Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Not an AMA, but I got asked

I got asked two related questions the other day, pertaining to photography. Sightly paraphrased:
Is becoming a pro photographer still a viable career, and
How to get started on that path?

My answers have been rattling around in my brain so I figured I'd best write it out, and then we'll both know. While much of it is specific to photography, the same applies to writing and other creative professions. Some of it applies to working life in general. Or you can scroll on down to enjoy the Of the Day section.

Reading biographies it quickly becomes clear that many people have accidental careers. I certainly did. They started somehow, maybe they knew someone, or they got a lucky break, or was the assistant with unsuspected talent who stepped in when the main person quit, or any number of variations of being in the right place at the right time and being the right enough person. And yes, some do it through planning and preparation and execution.

I'm not sure how much the accidents happen anymore. Organizations want credentials, they want to see a post secondary degree, and sometimes several of them, even if they aren't relevant. They want to see experience. They want to see references. 

Plus there is a lot more competition now, and fewer places to apply. As one writer put it, there's no place for someone to get paid while they get all the bad writing out of their system. I don't even know if there are journalism programs any more, or actual photography courses at accredited post secondary institutions. Someone that wants a photography career would be wise to learn if there is or not. 

As a digression, this always pissed me off. I was shut out of several jobs because I didn't have a specific degree they were looking for. Never mind loads of relevant experience. Some organizations use that degree as a sieve for weeding out applicants. Then they wonder why they get people who can't get anything done in the real world.

On the education front there are lots of people who claim to be a "pro" who will take your money to teach you the "secrets" of photography, or writing, or whatever. What that tells me is there is more money to be had, or easier money, teaching a particular something, than doing that something itself to make money. Some people doing that are the real deal, worth every penny. Others are a scam. It can be hard to tell the difference if you're new to that particular world.

But yes, photography is a viable career. Oddly enough, skill with a camera and editing software is not the best indicator of success. Your people skills are paramount! You have to be able to make connections, because knowing someone who knows someone who needs a photographer is how you get the opportunity. Then your people skills get you from the front door to the actual shoot. From there, those camera and editing skills become important. Delivering what the client wants, when they want it, and pricing your work properly are skills applicable to nearly any profession.

Pricing is brutal. Charge too little and you'll go broke. Charge too much, and that's easy to do, and you might not get the work because many people expect photography to be free. After all they think, anyone with an iPhone can take photos, right? Wrong.

Some people can take great photos with an iPhone. Also with any number of Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji, Sony, or other camera brands. Hint, it's the photographer, not the camera. But most people can't take good photos regardless of the equipment. And the equipment now is amazing!

There is an argument to be made that by charging more you weed out the riff-raff, the tire-kickers, the cheapskates out to nickel and dime you to distraction and waste your time. You are better to build a relationship with one client who respects your work and pays fairly, than deal with 10 so-called clients who want you to do more and pay you less.

Photography looks easy. Editing looks easy. But then anything done by a pro looks easy. That's one of the indicators of a professional, is that they make it look easy. You aren't paying for just that photo session, you're also contributing to the many hours that went into acquiring the skills that made the photo session go so well, to say nothing of buying and maintaining the equipment. 

There's a joke relevant to this. A young photography grad approaches the owner of a photography studio, hoping to be taken on. He shows the owner a photo that he's proud of, and it's a great photo. The owner looks it over and asks, 'how long did it take you to edit this?' 'Oh, I spent hours on it, trying to get everything perfect!' 'Sorry, but I can't afford to have you spend hours editing a photo, but I'm dying to see what you can do in 5 minutes.'

How to get started?
Like many hobbies, photography need not be expensive to get started, but you can spend nearly any amount of money on it. The rule is, digital camera bodies depreciate quickly and will probably be replaced every few years, but the money put into lens glass holds it's value as long as you don't go changing camera brands. 

The first thing is to buy some decent camera gear to see if you like taking photos, and have any knack for it. There's two routes. One is to ask a photographer buddy if they know someone who has old gear they might want to sell, subject to the notes below. 

Or you go to the store and buy it. In Calgary, go to The Camera Store, and ask to look at their used 'full frame' cameras. Tell them you're new to photography. For Canon it's likely to be a 5D or 6D, and there are several versions of each. I don't know the Nikon models off-hand, or any of the other brands. It does not matter what brand you get. Really. They're all good enough for the purpose at hand, which is to learn. 

Put it in manual mode and get them to show you how to adjust ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Take the one where that seems easy to you because you'll be constantly adjusting them. They will let you take some test shots to make sure it works. Pick one that feels good in your hands. Don't worry about some scuffs or scratches. Don't worry about the difference between a DSLR or a mirrorless. Don't worry about mega pixels. Don't worry about any of the other camera features. Really. That's for later.

Get a medium zoom lens, typically something like a 24-70 mm or 24 - 100 mm. There are no end of photographers that have a kit lens that size that will fit your camera. Kit lens means it's a medium quality lens that was often sold with the camera, and many people go buy a better quality one. You could probably find a give away. 

A 32 GB SD card or two, a Lightroom subscription, and you're ready to go. Do NOT spend money on expensive lenses yet. One camera body, one lens, an SD card or two, maybe a spare battery and camera strap, and you're good to go. Oh, and a computer that can run Lightroom, you'll need one of those. Probably pick up an external hard drive as well, but they're cheap.

Take a beginner camera course, or buy lunch for an experienced manual photographer who's work you admire and get them to show you the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed if you haven't figured it out already.

Then go shoot lots of photos over the next year. Lots and lots, preferably every day. For example, 100 a day over a year adds up to 36,000 photos. Of these, only a fraction will be edited, but you'll look at all of them. You need the practice running your camera on manual and editing your work. (Editing in Lightroom is a whole other subject, far, far beyond the scope of this blog.) Learn to tweak the settings quickly for the situation at hand. Shoot everything, and I do mean everything, at all different times of day. 

