Unfortunately not everyone will make it in a business that is not only very competitive, but rapidly changing due to new technology.

elvis-impersonator-at-casino-las-vegasSo what do you need to know before starting out in this crowded competitive industry?  Well for one, having a passion for the art and an eye for composition is a start.

I’ve spoken at many Toronto camera clubs and colleges about this exact topic. It’s not an easy thing to discuss, especially now a days, as everybody with a smart phone seems to think they’re a professional photographer.

There was a time only 15 plus years ago when you had to know a lot more technologically than you do today to take photos. Unlike today where most of it is done for you via digital technology.

It’s much easier to learn photography now than it ever has been thanks to the many free online courses or via the hundreds of Youtube tutorials. While it may sound easy to become a professional photographer, the reality is much different.

Are you ready to put in the long hours it takes? Do you have the passion and confidence it takes? and can you handle a very competitive business?

There are other questions you should be prepared to ask yourself before you start out.

  1. What will be my specialty?
  2. Am I and extrovert or introvert? ( this is an important question to ask yourself because unless you have a someone representing you it will be you who is doing the cold calls and meeting potential clients.)
  3. Am I prepared to work alone and endure long hours?
  4. Can I afford to invest thousands into the equipment it takes to start working in this business

So how do you break into the business?

Well for starters you should find a photographer who’s work you admire. It shouldn’t be say, a someone who specializes in weddings, if what you want to shoot is advertising or architecture photography.

When I was looking to get my start, I found someone who’s specialty was editorial, advertising and corporate work because that is what I wanted to do.

I emailed his studio and told him how much I admired his work. (Note: complimenting a photographers work is always one of the best ways to get your foot in the door. Don’t forget to be specific about why you like it )

Unfortunately I didn’t get a response right away but that didn’t stop me. I gave it some time and then called him directly. When that didn’t work I took a different approach. ( Note: never leave phone messages and don’t send more than a single email in 1 week and if there is no response try different tactics.)

Please keep in mind that professional photographers are busy and they have many people contacting them all the time.

After doing some detective work I found out who his assistant was and then contacted her. I offered to work my first shoot for free ( based on my limited experience). I told her I would do anything to work at their studio. This would hopefully be my foot in the door. Fortunately I was able to impress his full-time assistant enough that I was asked back again ( and was paid ). I then worked my way into his studio to eventually become the first assistant. That job taught me a lot more than I could ever have imagined and a I acquired so much knowledge about how to run a business 

What are good ways to enter this industry?

Any types of online photo communities, exhibitions, seminars or even working at a photography store where professionals frequent is great ! You want to be able to find the right people and be able to pick their brains for as much information as possible ( who are the busiest shooters? who is hiring etc.) Being motivated helps and above all else,  you must be reliable and show up for appointments on time ( or earlier ). Leave any arrogance or negative energy at the door. Remember, Everyone has to struggle a bit to get anywhere in any career.

The biggest misconception I hear from new photo graduates is that they expect to start working as a professional immediately upon graduating. ” Assisting? nah… I’m going to get a big studio and start working. ” I heard one student excitedly tell me when I was giving a lecture a local college last year.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way unless you have deep pockets, connections or an incredibly intelligent business sense.

Does college matter?

If you want me to be honest? personally I’d say no, but  that’s only because I was fortunate enough to start work at 16 as a photojournalist. It was there where I honed my skills under some of the best professionals in the business.

Now don’t get me wrong, school does have its purpose, especially if you aren’t as lucky as I was and if you know absolutely nothing about photography. It’s a great place to start and there are many excellent schools where you will learn a lot.

Please keep in mind that going to school isn’t a golden ticket to becoming a professional.

For example in my home city of Toronto, Canada there are about five colleges ( Humber , Sheridan, Centennial and Ryerson ) that pump out approximately 200 photography graduates each year, a majority of who end up working in photo retail or give up on the industry entirely to move on to something else. The schools will never tell you this ( why would they? ) but it’s the reality unfortunately.

Should that stop you from following your passion?

NO. If you believe in yourself and your work and have the drive and ambition. Move forward.

Photograph the type of things you want to whether you’re in school and even when you’re out on your own. In the end it will pay dividends, not only for your creativity and self confidence but also for your portfolio.  Having a great work is your foot in the door to any agency or publication. You’ll never get anywhere by complaining that your not getting hired for the work you really want to do if you don’t shoot for yourself.

I constantly run into professional photographers who moan and whine about how they aren’t busy or shooting the jobs they really want. Stop thinking with words like ” could ”  and ” wish ” and more with the words like ” can ” and ” will “.

I know of one photographer who is super talented but sets himself up for failure only because of his pessimistic attitude.

It’s all on you. You have to remember why you got into this business. If was/is  just for the money, then maybe it’s not your passion and you shouldn’t be pursuing it. Not everyone is cut out for the ups and downs of being self-employed.

One thing for sure is that you won’t get far with just a college produced portfolio. You will most likely have to assist for a few years before you can break out on your own. So once your done school ( or before ) you need to ditch the catalogue lit imagery and start working on what your style will be. Some of the best photographers in the business are constantly working on their own personal creative work. Some of favourites who practice this are:

I’m amazed at the amount of resumes I receive every spring from grad students looking for assisting work. I rarely if ever receive something tangible, creative or uniquely branded in my inbox. Usually it’s always a rambling email ( many with spelling mistakes and some in comic-sans font ) and dull MS-Word resume documents with attached photos of half-naked women who like heroin addicts posing in heels, while staring sadly into the camera.

So what am I looking for in a potential photo assistant?

  1. what can you do for me? 
  2. who are you?
  3. what equipment are you familiar with?
  4. your experience ( if any )

Remember I’m not hiring you as a photographer, I’m hiring you as an assistant, so market yourself that way.

Once you start assisting you’ll learn so much more than you did in college about how to be a professional photographer.

It will be a time to ask questions and absorb everything you can about the industry from a professional. How do I run a studio?, How much are photography rates? what about photo usage fees? how do I network and market myself? How do I sell myself and my work? How do I network>

Assisting with a good photographer is your golden ticket into the business, but you must be determined.

Your first priority is to find a mentor who if they are generous with their time will provide you with a plethora of knowledge for you to absorb, that one can only gain from a person with years of experience.