August 14, 2014
One of the most common questions I'm asked is (to paraphrase) "how do I get started as a pro bike photographer?"
It's a fair question. The trouble is, it always reminds me of a column I read - as a teenage wannabe pro back in the early 1980s - in a photo magazine. The column was a regular written by a press photographer and, on this particular occasion, he was dealing with exactly the same kind of query. He discussed it for a few paragraphs, before concluding (and again, I'm paraphrasing), that if you had to ask the question you probably weren't going to make it as a pro.
That advice has stuck with me ever since and, although it's a tad harsh, it still rings true. One of the qualities a pro photographer needs - now more than ever - is the ability to just get things done. Whether it's pitching for a job, sorting out arrangements for a location or getting the VAT return in on time, there's no-one looking over your shoulder and, for most pros, no guarantee of any work beyond the last job you did.
See where that 80s columnist was coming from?
Still, I'm always happy to give advice when I'm asked. The biggest obstacle is often that the questions are too broadly phrased. For example, I can't possibly answer the question in the first paragraph above without writing a book (maybe I should ;)). But here's some general advice:
- Now is not a good time, so don't give up the day job (or plan B education or training, if that's where you're at). Western economies are struggling. Wages are stagnant or in decline. There's over-supply in the labour market generally, and particularly in photography. As a result, it's a buyer's market. That means competition is fierce, rates are low and there are too many photographers chasing too few jobs.
Still here? ;) OK...
- The gear doesn't matter. Really. Buy the best you can afford, but don't obsess over it. Learn to use it properly. That means knowing what everything on your camera does, as well as being able to shoot full manual (focus, exposure, everything) without getting into a blink funk. Practice, practice, practice. Your gear is just your tool set. Nothing more, nothing less. You should be able to use it with your eyes closed (er, not literally...)
- Take a small business course. This matters, because if you can't figure out how to make the numbers add up you'll never be able to earn a living. Boring, but true. Budget. Do your projections. Keep an eye on cash flow. Don't use credit - only buy stuff you really need.
- Talk to people. Contacts are everything, so don't rely on a great website and a Facebook profile to pull in work (because it won't). Talking doesn't necessarily mean selling - it can just mean letting people know, in a friendly and non-sales-pitch kind of a way that you exist and that you can help them with their photo needs.
- Don't undersell yourself. This is one of the most common mistakes. "I'm just starting out, so I can't charge too much". Look around. What business sets up on the back of under-charging their customers? That's right - succesful startup businesses don't. You'll always find willing clients if you undercut all the competition, but don't kid yourself they'll stick around when you decide to hike your rates to a sustainable level - because they'll simply move on to the next wannabe. You don't want that kind of customer anyway...
- Understand your market. Another big mistake. Just because you love bikes and riding and enjoy taking pictures, that doesn't mean there's a market for your work. What makes your images stand out (from your clients' point of view)? What's your competition up to? Who are your potential clients? How are you going to sell to them? How much do you need to sell to make the sums add up? You need to figure all this out, in exactly the same way as you'd need to research your market if you were (for example) thinking of launching a new //widget// into the marketplace.
- Passion matters, but only to you. Your love of photography, of bikes (or whatever), of being self-employed... it'll help keep you going. But that passion should be in the background. What matters to your clients is that you're professsional (in all senses of the word), creative, able to deliver on time and within budget, and so on. Don't fill the bio on your website with paragraphs about your first camera and how your passion drives everything you do. No-one cares.
You might have noticed I've barely touched on gear, let alone actually taking photographs. That's because 90% of being a pro photographer has nothing to do with either of these things. Surprised? You shouldn't be. If you don't fancy the reality of running a small business on your own, I refer you back to the first bullet point in the list above :)