have tons of work already which they could use to their advantage to get you even more work.
If I had to describe what most young photographers / assistants do wrong in just a sentence it would be this: they don’t plant enough seeds, are too lazy to water them often enough, and they are pissed off when they come back and there isn’t a bunch of fruit on the tree, and photography jobs grow on trees!
About the author: Steve Giralt is a NYC-based photographer who was selected in 2005 by PDN magazine as one of 30 emerging photographers to watch. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.