Saturday, May 26, 2007

Letter to an aspiring photographer

Charles Sng left a comment on my blog asking how he can become a professional photographer. As daily survival as a professional photographer is something I am still struggling with, I am not sure how to reply to this question. But I believe that it is a question worth trying to answer. And there are many genres of photography and different aspirations of photographers.

There are broadly three things to think about when planning a career in photography:

1. The personal aspect. What drives you to be a photographer? Do you like photojournalism, fashion, art photography or commercial photography? And do you want to be a photographer because you have something you think you want to express or is it because you think that there is money in photography?

Being a jack of all trades in photography can be a frustrating experience. Anyone with a digital SLR nowadays can call themselves a professional photographer. This means that if you are going to compete on a price basis, the bottom is the pits. Without a speciality or a skill, you are not able to charge anything more than kids out of school. For kids, anything is pocket money and fun. Once you are trying to be professional, you will have to consider how to pay for the upkeep and upgrade of your camera and now computer equipment. You also have to figure out how to pay for your own housing and food and family if you have one.

2. The technical knowledge to be a professional. As an amateur photographer, it is great when we get a good shot or one that our friends and family like. The advertising for digital cameras nowadays makes things look deceptively simple. But anyone who can pay you a decent wage in photography will be asking that you give them images that are correctly focused, colour corrected, digitally touched up, well lit, well conceptualised, well composed, and of a sufficient size to be used in whatever purpose they need.

I remember my first job for Lasalle-SIA college of the arts, I was ready to deal with tungsten lights but the whole college was lit with fluorescent lights. I had to shoot the library three times because I was not getting a nice colour tone. Fortunately, I had the time and the client was patient enough to let me shoot the same scene repeatedly. With other clients, you will just lose the job.

In America, photographers who come out from a three year degree course in photography, will assist with a established for photographer for five to six years before they even think of opening their own business. We are looking at something like tens of years of training here. And is it worth it? Yes it is. The knowledge of photographers in the States about focus, depth of field, lighting, the technical aspects of photography, cameras and printing are simply outstanding.

Just because you have a 10 mega pixel camera, does not mean you know what a good exposure is, what critical sharpness is, how does one use a flash (even that little on board flash on your camera), and how to give your client what they need or want.

If any of what I have said gives you an insecure feeling, you should join a photography program like in Temasek Polythecnic or ask for an assisting job in a professional studio. There are many situations and challenges photographers face on the ground. And the professional photographer needs to know what the issues are and how to find innovative solutions to the problems. Even for personal work.

3. The Business of being a photographer. Anyone who cannot earn a living as a photographer will not remain a photographer for long.

Whether you are a commercial photographer or an art photographer, you have to find a market for your work. They are a privileged few, like the wives of rich husbands who can run a business at a loss because their partner is sponsoring them.But if you are a normal person, feeding yourself and a family is an issue. This takes work.

Who is your target market? Art buyers? Newspapers? Advertising agencies? Individuals who need portraits? How do you let these people know of your work? Submit your work to magazines? Create a portfolio and send it to an ad agency?
Take out an advertisement in Expat magazine to attract family portraits?

Photography is a business like any other business. You create certain work to gain visibility, you do certain work to pay the bills, you do certain work to grow your own personal vision. You have to balance these needs. It is rare when you have a high profile job that pays you and give you the room to do a personal project. It is funny, but it is well known that many of the award winning advertisements are pro bono work. Where the client pays next to nothing for the campaign, but the ad agency gets full artistic control over the project. In general, clients don't have the balls or vision to commission a cutting edge piece of work.

You have to create value for your client, and you must find a way to let your client know that value and convince them to pay you for it. And even if you have a unique vision, it does not guarantee that other people will immediately buy into it. You have to sell yourself and your vision. And if you cannot sell yourself, you had better find someone who can sell you.

In a book by Paul Arden, he says that it is important that a creative starting a career talk about money. It is more honest.

There is no fairytale success for photographers. Every successful photographer, actually every working photographer I know, works very hard. Fatigue is a common trait amongst successful photographers.

It sounds simple, but you have to earn enough to cover your outgoings and live. But many photographers have no idea about the true cost of running a photography business. Your name cards, your letter heads, your promo material, you computers and software, your hired help, your office rental, all takes financing.

To start, you need to find your unique or at least valuable vision of image making. Then you have to become technically proficient enough to deliver images day in day out on a regular basis. Then you also have to have the business sense to market your work to you target audience.

My two cents worth. Another couple of interesting articles are by my friend Wesley on Starting out in professional photography in Singapore and Alan Briot's article on Being ar artist in Business.


Charles Sng said...

Thank you very very much Ngiap Heng, for your long reply. I think I have to read it several times to think about everything that you had mentioned. I am very grateful for your kindness and effort to write a very sincere reply to a total stranger. I wish you the very best and success in your photography career, and may you be blessed! I have to think really hard for now.....turn right, turn left?? Thanks again!

Heng said...

Hi Charles. I am sorry that I could not give you a text book answer, there are none. You have to come up with your own manual. But hopefully by thinking about all that it takes to become a professional photographer, you can make better choices and have a satisfying career. Just bear in mind, tht even if this is what you want to do, it will be difficult.

Charles Sng said...

Thanks Ngiap Heng! I will always bear these words in mind. Still struggling with my decisions, but I guess even when the decision has been made, there will still be lots of inner (and outer) demons to fight with to stay on the path. It's definitely not going to be an easy path no matter which one I choose, but I have to stay on no matter what. I had placed your blog on my recommended blog list as a small token of my thanks to you. That is the least I can do for now. Thank you again! :)