A Photographer at Work: The Mistakes Made, the Lessons Learned
As I look back over my own photography career, the key moments that stand out are the creative highlights and satisfaction I got from creating great work while meeting a client’s brief, and the financial rewards that came with that. I can proudly claim to have run a successful and busy freelance photography business, where my experiences included doing everything from the production to the photography to the final retouching. But things weren’t always so rosy.
Having just written the Photographers at Work book about working in the editorial, design and advertising markets, readers might get the impression I made perfect decisions every step of my career. Actually, my own experiences were probably not much different from most other photographers, and I made plenty of mistakes along the way. Some are too embarrassing to recount, but fortunately none were so serious to cause any lasting damage. In fact, making mistakes is all part of the learning curve for any business venture. If you don’t make mistakes, you are probably not challenging yourself enough. Most successful business people will have tripped up big time at some point in their lives, and to fail is almost like a rite of passage.
I first started out at age 24. The first six years were an exciting time in which I managed to build a large, varied client base, and there always seemed to be enough work. My first major crisis, though, came at the end of the eighties at the time of a major recession, which resulted in me struggling to keep afloat. Up until that time, I thought I had been doing well. But the reality was that I had never really managed to make more than a modest profit. Once the downturn hit, I was totally unprepared – the debts soon started to mount up and my career suffered. Looking back, it was a miserable, not to say humbling, experience. To this day it’s made me appreciate what it is like for others to have difficulty making ends meet, but it also drove me on to ensure I would never made the same kinds of mistakes ever again. The main thing I learned was that to be a successful creative, it is important to also have good business management skills. It is hard to get this point across to young photographers who are starting out today, because it is difficult for them to reconcile the role of being creative with being businesslike. But the fact is you either have to accept that responsibility yourself, or find someone (like an agent), who can manage those tasks for you. Because like it or not, you are providing a business service.
The main emphasis in Photographers at Work is on the kinds of things that aren’t always taught, such as how to relate to fellow professionals, what it is clients are looking for, and why you are going to be judged on so much more than just your capacity to create great images. I have sometimes heard these referred to as “soft skills,” and it is the lack of them that is leaving so many young photographers unprepared for the realities of the workplace.
For instance, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. No matter how much you plan and prepare, you never assume everything will run smoothly. I once arrived on location to find the location premises I had booked was shut and there was no sign of the owner. Models have called in sick on the morning of a shoot, and camera equipment has been impounded by customs. However, with the help of my team and contacts, we have somehow always managed to work out a solution to such problems. One of the photographers I interviewed, Eric Richmond, flew all the way from London to Argentina to shoot an opera singer for a magazine, only to be told the singer wouldn’t agree to be photographed because he hadn’t been informed. So Eric had to improvise and photograph tango dancers on the streets instead. These things happen, and you have to able to improvise in such circumstances. Basically, a photographer can only be as good as the people he or she works with.
I learned early on the importance of loyalty. One of my big breaks was to do a week’s shoot photographing for a high street clothing chain in and around various London locations. Because it was an advertising shoot, I had the budget to get in some big-name people to do the styling, hair and makeup. I really should have trusted and hired the people I was familiar working with, because on the first day of the shoot the makeup artist simply walked off the job. Not because of anything anyone had said or done, but because he felt it was time for him to quit the business!
Above all, it’s important to realize that nothing will last forever. No matter how secure things may appear to be now, there are always changes taking place that will require you to adapt accordingly. For example, one of the photographers I interviewed, Carl Lyttle, started out his career shooting still life. When the first serious digital cameras came out, he realized he had to take a risk and invest in the new technology, because he knew if he didn’t he might possibly get left behind. I first met Carl in the early nineties, by which time he had a thriving business photographing and retouching his own work from his Soho studio in London. But after getting commissioned to do a car ad, he found himself getting more similar work, and that then led to him carving out a niche as a location car photographer. This in turn evolved into a career where most of the work he does now involves him taking CGI models of cars from the client and blending these into specially pre-shot location photographs.
The photographic industry continues to change. There are photographers who used to shoot stills, who now specialize in applying their creative skills to 3D rendering work. We have also seen more and more photographers move to shooting video to complement their stills work. Marketing methods have changed too, and while social media tools allow photographers to promote themselves in a variety of ways, this has happened against a backdrop of increasing competition from all sides.
However, my own research suggests there are still opportunities for photographers to build solo careers as creative photographers, but you really do have to specialize in some way. There just isn’t the market now for general practitioner photographers the way there was ten or twenty years ago. Those photographers who are doing well today are doing so because they have the specialist skills to produce high-end work, which can only be done by someone with their level of experience and knowledge.
One can draw similar parallels with the moving image industry. At one level it is possible for people who have very little experience to create their own YouTube videos. You don’t even need a huge amount of money or big expensive equipment to produce an independent movie. Meanwhile, the creative skills and technology that go into making the finest TV and movie productions are now extraordinarily demanding and complex. Of course, the economics within the movie industry are still going to be a challenge. But the point is, this work has to now rely on high-end, specialist-skilled people.
Overall, to be a successful freelance photographer these days the technical and artistic skills are important, but these also have to be balanced with an understanding of the industry you are working in, the subject matter you choose to photograph, and the people you work with.