18 Facts of Life for Photography Students

Every year, I go to my alma mater and give a lecture for 3rd-year advertising-photography students on the business of photography. At this two-hour lectures, I cover all sorts of points about the ups and downs of being a busy commercial photographer in NYC, and also try to tell them straight facts of what the “real world” is like. Here is a summary of some of the most important words of wisdom I try to pass on to young photographers.

Please note that I’m talking about commercial photography in the realm of what I shoot. These tips may or may not be applicable to other photography fields.

1. School is Not the Real World

The fact that you did really well in school and that your teachers loved you means nothing at all in the real world. Yes, taking great pictures is really important, but even more important is how well you run your business. Are you good at marketing yourself, negotiating, networking, pitching yourself on a conference call, managing cash flow, etc? Do you like business?

2. It’s Really F-ing Hard to Become and Stay a Successful Commercial Photographer

Let’s say you work hard enough and are lucky enough to build a good client base. You will always be working just as hard to find your next clients and keeping your existing clients. A commercial photographer who becomes lazy is a broke photographer. The unfortunate reality of this industry is that fruits come to those who labor the most.

3. You Will Not Want to Be a Starving Artist in Your 30s

Real life is so complicated! I can’t even count how many students I have talked to who tell me they don’t care about money or making money. Truth be told, a few years later, once that student has graduated, gotten into credit card debt, and is tired of living with 3 dirty roommates in a shoebox apartment in Brooklyn, money suddenly becomes much more important. The sooner you realize that making money is important to your future, the better things will be. Even fine-art photographers need to make money somehow to support their art.

4. Live Where You Want to Work, Or Work Where You Want to Live

You want to be a fashion photographer and shoot for Vogue, but are planning on moving back to Cleveland because you really like the city and having your family nearby. That’s fine, but you won’t be shooting for Vogue living there. If you want to do the big jobs for the top bands and magazines, you need to be in the cities where people look for such photographers — cities like NYC, LA, San Francisco, and Chicago.

5. Commercial Photographers Are More like Carpenters than Artists

When a client is hiring a commercial photographer to shoot a job, most of the time they’re not hiring them to shoot because of their artistic vision, but because of their ability to problem-solve. They have ideas they want expressed in photographic form, and the photographer is the one who solves these problem for them.

6. Most of You Will Not Be Commercial Photographer in 10 Years

It’s really hard to survive as a freelance photographer. It is harder and harder every day to break into the business, and just as hard to stay in the business. You really need to love running a photography business. Of the people I graduated school with, maybe 20 percent of them support themselves entirely by taking photographs, and it’s been 10 years.

7. Nobody Cares How Good Your Grades Were in School

Honestly, when working as a freelance photographer, nobody cares if you went to school for photography, and even less what your grades were. School is a great place to learn about who you are as a photographer; nobody cares about grades later on. The photography industry is unlike most industries in the way people get hired. When you hire a contractor, do you ask them how they did in college?

8. Life Responsibilities Will Likely Overpower Your Artistic Vision

I hear lots of students claim they will never “sell out” and do work that isn’t part of their “vision”. These students are likely to work in something other than photography for a living and shoot their photography on the side, which is fine. Otherwise, they are likely the ones who sell out the quickest and do horrible jobs for almost no money and b**ch about it the whole time. If your artistic vision is more important than making money, then don’t become a commercial photographer.

9. The Photography Is the Easy Part

After years or shooting, promoting, marketing, networking, and more to get your first paid gigs, you realize that taking the pictures is the easiest part of it all. Getting the work, keeping the work, and running the business is the hardest part of a commercial photographers job, especially if running a business doesn’t come naturally to you.

10. You’re Not Going to Start a Career Because You Have a Lot of Facebook Friends

I know some photographers whose only marketing plan is putting pictures up on their Facebook pages. That may be great and fun, but it’s not going to get you work as a commercial photographer. You need to find a way to get your work in front of photo editors, art buyers, and art directors… that is how you get work. Many of my clients aren’t even on Facebook — they’re too busy.

