These days a lot of people seem to be offering advice in the area of becoming a full time professional photographer. Some of those folks, like Greg Heisler, Jay Meisel, Gail Mooney and others, have long careers and great inspirational advice for those who are beginning the journey.
Others, whose names I won’t mention, and hosts of FB, G+, and Flickr shooters want you to know that the life sucks, the cameras suck, the business sucks, and the whole idea of being a professional photographer is a total pile of crap – and it sucks, of course.
Count me among those in the first group, with some cautious understanding of where those in the negative group are coming from.
Let’s Face Some Cold Facts…
Being self-employed is not for everyone. The challenges of self discipline, fear of the unknown, difficult self motivation and a desire to not eat macaroni and cheese for every meal for a year is daunting to a lot of people. And it doesn’t make any difference if the self employed person is going into graphic design, plumbing or photography.
Being a professional photographer is not for everyone either. On top of the challenges of self employment, there is also a huge disconnect between what people think that world consists of and the actual world of pro photography itself. Huge.
Let me be perfectly clear here; I am not referring to wedding, maternity, ‘senior’ and family portrait photography. That is not a world I am expert in, nor do I really care all that much about. While it is most certainly similar in a few areas, the differences are vastly so in the aesthetic and the end use of the images.
I am only commenting on commercial photography and its many adjunct genres: architectural, editorial, food, fashion, product and travel. This is photography used for commerce – both directly and indirectly. Think of it as B2B photography, not B2C.
In smaller markets shooting some consumer work may be a necessity for a commercial photographer, and some photographers love both sides of the business, so that is cool too! Freedom of choice works for me.
I have had the honor of working with a lot of emerging photographers and watched them grow from full time other job folks to full time photographer folks.
In over 40 years of professionalismI have seen amazing success stories, and I have known some spectacular crash and burn scenarios as well. In most cases, the causes and reasons were the same for both. I have spoken with photographers who were crashing and instantly known why — some things are obvious. And the reasons are very much the same for most who are failing.
I would like to address some of these more obvious challenges and offer some solutions. Hold on… this may sting a bit.
To those of you who are struggling making the jump, here is some free, unsolicited advice:
Perhaps it is not the market, maybe you just suck.
C’mon… that could be it, right? I mean, other people are working and some are working their asses off. And you aren’t, and you don’t know why. Maybe you haven’t spent enough time making images, or building a book, or building a list or building a godd*mn business! (It is important to understand that every photographer once sucked. Every damned one of them. The successful ones figure out how to not suck.)
No one who has ever picked up a camera was guaranteed to be a phenomenal photographer with clients dripping gold infusions into their wallets with every snap. Most of the ones we see shooting the really cool stuff, the assignments we all want to get busted their asses to get there. They found ways to not suck.
To get over the suckiness that may be holding you back, let’s look at a few glaring challenges (traits) that those who are struggling usually exhibit.
#1: You suck at shooting enough pictures to make a difference.
Getting a camera for Christmas and business cards for Easter may be a quick jump into the abyss of thinking it is the market failed you when actually you still suck. Make sure you are ready, and are able to make images that are amazing before you put yourself out there. This is very important.
#2: Your photographs suck.
The images that you think are ‘good enough’ actually still suck. If you are measuring your work against others, make sure you pick high enough up the ol’ totem pole to make that comparison worth it. Being ‘better’ than the 1 ½ year shooter down the road may not be enough to make a difference to the people in your town and make them want to hire you. Only excellence moves on.
#3: Your marketing sucks.
Recently I read a painful article from someone who was honestly hurting and was chastising all the other photographers he/she saw as crushing him/her with lowball pricing. Problem was, the author’s website totally sucked, there was no marketing message, the logo/presentation was amateurish and silly and the images were – well – meh. Not bad, not great… just… images.
#4: Your presentation sucks.
Does your Website look like it was made in 1995 with a quick refresh in late 2000? You may have a problem convincing anyone that you are worth hiring. This is a competitive, creative world where PRESENTATION is an absolutely huge part of the equation. If you don’t know what good design is, why would I trust you to do good photography? They are hand in hand.
#5: Your list sucks.
Your list… you do have a list, right? Right? If you do not have a list of people who could hire you, you are not really in business, you are playing like being in business. And that can be very painful. Of course playing at it is fun, but when reality catches up please don’t write a whining “I was crushed by the $200 Craigslist Shooters” post. It is embarrassing, it really is.
#6: Your client outreach sucks.
