2015 Photographer’s Market Preview: What It Means to be a Photographer by Vik Orenstein

How to Become a Professional Photographer

2015 Photographer's MarketSo you want to become a professional photographer. Do you know how to do it or what that even means in the digital age, when so many people have access to a DSLR and can dabble in selling photos? In her article “What It Means to be a Photographer,” Vik Orenstein discusses how to become a professional photographer with all that it entails. Learn how to run a photography business and how becoming a photographer will affect your life. You can read an excerpt of the article below. Read the complete article on ArtistsMarketOnline.com or in the 2015 Photographer’s Market.

Keep creating and good luck!


What It Means to be a Photographer by Vik Orenstein

baby portrait by Michelle Frick

An example of a baby portrait by Michelle Frick. With the proliferation of digital capture, photographers are no longer at the mercy of labs to control the look of their direct color images. The result has been an explosion of exciting creative techniques like the high contrast and high color saturation we see here.

A lot of people say they want to be a photographer, but what do they really mean when they express this desire? Who do people think a photographer is, and what do they think he does?

Basically, most people think a photographer is a visual artist. They imagine a photographer spends most of his time shooting pictures and editing images in a digital darkroom; he makes a lot of money; he gets to work with gorgeous models and glamorous advertising people and brilliant architects and other talented types; he gets to use cool equipment and travel to exotic locations; and he gets to see his work in magazines and advertisements. All this, and he gets to set his own schedule!

Well, this is all true … about 20 percent of the time. But the other 80 percent of being a photographer falls into other categories that may seem more mundane at first glance.

So if being a photographer isn’t exactly what people think it is, what is it?


Is being a photographer all it’s cracked up to be, or is it a case of “be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it”? As in all professions, there is good and bad.

The Pros

•    The Gear: I admit it—photography equipment is amazing and exciting! A fast lens with (as we say in the business) “good glass” is truly a thing of beauty. A new camera bag, with its cunning storage compartments and Velcro and pockets can give me a rush. If you aren’t a gearhead when you start shooting, you will be one soon.
•    The Money: Sure, it fluctuates. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. But when you pull down $17,000 for one stock image, make $1,600 for a day’s work, have a $6,000 portrait sale, or get $4,500 for shooting a wedding, none of that seems to matter.

. . . .

The Cons

•    The Uncertainty: Let’s face it—we don’t go to eight years of graduate school and get a degree that tells the world we are certified photographers. We don’t get any fancy initials after our names like Esq. or Ph.D. or D.V.M. or D.D.S. So we have to settle for acting certified. Like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, we have the brains but without a diploma we might not believe it.
•    The Wet Belly: My colleagues who shoot nature have a phrase for going out at dawn and lying down in the grass to get great images. They call it “wet belly photography.” The fact is, we often have to do things that we most certainly didn’t sign up for to get the shots we need: stand in raw sewage, get charged by angry rhinos, stick Spam sandwiches to paper plates with toothpicks and superglue. It’s a dirty job sometimes.

. . . .


wedding photography by Hilary Bullock

The trend in wedding photography is toward an edgier, more artistic, more editorial style as we see in this example by Hilary Bullock.

“I became a photographer in part because I didn’t want to be a businessman,” says fine art and commercial photographer Doug Beasley. “But you can’t be a photographer without being a businessperson. Not if you want to stay in business very long.”

Unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy. Then by all means, go ahead and have shoddy business practices. Don’t worry about anyone ever buying your work. Charge too much or charge too little, don’t answer your phone, don’t return calls and don’t deliver anything on time. Knock yourself out. But for the rest of us, good business practices are as important to our success as our creative talent. You may be a photographer today, but no matter how brilliant your work is, if you still want to be a photographer tomorrow, you must concern yourself with every aspect of your business.

. . . .


All photographers have an obligation to tell their subjects’ stories whether they shoot sports or pets, nature or war. Photojournalists portray the horrors of the battlefield so that perhaps one day there will be peace. They risk their lives to this end. The rest of us, working under significantly less danger, have the same obligation to tell our subjects’ stories. Whether it’s a simple portrait, an architectural image or a fashion shot, we must strive to see our subjects and record their story in the context of their culture, their place in time and history.

. . . .


We have a tendency to think that as photographers we’re selling our images, that our pictures are our product. But we are mistaken.

“When someone hires you for a job, they’re not buying your images, because after all, you haven’t even shot them yet. No, they’re buying you,” says Doug Beasley. “One of my recent commercial clients told me he chose me over the other hopefuls because I talked to him about how I wanted to shoot the job, and the others had talked to him about their equipment, their technology.”

. . . .


