We’ve read on your blog that this has been your most successful attempt at becoming a professional photographer. What has made the difference? I think there were a lot of things that made a difference. I had to make this work, coupled with other bits and pieces which happened to go my way; I made some contacts at the end of 2011 which were very helpful. One of the things I never stopped doing when I was working a corporate job was I would go shoot commercial assignments on and off, it was just that those jobs took a back seat to my professional work.
If you don’t enjoy what you do, especially given the amount of time we spend at the office these days, I think there’s a bit of a problem. So I guess that realization dawned on me. The amount of time I was spending at my corporate job just wasn’t worth the dissatisfaction or the pay. And here we are. What are the major challenges facing professional photographers today? If you’re a professional photographer you have to make a living out of it. The problem we face now in this commercial reality is that clients are not paying. Social media and proliferation of digital cameras is basically killing professional photography; you end up having people saying that they can take photographs with an iPhone and Instagram.
There’s no appreciation for how difficult some of these shots actually are, and as a result it’s tricky to justify your price. Most of the time, professional photographers are seen as nothing more than contractors. Never mind the fact that it’s not a simple processdriven thing, there’s an artistic element as well. And if you don’t get that right, the whole thing can turn out to be a disaster.
But the reality is, being a photographer these days isn’t so much about taking pictures – there are three factors. One, it seems to be how well you market yourself, and two, it seems to be about how many useful contacts you can make, and three, there has to be other income apart from photography, because commercial work and the commercial market is dying.
I think the one place where professionals can survive is by picking a niche and becoming very good at it, and that’s what I’ve done personally. But even so, we’re facing an uphill struggle. And increasingly we have to find other ways of diversifying our income. So what kind of advice would you give a young person who’s looking to become a photographer? Assuming that I haven’t put you off completely already – put it this way, it took me four attempts to get it right and even now I’m kind of barely hanging on. I’m not sure that I’m going to be doing this in another year, simply because I have no idea what direction the market is going to go in. But the reality is that there could be a huge gap between what you make out of photography, and what you could make out of doing something else is. I probably make a third of what I did previously, the reason why I do it is because I can’t stand doing anything else. Pathologically I just need to take photographs; that’s just me.
But if you’re coming into it now, I’d say pick a niche, become very good at it, and then even if you’re very good at it, your contacts are going to matter more.
If I’d just bought a camera and said I was going to be a professional photographer, I would be kidding myself. Because in order to get work you either start doing it for free or you do it for cheap. And people get into this spiral where you start competing on price and before you know it, you’re just killing yourself, because you go to work 30 days a month, and then you’re flat out. And you can’t work 30 days a month anyway because you have to take into account post-processing time; you have to take into account administrative stuff like chasing payments and things like that.
You know I don’t think people consider this; one day of shooting time is backed up by four or five days of other stuff. For every day I shoot, there are four or five days of backend work; whether it’s production meetings, or it’s post-processing, all those kinds of things. It’s not as simple as people think it is.
And there’s the whole other issue of running a small business. The number one thing that kills most small businesses is cash-flow. People fail to take into account that you’re not going to get paid the day you do your work or even the day you deliver it. It’s probably going to be a good two to three months before you’re seeing cash. So if you can’t survive that then you’ve got a bit of a problem. What is the difference to you between a good photograph and a great one? I think it’s important to remember that photography is subjective, so what you like may not be the same as what I like and there’s no right and there’s no wrong. The next thing to remember is that it’s a two-part dialogue as well. It’s not just you; it’s also the person viewing.
There are only four basic things you need to make a great photograph. One is interesting light, which means good quality light that’s directional, helps to highlight the subject and isn’t flat, isn’t boring. You need to have a clear subject, if you don’t know what the photo is about, then nobody looking at it will know what it’s about.
You need to have some aesthetic sense of composition, laying elements out in your subject in such a way that firstly it’s aesthetically pleasing, and secondly, that it makes sense from a story-telling point of view. And that’s not so easy, because a lot of the time you’re not fully in control of everything, which means you’ve got a lot of moving pieces. Where most people fail is that they’re very focused on one thing and that one thing ends up being smack-bang in the middle of your frame, and everything else kind of falls by the wayside.
The last thing I think is the toughest thing to get right, and it’s also the most important; it’s what I like to think of as the idea. If you shoot something and you show me the photograph, am I seeing the same thing you were seeing when you shot it? There’s got to be a concept, or a certain feeling that you’re trying to project. And if you have those four things, it’s fairly certain you’re going to get a good image out of it.