So you want to be a pro photographer… what they don’t tell you

After running a workshop on Anglesey in the late Noughties, I got chatting to a professional photographer from Somerset. Great guy, had a few beers and his main comments on his 20 years in the photo business were

  • stock photography wasn’t worth doing any more and
  • assignment pay rates had dropped and
  • not to even consider going into photography as a career – it’s “dead on its arse”

At that time I was a reasonably well paid software engineer and was pondering what to do when we inevitably got made redundant by Lloyds TSB, who’d just bought HBOS.

Well with absolutely no experience in business and 7 years of shooting everything from cars to kebabs, October 1st 2010 hailed the end of my IT career  – and then nothing…

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The 10 things they don’t tell you

1  – The Nothing

There’s a lot of “nothing” after you leave your job. No bosses gives you work, no one except call centres offering free insulation, your mum or mates ring, no deadlines and generally nothing happens.

That is unless you make “something” happen.

If you’ve been employed, you’d always lie about being a self starter, working well alone or in a team – no CV is complete without such twaddle. But on day 1 of the business you really do have to be a self starter. No one will ever know you exist otherwise.

And if you stop for a moment – everything stops till you start again.

It’s wierd

 

2 – You have no clients

You may think you have, you have probably done a few canvases, shot a dog or 2 – maybe your cousin’s kids and a few weddings have bought you that new camera.

But you quickly realise that those client’s walls are full, those weddings only happen once and those kids don’t need another photo for a year or 2.

These income streams are fantastic for amateurs wanting some more kit – but for all the bills, food, petrol and insurance costs, it just isn’t enough to survive on.

You have to find LOTS of weddings, or LOTS of families, or LOTS of people needing prints of you work – or if you go commercial, lots of business needing your particular skills. That’s a whole new kettle of fish….

 

3 – Dead Man’s Shoes

Believe it or not, there are other photographers out there working.

The chances the very people who you want to get work off are the people who use these photographers. Why would they risk changing a tried and tested photographer to use you?

It’s really hard to get into these places, people will say “why don’t you try schools”, without knowing that every school already has a photographer who does the job for them. Why would the school change?

 

4 – You will make no money

Possibly the most shocking thing they don’t tell you is that you will make very little or no money in year 1, possibly a little more in year 2 and if you are still in the game – year 3 may look rosier.

Do not consider starting photography if you like eating out, expensive drinks, holidays, prestige cars or regularly seeing your mates in the pub – unless you have a fortune stashed away or a partner with lots of cash.

 

5 – You really have no idea what to do

Write that business plan – everyone should go through that torture – read it every day.

Until you actually start doing something, you don’t know whether it will work, or more important, is something you’d enjoy.

You may start doing family portraits and going to people’s homes with a projector to do the “hard sell” on prints – invest on a Mac, projector and screen, only to find you detest kids or hate the sales part. Hands up, I did that, wasn’t for me… expensive experiment, though quite like the projector still!

You can plan all you like – but only when you “do something”, do you know whether it’ll work.

 

6 – Scary Networking

I now know it’s the most effective way of getting known and winning business – but at first, root canal work or watching TOWIE was preferably to “networking”.

You get your suit on, you get up a stupid-o-clock and go stand in a room of strangers who all look tired, and are already talking with their backs to you.

So you stand there, pouring coffee as the nerves kick in – what do you say? You are bound to make a dick of yourself? It’s hot in your suit – you feel your brow getting wet… GET ME OUT OF HERE!

Then someone comes over and saves you – only to launch into their sales pitch. Usually something where there’s no common ground too – it’d be ace were it a creative agency who need photos all the time.

(I’ll just add that after a few years you realise that everybody “knows people” – so you may not have a direct overlap with them, but you will with their network – so don’t avoid anyone, engage them for a while, they may be the link to your big break! )

 

7 – Everyone has 1000 ideas and knows better than you

It’s all well meant – people like to help. But you will hear the words “have you tried…..” at least 10 times a day for your first 2 years.

If you have any Bi polar friends, this can get amusing – I think on one manic night my mate came up with over 50 new business ideas – just wish we’d written them down as some were good.

