Photography, like any profession in the arts, is a highly competitive business. Gone are the days when only real tech wizards could navigate their way around a camera. With camera phones in our pockets all the time, appreciation and willingness to pay for real photography talent is decreasing. It’s very often a freelance job which means that income is not steady or necessarily enough to pay the bills without a full-time job alongside it.
However, all is not lost. The rise of social and mass media means that professional, skilled photographers are in demand. Magazines, websites and advertisements need top-quality photos to stand out in the saturated market, meanwhile, the pressures of social media lead many people to hire professionals to raise the quality of their feed.
If you are truly passionate about photography then as long as you take the right steps, you have every chance of turning your passion into a career. This article will give you some inspiration and guidance that will help you begin your journey.
Arguably the most famous British photographer of all time, Bailey struggled with academia due to his dyslexia and dyspraxia. It was his subject matter that really gave him an edge: his Swinging 60s project caused his career to take off. The project shows highly simplistic but expertly lit and presented black-and-white photographs that captured some of 1960s London’s most definitive characters, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger and the notorious Bethnal Green gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
Decades later, Bailey is still British photography’s leading man for portraiture, even being commissioned to photograph the Queen. He said of his style, “Take everything out. I don’t see why I need a palm tree with Kate Moss. Kate’s enough.”
Lange was a major influence on (her) contemporary and modern-day documentary photography. She was resourceful and used her talent to show the world the raw reality of the Great Depression in 1930s America. Her ability to capture the emotion in the faces of normal American citizens, not celebrities, won her a Guggenheim fellowship and made an impact on social change.
Leibovitz originally intended to become an art teacher but through hard work and dedication to her craft became one of the best photographers in the world. She has taken memorable portraits of some of the most famous and influential people of all time, including Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp and the Queen. Leibovitz was the last person to ever professionally photograph John Lennon, who was shot dead 5 hours after their photoshoot. She was Chief Photographer at Rolling Stone magazine for 13 years.
Her style of colour and background in her portraits create atmospheric, almost haunting pictures that draw the audience inwardly without taking focus from the subject.
Finding your Niche
Practically anyone these days can take an artsy picture of a cup of coffee next to a perfectly aligned pen, so a successful professional photographer needs to create something a bit more special. If you want a waiting list of people desperate to hire you, then you need to have ideas and style that is hard to find elsewhere. Your style will naturally develop, evolve and improve over time, but it helps to have an idea of it when you start out. To give you a firm foundation to build upon, consider the following questions:
What do you want to photograph?
All great photographers specialise in capturing a particular subject. They could be the best in the world at photographing an elephant but it doesn’t mean they can do the same for a supermodel. Anything that can be seen can be photographed so it is best to do what you’re passionate about because your job is to capture that passion in such a way that the rest of the world can see it. For example, if you’re deeply interested in people and their psychology, try portraiture or documentary photography.
If you want to use your talent to make a difference in the world, go into photojournalism. If you love food, try your hand at product photography and take those glistening burger pictures for McDonald’s. It’s all valid and if you do it right you will make money.
What do you want your photos to look like?
Or in other words, how do you want your audience to feel when they see them? You might do portrait commissions for people to hang on their walls that are colourful and capture the essence of the subject at their best. You might choose wedding photography with careful poses and editing to give off an ethereal, fairy-tale feel. To really capture the emotion or meaning of the subject, you’ll need a vision of the end product.
How are you going to get your photos seen?
Unless you have industry connections or celebrity parents, it’s unlikely your photos will be very well known straight away. Luckily for you, unlike other art forms such as novel-writing, it doesn’t take the audience much time or commitment to look at a picture, therefore it is easier to capture their attention. Make use of social media and set up some pages that debut your photos. Do some research on marketing and see where to post your pictures that will generate the most clicks from your target audience.
The next question is, really, how are you going to get better? Nobody is born with such raw talent in anything that they require no training. Photography apprenticeships are rare and outrageously competitive but they do exist. There are, however, bountiful options for photography courses. If you didn’t get into the New York School of Photography then don’t despair, there are plenty of other options. If you have the drive, work ethic and willingness to keep learning, you’ll make the best of any photography course you complete. However, here are a few of the best:
Goldsmiths, University of London – MA The Image and Electronic Imaging
Type: Master’s Degree
This 1-year course is a perfect addition to any Photography or Fine Arts degree. The aim of the course is to put you at the forefront of modern photography by teaching you how to take your work to the next level with cutting-edge technology. It even explores 3D animation so if you want to work for film powerhouses such as Disney, this is the course for you.
Harvard University – Introduction to Digital Photography
Type: Online Course
This online course is ideal for anyone wanting to learn from one of the most famous and highest-ranking universities on the planet, without having to actually go there. Online learning is growing in popularity and this course offers you a top-quality education for a fraction of the price, not to mention what you’ll save on travel and accommodation. Online learning allows you to continue working while you study, giving you the opportunity to carve a career and earn money while you study. The Harvard course focuses on the storytelling aspect of photography, making it perfect for budding photojournalists or documentary makers.
Photoion Photography School, London – Beginner’s Photography Course
Type: Short Course
Among the many exciting courses offered by Photoion sits this gem, a 2-day, intensive introduction to photography. Great for people who are serious about beginning a career in photography but are unsure of quite where to start. The course covers the basics of proper photography, thereby giving you a foundation upon which to build your knowledge and practical skills.
Getting Work Experience
Breaking into professional photography is hard. Waxing lyrical about your passion on your CV is unlikely to get you a foot in the door. Countless graduates pour out of universities every year with Photography degrees. However, many have no real work experience and, unsurprisingly, fail to make use of their training.
Build a Portfolio
Photography is a case where it’s better to show than tell. Start building a portfolio of your work as soon as possible. Take every opportunity to offer your services and practise, practise, practise. At the fun fayre? Photograph it. At a bus stop in the rain? Photograph it. Have an enormous spider under your bed? Photograph it. It’s naturally best to focus on your chosen subject matter but every bit of practice you do will help you improve.
By doing this alongside your studies, your audience (and potential clients or employers) will be able to see how your work improves and evolves as your knowledge grows. At very least have an Instagram account and work hard to build its following and hone its aesthetic. If you want a physical portfolio of your best work as well then go for it. Use LinkedIn to connect with industry professionals who may peruse your profile and see what you can do.
Freelance work allows you to build a brand as well as earn some money. Photographing your Nan’s fifth wedding for a tenner may not feel like a career move. But, if her friends like the photos then they’ll hire you too and your name will start to spread. Make use of all outlets to offer your services, from social media to advertisement cards in the Post Office. Also, never underestimate the power of word of mouth.
Working with a diverse range of people wanting all sorts of different things from their photos will also help you to grow and develop as a professional photographer.
Work in Industry
Internships are a great opportunity the learn from and connect with professional photographers. However, the law is tricky on intern wages and there are ways for employers to get out of paying a fair wage. While you’ll still have fantastic experience to put on your CV, many people don’t have the time or resources to do unpaid or low-paid work.
An important factor in getting your work seen is simply networking. If you’re a people person with a professional manner then working in photography studios, in whatever capacity, will enable you to build relationships with the right people. Research top studios and check whether they’re hiring for receptionists, administrators etc.
Hopefully, this article has inspired you to do further research on the topics discussed. It’s a good idea to brainstorm any ideas you’ve got from this piece, then start your research. Most importantly, start practising your photography. Although it wasn’t covered in this article, the camera and editing software that you use make a huge difference to your final product. If you’re serious about becoming a professional photographer then it is well worth doing some research on the cameras and software available.