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Wednesday, 25 April 2018


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You know what BS is. MS is more of it, and PHD is piled higher and deeper.
I happen to have a BA and a BFA. I don't know if they mean very much.

Successful people either know what it takes to be successful or have the natural abilities. They can be successful at pretty much anything they put their shoulder to whether it's photography, finance or parenting. Learning the soft skills of a profession is generally easy, photography being one of them.

Maybe the joke should be I’m really intelligent just not very smart.

In retirement planning from my career, my wife asked me--knowing my enjoyment of photography--if I was planning to start a photography business. My simple reply was that I didn't want to ruin a truly enjoyable hobby by turning into a business I would hate...and make little money doing. So, I guess I did photography the right way: I made enough to retire from my career and I continue to enjoy my hobby as a professional amateur. Be well.

After 40 years as a full-time working photographer, I have to say that artistically, I have been moderately successful, financially, not so much. In fact, if my wife had not been willing to work at her own career (nurse practitioner), we could not enjoy the standard of living that we have. And if I could not write it would have been even less successful.

To make it at all in this field, one must be unusually capable, as you describe above, or fanatically devoted to photography. Count me as one of the fanatical ones!

I don’t like to step on anyone’s dream, but I actively discourage people from going into professional photography on the theory that if anything I say could discourage them, they would never have had a chance of making it anyway.

The only advice I can give, with a clear conscience, to young people who ask me about becoming a professional photographer is, "Don't."

Interesting point.

... I don’t really know why anybody would want to Be In Finance professionally. That means you don’t actually *do* anything with your life except earning money! Is it that important?

Our times being what they are, I suspect that being a professional photographer is a great way to quickly turn a large fortune into a small one.

It also explains why many professional photographers -- especially of the fine-art variety -- rely on their partners to do most if not all the heavy lifting for the household finances or have other sources of income besides their photography.

For years (decades, ...) I managed camera stores (the ancient brick-and-mortar type) that had a strong professional and student clientele. I saw many pros come and go over the years. Almost always, those that failed did so for marketing and business management faults and not for anything that involved their photographic skills.

I would also get students wanting to become pros asking advice on colleges to chose. There was a college in the region I would recommend for a photo/art bachelor's degree but always told them they would then need to enroll at another school in town for a business degree. Without either the necessary business/marketing skills, or a dominant spouse with those skills, they would have little chance of success.

That reminds me of the old adage.... How do you make money in photography? Sell your kit.

I gave up hopes of being a pro (paid) photographer years ago - no matter how many people said "Wow; you should sell that!", not a damn one gave me any money.

That seems like a simple reality test to me.

Not sure you can limit it to "these days." Photography has always been a tough, high-turnover occupation. It's not the only one, almost any creative occupation has the same risks: writer, musician, dancer, artist, comedian, actor.

I hate to be that spammy guy but after 30 years as a professional photog, this is why i wrote my first book: DON’T SHOOT | 66 Reasons NOT to become a Professional Photographer. It’s a great,terrible, lovely,grueling job. And I love it. But, i’m not sure i can recommend it unless you have a decade to get it right.
But if someone can talk you out of this fabulous, stupid career choice you don’t have what it takes to persevere in this biz.
- S. Dirk Schafer

My daughter is considering studying music in college (a couple years off). I found a web page discussing a survey of music school graduates who, after a couple years out of college, unanimously agreed that they were well prepared to play in ensembles, but also agreed (to more varying extents) that they were generally unprepared to actually start a career in music. Most institutions focus on the academics and performance aspects of it and not the business side - how you can actually make a living at it, how to network, how to self-market and so on. Apparently, there's a bit of a parallel with photography in that there used to be more large orchestras offering opportunities for long term employment, and now there are more smaller ensembles and more freelance opportunities, making it possibly easier to get gigs, but harder to get enough of them to pay the rent on an ongoing basis.

Do it because of the passion, not for the money as there will likely be very little of it. I was a banker, quit and did professional photography for 26 years..and now regret it.

My goal was to make enough money so that I can work half time and devote half of the time in photography.

The crash of '08 derailed that. Oh well... Onward.

My brother-in-law is about to retire from a long career as a philosophy professor. So I'd say he's pretty smart.
Your photographer friend, it turns out, was more interested in money than in photography.
And I think it was Robert Adams who commented on the irony of the fact that he could make money from talking about his photographs, but not from making and selling them.
Press on regardless!

To answer Eolake's question -- "Why finance, for God's sake?" I watched about 25 years worth of science and math grad students go into finance for two good reasons. Quantification of financial instruments, although leading to nasty stuff like CMOs and the 2006-8 meltdown, involved some really neat statistical and programming challenges, which they had trained for. And that's where the jobs were. People like me, a few years older, had filled up all the university faculty slots that had been created in the cold war era, and we weren't going away.

