Around the end of the school year, I get a lot of emails from photo students about to graduate their college program. I think part of their curriculum is to go out and ask photographers they admire how they got their start. This is such a great way to learn the ins and outs of the photo business world and everyone starting out as a photographer should do it. One student, Andrew Torres emailed me some great questions, I decided to make a post out of it. Hopefully, these tips about starting out as a photographer will helpful to you as well.
AT: How did you get started in photography and what education/training did you receive?
LB: Starting out as a photographer, I learned the basics of photography in high school and did it as a hobby for a number of years. In 2001, I quit my web design job and started working as a studio manager/1st assistant for an architectural photographer by the name of Philip Beaurline. I knew some Photoshop from my design days, but I know nothing about professional photography. Everything I know today I learned by working for him.
It was a very lucky time to make the shift into photography. He was still shooting film and he was shooting with a view camera primarily. I learned to load film, label shot rolls, and how to set up a view camera. After the shoot, the film workflow became my responsibility. I took it to the lab, made selects on a light table, drum scanned the selects, cleaned it up in Photoshop, made prints and CDs, and then delivered the job to the client. So not only did I learn all the nuances of film and the look of film, but I also learned all the digital post-production side of things, how to interact with clients, and to know how to properly deliver a photoshoot. It was really an amazing experience and I don’t think I would have learned as much had I just freelanced as a photo assistant.
AT: Would you recommend internships or assisting before starting your own business?
LB: Absolutely. I think internships are a good place to start. It gets your foot in the door and there’s not a big commitment on either part. Once you move into assisting, make sure you assist a photographer who you admire or for someone who shoots the subject you’re interested in. If you like architecture photography, assist an architectural photographer. If you like food photography, assist a food photographer. If you like travel photography, assist a travel photographer. If you like all three, you can assist me.
AT: Are you a member of any professional organizations and would you recommend joining?
LB: Definitely start by joining ASMP when you are serious about starting out as a photographer. The main things you get from it are tons of business materials ranging from estimates to copyrights to legal documents; a national network of photographers that you can reach out to for help or advice; and amazing discounts on everything from computers to business insurance. If you want to go more commercial, APA is a good place to be as well. They have a great find an assistant listing program as well as invaluable information and discounts.
AT: What piece of equipment could you not live without for your type of photography?
LB: Besides a computer, Lightroom and Photoshop, I could not live without the Canon 24mm TS-E II and the Canon 17mm TS-E. The TS means Tilt-Shift and these lenses allow me to shoot architecture almost as well as if I had shot it with a view camera. Architecture photography is all about perspective control. These lenses allow me to keep my camera level, yet rise and shift the lens to compose the without getting keystone distortion. Not only that, but these lenses are incredibly sharp and show very little (if any) chromatic aberration. Canon released a new edition the 90mm TS-E. That’s a really nice lens for architectural detail shots.
For digital, I’d say your lenses are more important than your camera. For film, they’re both important.
AT: What are the advantages/disadvantages of working out of a larger area like Portland?
LB: Portland (and Oregon) is fortunate to have all the support you need to pull off a really big production. Everything from an international airport to professional camera and lighting rental can be found here. Plus there are some amazing rental studios and great locations all over town. There are some great stylists living here as well. There’s a strong creative vibe here and I feel lucky to be a part of it. The downside of working here is the cost of living is pretty low and there are A LOT of photographers and assistants moving here all the time. With this much competition, you really have to work hard to make yourself stand out. I would not want to be starting out as a photographer in medium-sized market or larger. Start someplace smaller and build up your portfolio. Then move to a city like Portland, New York, LA, Chicago, etc.
AT: What have you found to be the most effective ways to market yourself?
LB: You just can’t do one thing and expect it to be effective. You have to market everywhere and it has to be consistent with what you shoot (your brand). You must have an easy-to-use and fast-loading website, a carefully edited portfolio, email marketing campaign, direct mail marketing campaign, social marketing network, all of it. It’s not cheap and it takes up a lot of your time. So you have to build it into your cost of doing business. Also, word of mouth is so important, so make sure you do a good job, deliver on time, and work well with others. (Check out this blog post I wrote about marketing tips for commercial photographers)
AT: Any other words of wisdom you would offer a photography student nearing graduation?
Being a working professional photographer is more than just a job. It’s running a business with you at he helm. It’s not always romantic or glamorous, but it’s very rewarding personally and emotionally. So, if you don’t have any business skills, start getting some. You’re going to need it.
Also, do your cost of doing business every year. I can’t stress enough how important it is to know the real costs of running a photography business.
Marketing Foundations for Commercial Photographers