11. I Hope You Made Friends in School

Some of my first jobs and some of my best clients are people I met while I was in school. Just like how people attend Harvard for an MBA to meet others who will help them in their businesses later on, the same goes for photo school. For every successful commercial photographer in a class, there will be at least one successful photo editor or art buyer. Make friends in school, not enemies.

12. Promos: Technology Changes but Your Message Shouldn’t

When it comes time to promote your work, don’t get caught up in the technology, whether it be twitter, email blasts, or any other new-fangled technique. More important than how your message is delivered, is that the message about your work is clear and concise and shows your work the right way to the right people.

13. When Things Are Slow, Life Is Difficult. When You’re Busy, Life Is Just as Difficult

Broke and idle photographers think life is great for rich and busy photographers; busy photographers sometimes wish for days off when they can rest and do some personal work. More often then not, a day off to a busy photographer is just as busy as a shooting day. I often need to get caught up on business matters, try to plan tests, meetings, etc… No matter what, both slow and busy photographers are working their asses off. Often in this industry it’s either feast or famine, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

14. You Can’t Buy a House with Photo Credits

When you’re starting out it’s really exciting to get your work published, even if it means doing work for free. The reality is that it’s cool for a little while, but then really quickly you realize you weren’t really getting much out of that deal. As a commercial photographer, you need to be paid for what you do, unless it’s a personal project or you think you’ll make a killing in stock sales after.

15. There Is No Escaping Taxes

The worst part about being a commercial photographer is keeping track PF expenses, invoicing, bookkeeping, and taxes. Period.

16. It Takes Money to Make Money

Unlike writers, photographers need gear to create their work. When you’re starting out, most of your money will go to buying more gear or building your business. This can include portfolios, website updates, promos, photo seminars, and more. When you buy something that makes it easier for you to create work, you’ve made a good investment. I wish I could just save all my money, but the reality is I constantly need to be upgrading something. Also, photographers can make a good amount of money by renting the gear they own to their clients.

17. Not All Photographers Should Be Commercial Photographers

If you don’t think you can handle all it takes to run a business and also ENJOY running a business, maybe you should just do photography as an art, and find a different career. Otherwise, you will spend your life completely wasting your time doing things you don’t like doing, and what’s the fun in that? Do what you love, and become a master at what you love doing.

18. Who Cares What Your Parents Think

You have to live your life the way you want, not how they want. For better or worse, my parents always supported me in doing what I was passionate about, but not all parents are the same. If you really love doing something and are passionate about it, go for it, no matter what.

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.

Image credits: Road by Nico Kaiser, 7dbp4040009 by Wolfgang Lonien, Silhouetted Photographers by William Matthews Photography, silhouettes by Harold Laudeus, and Cliff Silhouette by richblend

  • Brian F

    Lemme guess – he graduated from RIT?

  • SeaJay711

    So it says in this bio…..

  • Ayden Gotzmer

    What does where he graduated have anything to do with it?

  • Dave

    Points 10 and 11 are directly contradictory.

  • jay curry

    Only if the only friends you can think of having are the ones on FB.

  • Lukas Prochazka

    Hello, I am Lukas, I would like to became a professional photographer right now I am exchange student and live in Arkansas.I havent born with lot of photography talent but I can really hard on myself if I have a motivation and photography offers me that.I experiment I do lot of reading and check photo page.I am willing to its not the easiest job but I think I would handle it. I would really like to study on US collage as you said when you want to work in that city you have to live that and I guess that is the same about school. It would be really get a job as some photographer who came from some Slovakia. Can you give me some advice how would I be able to go at collage? I dont have money and only possible choice is probably scholarship. I will talk with our counselor. I am Senior at High School and so far is any choice take a ACT test but it is too difficult for me to understand.

  • The_photographer_Tom

    Wonderful advice. It should be sent to every photographic student at the beginning of their course and again before they graduate.

  • 9inchnail

    19 – “Live sucks, get a f#cking helmet” – Denis Leary

  • DavidNagy

    I don’t think so. Point 10 refers to the idea that you’ll get lots of work and referrals because you have a lot of FB friends. Point 11 refers to deeper relationships you’ve built with others who will be in your field that can affect the work you get, or who sees your portfolio and will actually talk to someone who might hire you.

