Number One Advice for Becoming a Professional Photographer

Let me just go ahead and tell you that if you have any interest in becoming a full-time photographer, you aren’t going to like what I’m going to say. In fact, I’m bracing for the hate mail. Try to be gentle, and remember that I’m only being honest and trying to help.

I received an email recently that got me to thinking it’s about time for another discussion about being a professional photographer. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how to become a full-time pro. This particular person had read the article on my website about quitting your job and becoming a full-time photographer and was wanting more advice. Admittedly, I need to update that article to reflect the recent trends from the digital era, but the underlying premise remains the same.  

In my advice to him, I shared what I think is the most important thing to take to heart if you want to be a professional photographer. Can you guess what it is? I suspect many of you will say, “Don’t quit your day job,” but that’s not it. Sure, having another source of income is a huge advantage as you build your photo business, but how the heck are you going to be successful as a photographer if you are still working at another job? No, if you are REALLY serious about entering this crazy business full time, you have to work up to point and then bite the bullet and go for it.

Okay, here it is, the number one advice for making a living as a photographer. (Please take a lot of deep breaths and wait at least 5 minutes before you email me.)

You need to fall out of love with your photographs.

Being a professional photographer is worlds different from being an amateur. An amateur takes pride in winning camera club contests and hearing the praise from family members and co-workers. We all enjoy receiving these accolades, but trust me, photo editors, whether editorial or commercial, don’t give a flying flip what your mother-in-law thinks about your images or how many contests they’ve won. Furthermore, the quality of your images is not what’s so important to their success in the first place. It’s the CONTENT that really matters. Quality is subjective; content is what it is.

If you can hold off on the hate mail, I’ll elaborate. First, why quality is subjective. I’m an old-schooler. I like my horizons level, my center of interest in a thirds placement, my compositions clean and simple with no distracting elements jutting in from the edges of the frame, “proper” exposure, which means no glaring whiteouts in the background, and for Heaven’s sake, please, no white skies showing up in my landscapes. To me, and those of my ilk, these kinds of things form the foundation of a quality image. But the kids from the local high school camera club haven’t even heard of some of these “rules.” They’re out there shooting images every which way, utterly disconnected from the restraints us old timers have welded into our mindset. And guess what? These kids are getting their images published! Why? Because quality is subjective. One person’s crap is another person’s masterpiece. Just cause you love it, it doesn’t mean anyone else will.

Now, for the really important part. Content. It’s not the photos, folks; it’s what you do with them that counts. Any outdoor photographer who’s been shooting for more than a few years knows who John Shaw is. John’s a great photographer, but he didn’t become the icon he is because of his photographs. No, the reason we all know John is because of his WRITING and his TEACHING. When John wrote Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques (the “blue” book) back in the 1980s, we didn’t have the Internet or iPads or cell phones or Facebook and there were very few informational sources for nature photography. John’s book, and his subsequent John Shaw’s Closeups in Nature heralded the nature photography explosion of the 1990s because they were the first well-written and well-illustrated guides available. In other words, it was the overall CONTENT, not the actual photos that made John so successful.

Look at the accompanying image I shot in the 1980s. It’s a horrible photo, yet it was published in a textbook because the editor needed a shot of this particular site and I was the only one who had it. I also submitted a number of other images from North Carolina, some that I “loved,” but she picked the one she needed.

Town Creek Indian Mound

A very bad photo, published because it was what the editor needed at the time.

Have dreams of being published in National Geographic? Maybe you have a friend of a friend who can get you a few minutes with an editor. So you’ll show them your portfolio and wow them with your talent. Wrong. At this stage, they don’t give a hoot about your photos, nor your talent either for that matter. They already have plenty of talented photographers they know they can trust. What they care about is IDEAS. NG is often quoted as publishing STORIES, not photos. (Another well-known quote from NG is that they publish pictures, not excuses, but that’s the topic for another day). You could have the greatest shots in the world, but if you can’t come up with a way to use them in a story or an advertising campaign or a social or environmental cause, you don’t have a market for them. Sure, you’ll sell a few photos here and there just because they are great, but you aren’t going to make a living from it. I do not know any outdoor photographer who is making a living from selling photos alone. All of them are teaching, writing, shooting video, or doing something else in addition to selling photos.

So am I saying you don’t have to be a good photographer to be successful? Absolutely not! What I am saying is that just because you love your photos, it is not going to make you a professional photographer. You have to sever the emotional attachment you have for your photos and think of them as commodities, because to a professional photographer, that’s just what they are. A pro has to shoot things he loves, things he hates, and things he can’t even pronounce. Some of the images he will like, others will repulse him. It’s all part of the business. But if he is going to be successful, he does indeed have to be a decent photographer.

