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So You Want to be a Professional Photographer?

I’ve written quite a bit lately about gear, my little inventions and experiences using them. I try to post those tidbits on photography forums in order to help anyone who wishes to try those techniques as a ‘pay it forward’ type of action. I have a love/hate relationship with photography forums or forums of any kind. Why? Because there are trolls who live there and could care less about producing art, but rather reside on those sites ‘to be right’ by showing how much they know. Yet I seldom if ever see a body of work they’ve produced. It’s so easy for them to sit in a dark room eating Cheetos and sharp shooting from an anonymous place. Ever notice trolls never use their real names or don’t have a link to their own images? Don’t get into the trap of listening to what trolls have to say. If they really knew how to CREATE great images, they’d be out doing it instead of having terminally orange fingers and keyboards while just spewing out facts and figures.

Elena Gatilova – Teatro Zinzanni, Cirque du Soleis

I’ve been asked of late ‘what’s it like to be a full time pro shooter and what’s all involved?’ So instead of writing back to each individual I have opted to write this short article. If you’re here to learn about gear/brands/lighting/fstops/shutter speed/etc. leave NOW. NONE of that is covered here. I’m not going to go through the ‘business side’ of being a pro. If you want to learn about that research what it takes to run your own small business. Taxes, advertising, business development, benefits, depreciation, insurance are just the start of what you need to know.

Adam Jacobs for Disney’s Aladdin
Adam Jacobs for Disney’s Aladdin

Throughout this article you may hear me refer to ‘a safety net.’ What that means is having a financial ‘safety net’ through a working spouse or partner who has regular income, benefits, etc. If you can’t develop a living wage on your own, you have a safety net to fall back on for food/shelter/benefits. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it’s a luxury to me simply because I operate without a net.

Prior to becoming a full time commercial photographer I often wondered how things come together for them. How much do they cost? What all is involved? How are they put together? How long do they take? This was well before the advent of BTS videos and even now much of what ‘goes on and into’ a photo session are still not included in many of those videos.

Marketing reviews images on tethered iPad
Directing the talent
Publicity image for Cabaret. Shot backstage in the client's theatre to add the environment. The Marketing Director asked on an impromptu basis for 'something that gives context to the story.' Being able to improvise on the fly is key and can often yield amazing results.
Publicity image for Cabaret. Shot backstage in the client’s theatre to add the environment. The Marketing Director wanted on an impromptu basis ‘something that gives context to the story. Can we go backstage and see what we can find?’ I originally had Billie standing and someone else wondered how it would feel if she sat. So we simply looked for an available chair backstage and I asked her to pose in this manner. Collaborating with others engages everyone. Being able to improvise on the fly is key and can often yield amazing results. And I’ll mention gear here. This was lit with a Godox AD360 shot through a modifier. A simple, inexpensive yet portable device that was the right tool for this particular job.

Since a client depends on any commercial shooter’s imagery for their various marketing and PR images the process is not gone about in a willy nilly way. Months and sometimes years of planning go into a single session. Sessions are scheduled months and more often a year in advance.In some cases the marketing staff have specific ideas in mind for a shoot. In others the photographer is enlisted to help in collaborating with the art direction. Under all circumstances it’s the sole responsibility of the photographer to ‘get the shot.’ No excuses, no back stories and no limitations come with a still image. Less than ideal venues, short time slots for the talent and rental equipment that is either wrong or malfunctions are all part of the game. And that’s just the physical part of Murphy’s Law that can go wrong…and nothing ever goes exactly as planned.

Singer/songwriter Brad Brooks
BTS for Singer/songwriter Brad Brooks

Let’s take a real world example of the human side of what can go wrong without using names. Sometimes what you will encounter on the human side is talent that is unhappy with something about their wardrobe/makeup/hair/wig. Or like all of us they can just be in a foul mood. Bad news, money issues, an ailing relative or parent, arguments with a partner can all come into play.

In one real world session I was notified that I would have only 15 minutes to photograph the talent who was the star and the session would begin promptly at 9:25am. In addition to the star there were other cast members to be shot, all of which were scheduled after the 9:25am appointment. All of the lighting was set up, tested and metered for the mood which was to be created for the star’s shot. Subsequent shots with other talent were also prepared in advance.

At 9:00am I was called into the anteroom just adjacent to where I was shooting by the Marketing VP and the Artistic Director. “Wow it’s so early in the day and somehow I’ve already gotten into some trouble.” were my thoughts. My concerns were encouraged by the Marketing team as they all looked at me with that “Oh Oh Mark” look. Instead both individuals wanted to inform me that “Mark, the star is not at all happy with their wig. So anything you can do to quell their fears and make them feel better would be great.” Uh, OK…gulp.

Inspecting the ‘kiddie pool’ prior to an artistic nude session.

