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how long does it take for a photography career to make profit

#career #photography

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Subject: Career question for you


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Gemma’s Answer

Hey, Nick.

Similar to Alwyn's answer above: it varies depending on what you decide to specialize in, and how over or undersaturated the market is within your area.

I'll list several factors that were key in establishing my own career. Please note that this is from a freelancer/contractor perspective, and may vary in terms of being fully employed with a company or photo studio.

- Demand in Local Market
- Experience
- Network
- The Long Game: From Assistant to Photographer

Demand in Local Market:
If you are looking to gain insight on what areas of the field you should choose to pursue, I would start looking into what the local market is within your area - be it retail (i.e., weddings and portraiture), editorial (magazines/publications, photojournalism), or commercial (advertisement, fashion, etc). When I first started, I wanted to pursue a career in photojournalism. The region where I grew up had two newspapers who already had plenty of full time staff with more tenure and experience than myself. I found there was a need for product photography (not enough talent to take on the work), so I began assisting those photographers to ensure I was gaining consistent employment. As those relationships were being established, I began looking into contacting similar companies and asking if I could meet with them and show my work.

A photo etiquette note: I discourage cold calling the very clients your photographers shoot for in terms of looking for work. Have an honest conversation with the photographers you work for, and ask them how you can work for similar clients. They can get you set up on the right path without it coming off as a conflict of interest. In turn, I found that these conversations are a great way to establish a dialogue with the photographers you assist regularly regarding your career path. Most photographers I worked for ended up passing my name along to other photographers and clients. In some instances when they were already booked for another job, I would be passed along to shoot in their place.

I began establishing my career when I graduated high school. I was able to make money, but it wasn't profitable. I still had to work at other places to ensure my bills were paid. Most clients weren't comfortable hiring someone like myself who was extremely green, so I looked into internships and assisting opportunities with local photographers both within and outside the photojournalism community. Depending on the type of shoot, there's often a handful of roles you can take to begin working on set. While most photojournalists work solo and may have one assistant help with uploading files, commercial shoots will often have larger crews such as a 1st assistant, 2nd assistant, and digital tech. Gaining work within one of those roles are a great way to start your career. You get to soak in the experience of shooting. In addition to experience, you also gain exposure to other individuals who may be looking to hire someone like you. This segues into the next factor of having a professional network.

Internship note: GET PAID. Even if it's a stipend for transportation and meals. Having a financial obligation between both yourself and the person you work for establishes value for the time you both spend. If you find that you aren't getting what you need, you have every right to walk away. I had both good and terrible interning experiences, and found that the ones who paid me (with the exception of a couple unpaid internships that resulted in getting direct client connections) served me best.

This is one area in which I treated like eating veggies as a kid: you hated it, but it was good for you.

There are various organizations that often hold events where you can meet photographers and potential clients, be it small gallery viewings, an artist talk, or portfolio review. I started by attending events held by the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) and APA (American Photographic Artists). The plus is you get to gain some face time with established professionals. The downside is you'll often find yourself circling along with your peers who are in the same place as yourself, fistful of business cards asking everyone to hire you. It's important to look within events that are held within your communities, such as group shows, to establish familiarity with your colleagues. They will have moments where they will need to hire you as an assistant for other photographers or for when they are shooting as well.

When it came to networking, I always had a hard time talking myself up in fears of coming off as arrogant. Instead I preferred letting the work I do speak for itself. What best worked for me was maintaining my consistency as a strong assistant on set. Hard work became my calling card, and in turn that established trust in me across all teams. By establishing a strong relationship with individuals who were in charge of hiring me, such as producers, they in turn would refer me to other clients for employment because of my accountability as a hard worker. In turn, it is still important to reach from outside of your immediate group for networking to expand your career through events held within groups like ASMP and APA.

Additionally, I also had a huge advantage of building my network as I was attending college. I found a program that thankfully had a robust curriculum as well instructors who were heavily involved in the local community. Going to school for photography is highly recommended, but worth weighing out the pros and cons in regards to the money you will spend on your education. I was fortunately enough to get financial aid and pay low tuition by attending a community college. Do your research, and find what will best suit you without driving you into unnecessary amounts of student debt.

The Long Game: From Assistant to Photographer:
I am currently entering my 16th year of being in the field, with 10 years of it being a photographer. It was a difficult path, and I spent a good amount of time questioning my choices as well looking into other fields. But don't be discouraged - everyone's experience is different! You have to account for what work is available to you and how often you might have to supplement your income. I've worked in retail, security, and IT - occupations that had nothing to do with my current profession, but in turn it gave me additional skills that have helped me within my career. Eventually those who work as assistants will want to transition into becoming photographers 100%, and that's where the long game comes into play.

In the beginning, I spent 80% of my time assisting and 20% shooting for the first six years of my career. I highly encourage you still shoot your own work while assisting for another photographer so you have at least your own portfolio to shop around when the time is right. Keep in mind that I also shifted careers by relocating to another state and entering a new market, essentially having to start over. The benefits were more sustainable in the long term. The market I entered was more competitive but with plenty of places looking to hire. I ended up switching from photojournalism to fashion, and am still actively employed as a photographer now for over 10 years. This is not to discourage giving your all to work just in photography, but more to set the expectation that playing the long game is required to make a comfortable income.

I also saw you had posted two other questions ("how hard is it to kickstart a photography career?" and "is this career worth pursuing?"). I hope the above helps you find those answers. I can say with complete confidence that this career was worth pursuing myself. Hopefully this helped in aiding with your decision, and I look forward to hearing how it goes for yourself.

Gemma recommends the following next steps:

There are other cross functioning opportunities to consider in the post production world. Retouching is always in demand, and can be done remotely (which is a plus due to COVID).
Consider looking into video. It has and will be around in tandem to photography for years to come.
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Alwyn’s Answer

Hello Nick,

Your question is one that’s hard to answer as it depends on what kind of photography you will concentrate on. I’ve known for instance wedding photographers who are in high demand, charge a good fee for services that have to turn away work because they can’t cover all customer requests. I’ve also know commercial photographers with a great eye and the skills behind it that have great contacts with advertisement and marketing agencies that work incessantly and make really great money. Bear in mind that this is a field with high competition, that the cost of equipment is high but that in some cases the yield (salary) may be low, maybe even too low to cover your overhead and equipment or a living wage. I suggest that you establish contacts with commercial photographers becoming an apprentice - this may mean hauling equipment and setting up shoots. Ask questions, learn the business from the inside out as a way to really gauge whether you have the stamina and perseverance to do photography full time. You will need to hustle for work and be good at getting paid! Good luck!