A Few thoughts:

One of the dirty little secrets for the art (both visual and music) world... many "successful artists" actually make more money teaching workshops than they do from making art.

I have one of those "piled higher and deep"-ers (in biochemistry) and spent a career as a professor. I always advised students who wanted to major in art, computer science or business to combine that interest with a second major where the art/computer science/business could be used. Folks with knowledge in two areas are much rarer and therefore much more valuable that those with narrower knowledge. Two examples... scientific illustration (combining a science, often biology, and art) and bioinformatics (combining computer programming and biology/biochemistry).

Of course, many art/music students combine the art with teaching. This might not be really lucrative but it, at least, provides a steady income.

But, don't fall for the myth that teachers have lots of free time (e.g. those summers off) and therefore can do their own art while teaching. This is patently false, ask any working teacher.

However, if one gets started teaching in the public school system early enough, one has the ability to retire fairly young (usually in your mid- to late 50's). I have three or four acquaintances, all former K-12 teachers, who have spent a decade or more after retirement doing art full-time to great success and enjoyment.

That speaks to Craig Beyers' point, which I wholly agree with. I retired five years ago and am also enjoying being a truly amateur photographer... making photographs solely for the love of it.

Actually I totally disagree and I honestly believe there is enough market for a pro photographer. The problem is very few people are honestly above average photographers. I can assure you if one finds a honest true voice and something real to express you can make it. Nat Geo and Magnum are desperate to find talent but alas it's a rare talent.

In my experience, successful professional photography is 95% marketing and Voice of the Customer (VOC), and 5% photography.

Good VOC skills are key because you have to be able obtain deep insight into the customers needs, translate those into requirements for the assignment and then develop a plan with clearly defined and umabiguous goals and objectives so that the plan can be efficiently and effectively EXECUTED so that the photographer can deliver "product" and "finished goods". One must be able to consistently execute at a high level with respect marketing, VOC, assignment project planning, profitable business management, and with the technical skills and acument for delivering photographic "product" that creates VALUE and QUALITY for the customer.

The keys to doing the above is strong personal discipline and most importantly, accountability, for completing what you commited to doing; not sandbagging, but getting stuff DONE, 1st time right and on-schedule.

The problem is that everyone loves a great photograph but these days almost no-one is prepared to pay for it. Society is saturated in imagery and it's ubiquitousness means people just expect it to be free. And the fact that 99.9% of photographs are viewed digitally and never make it into hard copy form just further dilutes their perceived value. I've worked in various areas of professional photography but I just don't see it ever being a viable career field again for more than a small number of people.

I think it’s a bit like individual (not team-based) sports. There are lots of talented runners, sprinters, swimmers, tennis players etc, but only a very small handful make it to the top, and achieve that elusive fame & fortune (and the fortune is usually made outside the sport from product endorsements). You just don’t see or hear about the thousands who don’t progress through the ranks. The size of humanity is growing fast, but the number of top 10, 20 & 50 rankings remains the same.

If you want to suck all the joy out of your favourite occupation, turn it into a profession.

How to get a million dollars as a photographer? Start with 2 million dollars.

Photography: a rich man's hobby and a poor man's way of making a living.

A co-worker at an architecture firm a few years ago told me that he had wanted to be a photographer. His father who had been one with his own studio told him that he would not pay for his schooling if he studied photography. Making a living was "just too hard," he said. Thus my colleague studied architecture instead. This was in Tokyo where one would assume there is plenty of work.

"Don't" Same advice I give those who want to join either of the two professions I have worked in. Photography, and public school teacher. Especially teacher.

I made a lot more money teaching high school English, but the headaches of working for a school system run by semi-literate baboons who prioritized their government sinecures over the education of our children made the job impossible.

A couple of years ago I was at the holiday party of a friend, a professional photog. The place was crawling with other pros (and motorcyclists*) and later in the evening a fresh-faced college-age kid walked in and said that they wanted to become a photographer. The room took a deep breathe as we each considered whether to be encouraging or to tell the truth.

* In my social circles there's a high correlation between photography and motorcycles.

The gig is up there is simply no money left, it's been a race to the bottom since digital took over. I could elaborate and it's probably worth a thread for discussion but I won't. I made more than a million in 11 years and got out. Seems nowadays all my old friends at my success level are teaching workshops or blabbing for some manufacturer. As the idiot in the white house would say...SAD

My cousin's wife likes to ask me when I am going to start making money off my photography. I tell her as soon as her husband makes money off his hunting and fishing!

Upon learning of my passion for photography people ask me if I am going to become a professional, like that is the Holy Grail. I tell them that no, I like being an irresponsible amateur and photographing what interests me. Also, I have no interest in accounting, marketing, and other aspects of running a photography business.

Well, I have a PhD in philosophy, and I'm not a professional photographer, so I guess I'm really smart, and also not really smart, and also really smart. Which makes me...really smart? Hooray for TOP maths.