So at 10:10am the talent arrives for their 9:25am slot and I only have 15 minutes and according to that schedule we are well beyond their allotted time. They came in obviously upset and stated “I’m not at all happy with my wig!” and walked out of the session. Of course everyone was shocked and three people looked at me and said “Now what do we do Mark?” Huh?! But what came out of my mouth was “Get in touch with their producer and have them contact the talent on their cell phone. Ask them both to meet back here as soon as possible.” Meanwhile the other actors had shown up at their scheduled times so I switched gears/lighting and created their shots.

The producer called the star who then came back and simply asked “Mark, what do YOU think of my hair?” I simply replied “What do you think of MY hair? Think about how I feel.” (I have a shaved head) They laughed and that was my salvation. If I could get the star to laugh I knew I had a chance. If they didn’t laugh I was doomed. So I approached them and had a short and heartfelt conversion. I assured them that I would use all of my skills to make them look stunning and we began. As soon as the shutter started, we got into a rhythm that continued throughout our 10 minute session.

BTS shot of Manuela Horn on location
Final publicity shot of Manuela Horn

What is the point of this story? Your job as the photographer is to get the shot, remember? Images do NOT come with a back story so you can explain the limitations that went into the shot. “Oh that shot is crummy because the talent was crabby or sad, or angry…. What was I suppose to do. It’s not my fault.” Oh yes it is! So many non pros ask questions like “What camera did you use? What lens? What lights and how were they set up? Do you think this brand is better than that brand? Did I make the right choice in what I bought?”

Do ANY of those questions have ANY BEARING AT ALL on the situation I just described? HELL NO! Or let me put it another way; OH HELL NO! When your image is out in the public and your client has paid you good money to create the shot, people could give a good hot shit what you used. Do they know that the talent was in a bad mood during the session? Do they feel that ‘it’s not your fault?’ Shit no! It’s either a great shot or a nice shot. And in the commercial world a ‘nice shot’ means it’s shit. And BTW if one expects a client to call, email or text you as a commercial shooter to say “Wow that image you took is fantastic and we love it.” here’s a reality check; that doesn’t happen and in those cases where it does, it’s an exception. No news means they’re happy with your work. Shooting again for that client shows you they’re happy with your work. Sure there are clients who DO offer regular compliments to commercial shooters, but they are the exception not the rule. It’s your job, it’s EXPECTED, it’s what you’re being paid to do.

The talent and Marketing personnel review shots.

You will also notice that after a full day of shooting, you’ll be dog tired and I mean TIRED. Why? Well it’s YOUR JOB to keep the energy high in the room. That means creating an atmosphere where everyone is having a good time. Photography is NOT heart or brain surgery and even when the mood you’re trying to create in the shot is somber that does NOT mean the mood of the room matches. And what happens if you’re not feeling too well? Suck it up, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom to wash your hands, throw up and come back looking well. Have an experienced assistant with you to help with the talent so you get very short breaks to collect yourself. Ideally if you just cannot continue your assistant should be able to stand in as the shooter and get the shots as well. Tons of money have been spent arranging your session, people have been flown in just for that day and housed the day before and maybe the day after. Cabs and meals have been paid. My view is unless you’re dead laying in a gutter somewhere it’s your job to come through. And when all else fails make sure you have business liability insurance to cover not being able to complete the task. Scary? Yes! Not easy? Nope. But if the job was easy and free of stress… everything else, anyone could do it.

The talent and Marketing personnel review shots.

And since I mentioned the M word, let’s examine the cost that goes into a commercial shoot. In most cases the Marketing department has spent many hours coordinating costumes, art direction, makeup artists, hair/wig artists, props, space and endless meetings with internal staff about the goal of the shots. In most cases the clients employ union personnel who are certainly not working for minimum wage. This of course does NOT include any rental gear, lights, Kraft services, etc. I estimate that the cost of a commercial session ranges from $800.00 to $6,000.00 or more an hour when you add up all of the people/prior meetings/gear/preparation involved. And of course that does not include your fee….

If you have no idea how I calculated that number, you better stick with a day job because you shouldn’t run your own small business. And if you’re a full time shooter without a safety net, first and foremost you’re really a small business owner.

Like working alone? Like the solitude photography provides? Sorry, in a commercial session there are anywhere from 5 to 35 people watching you and what you’re producing. Most clients expect to have you shoot tethered, meaning they get to see/review your images as you take them on their own monitor. It saves time and money. The talent on deck are looking over your shots. Hair/makeup/wardrobe/Marketing people/art directors are looking at your shots. Ever play golf? You know that feeling you have on the first Tee when 10 foursomes are waiting to tee off and they’re all watching you swing your driver? It’s kinda like that.

A small gallery as I shoot. Mixed ambient light does not make for an ideal studio setting, but one has to make due. It’s part of the deal.

