As we’ve been doing this for 10 years now, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on what it means to be a “professional photographer” today. We have done our best to distil some of those thoughts (for what they are worth) below.
1. Freelancing is hard.
It doesn’t matter how many blogs you read or how many systems you have in place, the bottom line is “winning new clients who pay a fair fee is difficult.” How do you go about winning those new clients in the first place? Is the best route to assist first? How many clients do you need to have to survive? These are only a sample of the concerns that you will be rubbing against on a daily basis if you are committed to commercial photography full time. You just have to get used to the constant evaluation and re-evaluation process that you will be putting yourself through as you try and stay on top of whether you are going about running your business as well as you can. And you do need to do it — this is a fast-paced market so standing still is not an option.
2. Personal work drives (some) commercial success.
If you take a look around the vastness of the internet and have a modicum of interest in what your peers are doing, the good ones or shall I say, the successful ones, usually have a good body of personal work (not always but usually).
3. What is commercial photography anyhow?
Ah, the question that many great philosophers have pondered over for centuries is a tricky one. Google tells me: “in a nutshell, commercial photography means taking photos for commercial use. And by commercial we mean for business, for sales, for money. Commercial photography is often associated with advertisements, sales pitches, brochures, product placements as well as merchandising.” So if you’re getting paid for it, it’s commercial.
4. What you don’t show is sometimes more important than what you do show.
You’ll get lots of jobs (hopefully) — from photographing untrained cats and people throwing cakes at themselves all the way through to some decent advertising work. The thing is though, it doesn’t matter how happy the cake picture makes you, if it doesn’t fit into your portfolio then it doesn’t fit. Getting a clean, cohesive set of pictures together is a difficult but important thing to do. And “no” you can’t have pictures of weddings, cars, parrots, portraits of grandma, water droplet shots and slow exposure of your dog running around the garden all mixed together and call it a “Clean Portfolio”.
5. Social Media is a full time job.
So you are really good at putting 3 photos a year on instragram and you’ve mastered MSN messenger. However, social media takes a lot of hard work. You have to be responsive and get excited when you get 11 likes on a post. I’m not sure how much any of it matters in the grand scheme of things but if you do have a nasty argument with the wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/pet of your choice then getting a few extra likes is a sure fire way to make you feel better about yourself.
6. Admin, Admin, Admin.
I’m sure you’ve read or heard some wise photo owl tell you that only 20% of your time will you be taking pictures, the other 80% is spent on admin. Well, let me dispel that rumour for you right here, right now. I’d say (and I appreciate this will this vary from person to person) it’s more like:
18% — Sorting images
10% — Social Media (chasing the “like” train).
20% — Sales
20% — Heavy procrastination
10% — Project ideas that will never happen
10% — Chasing people for money
10% — Tidy desk, tidy mind!
1% — Taking pictures
1% — Editing pictures
That being said, never underestimate the power of good admin. It is all too easy to turn the post-job warm and fuzzy client glow to dissatisfied rage with bad admin. If you are asked for some kind of follow up — deliver it. On time.
7. Working for free is sometimes ok.
We’ve all had a call from a friend of a friend who just wants 3 pictures of himself in front of something unimportant. It turns out he has a staff of 20,and he wants portraits of each of them, a group portrait and for me to be to be as “creative” as possible. Sometimes working for free is a business decision and a lot of internet clever people will tell you it’s a bad idea. I don’t believe it’s as simple as that. IF (and that’s a big IF) you do work for free, there has to be some benefit for you. I mean, either through exposure or due to new connections. I’ve done lots of things for free and sometimes wished I hadn’t but now we’re a lot better at weeding out the good people from the ones wanting a permanently free ride. To summarise: there is no right or wrong answer to whether you should work for free but, if you do, make sure it works for you too.
8. Surround yourself with the most talented people you can find.
Going it alone is really macho and can be wonderful for the ego but working as part of team (at times) can be better for the soul. As you grow, you’ll realise you need all sorts of people you didn’t even know existed when you started your career. Pick the ones who are really good at what they do and learn from them.
9. Learn as many skills along the way as you can.
I’m one of those people who learns by doing, it is just the way I am. If I could speak to my school-age self now, I’d say “pick up a camera son” — avoid the 10+ years in IT. But, speaking frankly, when I was in school I never really got the learning thing. I found it incredibly hard to focus for too long. Photography is one of the areas that suits my brain perfectly in that it allows me to go off and investigate lots of random stuff. Since we started 10 years ago, we have had to master all sorts of ancillary things including video, editing, after effects, processing and photoshop. Be as curious as a 4 year old child.
10. Be nice.
Ah the easy one — I used to have a primary school teacher called Mr Davies. He told me never to use the word “nice” as it doesn’t mean anything. I am afraid I have to take issue with him as I think “nice” means a lot. People like people, they like working with people who are either like them or ones that can get on with them, take the time to understand them and can have a laugh with them. There is no great science to this. It’s simply about making connections and then putting in some effort to keep them up. A little empathy goes a long way.
11. Chose your competitions wisely.
There are lots of them who either want to take your money or steal your pictures. Choose wisely.
12. Insurance is your friend.
I lose stuff, you lose stuff, we all lose stuff occasionally and everything in photography is expensive. Don’t be silly and not get any. End of.
13. Networking — old school style.
If you want to get your business to grow then the simple truth is you have to go out and meet people, talk to people on the phone and engage in all sorts of weird human interaction that you thought only happened in the 80’s. Yes, email is wonderful but nothing beats a warm smile and a packet of salt & vinegar crisps… Get out there and meet as many people as possible.
14. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Photography is huge, I mean like so big it’s hard to comprehend. All those people, taking all those pictures of all those different people and things. Focus on one area that you love and work as hard as you can to know it inside out. Make sure your portfolio is focused and don’t dilute your work by putting out images that aren’t relevant to what you do. I know I have made this point already but it is so fundamental I think it bears repetition.
15. Uncertainty is all part of the process.
Sometimes, things aren’t going to go the way you expected them to go. You’ll go through some pretty long periods of doing nothing when you start out. Being able to handle that “quiet” time is really important and that’s when you have to dig deep, stay positive and get resourceful.
16. Word of mouth is important.
Having other people tell other people about the really great job you did for them can be a really important part of your business. People do get lazy though so gently nudging them occasionally is OK too. However, remember that this phenomenon works both ways so if you do a poor job, you can be sure that it’ll get out there twice as fast than if you had done a stellar one. And, finally, remember to return the favour. If someone does a great job for you, tell people. That good turn will come back to you.
Oh and enjoy it. Everyone always ends these things with an exhortation to enjoy it. So here you go.