A portrait photographer often sees her clients when they’re feeling very stressed out: They’re agitated from getting the kids together and pulling Dad away from the golf course and getting the dog to and from the groomer and getting everyone and everything to the photo studio in one piece. They’re worried about whether their kids, husbands, dogs, and hair will cooperate. They deliver themselves into your studio frazzled and anxious. They need reassurance and encouragement, and not from just anybody—they need it from you, their family photographer. And if they don’t get it, it doesn’t matter if you’re Annie Leibovitz—you will not get good results.

. . . .


nature photography by Kerry Drager

A nature shot by Kerry Drager. Photos like this one are most likely to be sold through a stock agency.

“The sad fact is that a lot of what we do is just not creative,” says Bob Pearl, summing up the sentiments of almost every photographer I interviewed. “When you’re shooting a boat catalog, for instance, they often want the same shots, shots so you can see the seating in the boat. There are only so many angles you can use and still show the seats.

“You can get in a rut because people start coming to you because you do a certain look or technique, and it’s new and it’s great, and you’re excited and the clients are excited. But then that’s all anyone wants you to do, and it’s not so exciting anymore. But it still pays the bills, so you can’t stop.”

. . . .


Photographers are at the mercy of the changing economy, the marketplace, styles and trends, and technological advancements just as farmers are at the mercy of the weather.

The photography business is a little like that child’s game “Button, button, who has the button?” The child puts a button in her hand, puts her hands behind her back, wildly passes the button from hand to hand, then brings her little fists forward, and asks you to guess where the button is. Similarly, you need to know in which photography specialty the button (i.e., the income potential) is. But just as in the child’s game, the button doesn’t stay in one place forever. Events happen in the industry that suck the money right out of one area and pop it into another.

. . . .


You need to honestly, constantly, and almost brutally critique your own work. Compare it to the work of established photographers whose work you admire. Is yours as good? If not, why not? Figure out why. This is exactly how photographer/author/instructor Jim Zuckerman did it.

“In the seventies, I looked at a book of photographs by David Muench. I thought his work was brilliant! I looked at my photos, and they weren’t as good—by my own assessment. So I had to figure out why.”

. . . .


“Start now,” says Jim Zuckerman. “If you wait until you can compete with the masters, you’ll wait forever. I look back at my work from ten years ago, and I cringe. I think, What was I thinking? Photography skill and artistry is a maturation process. There’s no shortcut. It continues for the life of the photographer. It’s like medicine—there are a million different medical situations, and there are a million different photographic situations. Every patient is different, every sunset is different. I’d rather have a doctor operating on me who has done one thousand operations before, not three. It’s the same with photography. The longer you’re at it, the better you’ll be as long as you continue to realistically and honestly critique your own work.”

. . . .


A wildlife shot by Lewis Kemper

A wildlife shot by Lewis Kemper

What if we don’t have visual awareness—a natural ability to “see”? There are many in the field who believe it can’t be taught—either you have it or you don’t. But Ibarionex Perello is one photographer/writer/teacher who believes that if a person is motivated, she can learn to see. “It’s literally about seeing the light. When you’ve got a student in the field, and she looks up and she ‘sees’ the sunrise or the sunset for the first time, really sees it—I can tell, I know what she’s feeling. It’s like waking up! It’s a drug! And from that moment, the whole world is different for that person.”


So if the established pros can disagree on whether visual awareness can be taught or not, are there other issues they can disagree on as well? The answer is a resounding yes!

I was recently at a conference at which one speaker commented that he loved auto white balance—it was the neatest thing since the napkin! An hour later, another speaker got up and talked about how he hated auto white balance—it never gave him the results he was looking for.

. . . .


•    Those who don’t try in the first place. This is a given. If you don’t do, you don’t get to have done. But there is a perk to not trying: You can always say, “If I would have gone into photography, I’d have been much better than that guy.”
•    Those who don’t have visual awareness. Have you ever looked at a sunrise or a child or a historic moment and felt deeply moved on a visceral level? Have you even looked at your own images and felt that they fell short of your expectations? Have you ever looked at the work of those who came before you and been amazed and humbled? Then you have artistic vision.
. . . .


•    Those who are naturally driven to improve themselves and their work. Doug Beasley notes, “So many photographers strive for mediocrity. They should strive for excellence.” Ibarionex Perello says he most admires his students who start out with moderate visual talent, who are persistent, and who have good communication skills. “These students tend to show enormous improvement in a very short time. They don’t just shoot the same images over and over. They listen to feedback, they stretch themselves, they take risks, their work grows,” he says.
. . . .


Vik Orenstein is a photographer, writer and teacher. She founded KidCapers Portraits in 1988, followed by Tiny Acorn Portraits in 1994. In addition to her work creating portraits of children, she has photographed children for such commercial clients as Nikon, Pentax, Microsoft and 3M. Vik teaches several photography courses at BetterPhoto.com.

Excerpted from The Photographer’s Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business © 2010 by Vik Orenstein. Used with the kind permission of Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W, a Content + eCommerce Company.


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