Professional photography as a Career

How to become a Professional Photographer

I can't tell you how many e-mails I've received from young wanna-be professional photographers asking me "What's the best way to become a professional photographer"? So... I've decided to take the time to write down my suggestions on persuing a career in professional commercial photography. I'm assuming that the person in question is around 18 years old with no dependents, and is deciding his or her career path.

Step #1: Education needed to become a professional Photographer

I would suggest that you get a four-year education at a school like R.I.T. with a major in some aspect of photography. I'm not saying that you "must" get a four year education. I'm saying that I would suggest it. I have a two year degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. There are four main reasons why I suggest getting a four year degree.

1. You'll learn a whole bunch about the technical aspect of professional photography.

If you're lucky, you'll learn about the zone system and basics of how light and chemistry effect film. You can get this information by reading on your own, but there's something to be said for becoming emersed in a subject along with a bunch of your peers.

Photography Education and Photography Schools

If you can't swing the tuition of a four year photography school, there are a few two year programs of some value around the country. And if you can't afford any school, fear not! In my opinion, Photography is something between a craft and an art. You need control over the technical aspect of your medium, but you can learn "on the job" if you have to.

2. You'll become a more well-rounded business person to be a good professional photographer. There's a whole lot more to the photography business than taking pictures, and it will greatly enhance your career if you know and use proper English. (You can probably tell that I only went to a two year school.) If you do go to school, make sure that you take every class you can on marketing and sales. These two subjects will prove more valuable to you than many of your professional photography classes. Another subject that you should beef up on is "Art History" I know, it sounds dull, but it's amazing what you can learn about light from the master painters of yester year.

3. You'll meet life long friends that share a common interest. Two of my best friends today are people that I met in school. The whole social aspect of going to school should not be overlooked. Besides friends, it's amazing how many future clients I met in school.

4. You'll find that sooner or later , depending on your peer group, the subject of "and where'd you go to school?" comes up. "AHHHH... I went to AIP". "Where the #### is AIP?" It's a status thing. It may not be important to you now, but some day it may. Frankly, it's probably the biggest reason that I'd go to a four year school if I had to do it over again.

Step # 2: Become a slave. What? Are you crazy? I just spent thousands of dollars and two to four years getting a degree, and you want me to work for free? If you're smart you will. Here's why. At this point in your career, you don't know Jack Shit. And not only that, you don't know that you don't know Jack! This is THE most important step in this whole process. Become a slave. The thing you have to be careful with, though, is in choosing your master. Here's the thing. You graduate art school, get back from Florida, and now it's time to get a job! You run out and knock on every photo studio door you can get your little grubby hands on. If the photographer isn't too busy, he'll be kind enough to look at your portfolio (he couldn't give a crap what your book looks like) , he'll say "pretty nice stuff" and send you along your way. The chances of you getting a job as an assistant photographer are very very very slim. I'm not saying that it's impossible, but almost. You see...most photographers in today's market hire "Freelance Assistants".

The are hired on a per-day basis. The reason they do this is so that when they aren't working, they don't have to pay them. The number of full time assistants in the Pittsburgh market can be measured on one hand. Sure, they'd love to have someone around all the time, even when they're slow for marketing and maintenance purposes, but they just can't afford it. That's where you come in.

A: How do you justify becoming a slave (to a really good professional photographer)? The income possibilities in this business are REALLY good. Trust me on this one. Which people make more money on average, people that only graduate high school, or people with a Masters Degree? Do you think that people with Masters Degrees make up the cost of the education? I would think for the most part that they do. The really great thing about slavery is that you get a great education but you don't have to pay anyone for it! I suggest that you become a slave for two years (about the same time as a graduate degree would take). Those two years of slavery will be the most valuable years of education in your career. If you must, cut two years off of your school, but don't give up your slavery! This is basically a FREE Masters Degree in Photography! Not only do you not have to pay a school, but the Photographer will probably start feeling guilty and start paying you! You might say "why not just become a freelance assistant right out of school?" Well... If your lucky enough to get a job, what are the chances that it will be with the best shooter in your city (or the world)? But, if you approach your dream photographer and say that you'd love to work for him, mop his floor, run errands, anything he needs, and you don't even want paid! Who in their right mind would turn down motivated, obviously ambitious , free assistant? I couldn't! The result is a win - win for both of you. He gets free assisting and you get a free Masters of Commercial Photography Degree from the professor of your choice.