The easiest way to end up with a million bucks as a pro photographer - Start off with two million.....

Photographer, writer, sculptor, farmer, livestock rancher?
No matter what is is if you don't have the business skills you are bound to fail.
There is more truth to the old jokes than we like to admit.

How to make $1 million in photography? Start with $2 million.

How do you get the free lance photographer off your porch? Pay him for the pizza.

Talent has little to do with succeeding as a photographer. Look at the work of many "portrait studio Photographers". Some of it is absolutely awful yet they are doing well financially. A good business model with a lot of advertising and pushing the market. If you tell people you are good most will believe it. "Award Winning Photographer"? Always looks good in the ads. Certificates on the walls look good. Big prints must mean you are good, right? Big splashy Yellow Page ads or Online web pages and big Social Media presence? You must be really good if you have all that - right?

Even Ansel Adams did not really take off financially until he got a new business manager later in his career.

About thirty years ago, I knew a couple who quit their jobs in marketing and bought a goat farm in upstate New York.

Goat farms were a bit of a fad at that time, but it turned out that selling goat cheese and milk and other goat-derived products at farmers' markets did not really pay enough to cover the farm's expenses, never mind provide any standard of living for the ex-Yuppie goat farmers.

Their biggest source of income--the only thing that kept them afloat at all--was giving adult-education classes about how to make money running a goat farm. I don't think they included "how to give goat-farming classes" as part of the curriculum, though.

They eventually divorced, sold the farm, and went on to other things.

I'm not sure I can derive a moral from this story, but perhaps it is: if someone has enough time to give classes in how to run a business like theirs, it probably isn't a good line of business.

While gloom-and-doom rule the comments wherever this topic erupts, the fact is that there have never been more opportunities to become a “professional” photographer. The secret is not necessarily to be exceptionally talented; few photographers are. The secret is to specialize. Find an underserved niche, preferably two or three, that you can throw yourself into and develop (at least the appearance of) specialized expertise. Food, jewelry, science/lab, art, historical documents, ... anything that can be photographed for commercial or institutional purposes is fair game. Remember, the ability that people usually seek most for such services is reliABILITY. Show up on time, get the job done on time and as-promised, be the kind of person that people LIKE to work with and you’re sure to get another job. Professional photography is not about art; it’s largely about craft skills.

But first, ask yourself if you’re financially and emotionally prepared to start an independent business today, assuming you can’t find a payroll job.

For me photography isn't about making money or making a name as much as its about making images that Ione likes and can grow into. And only you can determine whether becoming a photographer was smart or dumb. You get to choose.

I'm resubmitting a piece I wrote for TOP May 29, 2014. It seems relevant to this discussion, so here goes:

"I've been a photographer for over 40 years; in no particular order (as they occur to me), I've owned a photography gallery, been a dealer in 19th and 20th century photographs and books, taught photo history in a couple of good art and photography schools, spent nearly 30 years working in my own darkroom printing my own Cibachrome prints and earning my living printing for others.

"I've photographed weddings, done commercial work for universities and corporations, done appraisals of photo collections, curated exhibitions, run a matting and framing business. I've worked as a volunteer professional photographer for the candidates of my choice in several state and national elections. I taught color printing for several years in a wonderful summer workshop on Martha's Vineyard, and have tutored and mentored beginners of all ages.

"I've built two important photographic collections, one consisting of over 4,000 19th and 20th century vernacular photographs and the other of publications and ephemera by and about Walker Evans; I’ve written a major Evans bibliography.

"I’ve had many both solo and group museum and gallery exhibitions, a couple of museum catalogs, and have published two books of my images, with a third about to be released. My work is in many museum, corporate, and private collections.

"This list isn’t unique to me: anyone who has dedicated his or her life to photography for forty years or so will have a similar inventory. I've listed all these activities and accomplishments to make the point that I've been immersed up to my neck in the Culture of Photography for going on half a century, and during these years my wife and I - she’s an artist too, a singer and voice teacher with a not dissimilar list of accomplishments of her own - have eked out a living since the early '70s, sometimes barely scraping by. As I once said to someone who wondered how we managed to survive living so hand-to-mouth, we have always been 'independently poor.'

"My life has been an unbelievable rollercoaster ride through the history of late 20th and early 21st century photography. I've met many of the modern photographic masters; a few of them have been my friends. I've lived my life in the company of countless artist contemporaries-photographers, painters, poets and other writers, actors, musicians-who have greatly enriched and enlivened my life. More recently I've switched to digital photography, and if I haven't yet mastered it, I've at least immersed myself in it thoroughly enough to make good prints and to thrive and grow toward mastery.

