[by Demetrius Fordham]
Every photographer started somewhere (usually the very bottom). And though it’s difficult to imagine—especially when you’re just kicking off your own career—the truth is that all the successful photographers you admire were all “new” at this too once. That in mind, I tracked down 20+ professional photographers, photo editors, and industry leaders and tapped them for advice on starting out in a new industry, as part of research for my book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Photo School. Below, I’ve summarized their tops tips:
Don’t get crazy with equipment. If you have the money to shell out on fancy pro photo equipment from the outset, then by all means do. But if you don’t, it doesn’t make a difference—the camera don’t maketh the man (or woman). All you need in your starter kit is a solid full-frame DSLR camera (Canon and Nikon are reasonably priced and have easy-to-rent lenses and accessories), a high-quality pro lens with at least a 24–70mm zoom range, and basic tools like a 3-in-1 reflector, a strobe kit, Leatherman, sun-seeker app, and a tripod. Remember, when you’re starting out, your primary focus should be on improving and perfecting your shooting technique.
Find a specialty. While it’s nice to think of yourself as a one-stop shop for every kind of client’s photography needs, it’s hard to succeed as a “generalist” photographer. From a client’s perspective, it’s better for you to be a master at shooting one thing than average at shooting everything. That said, you’ll need to determine exactly what kind of photography you want to do. If it’s not already clear to you, you can find your specialty through assisting on different kinds of productions, research, or merely looking at the kind of photographs you’re drawn to. Or just get out there and explore what you like shooting best. You certainly don’t need to limit yourself, but having a basic specialty will help you build your brand, and allows future clients to understand what you’re all about and what they can expect from you.
Use the resources at hand. You must first have work in order to get work, so utilize whatever resources you have on hand to build your portfolio. (You often have more at hand than you realize). “It’s important to get creative,” says producer Ellen Erwitt of Big Splash Productions. “If you can’t pay for setting up a shoot, find local models who are looking to get portfolio images and head shots who will trade—it’s a sharing economy. You can also use family and friends as subjects, and as extra hands on set.” Many emerging stylists and make-up artists will also be willing to work in exchange for professional photographs of their work (ModelMayhem.com acts as an international directory of stylists and MUAs).
Set goals. While you should develop large, long-term goals for your photo career, setting small, short-term goals are just as significant, especially in the beginning. Even one or two weekly goals (e.g., some in-studio test shoots, and approaching a dream client) will help you inch toward success, and will give you the sense of accomplishment you need to persist when things don’t go your away.
Ask for feedback. There are a number of online forums where you can upload your images and have them critiqued by other photographers and industry leaders. If you’re reluctant to have your work examined by strangers (which is fair—some people visit these critiquing sites with nothing but malice in their hearts), then ask for feedback from industry peers, your local photo organization like ASMP, or a mentor. At some point—preferably when you’ve developed a more robust portfolio—you should attend a formal portfolio review but for the meantime, online and peer feedback is a good start.
Practice. Utilize this time to practice your technique and perfect your craft. Use your camera every day, even when you haven’t been commissioned to shoot anything. You don’t have to head out in pursuit of an award-winning shot seven days a week, the important thing is to just get out there and take pictures, allowing yourself to be inspired and stimulated by whatever hits you. Play with composition and light. Try doing themes: portraits one week, landscapes another week, indoors vs. outdoors. Experiment with multiple settings to learn what effects you like. Practice is the only way to become a better photographer and there are no short-cuts.
Demetrius Fordham is a professional photographer and author of What They Didn’t Teach You in Photo School, available on Amazon and in Urban Outfitters and local bookstores around the country. Check it out for more advice on how to start out and succeed as a photographer today.