No one knows you exist. I want you to reach out and touch a prospective client three times a day… that’s it. Just three times. If you do that, you will find success will follow (unless your work really does suck) and if you do more, it will come faster. MOST photographers do not market themselves to a targeted list. Waiting for the phone to ring from people who don’t even know you friggin’ exist is a fools game, ya know.
#7: Your portfolio sucks.
You know, the portfolio that hasn’t seen a new image in 4 months or longer, has no current work in it, and totally misrepresents your new style and vision. The portfolio that has no personal work, tired old client crap and some nekkid chicks in the ‘aurt’ section will sink any photographer… fast. Get serious and get to work on the port.
#8: Your brand sucks.
Not your logo, the one that you got from Fiverr… that totally rocks next to the fact that you have no personal look, never return phone calls, have no coherent message, no visual style and are late with every shoot. Seriously – next to that disaster, the $5 logo has it really going on, man.
#9: Your gear sucks.
No, wait… I am not talking about the gear itself, I am talking about the way you hold it up as a substitute for the work. Owning a fancy camera with all the bells and whistles only requires a good credit score, not a quality image score. Using all your money to acquire the newest pixel machine may make you a hit on G+, but it will do nothing but suck your assets from doing something important to help your business. Gear Acquisiton Syndrome will suck the viability out of any emerging shooter.
#10: You suck.
You are the type of person who sees everyone else as a threat or a competitor. You work against yourself in order to feel more powerful when comparing yourself to others… which you do at every opportunity. You treat other photographers and beginners as something less than human and have nothing but disdain for their wanting to be a photographer… like you. And instead of addressing the challenges of the business, you choose instead to ridicule the successful, and demonize the competition.
So here is a thought… do it this way and skip the sucking part:
Shoot photographs as often as you can, and get those images critiqued by people IN the business, not buddies or Flickr followers. Find art directors, graphic designers, other photographers (who aren’t total douchebags) to give you honest direction on that work.
Work to make sure your marketing is up to the level it needs to be. If you do not know, get some other eyes on it. Knowing eyes. Being a great photographer does not automatically make you a great marketer.
Or designer. Your presentation must be professional, clean and perfect. Websites do not have to be expensive to work beautifully, but they do have to have a sense of style.
Get a list. Put one together yourself from magazines, local business papers, contacts and referrals. Then use that list and start to market to them with email, direct mail, and personal phone calls. Don’t like personal phone calls? Who cares… suck it up and do it. Reach out personally to at least three of your contacts per day with either a phone call, email or some other marketing piece.
Make sure your portfolio is kept up. New photographs (see one above), personal projects, BTS shots and more can help you stay fresh in the eyes of art directors, photo editors and art buyers.
Make sure your brand is doing its job, and remember that there is no more powerful reminder of your brand than you, in all you do in your business, and how you present your work, and yourself to the world.
Spend the least amount that you can on gear that sits around waiting to be used. Shoot more, acquire less. Use your assets for creating stunning work, in awesome locations, and add cool new shots to your book instead of a new lens to the bag. (There may be a time when your accountant says, “Hey, you gotta spend some money this quarter….” That is when you grab that lens. If you actually, you know, NEED it.)
And above all, don’t suck. Be a mentor, be a friend, be a helpful person to those who are starting out just as you are. Be positive in your speaking and dealing with others and never give in to despair, and negativity although it may be difficult when you are having another macaroni and cheese dinner.
Success is not an overnight roadtrip, and failing to understand that journey and its ups and downs, forks in the road and challenges can be the greatest obstacle in front of you.
Know that it is an obstacle that can be overcome by hard work, careful attention to detail, knowing what you don’t know, and keeping the gaze forward will help deliver you to the ranks of professional photography. And, believe me, it is still a blast and a thrill to be shooting gigs for a living… no matter what anyone else tells you.
Oh, and try a little Tabasco on that macaroni and cheese. The additional spice breaks the monotony… trust me, I know.
My name is Don Giannatti and I have, on many occasions, sucked at photography. I overcame those times when I sucked, and had periods where I didn’t suck. I have had a 40 year career in this business that has been punctuated by thrilling highs and devastating lows. The challenge is to get back up after being knocked down, understanding that in order to be knocked that far down you must have sucked at something. And then you fix it. Don’t whine about it, or the competition, or the market, or the economy, just fix the damn thing and stop sucking.
About the author: Don Giannatti is a photographer and author based in Phoenix, Arizona. He runs the Project 52 Pros workshop for aspiring commercial and editorial photographers. You can visit his website here and his online portfolio here. This article originally appeared here.
Image credits: Photograph of Don Giannatti by Mike Eller