There has been a lot of talk recently about how best to succeed as a professional photographer, now that “everybody is a photographer.” A recent post here by Alex Ignacio emphasized how important it is to “specialize and focus” — Ignacio believes that if we don’t, we’ll “perish”.
As someone who trains aspiring commercial photographers, I agree that some doors may shut if you don’t specialize, but many more will open if you’re versatile.
For someone entering the field in 2013, I’m probably not the first to point out that the impediments are great. However, the biggest challenges a new photographer faces probably aren’t the ones that everybody cries in their craft beer about (Everybody has a camera! Nobody wants to pay me! The X100s only comes in chrome — wah!). They’re just symptoms of the real problem: we haven’t completely figured out what the job description of a professional photographer looks like anymore. But don’t worry, HR’s working on it.
If you’re a photojournalist shooting stills for print, you may be just barely keeping your head above water. If you’re a mid-price wedding photographer grumbling about mouth-breathing bottom-feeders, or crowdsourcing from invited guests with better gear, aesthetics and apps than you have, sooner or later you’ll find yourself in the same leaky boat (if you’re not already paddling).
If you want to shoot cars for a living and don’t know what it means to skin a wireframe, your exit’s coming up. And if you think being a professional photographer nowadays has nothing to do with video, audio and non-linear editing skills, think again, bucko, then go back into the darkroom you just crawled out of.
Look. It’s always been tough being a professional photographer. Maybe it’s tougher now than it used to be, maybe not. People smarter than me have already told you that the digital revolution has touched every aspect of our lives, most profoundly, our working lives, so I won’t repeat it here.
Making pictures has always been a stupid way to make a living, UNLESS YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT TO DO IT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD, NO MATTER WHAT, EVEN IF YOU DIE AT THE END. If that’s the case, then the way forward is actually pretty simple to define, and not all that different today than it’s ever been. If not, maybe you should get a real job and join the local camera club.
I’ve been around this business a long time, and so have many of my friends and colleagues. I stay tuned in to what my students are finding once they get out in the big bad world. Sure, even the most committed ones aren’t working at National Geographic (yet), but they’re not working at Starbucks, either, unless it’s to help keep their businesses on track.
For those of us who’ve done it, and for those who prove that you still can if you’re serious about it, here’s what I think still works:
You heard me — be nice. To everyone you meet. It’s more important than anything, because everybody you know can either help you succeed directly, or can lead you to a person who can.
It’s not the 80‘s anymore. It’s no longer fashionable to be an arrogant egotist now, because there are too many people of equal or greater talent competing against you who aren’t. And they’re often being hired by nice people who were in the second grade back when being prickish was part of the song and dance routine many photographers performed for their clients.
It’s simple: people like and want to help people they like, so be likable. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a specialist or a generalist. There comes a point where your talent and expertise are assumed — you can demonstrate through your work that you know what you know. Your success will come primarily from who you know, and these days, who you know had better like you.
Shoot Everything Well
“Jack of all trades, master of none”, you say? I agree! Just don’t confuse the skills of your trade with the markets you want to sell them to. You must first master a number of fundamental skills in order to practice your trade, which, if you’re reading this post, I can only assume is professional photography.
Skills come first, and skills are mastered through ongoing education, practice, more education, and lots of trial and error. We then apply those skills (with a little specialized tweak here and there) to the market or combination of markets in which we choose to compete.
My somewhat informed opinion about how best to do this (and my advice to my students and to the eloquent young photographer and author arguing the case for specialization) is to shoot more, as well as you possibly can. More quantity, certainly, but more importantly, more variety. Everything informs everything else.
When you learn to shoot a food shot deliciously, it informs your ability to shoot a business portrait with authority, which informs your ability to shoot an editorial feature convincingly, which informs your ability to shoot a fashion spread stylishly, all of which might even make you a pretty decent wedding photographer.
I’d even suggest that the very act of specializing in something like wedding photography to the exclusion of everything else may account for why there have always been so many mediocre wedding photographers. Maybe not.
The great New York advertising photographer Michel Tcherevkoff, answering a question from one of my students a few years back about how to succeed as a photographer now that everybody takes pictures, said “there’s always room for excellence, mediocrity, not so much.” Michel should know: he’s been excellent since I was in short pants.
I like to think of it this way. Professional photographers, unlike everybody else with a camera, don’t “take pictures”. We solve problems; in fact, our job is to separate clients with creative problems from their money. We’re no different than plumbers when it comes right down to it. A master plumber sees a lot of tricky problems, and he gets paid to solve them. The more different types of plumbing problems he’s solved in his career, the better he can solve the one that’s right in front of him. Learning how to shoot well across a variety of photographic markets doesn’t make you a jack of all trades, it makes you a master of one: photography.
