Starting a professional photography business is a dream that many creative people have, but the reality is not as easy as it looks. Working with top fashion models, glamorous movie stars and famous celebrities looks exciting and easy. All you have to do is push the shutter button, right?
No, there is a little more to it than that. Competition for a staff photography position is fierce, and starting your own business requires marketing, business and networking abilities as well as creative and technical skills. So what steps can you take to make this career your own?
If you work for yourself, no degree is required, but you will still need lots of skills. If you work for a company, a two or four year degree from a college or accredited art school will put you ahead of the crowd. If you are in a photography school or program, there are several things that you will want to know in order to succeed. Study marketing, website design, business, accounting and social media if you want to have your business in front of enough customers to get noticed. Otherwise you could be a great photographer who is flipping hamburgers because nobody has seen your work.
You can teach yourself about the technical aspects of lighting subjects and editing pictures by reading books, magazine articles and websites about photography, or attending seminars held by working photographers. You can practice what you have studied by getting some lights and reflectors to practice with, and shooting still life arrangements, interiors or friends and family members.
Many photography studios have openings for interns, divided almost equally between paid and unpaid positions. Many photography schools require an internship in a working studio, and paid positions usually require a student that is nearing the end of their education. Unpaid positions are easier to find, but photographers tend to not trust unpaid interns until they have proven a willingness be reliable and to show up on time.
Working with a busy photographer is an excellent way to learn the photography business. Be aware that photographers specialize in various subjects, and if you want to learn product photography don’t expect to get that from a wedding and portrait photographer. However, photographers in smaller towns tend to be generalists, and in major markets like Los Angeles and New York they tend to specialize in narrow area, such as fashion or corporate.
No one is going to believe in you if you don’t, and no one is going to invest their money in your photography if you don’t invest time and money into creating great portfolio pieces. For every category you want to offer, you will need 10-15 AMAZING samples in your portfolio. For example, if you want to shoot fashion, you will want to work with an excellent hair stylist, a makeup artist, and a clothing stylist, or you will have to do those functions at a professional level yourself. Many student and startup photographers work with models and makeup artist who want to “test”, and are willing to shoot for free in exchange for pictures for their own portfolios. Food photographers will want to create portfolio images with experienced food stylists, and product photographers will benefit from prop stylists. People with these skills cannot be found in abundance in small towns, so you may have to work in a major market to create these portfolio images effectively.
Website / Online Portfolio
Your photography website is how most people will discover how wonderful you are. Make it a good one. Websites that have slide shows and moving images are often built with Adobe Flash, which is like a brick wall for search engines. You will want a website created with HTML, and perhaps with a plug-in or widget that displays your portfolio pictures in a smooth and elegant fashion. WordPress websites are gaining popularity, and there are a number of WordPress themes that include photo galleries. Adobe DreamWeaver has photo gallery “widgets” that are easier for search engines to read than Flash based websites.
Competing with other photographers to be on the first page of major search engines is a constant battle. You will need to spend several hours every week promoting your website. In a search engine, type in keywords such as “photographer’s directories, business directories, photographer’s listing, city business directories, etc. Some of these directories are free, many require a payment. You will want to list your website with as many directories as you can, as the more links you have to your website, the higher your website will rank.
If you want to get immediate traffic to your website, you will want to explore “Pay-Per-Click” programs with major search engines such as Bing, Yahoo and Google. Facebook and other social media also have pay-per-click programs. In a major market such as New York or Los Angeles, a photographer might pay as much as $5-10 for a single person clicking on a link for keywords like Annual Report Photographer or Fashion Catalog Photographer. However, an annual report photo shoot could pay $6,000 or more, and it is unusual for a client to consider more than three to six photographers for any one job, so the return on the investment for pay-per-click advertising can be very high if done correctly.
Do What You Love
If you shoot a subject that you really enjoy, your love will show in your images. I love nature, particularly flowers and waterfalls. When I was first developing my skills as a young photographer, I would spend weekends at a huge resort and garden in Georgia. I learned to use a macro lens, reflectors and hand held strobes to capture the details of flowers like azaleas and rhododendrons. I loved the subtle colors and delicate stamens, and I could see every piece of pollen on the stamen tips in my close-up shots. I showed my flower portfolio to the marketing director of the gardens, and she hired me to shoot the images for one of their nature trails. They paid me $400 for sticking my nose in flowers for half a day, and when I brought my friends to the gardens, I showed them my images on the trail signs. I felt like the king of the world, because someone had appreciated my eye for beauty enough to pay me for it.
