Photography as a career?

Discussion in 'Business of Photography' started by nick_ventura, Jan 16, 2015.

  1. Hi guys,
    I am 18 years old and right now I'm a freshman attending the University of Rochester to study Optical Engineering but I have a huge interest in photography. My first semester was very hard and I am starting to realize that engineering isn't for me. I am thinking about pursuing photography as a career and am looking around to other schools in the country to study photo. One school that stands out is RIT right here in Rochester. I would major in advertising photography and possibly do a minor in business. But I am concerned about the job market after school. I know photography is basically free lance which would be fine with me but I am curious as to how people acquire jobs and how I can stand out from the rest. Can anyone give me any suggestions as to what school I should go to or any strategies to use with this route as a career. I would like to do more lifestyle or fashion photography but my main love is surfing and the ocean. My website is Thanks!
  2. I stood in your shoes (somehow). I applied for apprenticeships to learn photography as a craft (which wasn't unusual here in Germany in 1988). - I wasn't familiar enough with working routine (any imaginable job) to sound convincingly enthusiastic about it to potential employers during interviews.* -So I ended studying something without success and did another apprenticeship way later. No photo career right now; my longterm employers lost the studio job I did in between.
    Your plan sounds not bad. - I'm not sure about the balance needed later in life. - Might a major in business & selfpromotion be needed and the photographic part be the minor one?
    Over here the average employed photographer is supposed to outstarve competitors lusting after that job. I met a couple of people who dropped out. (at least 75, maybe even 90%(!) of the apprenticeship finishing journeymen used to drop out in the 80s
    The trick to get jobs is "networking" + happening to know the right people + volunteer work to have something like a portfolio to show. - BTW volunteering is best done following another journalist type. Writers are more rare than shooters and that way likely to tow you into a paid job.
    Back in the days I volunteered for student magazines at highschool & uni. - There was a phase when I covered volunteer journalist gigs (concerts) with another guy I met at a bookshop who got his interviews & our tickets via campus radio's letterhead. My paid jobs as product photographer and 3rd & second stills shootewr were networked via my ex neighbor.
    Suggestion: put a tentacle into the volunteer theater and local music scene too. - There is always hope something could grow from there. - Knowing aspiring models is also a good idea.
    Be barely ever seen without a camera or at least an exposure meter worn as tie substitute.
    Good luck
    *= the issue that broke my neck was a gap in my CV: I hadn't spent a summer / winter showing up at the assembly line in time and doing overtime shoveling s***, I wasn't interested in. - Not sure if they'll ask about such after college but its essential when you leave school for a job or apprenticeship. - I only had done some 8h/ month on the side jobs to brag about back then.
  3. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Here's some things to think about. Acquiring clients is easy compared to most of the business issues you will run into.
    1. In the last two years, the number one question I am asked is if I also shoot video. Nobody asked this five years ago.
    2. You have to be really comfortable being a collections agent who doesn't alienate the people you are collecting from if they are going to be repeat clients. Getting jobs is easy compared to collecting from some clients. I've had to sit in a big client's office asking for cash because a check bounced at the same time as I'm asking to shoot the next event.
    3. You have to understand cash flow more than anything else in business, because if you spend more than you make, you're finished unless you have a rich aunt.
    4. Most professional photographers I know make some of their income from something other than doing photography, like writing about or teaching photography.
    5. Marry someone with a steady income for the long term unless you want to supplement photography with some other way of making money.
    Personally, I've stopped looking for most photography work and now write, although not about photography. Writing pays less on an hourly basis but works out far better in terms of cash flow and on actual hourly pay.
  4. My recommendation is to get an education in a marketable trade or profession. Welding, accounting, plumbing, electrical, anything that you will enjoy more than loathe, and use your photography as an avocation, which may become your occupation, but don't count on it.
    There are a lot of fields that don't require the advanced math and sciences that are required for engineering.
    When I was in graduate school (MBA) following engineering school (BIE) there was a fellow student who had a PhD in Aerospace Engineering but lost his job when the space program slowed down. He was studying for an MBA in accounting, and did not plan to disclose his PhD on his resume for fear of appearing "over qualified."
    Get a good education in an area in which you are suited, and get a well-paying job, and then you can do whatever you want in the "art" world.
    Consider also how many of the publication houses (magazines, newpapers) have terminated their photography staff and are welcoming submissions by cellphone cameras.
    I don't want to discourage you, but at 18 you are at a crossroads. Consider all your options and choose as wisely as you can with the life experience you have and with your intuition. As some might say: "Ask the 'universe' and listen carefully!"
    Best wishes.
  5. Jeff really knows what he's talking about! From my personal experience (7 years a full-time pro in my youth, 38 years writing, mainly translation, since), I can confirm this. I last did professional photographic work about 15 years ago, I found on a hour-by-hour basis (and in a small provincial town in the UK) I was making 20, maximum 25% as a photographer or photography writer of what I was making as a technical translator. To become a photographer, you need to be so passionate about photography that you wilfully ignore what people like Jeff say.
  6. SCL