B: How do you choose a master (photographer)? First you have to choose a area of photographic interest. Get the phone book and look up photography - commercial. Pick any ten names at random avoiding any names that seem too cute. Call the photographers and ask them if they could help you with a couple of questions. (most people love to help other people - if it's not too much of a pain in the butt). 1. Who's the best "insert photography subject here, lets say food" photographer in the city? Make a list. 2. Which are the best Art Directors and Designers in the city? The next step is to call the Art Directors and Designers and ask them if they could help. Ask them who the Best food photographer in the city.Be really nice to these Art Directors and Designers, they will be your clients some day.
After this one hour exercise you should have a good feel for who the best food photographers are in your city. The top three people on you list should be your future masters. That's right, masters. Why have just one teacher, when your can learn the techniques and secrets of three people? Why just three? You'll need to stick around long enough to learn his secrets. He may not use a particularly cool technique over a short period of time, but in an eight month stretch, you'll probably get to see most of his "good stuff." Start your slaveship with the least of the three masters. That way when you move on to the very best guy, you'll have a greater understanding of what the heck's going on, and you'll be able to absorb more from the better photographer. A word of warning. If it were me, I wouldn't go telling anyone my career plan here. I don't lie, or at least I try my hardest not to (my pet peeve) but I'd try my hardest not to bring up the subject and let the cat out of the bag. Some photographers are a little insecure. Sure, they know that you someday want to become a photographer, but they don't expect you to run off and become an assistant to one of their biggest competitors.

How do you pay for being a slave? Any legal way you can. Live with your folks, mow lawns, flip burgers! Since this Master's Degree isn't at a school you won't be able to get financial aid for your living expenses. What ever it takes, that's what you need to do.

Just keep reminding yourself about how the master's degree pays off in the end and that you're getting it all for free! Like I mentioned earlier, after a while, your Master will probably feel a little guilty and will probably start paying you something. Then, after you become more valuable, he'll most likely start paying you the going freelance assistant rate. ....probably. Even if he doesn't pay you anything, always remember he is educating you for FREE. He's giving to you something that others pay thousands and thousands of dollars for. Just be a happy little assistant and when things get tough, smile to yourself and think of all the money you're saving!

How to be a good Assistant

Why is it professional photographers hire assistants? The answer is simple. Two people can get more done than one person. If you're only adding 7% to the bottom line of the project and you can get 40% more work accomplished in the same amount of time, It makes a whole lot of sense...or should I say cents. Not only that, photographers hire assistants to do the things they really don't want to do. The trash has to be taken out. The Dishes have to be washed. The phone has to be answered. Lunch must be ordered. In other words, the professional photographer hires an assistant so he can do all the fun stuff and so he doesn't have to do all the "less pleasant things." That's where you come in! On your very first day at work, ask your master what he expects of you. He won't trust you with a whole lot at first, but as time goes by and you gain more and more of his confidence, he will give you more and more responsibilities. Here are a list of things I like to do and another list of things I prefer my assistant to take care of. I like to shoot, handle the important telephone calls, eat lunch, do estimates & invoices, and go on sales calls. I want my assistant to do everything else. Everything else in includes: Making coffee, sweeping up, ordering lunch, cleaning up after lunch, keeping film loaded, maintaining an inventory of all necessary materials (photographic and domestic), answering the phone and screening calls, cleaning up the studio, taking out the trash, delivering and picking up film at the lab, buying donuts in the morning, greeting the clients in the morning, hanging up their coats, offering the coffee, making clients comfortable, setting up the work areas, arranging for messengers, striking set at the end of shoots, moving lights when needed, turning on and off the overhead lights when needed, and everything else anyone can think of.

How hard can assisting be? Really hard! Depending on the type of photography your master does, Assisting can be physically demanding, emotionally straining, let me tell you, there can be some very difficult days. As far as I'm concerned, that's OK. As a matter of fact, I think it's the tough days, in a sick sort of way, make this profession exciting. I 'll never forget the 3:am mornings fininshing up a "pain in the butt" Heinz 57 sauce shoot. It didn't seem very amusing that day, but somehow time has a way of "sweetening" your memories. It's almost like a badge of honor kink of thing. The day it happened you wanted to cry, now you just want to laugh.

Assisting Secrets (or what makes for a great assistant)

1. Anticipate! The best assistant I've ever worked with had this uncanny ability to anticipate what it was I needed next. He was amazing! I couldn't count the times that I would look from behind the camer and say "Charles, I need a ... There he was, standing with his arm stretched out, holding the very thing I was going to ask for. Some how he was able to know what it was that would be needed. That's what makes for a good assistant.

2. Be really careful with the photographer's stuff
3. Never never be late
4. Be absolutly honest
5. Be an optimist
6. Know when to be quiet
7. Don't eat too many donuts
8. Don't hit on the models
9. Don't hit on the clients
10. Never mention another photographer's name
12. Know your place
13. Have "lull projects"
14. Think of yourself as the studio manager
15. Watch the photographer's money as if it were your own.

But, what makes or breaks a photographer's career is his vision. No, not his eyesight, his vision. I've seen plenty of photographers without much education in photography, make a real nice living in this business. I have two definitions of vision here, and I think they're both needed for a successful career. The first definition is the ability to see the "Big Picture", to know what's important and what's not. This is something we all have to some degree or another, but sucessful people have a whole lot more of it than other people. Unfortunatly, you can't teach vision. The other type of vision is known as "style", a perspective, a way of looking at things, or even photographic tendencies.