Many male photographers want to shoot fashion so they can be around hot chicks all day. Why do you think fashion photography is so competitive? This is not a new thing; I am sure that many of the artists that did paintings of nude women during the last thousand years felt the same way. I love to eat, and have developed skill for food photography that has been used on frozen food packaging, restaurant menus, catering brochures, the sides of trucks, outdoor billboards and on flat screen displays in fast food restaurants. Specialize in a subject that you love to photograph, and you will be happier for it.
Locate in a market with a need for your strengths
If you are shooting weddings and family portraits, your research can focus on cities with a low ratio of photographer compared to the population. You can work in almost any state, as people get married everywhere. However, if you want to be at the top of your game, Hawaii is the wedding capitol of the US. Fashion photography requires top models, hair and makeup artist, and clothing stylists. Much of this work is in south Florida, Southern California and New York. Food Photography is done mostly in major markets, such as Chicago, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, as that’s where the food stylists and the advertising agencies hiring food photographers are located. Architectural photography can be done successfully in any city with a population of over 2 million. Where do you want to live, and what kind of weather and lifestyle will you need to be happy? If your photography is mostly outdoors, will there be enough sunny days to work more than 50% of the time?
You will need own at least some of your photography gear, but in larger cities you can rent what you need for a special shoot. See my blog article on buying lights and equipping a home studio from several years ago. I recommend a digital camera body with a minimum of 12 megapixels, more is better. You will want at least 3 lenses, and an on-camera flash. Buy the best quality you can afford, and then stick with it. Most professionals use Canon or Nikon cameras for the bulk of their work.
I started my second photography business with only one strobe and a camera that had a sticky shutter. I landed a cookbook project, got a $5,000 deposit, and used the money to buy a second mono light strobe and a digital camera body. I really needed a third strobe, but I learned to use reflectors where the third light should be, and didn’t buy a third strobe until half-way through the project when I got a second deposit. Many of my shots for the cookbook used available light coming through skylights in the restaurant ceiling, which I picked up and reflected back into the shadows with 3 or 4 silver or white reflectors.
When I have a large shoot that requires more gear than I own, I rent from camera stores or photography rental places. Most rental stores will require that you have insurance to cover their gear, or will require a deposit in the full amount of the cost of the equipment. The insurance is cheaper. I carry 2 million in liability insurance, as well as full coverage on my own equipment, and $40,000 in rental equipment insurance. That way, if I need to rent a high end medium format camera, several lenses and a light or two, I have it covered.
The future of professional photography
With digital cameras on every cell phone, and free photo editing software on the web, many people that used to use professional photography are now doing it themselves. However, people are still willing to pay for photography for important events or for selling services or products. Very few people will trust their wedding photos to the best man using his iPhone. Few marketing directors of fast food chains will try to shoot the company’s hamburgers themselves.
Newspapers are losing popularity rapidly, and many magazines sell more advertising online then in the printed magazine. However the web has created a huge demand for images and video that will only increase. Stock photography for web use is on the rise, so investigate making money in stock stills or video. I see more still photographers shooting video now that many still cameras can shoot HD footage, and many of them bundle stills and video together as a package. Video is becoming more popular on the web as a selling tool, and most companies want a video on their website as well as stills. However, many still photographers forget that half of a good video is the sound, and they fail to provide quality microphones and sound mixing with their footage.
Invest in Yourself
If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? If you are considering a career, or have already started one in photography, invest in your training, skills and equipment, as well as time in promoting your business. Never stop learning. Read photography books and articles. Go to meetings with other professional photographers in groups like ASMP, PPA or APA. This field changes constantly, and if you don’t keep up you will fall behind.
The most important thing to understand about photography is light. Learn to love it, embrace it, and marvel in its beauty. Photography is writing and painting with light. Light has direction, color, softness or hardness, and you must learn to control and redirect the light to illuminate your subject so that it can be seen and fully appreciated. If you become a master of controlling light, you will be a master photographer.
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