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“Photographer” is one of those professional titles that many people want. And why not? Taking pictures is fun and exciting.
However, reality isn't so glamorous. According to a report prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “More than half of all photographers are self-employed, a much higher proportion than for most occupations.” The BLS adds, “Salaried photographers—most of whom work full time—tend to earn more than those who are self-employed.”
In short, what we have is a business that isn't a hotbed of jobs – or high earnings for those who aren't employed as photographers. Not a pretty picture.
The BLS continues with the killjoy theme by saying, “Most photographers spend only a small portion of their work schedule actually taking photographs. Their most common activities are editing images on a computer—if they use a digital camera—and looking for new business—if they are self-employed.”
However, similar things can be said about the music business. But people still pick up guitars and start to play. Likewise, the theatrical arts. It's tough to make it onto the stage or screen, but somewhere, there's an audition attracting hopeful actors right now.
Okay, so I've acted like your parents and given you the “Tough way to make a living, but I know you want to do it!” speech. Now let's get to work on helping you succeed in the business of photography.
How to Start a Successful Photography Business
As mentioned above, a lot of your professional time will be spent away from the camera. You'll need a first-class set of business skills to succeed as a photographer.
To help you along the way, here's John Harrington, a Washington, DC-based photographer who has worked full-time in the business for decades. And he's very good at it.
While it's fun to admire the photos of President Obama in his portfolio, I urge you to head over to his Photo Business News + Forum blog. While Harrington isn't a hyperactive, daily blog poster, he offers lengthy and well thought out essays on topics like contracts, photographers' rights to shoot in public places, copyrights, and business skills.
In addition to writing thoughtful blog posts, Harrington is also the author of the highly regarded book, Best Business Practices for Photographers. It covers successful interactions with clients, examples of proposals and contracts, negotiation skills, and the day-to-day operation of a professional photography business.
Then there's photography's famous first name, Selina. If you see your photography business as a spiritual journey, her “synergy of spirit, soul, skill and sweat” approach will appeal to you.
Want some street-smart intelligence to go along with Selina's synergistic attributes? Read Dan Heller's photography business FAQ.
Professional Photography Contracts and Other Legal Issues
As much as we'd like to shoot whatever we want, whenever we want, the real world doesn't work that way. One of the best resources on the law as it applies to photography was created by a photographer who is also a lawyer. She's Carolyn Wright, and her Photo Attorney website is definitely worth a bookmark.
If you're ready to start dealing with clients, don't work without a contract. Ever. Be sure to keep 10 Critical Points for Strong Photography Contracts in mind. This short, easy-to-understand tutorial is part of Envato's Phototuts+ series, The Photography Business.
Need some ready-made contracts to for your photography business? Check out Tad Crawford's book, Business and Legal Forms for Photographers. It offers 34 commonly used forms – and instructions on how to use them. Each form is included on the CD that comes with the book.
Don't Buy – Rent!
If you're like a lot of new pro photographers, you can't wait to get your hands on some top-of-the-line gear. Then you start researching the prices of said gear. Ouch. Expensive.
So, what's a rookie photographer on a budget to do? In a word: rent.
For a few hundred bucks and a visit to BorrowLenses.com, you can rent a Canon 5D or a Nikon D3 for a couple of weeks. Try 'em before you buy 'em! And when those sweet assignments really start rolling into your studio, then you'll be able to afford to buy your dream gear.
The same advice applies to studio space. You can rent that as well. Easiest way to find out who rents space in your town is simply to call other professional photographers and ask them. After all, studio space that isn't being used is just costing money.
And that's a tip for you when you acquire your own studio space. Use it as another one of your income streams.
Selling Your Photography
Since finding photography clients is going to be a never-ending quest, you're going to need some razor-sharp marketing and sales skills. So, steer your browser over to Burns Auto Parts, which bills itself as “the oddly-named brainchild of Leslie Burns.” A San Diego-based creative marketing consultant and intellectual property attorney, Burns writes, speaks, and blogs on promoting your work.
If there were such a thing, Leslie Burns would easily win the award for the most offbeat business book title, Tell the World You Don't Suck: modern marketing for commercial photographers. Best takeaway: You may think that you could never shoot for the likes of Nike, The New York Times Magazine, or Apple. So you don't even bother trying to contact them. Why are you depriving them of the opportunity to work with you? If you shy away from approaching your dream clients, you'll never do any business with them.
Want a photography business book with a title that's, ahem, more business-like? Burns has you covered. Business Basics for the Successful Commercial Photographer offers hard-to-find things like scripts for cold calling potential clients, templates for job estimates and invoices, and a questionnaire to use on that wonderful day when your phone rings and it's someone interested in hiring you.
While Burns' books are very good at showing you the basics of photography marketing and sales, you'll still need people to practice those skills on. Let's get you introduced to some real, live buyers.
If you'd like to get assignments from advertising agencies, book and magazine publishers, and major corporations, get an account with Agency Access. Since its recent acquisition of AdBase, Agency Access now has one of the world's largest contact databases for creative freelancers. You can take Agency Access for a test-drive via its three-day free trial.
If you've spent any time hanging out in your public library's reference section, you're probably familiar with the annual Photographer's Market directory. The good news is that you don't have to leave your studio to access this valuable tool. Simply go to Artist's Market Online and sign up for a 7-day free trial.
Another good subscription-based resource is called Mastheads.org. It's where you go to find the name of the photo editor at that magazine you've always wanted to shoot for.
Prefer not to deal with the challenges of finding clients to assign photographic jobs to you? Welcome to the world of stock photography, where you can make money from what you've already shot. Your go-to guy for learning the stock photography business is Rohn Engh. This veteran pro runs his stock photography business from a farm in rural Wisconsin. Which just goes to show you that you don't have to be in The Big City to succeed in the business of photography.
