Getting Started in Professional Photography

There are traditionally two accepted ways of entering a career as a professional photographer. The first is to take a recognised college course and the second is to work as a photographer's assistant where you can learn "on the job" in a form of apprenticeship. It is also perfectly normal for someone who has completed a college course to start out as an assistant before going on to become a professional photographer in his or her own right.

For those of you who have come to photography a little later there is no need to despair if it is too late for college as there are plenty of photographers who are managing very well without having followed that path. I shall cover breaking into professional photography if you are a late starter later in the document.

Selecting a College Course.
If you are fortunate enough to enjoy photography at an early stage in your life then you may decide to study at college on leaving school. You must select the right course to ensure that you make the most of what really is a precious opportunity. Not all courses are the same unfortunately. The best courses are those that not only teach you the basics of the job and help you to start developing your own creative style, but one that can help you to get you foot on the first rung of the career ladder. There are many courses that have good links with the photography industry and as part of the course you will find yourself gaining work experience alongside professional photographers through industrial release. Business contacts are very important no matter what industry you choose to work in and photography is no different. The more contacts that you can make whilst at college the easier it will be to get that illusive first position in the outside world at the end of your course. Therefore it is vital that your college offers maximum assistance in this area.

It almost goes without saying that there is no point in taking a course that fails to cover the areas of photography that you are particularly interested in. Study the course contents carefully and don't try to fool yourself into believing that everything will fall into place when the course starts. If something is not clear in the list of contents then check it out and follow it up. Make sure that you are going to get what you want out of the course.

You will certainly want to meet your tutor before signing up to a course. You must prepare thoroughly for this meeting and be ready to ask the questions that you need to so that you know this is the right course for you. You should also take this opportunity to talk to other students who are already on the course. Find out how they are getting on. Are they enjoying the course? Does the course cover the areas that they thought it would when they signed up? What work placements have they been on and how easy was it to set these up? Are they confident that they will find work at the end of the course with the help of the college? Have they enjoyed the course?

Before you commit yourself it is also vital that you are happy with the facilities and equipment that will be available to you. Things to look out for include what access will you have to equipment. What equipment is available? Is the equipment kept up to date and in good working order? How is the studio equipped? How big is it?

By the time you complete you college course you must be:
1. On your way to being able to take the type of pictures that sell.
2. Understand how the industry works.
3. Have a grasp of how to market your work.
4. Be able to get a job in the photography industry, preferably as an assistant.

Getting A Job As A Photographer's Assistant.
This isn't easy. In fact it is very hard and the competition is tough. You need determination and if you are put off by the first rejection then don't even consider a career in photography. You will notice that I haven't even mentioned the fact that you need to be a budding photographer with some ability. That I'm afraid comes down the list. The fact is the determination and the refusal to be put off by rejection will be even more important to you when you take the next step which is setting up on your own. Photographers can be very busy people. Be ready for some blunt rejections. Always keep in your mind that if 200 photographers turn you down, but the next one gives you a job then you have the result you are looking for. Having said that if you are constantly being rejected then you had better take a long look at how you are presenting yourself.

There are many advantages to working as a photographer's assistant. Not only will you learn how an established professional handles a shoot and the type of photographs he creates, but you will also have plenty of opportunities to see at first hand the other side of the business. How he or she markets their business, how to deal with clients so that they come back again. Then there are the suppliers, invoices, plus all the people that may be encountered on a shoot such as models and make up artists. Basically you get to see the complete business warts and all.

The big question is how to get that first job in assisting. As I said earlier if you have been through college then this should certainly make the process a lot easier, but what if you haven't? Basically you have no choice, but to take a big leap and start making contacts. Before you jump off and do that you have to think about how you are going to present yourself. Any up and coming photographers needs a portfolio. I would recommend having both an offline and an online one. A standard portfolio for starting out is a simple black leather binder that you can easily add and remove shots from. A basic portfolio such as the Panodia Printibook can be picked up for about £25. If you can afford to you may wish to pay a little more than this. Other makes to look out for are Nubuk from around £40, Plastic Sandwich from around £65 and Grosvenor from around £90. Obviously you can pay a lot more, but I think that there are other things to spend your money on when you are struggling to start out such as food and lodgings. You don't need hundreds of photographs to get started. Be highly selective. Pick only the best. That should leave you with the ten, fifteen or twenty stunning photographs that will get you noticed. With the emphasis on quality it is worth having the photographs that will be in your portfolio professionally printed. You will also need some business cards to leave with the photographers that you visit or even better a photo card.

