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The Snowball Effect: Transitioning from a Hobbyist to a Full Time Photographer

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I started getting into photography when I was in my mid-to-late teens. I bought a 35mm Minolta XG7 at a local yard sale during my freshman year, and around the same time I took a 3 week summer darkroom course at a local community college. I got really in to it, but when I finally finished high school I went straight into the workforce. I jumped around various manual labor and retail jobs until I was 21. This is when I got married, and shortly thereafter I began considering the distant possibility of making a career out of my hobby.

It was a long shot, especially without any formal training, but I figured all I would need initially was a domain name, a host, and a website. Zero risk. So I did just that. I spent barely any money and uploaded my favorite photos online (I’ve never really used Flickr or Deviant Art all that much but I’m sure those are fine too).

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After work, late into the night, and on weekends; All my free time was spent emailing people my new portfolio (get used to the long unpaid hours of self promotion). I would scour photography blogs for art directors names, lists of agents, newspaper and magazine editors, you name it. I’d write very short, succinct, fairly formal, and personalised messages that included a link to my site and my contact details.

I received a lot of rejections, some criticism (always be willing to hear them out), and even some positive responses! Not every positive response materializes into paid work, but the encouragement you get from professional compliments is often enough to keep you motivated through the slow times.

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One day after work I got a phone call from photographer/agent Bill Cramer (he probably doesn’t even remember doing it). He had seen one of my emails, looked at my site, and saw potential. He encouraged me to further develop certain aspects of my style, and advised me to cut down the size of my portfolio significantly. When I got off the phone I was buzzing. I pretty much culled through my site then and there. I reworked it into five or so ‘look books’.

I think this is one of the most important lessons to learn as a photographer – how to objectively edit and curate your own work. Reveal just enough to explain your perspective and then leave them wanting more. The expression “leave something to the imagination” is quite applicable within this process. Don’t show every photo. Don’t even show every great photo.

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Anyway, I did another few rounds of emails in the following months, and lo and behold I got a call from the photo desk at the local newspaper. They said they liked my work and wanted me to ‘try out’ a few freelance assignments. It would pay $60-$80 per assignment. At this point I was still working full time at a shop 45 miles from home.

I’d also agreed to shoot my sister’s wedding in exchange for a nice DSLR (as you would). So my wife and I talked about the offer, the financial implications, and decided it was a now-or-never type situation. So I quit my day job and said yes to the newspaper. It was a major risk, but in order to transition from hobbyist to professional, risk-taking is required.

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The freelance newspaper work was, as I found out, far from glamorous. The bulk of it was parades and stump speeches and club nights and school sports. But it was weekly work and easy enough — plus, I liked seeing my name in those bylines.

Essentially, the newspaper legitimized me as a photographer and gave me a great reference to put on my tiny client list. And the fact that it was bread and butter work made it that much better. Paying the bills affords you the privilege to continue doing something you love, and that’s nothing to turn your nose up to.

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After my sister’s wedding, I worked on the photos really hard as I knew these would be an effective sales tool. Once I completed her photos I was almost immediately approached by a few of the guests who needed their weddings shot.

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Not only that, but a few of the wedding shows I attended yielded bookings as well. By no means did I enjoy shooting weddings, but weddings fed the coffers. My plan was always to stop shooting them one day, so I was vigilant in keeping that side of my photography completely separate from my personal work, so much so that I maintained two separate websites. On one hand I had a wedding and portrait website under a studio name, and on the other I had a personal website under my actual name.

There are a number of reasons why you should do this, but the best reason is that wedding clients and art directors alike don’t want to know (or have to know) anything about your photographic alter egos. Having to sift through unrelated work throws them off. Make sure they can easily see what they want to see and that’s it.

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I did the newspaper and wedding work for maybe two years, and by the end I was getting very proficient at taking and delivering good photos on tight deadlines. This is an essential skills for any career photographer (of any ilk), so it’s totally worth cutting your teeth on that type of work if you can find it.

The problem was that I was still broke, and we were expecting a baby. My wife had to stop working, and this meant my relatively unreliable freelance career was going to become our sole source of income. To make matters worse, we were unable to afford health insurance!

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All of this, as well as a number of other things lead us to pack up and move 3000 miles to my wife’s country of origin, England. We arrived penniless and jobless, having left all the hard earned contacts and clients back in North America. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise though as I was forced to find new work and new contacts.

I started by building a new website. I emailed every art director and business and graphic designer within a 100 mile radius. I arranged for pints with perfect strangers in order to get some face time with working professionals (and met quite a few friends in the process).

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Shortly thereafter a few small jobs started to trickle in; a carpet company needed ads for trade magazines and billboards, a few local bands needed press photos. It wasn’t long until I landed my first big job in the UK; regular design agency work that paid a legitimate day rate plus expenses. The added benefit was that I could immediately use this work to contact more design agencies and honestly say “I’m experienced”.

Don’t be sheepish about beefing up your client list and portfolio regularly either, and never shy away from telling people who you’re doing work for. Don’t brag a lot, but do brag a little. Self promotion in moderation never hurt anybody.

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Suddenly I was getting inquiries through recommendations and reputation. I started shooting fashion look books for a company called Forty Ounce Clothing, and this subsequently got me meetings with record labels down in London. I started shooting press kits for XL and Because Music. My photos started getting published in music mags like NME and Clash and Drowned in Sound. (Take screen grabs, otherwise you’ll forget! And credit yourself on your site, because magazines rarely do.)

I also got better and more confident at bidding for jobs, which in and of itself is a tough skill to master. Never underprice yourself unless its your first job in a photography sector and you need to get your foot in the door. After that, try to charge more. Sure, it’s a competitive marketplace, but don’t undersell yourself either. If you’re good, people will pay.

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Judge every job individually and price accordingly, you can always lower your rate if the initial quote scares them off (and you’re willing to do it for less). And just to note, photography does not bring in countless riches. I am by no means wealthy, I’m simply paying my bills and ticking by like everybody else. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable and creatively satisfying way to make ends meet.

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Long story short, stuff starts to snowball once you get the first few commercial jobs. The best advice I can give is to ignore the countless rejections, be your own harshest editor, best promoter, and constantly look to challenge yourself technically and artistically. Also, keep your website simple (i.e. don’t put everything on there). If you want to have a look, here’s my website.


About the author: David Drake is a professional photographer, director, and artist based in Norwich, Norfolk, UK. Visit his website here.