    I can't speak as a professional photographer. I can speak as a person who has hired, fired, and trained lots of people in a long business career in a highly competitive field. At 18 it is tough to make a lifetime commitment to anything. RIT is an outstanding technical school, but I can't speak for the photography component. Education is critical, however you secure it, as well as being able to make contacts and selling your skills. A top notch education, however, usually only cracks open the door for an interview, because the employer or client respects the reputation of the school. Selling yourself is usually much harder, and being in the right place at the right time with the right skill set is usually what pays off. In addition to the sound info given above, whatever you decide, take some business courses! You may be thinking "artistic" but the bottom line really is that whatever you end up doing, will be running or participating in a business to make a living...and the more skills you bring to the table, the potentially better outcome for you in the long run. Good luck in your endeavors, and I am sure others will have lots of equally useful information to help decide how best to proceed.
  7. My two cents. (At 18 I was not mature enough to have followed this by the way.)
    Invest four years in becoming qualified for a "regular" job. Tough it out in engineering, become a nurse or physician's assistant or just get a great undergraduate degree. Do that first. Then pursue your photography until you are either a success or decide to make it a wonderful hobby.
    There are few staff photographers anymore so expecting a job with a salary is probably not realistic. You like surfing and the ocean. Be realistic with yourself and ask if there is enough paying work to keep you going in this field. Fashion photography is a great club to be in but it is a hard one to break into.
    What freelance photographers do for a living is SELL their photographic services. See the word in bold. Controversial as it may sound, in all but the most extreme cases, salesmanship trumps talent. A great salesperson who is a good photographer will earn far more than a great photographer without the sales skills to land the jobs. You will literally have to learn to pound the pavement to get jobs. You can't put up a website and add on craigslist and expect the world to beat a path to your door.
    So how about this. You commit yourself to college in a big way. Leave photography school for the future and study it when you can using online sources and assisting working pro's on the weekends. In your spare time try to sell your services. See if you like doing that. Not just getting lucky but actually making your portfolio and going out to sell yourself. It won't take long for you to discover whether you have what it takes to LIKE being a professional photographer. You have to love the business. Taking the pictures, as joyful as that may be, is jut the payoff.
  8. Everyone here seems to be sharing the same tune, and I will jump on board...
    At 18, I too wanted to be a photographer, but discovered that one really needs a funded "real job" to make ends meet. So I went into medical imaging; X-ray, CAT scan and M.R.I. The healthcare field keeps a roof over my families' heads and food in our stomachs. I shoot on the weekends, and during vacations. I have built up a bit of a client base over 30 years, but still not enough to fly without the net.
    So, I concur, stay with your studies and work into the photography field in your "spare" time. I would also advise, do not burn bridges, and always keep any licensures in effect. Life always keeps happening, and you never know when lightning will strike (for good or bad).
  9. 4. ''Most professional photographers I know make some of their income from something other than doing photography, like writing about or teaching photography.''
    +10 on that Jeff! Years ago, I had to learn Quality Assurance and Supply Chain Mgmt to be able to make ends meet. I had to learn to be a better writer so that I could write magazine articles to go along with my shots. Recently, I taught myself stock trading to supplement my photography. Trying to use photography as 100% of our income is a tough task.
  10. Have to agree with others here. I would concentrate on getting a degree in something more likely to land you a good job than photography. I earn a living as a graphic designer and have done some commercial photography work, but I wouldn't want to have to rely on it to support me. It's not a good time. Everyone and their uncle has a digital camera, and standards are down. I see it as a designer. Publications print low-quality images all the time. They didn't do this years ago when I started out. I have to fight for quality now. People don't care anymore. They're happy with iPhone images, and so many photos are viewed at 72 ppi on the internet anyway.
    My niece and her boyfriend both went to RIT. They were in communications department. The boyfriend is earning a very good salary working for Adobe. This is just a couple of years after graduation. The niece is doing well working for a printer in Manhattan. You can do things in creative fields and earn decent money.....if you are not the artist. Another case in point: my husband is a musician. All the people around him (record company, bookers, agents, promo people) made more money than he did over the years.

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