And everyone in the room has worked with other photographers. So every move, every photo and every interaction you have with everyone and anyone will be compared to prior shooters. Instead of worrying about their prior ‘favorite photographer’ I concern myself with their most recent ‘bad photographer.’ Why? Because just like all humans we anticipate our upcoming experience based on our past encounters. Ever have a horrible dentist? When you found a new one, were you nervous, anxious or had some animosity? I always try to ask, “how many times have you had a professional session?” I never ask if they enjoy them or not. I can tell by their facial expression/vocal tone/body language if they’ve had bad experiences. And isn’t much of your job to have the ability to read the nuances of human expression? So you shouldn’t need to ask.

I can chalk bad prior experience with another shooter to a couple of basic reasons, the most common one is being arrogant. When working with people you should always remind yourself that YOU are NOT the most important person in the room. Face it, you’re NOT. The talent in front of your lens IS the most important person in the room. Being arrogant about your role is just rude and believe me, it is SO apparent. How do I know? Well when was the last time YOU were the talent? Try it, sit for another photographer. Listen and feel what it’s like to get no/rude/short/incomplete feedback from the shooter. How do you feel when they say this or that or don’t say a damn thing? What’s it like if they have to adjust the camera/lights/etc. while you wait? If you have not tried being the talent, then I’m not going to explain why you should. And if you have, then I have nothing enlightening to say, you know…

Publicity session for Cinderella. This is one of the wicked stepsisters.

The second most common reason people have bad experiences is the photographer doesn’t know their purpose in the session. Purpose – what do I mean by purpose? The photographer and the art directors should have discussed what they hope to achieve in a specific part of the session. You should know how to achieve that mood/look. You should be able to direct the talent in clear ways about what you want from their face/body. Constantly looking over to someone else and asking questions about what is wanted from the shot is horrible for the talent. Imagine a pilot coming out of the cockpit every ten seconds asking the flight attendants, “Where are we going again?”

I have three full time commercial shooters without the safety nets who are close friends. If they don’t work, they don’t eat…just like me. One is a fine art nude photographer, one a fine art collage photographer, another is an adventure photographer. All work very hard and very smart. Yes luck does play a part in how we acquire business, but my belief is that luck favors the prepared. It’s not an easy life, but no small business is an easy life. And a tough life is made miserable if you’re not doing what you truly love to do…. Doing what you love to do makes a tough life worth the effort.

Out of camera publicity shot for a season brochure
Final shot with graphics applied

If you don’t truly love people, shoot landscapes or product. But don’t kid yourself, you’ll still have to deal with people. I can say that the world of the arts attracts people who I admire as people. No one gets into dance/music/theatre in the hopes of being the next Getty. Some may chase fame, but most only chase the joy of performing for expression. It’s their voice. They’ve entered and chosen those vocations for the pure love of performing. Auditions where ‘No thanks’ is heard more often than ‘You’re hired/cast’ forges people with strong character. Yes some get to a level where their pay is comparable to good corporate jobs, but money was not WHY they entered those fields.

On location publicity session for Cabaret

I love what I do, but it’s primarily because I love people. I’ve always said kiddingly that I use photography just to meet and befriend people. But it’s the truth. And yes I love photographing outside of my ‘day job’ because for me it’s a creative outlet that I feel is my voice. Leisurely taking landscape photographs using a tripod is pure relaxation. Conceiving a visual concept, art directing it and executing it to a final image is pure heaven. No it’s not all milk and honey all of the time. There are taxes, business development, endless travel, little sleep, conference calls, endless emails, lugging gear to and fro and no days off. No sick days, no PTO and no excuses.

The day photography becomes ‘a job’ is the day I will switch careers, for the seventh time…. But I will retain all of the people I’ve befriended along the way.

My Fair Lady publicity image
My Fair Lady publicity image reversed to match final graphic applications
Yep it’s all about the people for me. Publicity session for My Fair Lady

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Hey Mark,

On the Cirque du Soleis shot up top, did you finesse the background to get that smooth gradient with your lights or in post? Just curious since the wide image of the scene shows your flagging of the PLM’s, yet without a sufficient light source below. I know it can be a pain getting the background just right while also making adjustments to match the subject(s), so post seems more efficient. Do you have one bent over another?

Thanks for this post Mark. It is what I have always said/thought/felt.

The client and the product is always first. Getting wrapped up in oneself is the recipe for a quick exit from the field.
I feel like a combination of MC, counselor, cheerleader and clown but as you say that is my job to keep things moving my way. Meanwhile, I also have to make photos that the client expected.

I love what I do but it is not what others think I do.

Reminds me of my job – university educator. It is actually all about people. Knowing stuff and being able to do stuff is just the entry ticket. And, like anything worth doing there is a lot to learn to be able to make a proper go of it. I enjoy photography but it is only for my enjoyment because I have not been able or willing to do what it takes to learn to do it professionally, and there are some parts of running a very small business that do not attract me.

I’ve been browsing on-line more than three hours nowadays, but I never found
any fascinating article like yours. It is beautiful worth sufficient for
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you did, the internet will probably be much more useful than ever before.

Fantastic article and insight into a very interesting segment of the photo industry. You’re a master of your craft, and clearly your clients appreciate you for it.