If you've been awake at all in the last 10 years you've likely noticed the rapid advancement of imaging technology in consumer products. From the camera in your mobile phone to the DSLR cameras that cater to beginners and enthusiasts alike. Photography has truly become a medium for the masses. The cost of entry has plummeted and now every member of your family can express themselves with the click of a button (hardware OR software). Smartphones and social media are largely responsible for this transformation. We're connected to one another like never before and now images are telling the stories of our daily lives...... Hey, remember when you needed to talk to people in person or on the phone? Ya, that was pretty neat.
What does this transformation mean to the amateur looking to trade up the office job for a career in photography? I ask myself this question often, as I too fit into the category of an amateur photographer looking for a professional landing pad. I spend a lot of my time planning shoots and researching various techniques for executing my vision. At the end of the day I'm still driven by passion though - the urge to capture my ideas and share them with the greater community. Fact is, you can't live on passion. You need a steady stream of income to keep your lights on and your belly full. So, where do we start? How does passion transform into income?
Here's what I've observed about the industry, and some of these things are fairly obvious. Keep in mind that these are observations and not recommendations. The path is ultimately yours to travel. Success can often be about who you know just as much as what you know.
1) The market is saturated. If you need an image and are willing to pay for it you don't need to look far to find a cheaper (if not free) option. To be blunt, the value of this medium has been pulverized. Demand for professional images is still healthy but the supply has grown considerably. This drives prices down and essentially creates a buyers market. If it was difficult to get exposure in the past it's become exponentially more difficult now for the opposite reasons. There's a lot of noise to get above and too many avenues to explore. The industry is suffering from serious overexposure. Is all hope lost then? No, I don't think it is. If you're passionate about what you do and pour that creative energy into your work it will show. Focus on quality, not quantity and share your very best work. You'll eventually find that you climb out of the noise and earn an audience.
Speaking of an audience, here's something for you to ponder. How many times have you been browsing your favourite community or photographer site, seen an image you absolutely love and then proceeded to actually purchase a print or digital download of it? My guess would be not very often. You probably "Liked" or shared it and moved on. The recipient of that like won't necessarily be earning income from your interaction, but they are cashing in on another currency - popularity. For good or bad this currency has influenced our digital lives significantly. The pursuit of recognition has become an obsession for many and I won't pretend to be immune from it myself. With exposure comes the opportunity for a larger community of supporters/followers and potential investors. That brings me to the next observation....
2) Contributing to the community. You can have a truly outstanding portfolio but if you're not prepared to sell yourself then you're likely going starve in isolation. You need to work hard to refine your product and then share your experiences and techniques back to the greater community. Thought leadership is a very powerful thing. You may think that giving away your knowledge for free is a poor strategy but in reality it's not about the techniques, it's about building your personal brand and establishing trust with a greater audience. This is also applicable to your paid gigs. Customer service alone can be the difference between a single transaction and a repeat customer for years to come. Once you've built these relationships (with customers and followers alike) you'll be in a much better position to monetize your knowledge. This is often in the form of workshops, video tutorials, books and private sessions with willing clients (privacy usually equals premium). It clearly requires talent and hard work to get to this stage, so don't rush it - earn your stripes. People have to love what you create and desire the skills to replicate it. Is this the only way to make money? Of course not, but it is about capitalizing on the market needs. People don't want the fish any more, they want the knowledge and a net.
3) Focus your brand but expand your reach. Let me try to explain my thoughts on this statement. You've probably heard numerous reputable photographers speak on the importance of consistency in your style and subject matter. It helps anchor you to a particular deliverable or aesthetic that's appealing to a potential client. Although I completely agree with that mentality I also feel you should explore as many subjects as possible. You probably shouldn't showcase ALL of the various subjects in your portfolio but you should become as dynamic as possible to keep your schedule filled. Shoot portraits, shoot events, shoot weddings, shoot food (maybe you'll get to eat it when you're done) ! Keep learning new techniques that are appropriate for different subjects, it can only strengthen your overall marketability. Getting those odd jobs outside of your normal subject matter may be the difference between an great month and a poor one. It goes without saying that MANY photographers have survived for years within a particular niche, but I guarantee they had to start with the odd jobs too. Just keep in mind that the market is flooding and your niche is probably under attack by a new generation of photographers. Get ready to adapt....
If you're interested in becoming a professional photographer it's probably rooted in a strong love of the art and creative process. It's that euphoric feeling you get when you've captured something special - where all the elements come together for you. You definitely need to nurture that desire to make it work these days. Be prepared for a long road and stay as agile as you can while strengthening your brand. You won't always be shooting what you love most but you'll be shooting, and that's entirely the point. And don't forget, your network and customer experience is just as important as knowing where to place that strobe. Learn, share and grow, friends.
Best of luck, to all of us.