 

8 – One person – 50 roles

So you know how to take photos, you can answer emails – but who

  • does the Twitter campaign,
  • manages the BLOG,
  • updates the FACEBOOK page,
  • designs the flyers,
  • prints and distributes the flyers,
  • keeps the website content up-to-date,
  • takes all the calls,
  • packs the kit into the car,
  • cleans the camera sensors,
  • charges the batteries,
  • liases with the clients,
  • does the shoot on time, in budget and to breif,
  • Goes networking,
  • Does the networking followups,
  • sets up the lights on the shoot,
  • fetches and carries,
  • spends hours in lightoom and photoshop
  • etc….

Well…. it’s actually you. You do all of that – get used to being a polymath!

 

9 – How much do I charge!!!

Possibly the biggest thing they don’t tell you is how much you should charge.

How much do you feel your work is worth? Possibly an impossible question to answer – and even professionals of 20-30 years standing will tell you it’s still a struggle!

The truth is it can be a total nightmare to work out – you clearly need to know how much you need to survive and keep the business running, so you do all those sums and come up with your monthly or weekly amount, then price accordingly.

All well and good – then you get out there and your market aren’t biting… why?

It could be one of a million reasons – are you too expensive, too cheap (that happens… ), have the wrong shots on your website… you don’t know.

Do you have “priced packages” on your website – risking competition nicking them, or do you keep it “price on application”.

Do you go for a day/time rate?

Do you include editing?

How many shots do they get for their money…

AAAAAAARGH!!!

If you’re thinking of going pro – start thinking about this NOW… do your homework, it’s not easy…. is your work as good as that bloke down the road who charges £750/day or are you only worth £300/day…..?

There is no definitive answer by the way…. I do a mix of packages and time deals, depending on what a client needs… preferring the simplicity and transparency of packages.

 

10 – Are you any good at photography?

Oh yeah – can you “really” take a good shot?

You can get so much positive feedback from your friends on Facebook that the actual quality of your work is lost in the drifts of electronic love.

How many terrible singers populate the early stages of X-Factor? They’ve all been told that they are amazing by friends.

Do you want to be that photographer – the one who’s been told by their 1500 friends that the un-level, blurred, poorly composed photo of that ugly boat was “lovely” or a “stunning capture” ?

I saw several of these in my first couple of years of networking – proudly clutching their blurb books of weirdly dressed children against white walls, or cringe-worthy and uncomfortable boudoir shots with white vignettes and spot colouring on the lips. You could see people across the room looking at them in shock – tactfully saying they were nice and trying to get away!

Now to make money, you don’t have start at day 1 matching the quality of £10,000/day photographers with £1000000 studios and teams behind them – but you need to be able to demonstrate, via your portfolio, that you can create a body of work with consistent quality and style.

If your work is “all over the place” style-wise, like we all are at the start, then you’ll confuse everyone. It is, after all, the style they are interested in – they want new photos to look like the ones you did for “Fred Bloggs” in your portfolio – so you should be able to recreate that style for them. it’s your visual CV.

What you will eventually learn is that “niche” is everything – a CEO I saw speaking said “get big, get niche or get out” – he ran the Co-Op and was called Peter Marks. Now finding that niche may take a while – so be prepared to deviate and change your plans till you find it. Be brave and stop doing the things which take ages yet bring in no money. Ask for help when networking – meet people for coffee… find out what’s hot and what’s not… or sound out your ideas…

You need to be able to use your camera like it’s an extension to your body – things like F-stops and shutter speeds are not instinctive and second nature, are you sure you’re really ready to stand in front of a CEO of a huge company and his team – especially if you’re not entirely sure how to set up lighting for their team shot?

Sure things go wrong, have you go the knowledge to recover most situations? If a flash smashes and you’ve only got 1 left, do you know where to put it to get the job done?

 

Phew – we got there…..

