There used to be a day when a person could have a great eye and create awesome photographs, and, with a little extra hard work and some luck, make a good living as a professional photographer. Then, as competition grew, maybe it helped to go to college, learn photography even better, take a couple business classes, and you could still make an excellent living as commercial advertising shooter. Nowadays, there are no guarantees. Advertising budgets have shrunk, there is more competition for less work, and digital photography's popularity has managed to devalue the photo industry as the important communication resource it once was.
For these reasons, and others, it has become obvious to many established photo industry professionals that the old paradigm has shifted, greatly. The real unfortunate thing about all this is that many recent photo graduates and other people wishing to make a career change don't seem to understand the challenges they may face, expecting a promising career as a self-employed professional photographer, working for assignment in the advertising field.
We hear it more and more all the time...
- "I got laid off due to budget cuts. I could try photography... I'm pretty good."
- "I've always loved photography. I could become a professional photographer."
- "I did great in school... Can't wait for my first big ad campaign!"
- "Heck, I've shot a few weddings for family and friends."
- "I've always wanted to be my own boss."
- "I LOVE photography... How hard can it be to make a living at it?"
You can add many more scenarios. We know them all.
The digital revolution, as it relates to the photo industry--digital cameras, computers, software, and the internet--has made photography more popular and accessible than ever before, to just about everyone. It seems that there are more aspiring photographers coming into the industry than the market can handle, being produced by colleges that are cropping up all over the landscape. In addition, the down economy, unemployment, restless cubicle dwellers, and shrinking private sector markets are causing many to turn to self-employed, freelance pursuits, like commercial photography. For the most part, I believe, people are mislead by the popularity of digital photography, into thinking that it is easy to become a successful photographer. I know I did, and that was over 15 years ago.
I started assisting a little over 14 years ago. While I aspired to be a shooter right after college, I realized that I didn't have a clue about many business practices within the industry. I came in while film was still dominant, but digital was obviously where things were going. And once I gained a little experience as an assistant and worked with some different photographers, I knew that I had made the right choice. I also learned that I enjoy working in a supporting role to the photographer and amongst the crew. After 9-11, advertising dollars started shrinking and the adverse affects made it seem wise to put-off my then plans to transition into shooting. A few years later, I expanded my assisting services, moved to Los Angeles, and have continued to grow as an assistant until present day. It just worked out that way, and I'm grateful.
Over these last five years, the photo industry has been up and down. Mostly down, for commercial advertising photographers. More and more the output direction has been for web. Budgets have been shrinking. The high-faluting car ads of yesteryear are pretty much gone to CGI. Magazine distribution is down. Expenses are scrutinized to the penny. Stock photography has had an impact. Anyone in this industry who is still around--whether photographer, art buyer, ad agency, art director--are the ones who have adapted and been innovative throughout the paradigm shift. A shift which is still happening, and maybe so for years to come yet. Anyone new coming in has been successful because they understand and know how to work this new paradigm in their position. Even I am challenged, as an assistant, to keep busy with work all the time.
Now, I don't mean to expose such a bleak picture here. But the bottom-line is, that unless you are an awesome photographer, a super excellent business person, have a good chunk of start-up capital, and can hit the ground running as you start your career, you will probably be greatly challenged to be successful in the current state of the photo industry. Business is very tough out there. Many studios, established in business for years, have been forced to cut back drastically to work within the confines of shrinking advertising budgets or, closing their doors completely, unable to embrace the new economy within their familiar business model. Web 2.0 and social media, alone, are enough to send some old-school film shooters into early retirement.
To the already established shooter, the bar has definitely risen. To the emerging photographer, the door is just not as wide-open as it once had been, perhaps. To those graduating from school or changing careers today, this comes as a big surprise. The popularity of photography in our technology-laden culture has mislead them into believing that there are many lucrative jobs out there in commercial advertising. The reality is, that while there may still be plenty of work available, there are less and less well-paying high-end shooting jobs. Gone is the hey-day of the 70's, 80's, and 90's. The sad fact is, that many photographers are working more for less.
However, if you decide to become a photo assistant before jumping in full-speed as a shooter, you will see how everything works, first-hand. Note: Just as an aside, school is great, but no amount of training or business classes will prepare you completely for what the real photography world will throw at you. An internship will give you a taste, but still, not the full enchilada. You will learn as much as you like about gear and equipment and software and technique. You can really perfect your lighting skills and develop your own vision while learning how and why other photographers do what they do. You will see all kinds of relationships within the photography business and see what personalities you click with. You might even be presented with a golden opportunity you would not have otherwise encountered if you hadn't gone the assisting route. You get all this, without even asking for it, while you get paid a decent rate. You will work very hard, but you will work even harder when you become a photographer, running your own studio. I guarantee it!
Now, can you imagine how much more prepared you will be, how much better of a shooter you can be, having experienced everything I mentioned, and more, working as an assistant first? Not to mention that you will be taking little risk as an assistant, compared to running your own studio and producing your own shoots, while weathering the current economic storm and developing your skills.
So, unless you are totally prepared to put out all the unforeseen fires and survive the jolting earthquakes and drowning tsunami's, it might be best to work your way up the ladder, in today's volatile photo industry. As much as everything on the internet and school's try to sell it, not everyone will be the next Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias, or Vincent LaForet. But even these guys work their asses off... I guarantee it! You will have to be a very good photographer, a very good business person, work super hard, and probably be even a little lucky, just to be, maybe, half as successful as these guys. If you are prepared, go for it. If you have any doubts, do some research, and test the water with some photo assisting.
You can start your research at my blog http://aphotoassistant.com where you will find tons of resources to help you figure out where you stand in your photography aspirations, and help you get where you want to be.
© Tim Olsen