Don't just click the shutter, actively look at what you're shooting and try to get a better photo than the last time you shot that. Many of the shots won't work out, and that's perfect. Knowing what doesn't work is almost as important as knowing what does. There's a difference between a shot not working because the camera can't do it, and not working because you don't know how to make the camera do it. Learn that. Hang out with other photographers to see what they shoot and how they do it. Offer to carry gear, adjust lights, or hold reflectors, and don't ask for money in return, but pay attention to everything that happens. 

Along the way you'll want to get lots and lots of books related to photography out of the library. Some are outdated and refer to obsolete gear. That's fine, take the concept and move on. You might get lucky and find one specifically for your camera, so that's worth taking out and reading over. While you're mainly focussed on learning the basics, there are probably some settings you could tweak that make your life better.

Look at the photos, and try to understand why someone thought they were a good photo. Ignore the blither about settings. For almost any photo, there are a variety of settings that would produce that photo or one so close you can't tell the difference. Don't think you have to go to exotic locations to get good shots. Some of my best have been in our garden, or only a short drive from home.

Do NOT read gear reviews. Just don't. You aren't there yet. The point of these reviews is to make you buy gear you don't have. At this point you don't know what you want or need, and you'll probably waste your money. You are almost certainly not a good enough photographer to be limited by your current gear, let alone the new top of the line item.

No later than the end of the year and it might be sooner, you should know a few things. The main one is if you like doing this. You should also know what you like to shoot, and what the limitations of your equipment are. Then, and only then, do you go back to the store to spend real money. You can say with confidence, I like to shoot these subjects. They can help you pick out the appropriate gear in consideration for your budget. Good quality lenses can easily cost several thousand dollars each, and specialty lenses go up from there. Someone shooting landscapes will almost certainly want different equipment than a photographer shooting portraits or sports. 

As an example, a landscape photographer will want a fairly wide lens, but it doesn't have to be particularly fast. Faster is more expensive for the same quality, and typically much more expensive. Also much heavier because there's more glass involved. A photographer carrying camera gear into the back country cares about weight. A landscape photographer doesn't care how many shots the camera will take in a burst. They probably want a camera with a fairly high megapixel count because a landscape is more likely to be printed out big. A stable tripod is a must for this kind of work.

A sports photographer will want the longest and fastest lens they can afford, and a camera that can take many photos very quickly in a burst. That gives them a better chance of getting the shot that will sell. This combination of equipment is big and heavy. Since a high megapixel count will produce larger files, and take correspondingly longer to process, they are likely to be more interested in a moderate megapixel count. 

An astro photographer wants a camera that doesn't get noisy as the ISO goes up, and is likely to be interested in a wide and an extremely fast lens to gather more light on dark nights. Mine is a Sigma Art 14mm f1.8, and it weighs nearly 1.2 Kg. You don't know what that means now, and that's fine. If you want to do astro, you'll find it out. Yes, you can hook cameras up to telescopes, and the sky is not the limit on prices for that.

Bird and wildlife photographers want a long lens, 600 mm or more if they can get it, and will buy teleconverters to multiply that even more. Such lens are long and heavy. They will typically want a camera with a high megapixel amount so they can crop into photos. 

A macro photographer will want lenses (or a lens setup, which is an entirely different thing) to magnify a subject, so the ant that is a few mm long in real life will take up the entire camera sensor. To say there are challenges involved is an understatement.

It is entirely possible that the camera body you already bought is perfectly adequate for now, and you only need to buy a better lens or a few better lenses. Many photographers find all they need are 3 lenses, a wide zoom 14 -24 mm, the medium zoom 24-70 or so mm, and a long zoom 70-200 mm. 

If you want to be serious about this, buy the best lenses you can afford. This is where the money is, and better lenses are one of the keys to technically better photos. You becoming a better photographer is the real key to better photographs. There is no end of other gear you could buy. More lenses, camera bodies with more features than you can imagine, tripods, bags, filters, lights, reflectors, stands, and much more. You can get them big or small, heavy or light, durable or flimsy, and many other tradeoffs. Buy them only if you can't borrow them, and the shoot requires them. Usually you can rent for a one time use, which is a good way to find out if you like a piece of gear.

You'll see lots of used gear along the way, and you'll be tempted. Be cautious. There are several kinds of camera gear for sale. Rule one is don't buy from a pro, because it's either broken in some way or is on the verge of breaking. Pros use their equipment hard, especially in non-studio work. They have the skills to make the most of what might be technically obsolete equipment. Such equipment has two overwhelming advantages for a pro; it's probably paid for, and they know intimately how to use it. There are exceptions to this rule, but they're rare. A pro who loves you, or is your immediate family, could be a different story.

You'll often see equipment for sale that is essentially unused. It's in the box that's been sitting on someone's mantle, dusted weekly, and that person will want a new or nearly new price for it. At least that's what they say, but you don't know if it was stolen and repackaged. You might as well go to the store and buy new. This gets you a warranty and a relationship with the store. If you think saving $50 on a $1000 lens is important, you are in the wrong place.

All that applies to someone who might want to become a pro, or even just get more serious about a hobby. There's no shame in finding out you don't have a photographer's eye, or the knack of setting up a camera quickly to capture the shot, or that you just don't want to do it for a living. Like many professions, a few people at the top make most of the money, some can make a consistent living, and for the rest it's rocky sledding.

One of the rules about work is "do what you love, the money will follow." Keep in mind that the money might be a very slow follower and is easily distracted. The other rule is a little more mercenary. "Go where the money is, save as much as you can, and plan to get out before you burn out."

Of the Day


From the Orkney lookout.

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