So there you go – 10 slightly tongue in cheek things to expect when you quit your job and start your new photography business. I’ll leave it to you to decide which bits are true and which imagined 😉

The truth is that you need:-

  • to be a good or great photographer first, then you can concentrate 100% on the hard job of building the business. If you’re struggling to get consistent results in the simplest of situations, get practising and maybe go pro next year instead?
  • need to be different or special – niche, niche, niche….
  • money to fund the first few years – or live on a friend’s floor rent free.
  • to be a people person to both win work and then to get the best from the people you photograph
  • to love photography – really love photography – you will be doing it a lot, any doubts, stop now!

But most of all – and I hate to say this as it’s such a hideous chiche – you need that positive attitude keep you going when the “nothing” hits your or that client cancels….

Can I Drill Your Teeth?

The answer is of course, yes. Give me a dentist’s drill and I’ll have a good go at it! Never done it before, but I used drills in Woodwork at school, and many times on the farm I worked as a kid.

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Would you let me do it – based on that experience?

I’m guessing not…. and really, you’d be wise to go elsewhere.

Who would you trust?

So who would you trust to take a spinning piece of metal to your most sensitive bits?

  • A joiner – they use drills?
  • Maybe an oil rigger – they use drills?

How about someone who knows what they’re doing and have years of experience doing it – maybe a dentist?

They know what to look for, what needs fixing, how to numb your tooth, how much to “drill” away and then how to fix it. They’ve got some cool stuff these days too – no more syringes…. I digress though!

Choosing someone to drill your teeth comes down to expertise, track record and experience, backed up by testimonials and examples of their work. Dentists just have a lot more tooth drilling experience than the rest of us.

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So why do so many people trust friends or contacts who own cameras with their photography?

Ok – there is no risk in the of extreme pain of drilling too far into your mouth, but the same concept applies to creating images as to dentistry.

We can all use cameras, we do every day when we upload our Facebook lunch photo – or that shot of the dog balancing a Toblerone on its head. It doesn’t mean we’re any good at it – and if you closely inspect most photos your phone takes, they will be soft, lack contrast and desperately need that crazy vintage instagram effect.

Camera is an instrument….

Using a camera compares to being a musician – everyone can probably play a ditty on the piano or strum an E Minor chord on a guitar, but get them to play something more complex and they fall down.

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You need the technical ability to play an instrument – that is learned over years, not the instant you pick one up. So learning how the thing works is essential – and with photography, it’s much more than just hitting that shutter button.

It starts by assessing the ambient light, is it good or do you need to change it… what colour should the added light be…. err… and about 1000 decisions later you hit the shutter.

 

That’s the technical knowledge.

But there’s more to it….

Sure you can “learn” piano to grade 8 and reproduce any notes that appear on a score, in the right order (unlike Eric Morcambe) – but unless you can express feeling and emotion through your playing, you may as well use a sequencer (they’re the things that play midi files – think “robot”).

That’s the differentiator between photographers – the ideas they have, the angles they choose, the position they choose to put their flash(es) in, the arrangement of the location, the “banter” they have with the sitter, the way they interpret the brief, the interaction with the designer or art director.

All this is the creative side of image making – which is totally useless unless you understand the technical side!

Double Whammey Required…

To get the best possible images, you need a technical and creative mind.

  • Just Technical photographers produce perfect soulless photos.
  • Just Creative photographers rely on chance to get their image, and “when” it works, it looks amazing.
  • If you have both, you can visualise AND create that image.

Back to Teeth….

Like drilling too deep into tooth pulp, the pain poor photography can inflict on your business will have repercussions.

  • Poor shots on your website say more about your business than the “content” of the photos – people see them and either they don’t “get” what your message is, or just think they look bad and that’s their first impression formed.
  • Do you want your team sat twiddling their thumbs waiting for an inexperienced photographer to get their act together? Time is money – the experienced photographer will quickly know how to react to a huge array of situations.
  • The inexperienced may have to experiment with the lights and camera in an unfamiliar situation, just to see what happens – wasting not only your time, but also producing unpredictable results – relying more on luck than judgement.
  • Everyone is on Linked IN and Twitter now – if your photo is dull and boring, what impression do you think potential clients will have of you? Experienced people know how to light you and make you look great.
  • Poor product shots never enhance….

