Sunday, April 8, 2012

If I Were You...

I have a friend who is interested in making photography a career. He graduated from a local state college with a degree in journalism, with an emphasis on photography. He has not been able to get much traction on his chosen career path, due in part to the decline of the printed media.

So where should he go from here? I am going to give some suggestions, but since I haven't had to "peddle my wares" in a public forum, I don't have any proven solutions. Instead, I have some ideas of how I would approach it the situation, were I in his shoes.

Step One: Identify The Photography You Do Best
Notice that I said "do", not "like". If you're looking for a career, you will need to distinguish yourself in some way. A client doesn't care if you enjoy your work so long as you produce the images he or she wants. Maybe you're good at macro photography, or maybe you're good with animals. If you're lucky, you'll be good at photographing people, since people tend to like photographs of themselves and those they care about, and are willing to pay money for a flattering likeness. For now, let's make it simple and not use the "W" word*. There are architectural photographers, fashion photographers, even some who specialize in photographing merchandise for on-line sales. Now collect your best images in one folder so you can refer to them from time to time. Let's call that your portfolio.

Step Two: Identify Your Immediate Competition
One of the things I like about old fashioned phone books is the categorical listings. Vendors who buy ad space in the Yellow Pages (or whatever they're called these days) need to decide where they want to place their ads. This isn't like the Internet where you search on key words and sort after the fact. If nothing else, you can see how other photographers describe themselves and their services. Look the ads over and note which words seem to spark your interest. If you like what you read, chances are good that your future client base will too. Check to see if they have a web site. If so, make them part of your collection of web favorites. 

Step Three: Compare Your Work
Here is the hard part. Find a photographer whose work you admire. Now be honest. No matter how talented your are, or think you are, there are dozens of images in the world you would be proud to say that you made, but didn't. Now select one of your competitor's images that fits that category. Let's call it your benchmark. Now check your portfolio of images to see if you one that is close in subject, composition, and technical competency. How does it stack up? Can you identify the qualities in your image that equal or surpass those of your benchmark? If your images are not "equal", you now have a starting point to find out why, and what techniques to begin refining. 

Here's a word of advise. If you're responding, "I could do that", you're missing an important point. These four words do not a sentence make because "could" is a conditional. The sentence should be "I could do that",  followed by a clause that starts, "...if I...". So what's keeping you from making a photograph the equals or surpasses your current benchmark? Need a more expensive camera? Need a different lens? Need more lights? You may believe this, but if you think that it's the equipment that made the photo, you seriously underestimate the photographer's contribution to the endeavor. Owning a Steinway piano will not make you the next Van Cliburn. It's all about technique, and now is the time to work on that. Read books, view blogs, do what it takes to change "I could" to "I did". I've listed some of my favorites in the side bar.

Ultimately, your response to a every one of your benchmark images should be, "I can do that" followed by a period.

Step Four: Lay Your Claim In Cyberspace
It's never too early to stake a claim in Cyberspace. In fact, one commentator suggested that every parent should buy the rights to an IP address in their child's name as soon as that name is selected. In the beginning, it could be as mundane as a place to post growing up photos and such, but one can never know what uses a young adult will have for personalized domain name twenty years from now. Sure, you can have a studio name, but if you sell your business the domain name goes with it. Just to be safe, your first and last name  plus the word "photography" or "photographer" will suffice, unless you have a name that is nearly impossible to spell, in which case you may wish to adopt a "nom de guerre" for the purpose.

Remember that this is just a reservation for the time being. It will be there, waiting for you, when you're ready.

The second claim I would "stake" is to an address on a free Blog service. Make sure it is the same as your domain name to avoid later confusion. Having a blog gives you a platform to display your work without going through the hassle of learning an HTML editor / web design program. If you can type, you can create a blog. My blog was designed primarily as a teaching tool for my photography students. But I always include images as samples of a specific photographic technique, which in turn can be used to show what I am capable of doing. I also include technical information, mainly as a reminder to the viewer that I'm not a point-and-shooter, but a serious photographer that has mastered both the aesthetic and the technical aspects of the craft.

Step Five: Join A Professional Organization
When you're just starting out, you need to get a sense of who's out there and what they're doing. If I were on this journey, I would join the Professional Photographers of California. They have monthly meetings in nearby South San Francisco, and non-members can attend for a nominal fee. Although I've not attended, I get e-mails on upcoming speakers. and they all appear to address some significant aspect of the photography business. Getting yourself known as a serious up-and-comer can provide you with established contacts in the field, and a chance to find out what it's really like. And having a chance to see the work of other photographers will certainly help you see exactly the market is really like. I'm sure there are similar meetings outside of the Bay Area.

These five steps are only a start. I made no mention pricing, monetizing your web page, marketing, and client satisfaction. If you get past these first five steps, the next person you talk to should probably be your accountant.

And last but not least; If you have a day job, keep it.

*Wedding Photography