  • RG

    All true…each and every point. #7 is the first thing that hits most students. I was all cocky 30 years ago when getting out of Brooks Institute, only to have EVERY photographer in LA that I tried to intern with tell me “Brooks huh?…I didn’t go to school…” Yhey didn’t give a rip about where I went, just what I could do.

  • Tebow

    18 facts of life, but few words on how Steve worked his way through them. What are Steve’s strategies for being more successful during his times of little work? If one does live in those golden cities, how and where would a student find a willing teacher to intern with? If it takes money to make money, what are some ideas on how to get the equipment needed to be taken seriously as a commercial photographer? I feel like the post should be called, 18 reasons you shouldn’t become a Commercial Photographer.

  • Steve Giralt Photo

    There is only so much one can fit into a single post and keep audience interest. Trust me when I say I am the first person trying to help students with real-life stories about how I made it to where I am and how I overcame obstacles. I am also the first to thank all those who helped me out along the way. if you would do some more research and read the many other blog posts on my site you would get a better picture of the message I’m trying to send.

    It’s not that I’m telling them not to become commercial photographers, I’m just telling them what most photography educational institutions fail to convey to them: Making a living off of commercial photography is not easy if you don’t realize it’s a business .

  • bob cooley

    Great piece, Steve. This should be required reading for all aspiring
    shooters, especially in today’s market (though most of it has always
    been true…)

  • Ryan Riopel

    “7. Nobody Cares How Good Your Grades Where in School”
    I find this mistake ironic

  • Michael Zhang

    Hahaha. As editor, I take full responsibility for the irony. Thanks for the catch! :)

  • Tannia Ortiz-Lopes

    Dear Steve: I am an amateur stock photographer. Thanks for posting this list. It summarized very well the real file of a commercial photographer. I have a friend who is a professional commercial photographer and he also has very interesting stories to tell. By the way, Jim Brandenburg visited Iserlohn, Gemany recently. I attended his talk and saw his pictures exposition. He also shared some of the tips that you mentioned above.

    What I have learned on my few years as amateur stock photographer, based on the rejected pictures is that light balance, composition, the right angle, and having the proper photography software are basic skills and tools to create a good picture. I am still learning. Most of my portfolio are of pictures I took with my pocket digital cameras.

    Tebow: the point Steve was trying to convey is that the REAL LIFE of a commercial photographer is not as rosie as many people think. It requires discipline, patience, great imagination, and an endless drive to get better and stay ahead of the others by your uniqueness.

  • victorinox126

    Awesome Article. As an Engineer student i want to add that, acording to the rate at which humanity is growing, we will reach a point where not everyone can be a photographer, some of us will be doing average jobs, sadly.
    Fun Fact (i think this is right): That Road photo is from El Teide (Volcano) in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. Also the place where Clash/Wrath Of The Titans was Filmed, and currently Fast & Furious 6.

  • RichP

    A great post. I come to this site as an enthusiastic amateur, no hope or intention of going pro, but I have been back to my alma mater to speak to final year students about heading into the big bad world and they were a little surprised when I pointed out it wasn’t a walk in the park. All “about to gradute”s should read this and apply to their chosen or desired career path.

  • WorldFest Houston

    Brilliant! It also goes very well for business and corporate video/filmmakers, except that the cost of equipment is about 100 times more. And Life Is Not Fair … another important point!

  • Mario Liedtke

    Great! And I agree to all 18 sections. Hu? Haven’t there been 19? YES!
    And the last one is the one I disagree:
    (If your parents are not totally insane, and you have a good relation to them)
    You can have friends and classmates that help you to build an opinion. But you can be sure that the only people who really never want to betray you are – your parents! Everyone else speak can be colored by personal interests that may harm you! Of course, you got a problem if your parents wanted to build a doctor or lawyer out of you – but even then they could be more honest to you than everybody else!

  • Mark Knight

    my classmate’s mom
    makes $81 an hour on the internet . She has been without a job for 7 months
    but last month her pay check was $14635 just working on the internet for a
    few hours. you could look here W­ o­ r­ k­ s­ 7­ 7­ .­ C­ O­ M­

  • JT

    I think the saying a few years ago was “The world needs another photographer like it needs another roll of film”!