So you want to go pro. Fair enough. Photography is presumably a passion, so why not make it your livelihood? Lots of people have. Back in 1981 I was an out of work ex-Merchant Navy officer scraping an occasional living cleaning windows, dreaming of a life as a travelling photographer. Now, 30 years later, well, you get the picture; dreams can come true. But, and there's going to be quite a few buts in this piece, there's a price to be paid. No one is ever going to pretend it's easy. For those of you aspiring to a photographic career there's good news, bad news, and a whole load of penetrating questions to be asked.
So let's look at how to go pro. I'm going to use my own experiences as the template this month, but also in Part 2 next month use some of my fellow photographer friends and colleagues as case studies to cast some light on the many paths that can be taken to becoming an established professional photographer. And before you start furiously tapping out indignant comments let me just say this is an entirely personalised view. Next month you'll be able to compare my views with a posse of professional photographers representing a whole raft of different fields, genres and backgrounds. One thing that comes through loud and clear when talking to my fellow pros is just how different we all are; with widely varying attitudes, ways of working, ambitions and viewpoints. And that follows through to how we've got to where we are now; there is no established career path in photography and every pro has taken a different route through the labyrinth of the profession.
But first we need to establish just who a professional photographer is. Clearly it's someone who earns their daily crust with their camera. That sounds blindingly obvious, but there are many who call themselves professional who aren't. A plumber who shoots the occasional wedding and flogs the odd picture to a magazine is not a professional. I'm not being pedantic here, or bitter; in fact good luck to him. He'll certainly find out quickly he can earn way more as a plumber then as a photographer! He may make superb images, perhaps better than many pros, it's just that he or she doesn't have to juggle overheads and production costs against day rates and repro fees. I hope I haven't offended any plumbers as we've a dripping tap that needs attention but really there's no such thing as a semi-professional; either you earn your living from photography or you don't. Our plumber will view any dosh he earns from his photography as a bonus, whilst the full time pro needs to consider if that £50 repro fee even covers the cost of filling the fuel tank. It's a fundamentally different mind-set; a professional photographer lives, eats and sleeps off the proceeds of his or her triumphs behind the lens. Have I put you off yet?
I'm not trying to discourage anyone, actually, just be realistic. So let's have some good news. Globally our appetite for photography is voracious. Photography surrounds us everywhere; on screen, in print, advertising, the media, educationally, on the internet; you name it. Imagery is vital to our economy; everyone from banks to schools to firms who make tiny widgets to drill unfeasibly small holes need photography to inform people of what they do. And the lion's share of that imagery is professionally produced. In the UK alone there are approximately 15000 photographers registered with the various professional bodies, and that number can probably be more than doubled. How many are active is impossible to verify, nevertheless it's a significant body of people who earn their keep with their cameras. You will not be alone. That must mean there's a living to be made, but it also makes standing out from the crowd incredibly difficult.
I went professional in 1985, straight out of Art College. The massive difference between the professional world of photography then and now is not the old film vs digital story, it's the internet. It's transformed the market for photography and opened up all sorts of opportunities to the entrepreneurial professional. Most businesses and organisations know that their website is crucial to all they do, and the best websites generate interest, sales and opportunities. One way to make a website stand out is to have the best photography. So the new media freed from the shackles of printing presses are permanently hungry for new content; the demand for imagery has never been higher. Couple all that with the opportunities for photographers to make their work accessible to the whole wide world and, in many ways it's an exciting time to be a photographer.
So, it's a Gold Rush for photographers now, right? Well, I did warn you a few Buts were on their way. The very accessibility of the internet has resulted in the world being awash with cheap or even free imagery. Whilst the potential outlets have proliferated the perceived value of photography has never been lower. Everyone has a digital camera, and many fancy themselves as photographers, desperate for any recognition. Just surviving in such a crowded marketplace where pictures sell for less than a $ and day rates are in free-fall is a permanent challenge. But for now let's remain upbeat. How as an aspiring Professional Photographer are you going to get started? Before printing your business cards and stocking up on memory cards you'll need to ask yourself some searching questions.
SS Great Britain, Bristol. The range of situations and technical challenges a professional has to deal with is never ending.
Do I want it enough?
If you are going to make it as a pro there's a checklist of stuff you'll need, and unfortunately none of it can be bought at Calumet. First and foremost you'll need bucket loads of self-belief. The determination you need will have to keep driving you forward not for days, weeks or months but years, decades even. You can reckon on it taking at least five years to establish yourself. Just surviving in this game is a huge challenge, and it doesn't get any easier. Your reservoirs of resilience need to be brimming just to keep your head above water. After 26 years as a freelance I still don't feel at all secure in my trade, I guess I never will. Neither do any of my chosen colleagues. It's not a game for the faint hearted. If you want security and the peace of mind a regular pay check brings maybe you should think again.
But if you are contemplating the leap of faith you are obviously not afraid of a challenge or competition, and the flip side of all this is the deep life affirming glow of satisfaction of making it happen, being master of your own destiny, earning your living from your passion. The price to be paid is high, but the reward is priceless, if you get it right.