Surviving and Thriving as a Professional Photographer

In last week’s blog explored how I came understand and even embrace a couple guiding ideas about making a living as a photographer. The first of those is to accept (or even ideally embrace) the fact that what I do as a professional photographer exists within an ever changing, constantly shifting framework. Change is a constant and so I simply have to accept that. The second insight is that, for me, institutional affiliations, external validations of my skills and conventional certifications are not that much use in my own photography. That works for me. It may not be the same for other. With those two ideas in mind, this week I will offer some thinking points for any professional photographer (or professional photographer in the making) who is looking at the current business of photography and asking themselves, where can I fit in?

Professional means a few things in my mind. Any profession has certain skill level requirements and standards. In a profession like photography, you also are often doing other people’s bidding. That means you may have to subvert your own passions and beliefs in order to do work that will get you paid. Being willing to do that is an important (and under-appreciated) aspect of being a pro. Being a professional has nothing to do with the gear that you own. Buying a racing car does not make you a formula one driver. Only years and years of practice do that (if you are exceptionally lucky and talented.)

Professional photographers in the making simply need to know how to get the person place or thing that is in front of the camera onto the chip, film or paper just the way they (or the way the client wants.) Period. No question! End of discussion! The ability to do that used to be the way that most photographers, including myself, largely made our living. Digital imaging technology, auto-focus cameras and the like have eliminated what I call the “craft component.” Similarly the lowering of quality standards in the eyes of most end users mean that good enough is good enough. So, having that skill is both assumed and no longer a way to distinguish one’s self.

Professional photographers in the making need know that “Uncle Ted” with his new DSLR, or the “Mom with camera,” or whatever you want to call the photographer wannabes are simply the reality of today’s market place. Since they work for free you will never beat them on price, so why even try?

Professional photographers in the making need know that marketing is often time the only thing that will differentiate them from their competitor. It may not be fair or “right,” but it is true. So either, embrace the marketing aspects, hire some one to do that for you or lower your economic and professional expectations. The professional photographers in the making whose email prompted this pair of blog entries would probably be better served spending his hard earned money on a few seminars on marketing for photographers rather than being certified as a “Professional” photographer

Professional photographers in the making need know that certain markets are largely disappearing. Stock photographs of the Eiffel tower, are sold, seemingly by the pound these days, for pennies, so that market has largely been vaporized! On the other hand, stock photography of unusual subjects, or the usual subjects unusually portrayed, are still of interest to users, who will part with money for those images.

Which leads to the first question professional photographers in the making should ask themselves which is, what are the markets that are getting vaporized and which are likely to be here in another decade. Stock photo agencies are overrun with travel imagery so that market is dying on the vine. On the other hand, though millions of people snap bad pictures of the gourmet meals they enjoy, food photography is a specialty area where advertisers and publications still pay money to hire pros with expertise. A good friend is a very successful photographer of food for publications/advertising and has just finished his 30th book project.

When thinking of which specialty areas will continue to be viable in the future, pets, portraits, weddings and kids are markets that are continually renewed. But since every photographer and their mother is trying to do that kind of work, that is another market that is reaching a saturation point.

I happen to be of the opinion that user-provided content and video frame grabs will soon gut the paying market for photojournalists. The good news is that digital technology has finally started to create viable outlets for photojournalism (to be delivered via tablets/iPads.) This comes just in time, now that the print side of the business has been decimated, initially by the arrival of television and now the onslaught of the Internet. The bad news is that the very same digital technology has flooded the market with cell phone cameras and other easy to use digital imaging technology. When the images made through those technologies rise to a certain quality standard and then they intersecting with the ever-lowering quality demand, poof, most photojournalists will no longer be paid to do what they do. The irony is that photojournalism, images made to tell news stories, will likely live on. Paid photojournalism as a career path may not be so lucky.

What skill sets would I direct any aspiring professional to learn? Video would be first and foremost? The web, which is where all media is migrating, will soon start sucking in ever expanding volumes of video and someone needs to make that. All photographers, regardless of specialty will end using the web as a delivery media, as well as a promotional/marketing media so video is simply a required skill. I would strongly encourage professionals in the making to develop other skills such as foreign language expertise. Your knowledge of the subject you are photographing, whether sports, food or fashion will increasingly be what separates you from the also-rans.

Speaking of separating from the crowds, a friend started a photo agency recently that exemplifies what I am talking about, called As it says on thier site “ Legion Photo is a collaborative photo agency of the top military vet photographers. Providing professional photography services for industry, safety and security companies worldwide.”

Aaron Ansarov, founder of Legion Photo writes:

“What separates us from the average photo agency is our unique backgrounds. We are all military veterans that served as military photographers. More importantly, we have all operated and served as combat photographers which calls for a much more elite capabilities and abilities with our cameras. Because we have had to be able to operate with elite forces and in highly volatile situations, we have had to be trained to be able to operate with them. That doesn’t just mean being able to know when to duck. This means tactical weapons training, advanced survival skills, various levels of Security clearance, Aviation qualifications up to backseats of any military aircraft and more.

What this means to our clients is they not only get a reliable and talented photographer that is extremely experienced with military equipment and personnel, but they are also bringing on board a subject matter expert able to add to the realistic appeal of the message. Our jobs in the military required us to always pay attention to details, details that could cause harm or death in real situations. These details are what the end consumer will be looking for.”

I am not suggesting that every photographer go out and join the military, but the photographers who are members of Legion Photo are survivors with unique skills sets. The attributes that they possess separate them from the rest of the market have nothing to do with the gear that they use. That means that they will likely be the ones who survive and thrive in today’s hyper competitive photography marketplace.

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