In addition to working on assignment and selling stock photography, there's fine art photography. It's what you see hanging on art gallery walls.
If fine art photography is your life's ambition, you'll still need to treat it like a business. That's where Artist Career Training comes in. ATC's goal is to “help you make a better living making art,” and it offers a series of courses for beginning and experienced photographers.
Want help with getting your work into the leading galleries? Then book some consultation time with Mary Virginia Swanson, an internationally renowned photography author and editor. She knows everybody who's somebody in the fine art photography world.
Your Photography Portfolio
Doesn't matter what kind of buyers you'll be dealing with. They'll want to see your photography portfolio. If you're like most photographers, you probably don't lack for work that could go into your portfolio, but buyers are busy people. They only have time to view your very best work.
In the photography world, the word “portfolio” can mean two things: It's the physical book that you bring to a meeting with an advertising agency art director or the photo editor at a magazine. And it's that thing that lives on your website and/or blog.
For help with creating and editing your online and hard-copy portfolio, I recommend the uniquely named blog, No Plastic Sleeves. The book of the same name is also worth a read. PSTuts+ offers a brief, easy to implement tutorial, 10 Steps for Building a Photography Portfolio to Be Proud Of.
Most of the time, photo buyers will ask for a link to your website so they can take a look at your online portfolio. A few will also want to see your printed portfolio, which is often referred to as your book.
When this happens, stand up, take a bow, and give yourself a round of applause. An buyer who wants to see your book is very interested in your work.
So, time to get busy building one. First thing to do is order a copy of Publish Your Photography Book. It has a very good section on self-publishing. Next, sign up for a free account with Blurb.com, download the free BookSmart software, and start your photography book layout.
Okay, we've covered printed portfolios. Now let's look at their electronic counterparts. Many photographers take the website/blog approach. Meaning that they have a website with online portfolios showing their best photography. Along with the website, they have a blog that describes recently completed client work, personal projects, or whatever else they're pointing a camera at.
When it comes to websites, many photographers would rather do a shoot among unfriendly lions and nasty alligators than deal with the vagaries of HTML and CSS. For them, there are turnkey services like PhotoShelter and LiveBooks. Both of these services offer template-based websites that can be built via a browser-based interface.
Then there are those photographers with a web development background. There are quite a few of us web-heads running around with cameras, and the Phototuts+ article How To Create a Photography Website With WordPress is our idea of a good time. If you're a WordPress-loving photographer who has a hankering for one of those really cool photo slideshows, check out the NextGEN Gallery plugin. You can use it to run one online gallery – or dozens of them!
On to your blog. If you've never photoblogged before, Phototuts+ has you covered with a two-part tutorial, The Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Photoblog. Start with Part One, then head over to Part Two.
Photography Tips and Techniques
For photographers, there's nothing more exciting than getting new gear. But after you liberate your goodies from the box they came in, what's next? How do you use them? If you have a specific question, join the Photo.net photography help forum and ask it there.
Or, if you'd like something that's more of a reference – and more easily comprehended – than your camera owner's manual, visit:
- Ken Rockwell.com offers reviews and instructions for many popular brands, including Canon, Leica, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony.
- If you're a Nikon user, you'll be well served by Thom Hogan's Nikon Field Guide.
Want to learn about lighting your photographic subjects? Head over to David Hobby's popular blog, Strobist.
If you've had enough of looking at the computer screen and would like to improve your photography skills with other human beings, you're in luck.
Before you log off, take a trip over to the Meetup.com site and enter the word “photography” and the name of your city into the search box. Chances are good that you'll find at least one group of friendly, helpful people who are as interested in becoming better photographers as you are.
The Meetup groups provide a mix of both pro and amateur photographers, which may or may not appeal to you. (Some pros prefer not to mingle with amateurs.)
If you're interested in improving a specific aspect of your work, say, wedding photography or nature photography, a workshop might be a better bet than a monthly Meetup. Art-Support.com has a comprehensive list of workshops in the United States and other countries.
Photography Workshops for Fun and Profit
You probably won't be a photographer for long before someone will ask you if you offer workshops. And you've probably attended a few yourself.
In some quarters, workshops are viewed as a sign of a professional photographer whose career is in decline. However, there are plenty of pros who ignore the stigma and see workshops as the money-maker that they are. And they offer them. Want to offer your own photography workshop? Here's an article that will get you started - How to Make Money from Photography Workshops
Professional Photography News and Trends
Like any other professional, you should be keeping up with the latest news and trends in the photography business. Here are three sites worth a bookmark:
- The Black Star Rising blog covers both the art and business of photography. It's written by photographers, for photographers.
- Over at Common Cents, they're exposing "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" sides of dealing with publications and other clients. And you're invited to submit your own stories.
- Photo District News bills itself as “the leading photo magazine.” Suffice it to say that if you're featured in PDN, you have truly made the bigtime.
Organizations for Professional Photographers
Before you delve into the following list, let's be clear on why professional photographer organizations exist: They're not going to be a major source of clients for you. That's not their purpose. What you will gain by joining is a community of other photographers. That community will help you grow as an artist and a business person.
- American Photographic Artists (USA)
- American Society of Media Photographers (USA)
- Australian Commercial and Media Photographers
- British Press Photographers' Association (UK)
- Editorial Photographers (International)
- Event Photographer Society (UK)
- Federation of European Photographers (Covers 21 countries)
- National Press Photographers Association (International)
- Professional Photographers of America (USA)
- Professional Photographers of Canada
- Society for Photographic Education (USA)
- Society of Sport & Event Photographers (USA)
Note: A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article was first published December 21st, 2011, yet is just as relevant and full of useful information today.