Dentists are expensive aren’t they?

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Well they can be – but if the alternative is a Bob the Builder with his Makita drill and 1/8th inch bit – you’d probably agree you’re better off paying to get the job done properly…

And remember – photo may only last 1/200th of a second – but the knowledge to create it may have taken 20 years. Isn’t that experience worth paying for too.

 

5 Yorkshire Coast Photography Locations

Visiting Yorkshire?

The coast is well worth a visit for anyone, especially photographers. Here are 5 places to call into with your camera. All these photos were taken on one day – Sunday 1st December 2013 – during a McFade Photography workshop, proving you can get a huge variety of subject in 20 miles of coast!

Robin Hood’s Bay

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The steep road into fishing village Robin Hood’s Bay takes you through a labyrinth of tiny, steep cobbled streets and colourful cottages. On a bright day, contrasting black and white photos are perfect. This photo is next to the sea wall, using the walls of the alley to frame the brightly lit white building opposite.

As you get to the foot of the hill you’ll see boats, a lifeboat centre and the bay itself. It’s a long sweeping bay with stunning views down to Ravenscar. Photos of The Bay Inn are iconic – if you walk out onto the rocks and find a suitable rock pool, set your tripod low, you can get a prefect reflection of this iconic pub.

 

Whitby

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In Whitby Dracula, goths, steps, Cook and the Abbey are all secondary to Fish and Chips.

Not strictly true, but it’s rare to make visit without checking out one of it’s many fisheries – they all compete to be best, so the standards are high.

There are boats, whale bones, jet, piers and harbour walls, distinct architecture from different eras and much more at this, the busiest and largest of the 5 locations on this list.

Sandsend

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You can see Whitby Abbey from Sandsend – it’s that close.

A long sandy beach with pebbles and attractively shaped cliffs at one end – as seen in this photo.

The main attraction for the photographer are the “groynes”, those wooden sand walls you see along beaches. These ones are old, knurled, sanded and weathered into beautiful curved shapes, revealing the rich wood grain. These are found by the sea wall in the village, alas they were under water yesterday – so we were unable to make the most of them. Best time of day is after high tide as the water is going out. You need to be there when the waves stop reaching the wall so you can stand your tripod safely.

We’d recommend waterproof boots or wellington boots, so you can let the waves pass under the tripod – then when it’s receding into the sea, start the exposure to capture the movement of the foam back to the sea.

Staithes

The highlight for many coastal visitors is Staithes, the definition of a Yorkshire Fishing Village. Steep roads, houses stacked almost on top of each other, a tidal river which has boats banked or bobbing, a harbour wall on which to stand and “that” view made famous by photographers such as Joe Cornish.

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These 3 images are taken in a radius of 300 meters – you don’t have to move too far for a totally different shot.

Also, there’s something about going black and white, or sepia toned, which appeals to me. Maybe it’s because the place has no real modernity about it?

The scene from high above is lovely at all times, but in low light, when the streetlamps come on, it becomes one of the finest scenes in the county.

Saltburn

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And finally, once it goes dark you pack up and go home – right?

Well no – a 25 minute drive from Staithes takes you to Saltburn and Yorkshire’s only pier (that I know of anyway).

A local genius decided to light below the pier – turning this attractive pier into a photographic treat.

Shoot from south to north, you get the red sky from Teeside.

Shoot from north to south, a far darker sky.

Shoot down the pier legs for some crazy perspective shots

Shoot wide lenses, shoot long lenses

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So much choice…

One thing to look out for is sinking tripods – if you’re in a wet sand area,  bed your tripod legs in well before you shoot, or you may notice “slurred” shots!

Conclusion

So there are 5 of the northern gems on the coast – there are far more further south, Scarborough, filey and the stunning Flamborough head, so don’t think this is list is complete. I just think this route is the best for variety and photographic opportunity.

Doing all 5 is certainly an amazing day out for the adventurous and fast moving photographer.

If I had to choose 1, it’d be Staithes – but happily, you don’t have to choose 1!