Words of advice for a soon-to-be graduate (part two)

In last week’s blog entry I parsed an e-mail from a “soon-to-be graduate” The two questions that he raised were: “…what are your favorite aspects of your work” and “…how someone could break into a field like this.” I suggested the real question to ask and answer was “…what are your least favorite aspects of your work.” I answered that question last week so now I can turn to the “…how someone could break into a field like this.”

The first bit of advice is to understand that being a photographer is a very hard, time consuming, intense job. Every photographer I know who is succeeding today works long hours at their photography and at the “other jobs” beyond “button pushing.” (By that I mean the actual time spent photographing, which is maybe 10% of my time.) These other things include marketing, self promotion, business development, keeping up on technology, studying the market, etc. I also work more hours than most of my college peers, many of whom have more advanced degrees than I do. So, know it is not easy. It is fun. but not easy.

When I was starting out, the way to “break into a field like this” was relatively clear. It involved internships, serving time under experts, paying your dues, building seniority, etc. Being young and impatient, I probably did not do enough of that! But then, the demise of staff jobs at newspapers has shown that I probably made the right choices, even if for the wrong reasons.

While I would spend lots of time looking at the work of other photographers, I would only do that to understand how they achieve the particular style they have. I would also want to know how they have placed themselves in the market for photography. What was their career path? The brand of camera they use is irrelevant, but why they use that particular one to solve their given problems as a photographer, that is important.

The good news is that there is a ton of information out there that the hungry photographer can access pretty easily. The way to break into the field is study all that information and then some. For example, read as many blog entries of mine as possible on the Wells Point. Not because I am such a genius, but because I am decent writer and I am quite open about sharing my experiences, perspectives, etc.

Read similar blogs by a dozen other photographers. Do not look just at those whose work you like. Look at work that the market responds to, even if you do not. Whether the work is brilliant or not, that does not matter. What matters is that the photographer in question can get people to part with money for their work. In the end, that is the definition of a successful commercial photographer.

You obviously need to learn to see the way a camera sees, which is quite different than how we ordinarily see. You need to have that skill under your belt BEFORE you start working as a pro, so try to figure out how you can get that skill. Learning in school is one way, but not the only way. Most of my skill development in terms of learning to see like a camera was acquired in low level photography jobs such as taking group pictures at a summer camp. Though I did some assisting, I couldn’t see how that was building my skill set, though MANY successful pros swear by assisting.

Like in so much of life, especially on the web, learn to read between the lines. The idea behind reading my blog and that of a dozen other pros is to see what is true, what is common between all of them and what does not ring true in certain ones, including mine.

Understand the roles of all of the players in the world of commercial photography such as agents, editors, art buyers, gallery directors, publishers, critics, etc., etc., etc. Knowing how they fit into the business is very important. Understanding their jobs may also open you up to alternative ways to work in the field photography, ways that are not just “pushing a button for money.”

Do not enter the commercial side too early. In today’s market, you really do only get one chance to make first impression, so hanging back and perfecting your shooting/marketing/multi-media and promotion skills will serve you best when that great opportunity comes along.

You need to have a great deal of faith in yourself and your work. You also need a razor sharp critical eye to know when your work is not good enough. If you don’t have that eye, find a mentor, editing partner or someone who will firmly (but gently) give you the kind of feedback you need in order to grow.

Family support doesn’t hurt either and not just financial. If you tell your parents that you are going to become a photographer they will likely groan. If you tell them you have a plan, involving your working as hard as your friends going to med school, to analyze the market, find your place, learn from the work/careers of your predecessors and to carve out a place for yourself in the field, they might not wince. If you actually develop such a plan and seriously execute it, you may indeed succeed at breaking “…into a field like this.”

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