Let’s use the stories idea as an example. Suppose you have a few photos of homeless people living in your hometown that you think are great photos and you want a local aid group to publish them. After reading this article, you decide to give me a chance and fall out of love them, at least temporarily, and come up with a story to go with them because the agency probably doesn’t care about just your photos. So you pitch a storyline to the agency about featuring the homeless woman of your city. Now you have a story to tell, and the agency is interested. But they don’t want to take a chance on an unknown, so you show them what you have already done and it’s good enough for them to give you the project. Now you can celebrate, right? Wrong! You still have to shoot the photos and if you aren’t a good photographer, you’re going fall on your face. Just because you got the job doesn’t mean the editor is going to publish the photos.

You know, the problem with writing an article like this is that there are so many variables and I know some of you are ready to let me have it. A commercial photographer, for instance, lives and dies with his portfolio and client list. He doesn’t pitch ideas to his clients; they tell him what to shoot and they choose him in the first place because of the quality of his portfolio or whom he worked for in the past. However, the part about thinking of your photos as commodities still applies, because in the end the only thing that matters is giving the client what THEY want, not what you love.

Also, if your aspiration is to create fine-art prints and sell them either online or through art shows and galleries, you can ignore much of what I’m saying. Shoot what you love and the passion will show in your work and you’ll be more successful because of it. However, the premise of what I’m saying will still apply, because most of your clients will purchase prints based on the content of your photos more so than the quality. A photo will remind them of a vacation they took, or where they had their first kiss or some other emotional attachment. Or the print will blend nicely with the décor of their living room. Or they just like cute and cuddly baby animals. Something like that. But I can assure you, they aren’t going to be looking at a print and say, “Wow, I really like how the photographer placed the leading line in this image on a diagonal and was careful not to blow out the highlights in the background.” Nor will a photo editor. They’ll buy it because they like it or because it fills their need. Of course, if an editor is looking at two images, both of which fills their need, he is going to choose the one with the best quality, so please understand I’m not saying you can get away with shooting crap.

Back to the email I got last week. The photographer sent me a few pics he had shot in Yellowstone, some animals and a wildflower. They were fine shots, but they were the same kinds of photos I’ve seen a thousand times. You’ve heard this before, but it needs repeating. If you want your photos to stand out, you have to either shoot unique subjects or shoot your subjects uniquely. Wildflowers and bison and elk are NOT unique subjects. Typical animal behavior and wildflower closeups are NOT shooting subjects uniquely. There is positively nothing wrong with shooting these photos, mind you. I shoot my share of them, too. The problem comes when we fall in love with them and we are trying to become a full-time photographer. If we could somehow remove ourselves from the equation and view it from space, we could see that we are only one of thousands or even millions who have the same stuff. Twenty years ago, you could be a successful photographer by photographing only these kinds of subjects and behavior, but not today.

I promise, this tome is ending soon.

Just what makes a photo unique, anyway? Well, unique subjects are pretty easy to figure out. Most anything shot in Yellowstone, the American Southwest, the Smokies, or Paris ain’t it, for example. I’m sorry, but the world simply does not need another shot of a slot canyon or a trillium. (Yes, I’ll be out in the Smokies this spring shooting trilliums, so don’t think I’m picking on you.) Unique treatment of subjects is harder to define because we don’t always know what has been done in the past. A quick Google Images search can help immensely in accessing a subject. After nearly 30 years as a photographer, I’ve come to realize that there are very few new frontiers left. I can count on one hand the number of portfolios I’ve seen that contain truly fresh material that was photographed well. Certainly, any good photographer will have a few images that stand out, but being able to produce truly unique and impressive images on a consistent basis is a trait that few photographers have. I’m still working on it.

Part of the reason I enjoy night photography is because it is one of those few “new frontiers.” Sure, people have been taking pictures after dark since the beginning of the medium, but only since the advent of digital photography have we been able to create the kinds of images that are starting to show up. Cityscapes and flash photography are nothing new, but back in the film days you couldn’t photograph the night sky like you can now and you couldn’t produce some of the amazing light-painting imagery that is out there. Soon enough, this too will become passé, but I’m enjoying the ride while it lasts.

Just so you know, I never prescribe any medicine I wouldn’t swallow myself. I stopped loving my photographs long ago. I have a half dozen or so that I really like, but none that I love. What I AM in love with, though, is the photographic process. If you want to be a full-time professional photographer, that’s the medicine you need to take. Fall out of love with your photos, but don’t ever stop loving creating them.

Did you like this post? Well, I sure would appreciate it if you told your friends. Thanks!
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2 Responses to “Number One Advice for Becoming a Professional Photographer”

  1. Sai C Says:

    Very nice article Kevin!! Especially a great follow up to your original article. Now if only I had read this one before entering the NG 2012 contest I’d have saved myself a whooping $45.00 :)….

  2. Kevin Adams Says:

    Thanks Sai! Yeah, those contests can be like playing the lottery, except the cost of the tickets is a lot more!

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