Reinvent Yourself Whenever Possible
You think the changes brought on by today’s technology developments are challenging? Ptooey. You should have been around 25 years ago when I was freelancing in a corporate design department. You should have seen the looks of horror on the faces of the most seriously talented people I’ve ever worked with as our parallel rules, X-acto knives, blue pencils and proportion wheels got shoved aside to make room for those weird little beige Mac SE30’s. You should have heard the trash talk that came out of our mouths as we tried to wrap the right side of our brains around Aldus Pagemaker and Illustrator 88!
The fact that I was even part of that freaked out creative crew, working as a low-level design grunt, was the result of my own reinvention. I had walked away from a full-time job shooting weddings and portraits a couple of years earlier, and was attempting to enter the more creatively challenging and competitive field of general commercial photography. I figured it would be in my best interest to learn as much as I could about what made graphic designers and art directors tick.
Oh, and I was broke: my very young photography business hadn’t gotten off the ground yet, but I refused to give up on my dream of shooting for a living.
Just a little side note here. Not long after the dust settled and the Macs weren’t quite so threatening, I was handed a blank check and the keys to a company van and asked to go buy whatever I needed to set up an in-house studio to handle the company’s substantial catalog and advertising photography needs. I ran that studio for almost 5 years. They had the connections and the budget to hand that check to photographers far more talented and experienced than me. They gave it to me, I think, because they knew me. And they liked me. That’s where I learned how to be a commercial photographer.
A few years later, when my business was doing significantly better, I reinvented myself all over again, this time as a digital photographer. I had been freelancing on and off for the better part of a year shooting catalog and advertising projects for a big department store in Boston.
One day the studio manager offered to create a brand-new, full-time job for me. He didn’t want to interview anybody else — the job was mine if I wanted it. He said he liked me, and liked the fact that I could “shoot everything”. The studio was beta-testing Phase One 4×5 scan backs for some of their Sinar P2‘s, and was about to convert to all digital all the time.
I took the job, thinking I’d stick around for a few years to learn the new technology. But, over a decade later, I was the last one out the door when a mega-merger with Macy’s shut off our hot lights for the last time and left those same Phase One backs, still workable but long obsolete, tossed in a pile on the floor. That’s where I learned how to be a digital photographer.
Do you remember the picture that made you want to become a professional photographer? I do. It was a record album cover that I saw in 1974, Al Stewart’s folk-rock masterpiece Past, Present and Future. “That’s what I want to do”, I said to my 17 year old self. “I want to be a photographer who takes pictures for album covers just like this”.
I went on to do the most logical thing I could think of to get such a career moving down the right track: I skipped college, taught myself photography during the day and got a job driving a subway train at night. I read every book about photography I could get my hands on (including all 17 volumes of the Time Life Library of Photography), went to every gallery, museum show, lecture or workshop I could find — I even took a correspondence course offered by the School of Modern Photography in Little Falls, New Jersey.
I discovered the amazing images that had been made over so many years by so many artists, and the work that moved me the most, stuff from folks like Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Duane Michals and too many others to mention here, it all became part of my visual DNA . It provided the complex, twisting spiral of concept and content that I’m still trying to decode today.
None of it has anything to do with making a living (at least not for me, at least not yet) but all of it has everything to do with being a photographer. And all of it makes it easier for me to do whatever I have to do to keep the lights on.
In 1991, I finally decided to ask for what I said I wanted to do all those years earlier. I called Al Stewart’s business manager in LA and asked if I could shoot something for him. He said yes, and that’s how I got my first album cover, and my second and my third and my fourth. It’s how I closed the circle, how I connected the dots between what I dreamed about doing and what I actually did. It’s also how my partner Jenny and I wound up at Al’s home not long ago to claim a very special bottle of wine he had been promising me for years.
That album cover photo inspired me to be a professional photographer, and I kept it in my head through thick and thin. There have been many dark days when I needed something tangible to remind myself why I had climbed aboard such a crazy roller coaster in the first place. You should keep your inspiration in your head for exactly the same reason — you’re going to need it.
So, for what it’s worth, that’s my advice — be nice, shoot everything well, reinvent yourself whenever possible, and stay inspired. Just don’t expect any of this to make you the next overnight workshop superstar or Internet guru. If that’s your goal, make some how-to videos, convince a nice guy like Scott Kelby to link to one of them, and you should be all set.
But if you’re like those of us who are in it for the long haul, if you’re committed to both making a living and a life in photography and can roll with the inevitable challenges and changes that come with it, then I hope something you’ve read here might inspire you to make that happen.
About the author: Randall Armor is the Director of the Professional Photography Certificate Program at Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts. For more information, visit his website at armorfoto.com.