Online I would certainly recommend your own website or rent space on an established site. Shop around though as although you need a reliable site that is easy to navigate you don't want to pay over the odds for it. I am aware of sites charging £250 +VAT per year for 12 images in a gallery or £500 per year to use a template driven website. Avoid these unless you have very deep pockets. An online presence certainly helps you to get noticed which must not be underestimated. A web address on a business card won't turn you into a high earning professional overnight, but it will help you to create a professional image and stand out from other aspiring photographers. If it helps you to get your foot in the door then it's certainly worthwhile.

Right so now that you are armed with your portfolio it's time to select some photographers and start making contact. I would recommend finding photographers who are fairly local to you, but more importantly specialise in an area of photography that you are interested in. There are two ways of contacting them, either by telephone or email. If you choose email then you really must have your work on the web. The next step after making contact is to set up a meeting with them. The point of the meeting is to discuss what they do, how they managed to break through and what you have achieved to date. Even if you have contacted them initially via email then you need a portfolio to take with you when you visit. Don't expect to be offered an assistant's position just because you have paid a visit. The point of this is to build contacts and to pick up advice that might be useful to you later. Therefore you will need to approach a good number of photographers. If you impress them then in time, when a position comes up, you stand a very good chance of getting the job. Don't forget that photographers talk to other photographers and if you have made the right impression then this could lead to further doors opening.

If you have a unique selling point that will make you stand out from other people who are competing against you to get work as an assistant it will be a tremendous help to you. One thing that could help you enormously is if you develop skills in digital imaging and Photoshop. Not every photographer knows enough about what is now becoming a key area. Those skills could certainly make you very attractive to a photographer.

If this is an avenue you would like to explore try taking a look at You can add your details and a large number of photographers visit the site looking for help.

Getting Started On Your Own
Well this isn't easy whether you have been to college, worked as an assistant or you are trying to jump in at the deep end and sell photographs yourself. There are many options from opening your own studio, to selling your photographs to magazines. There are also people who may be able to help you on your way, stock libraries and photographic agencies for example.

Getting Published in a Magazine
Selling your existing work or being hired for a shoot by a magazine is almost certainly the best way to get that foot in the door. It's a path that many photographers before you have tried and been successful with. Editors and art directors are surprisingly open minded about new talent. After all what they are after are the best shots available for their publication. The last thing that they want is to open a competitors magazine and find that the photographs leave theirs behind. When you are starting out it is not that importatnt what magazine or newspaper will print your work. The important thing is to get yourself published even if you are only paid a minimal sum or perhaps not paid at all. It gives your portfolio a real boost. What you need to do is buy magazines that cover your areas of speciality. Check out the type of photograph that they like to publish and then make an appointment to see the editor or the art director and make your pitch. If this sounds overwhelming then just think that unless you try you are not going to succeed.

Photographic Competitions
Another area to try that will get you noticed is by entering photographic competitions. Enter as many as you can find. Clearly ones with the widest coverage are best, but smaller ones may be less competitive when you are starting out. You never know where winning a competition will lead to. It really is a case of getting out there and getting your work known.

Photographic Agents.
Another avenue to try is to find a photographic agent. Again they are always on the look out for promising photographers. They will be able to help you to sell your work and can also advise you on many aspects of the business. A good agent will go with you when you make a pitch and provide you with support. They want to help you to win work. One thing to be aware of is agents that ask for a retainer up front. Find yourself one that works on a commission only basis. They will be prepared to work that much harder on your behalf.

Other Photography Courses.
There are plenty of additional photography courses that can help you improve as a photographer. There are so many available that it is difficult to find the right one. The Bureau of Freelance Photographers offers a course that focuses heavily on the all-important marketing aspect of being a freelance photographer. The course is targeted at helping you to produce pictures that will appeal to magazines, book publishers, newspapers, and calendar and card producers. It costs £275 and is a home study, two-year course. Further details can be found at The Bureau of Freelance Photographers

Other Resources.
There are two books that I recommend you buy. Buy them both if you can afford to.

Photos That Sell

Photos That Sell

This book is aimed directly at photographers who are looking to build a business. It does give tips on technique, set-up and composition, but just as importantly it provides comprehensive advice on markets and marketing. The author is Lee Frost who has written many very useful photography books. Excellent.

Basically the Freelance Photographer's bible. It contains contact details of who to send your photographs to, what they are really looking for, what format to shoot in and how much you can expect to be paid.

If you live in the London area then I would certainly take up the offer of a free careers talk from the Association of Photographers. The talks are held on the first Thursday of each month at 3.00pm at the AOP. This is an informal question and answer session with a professional photographer. You are encouraged to take your portfolio along too. For more details call the AOP on 020 7739 6669.

The road to becoming an established professional photographer is not an easy one. The most important thing is willpower. There will almost certainly be times when you wonder if it is all worth it. Try not to become downhearted and disillusioned. Make as many contacts as you possible can. It takes time. Go out there and do it.

Sometimes just when you think it is never going to happen the door opens and it is all worthwhile.

Good luck.


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