"And even though I haven't become a 'famous photographer' by any stretch, I'm told (often enough to continue believing it) that I and my work have had an impact on people's lives. Many people have told me that they see the world differently after discovering my work, that now they see 'Kingstons' everywhere they go. When I get reactions like these I know that for all these years I've been on the right track. The Culture of Photography, for all its outward manifestations, is within me.

I'm a happy man.”

Professional photography seems like tricky subject matter.
Only recently a tongue in cheek article with the title "Become a Professional Leica Photographer" was posted on the Leicaphilia blog. After that no new articles have been posted and all links on the blog give a "404 (Page Not Found) Error".

I have been a photographer since 1980.
It has given me a very good living over this time even in my expensive locale of So. Cal.

I think the thing people really do not understand about a profession like this is that to stay in it one has to have an attachment to it that transcends the challenges it presents.
In a word:Obsession.
Every successful person I have met in my life ( I mean people at the apex of their industries or art) has a drive in their field that precludes doing something else. Yes, a good living can be made from many parts of our society but to succeed to the degree needed in the arts or politics or business one needs a focus that can imperil a balanced life.

I would argue that absent one's passion, the individual would lapse into depression ( I know I would). I think, talk and dream of photography to the occasional annoyance of my family. It is this focus that keeps me thinking of how to make it work. Yes, I have gone cold calling, yes, I have photographed a baby pageant, yes, I have paid bills slowly at times. But over the years the things that were seen by the less committed as deal breakers were opportunities for me that have gotten me to a place where I am happy with almost all my clients (A few difficult ones keeps us honest) and I am making a comfortable living.

In theory I will retire at 70 in 2026. Today I have no idea how that will work as I can't imagine doing anything else.

I friend who worked with me at a camera shop in Pittsburgh, having learned from hard experience, told me the way to become a professional photographer was to major in business or accounting and do a minor in photography.

One of my favorite Dutch stand up comedians made a similar joke.

“The most asked question I get is: ‘ Can you actually live from this and don’t you need a back up job?’

‘To be honest, this is the back up job, I studied philosophy.”

And, pardon my question, but what makes being a photographer any different from being, say, a bank clerk?
Everyone has had to change their professional processes.
In fact, a bank clerk has seen its job very much tattered by the online banking.
So, stop moaning about, and perhaps more than complaining, adapt? All the rest of the professions have had to do it.
[rant mode off]

It seems to me that to succeed in any form of art, you need to have two characteristics: to be sensitive enough to perceive what other people don't, and present it to them in a way that they can understand; and to be tough enough to keep on working at it, even when people don't get what you're doing. That's a unique combination that very few people possess, and so there are very few successful artists.

I once read that, on average, a professional photographer has an IQ of about 130. Smart, but not too smart.

To agree with Mark: true dedication, to the exclusion of many other facets of a balanced life, can be a path to success in many fields. I have a reasonably successful 34 years-and-counting career in TV News as an engineer. First in electronic maintenance (including cameras), moving into field operations and OB's, now as Manager of the international field engineering arm for a US TV News network (with a great team who do that work). In all that time I have been driven by the "mission" of our work, which is more about telling stories than making money (although we are profitable). My family thinks I'm totally obsessed, but I'm really in the minor league compared with our MD, who "Lives, eats, sleeps and breathes News" He's quite a wealthy fellow...
I also have several pro-photog freinds in TV and stills. The most successful of them have specialised significantly and are deeply committed to their work.

As others have noted, it requires obsession. Anything less, and I'd recommend another path in life.

Another point is this: photography is a huge world, and before you say you want to be a pro, I am convinced that you already have to know the niche that's pulling you into it. For example: my love was ever fashion photography and the lure of calendars. At a critical stage in my early career I reminded myself about that as I stood on the steps of a church one rainy afternoon, waiting for some poor bride to arrive and get wet going from car to church (Rainy Day Women, anyone?).

The thought came because my imagination had David Bailey drive slowly past in his Rolls, look at my predicament, and smile at me before driving away. We are both the same age; he was already a star and I was shooting dumb weddings? I swore that was the end of that: abandon all the "temporary" crap that would have become the permanent way of life, and do nothing other than what had enticed me into the business in the first place. An all or nothing throw.

It took a while, but in retrospect, I ended up having a wonderful life, going to most of the countries I ever wanted to visit, all on expenses and with beautiful companions. I got my shoots for Vogue and made a lot of company calendars, the twin obsessions within my photographic interest.

Could it happen today? Not for me. Everything has changed. I bought Italian Vogue a couple of weeks ago and I felt nothing. As bad, successful pros tell me that motion is now de rigueur on most jobs, and I know nothing about it and care even less.

But desire is only a part of the requirements: before going solo I spent several years working in an industrial photo-unit where I learned all I needed to learn about printing. Without that apprenticeship it would have been impossible to compete with the rest of the folks chasing work.

You have to be good, and you have to be prepared before you even dream about going solo.

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