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Getting Started in Photography

Photographers use their technology (cameras), creativity, and technical expertise to preserve images in history, tell a story, or record an event. And, although many of the skills necessary to be a successful photographer are inherent, and postsecondary education is not always required to find a job, many professional photographers will attend college, university, or a private art school to learn advanced techniques and hone their craft.   

Classes in college typically cover processes, technique, equipment, and design and composition. A keen eye for detail, artistic and creative ability, good communication and people skills, and the ability to meet deadlines are all skills a photographer should have, no matter where they work.  Even freelance photographers with no or little formal training must have skills and knowledge beyond the ability to take a great photo. Plus, they will need to sharpen their people skills in order to gain new clients, either by word of mouth or through showing their work online or in-person. 

The field of professional photography is competitive, and clients dictate when and where you work; outdoors in all kinds of weather, indoors with poor lighting, or late at night at a New Year’s party.  Many photographers travel to photo shoots, and are required to move and carry heavy equipment. Photographers are also often called on last minute when clients’ plans change or news develops. For example, news or aerial photographers may work weekends or overtime to capture the news or an event as it happens.

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Learn Essential Photography Skills

Combine Traditional Art Concepts with Photography Methods

Some people think that it requires very little skill to take a good photograph, especially since more and more smartphones and tablets have options like a 2x optical zoom, or a 12-megapixel dual-pixel sensor, or a wide f/1.7 aperture for bright and vivid photos, especially in low-light conditions. But when a bride wants her wedding immortalized for all time, or a news station demands detailed photos of a crime scene, or a college needs a new brochure featuring photos of the campus, they don’t often reach for their smartphones. They call a trained photographer. 

That's why a career as a professional photographer is so much more than just a hobby. And, why career-minded photographers must have a firm grasp of the concept(s) behind each photo, the methodology that goes into framing a good photo, and the techniques needed to pull it all together.  Trained photographers know their cameras and their craft inside out.  Can you imagine being at a wedding and the bride is walking down the aisle, but the "person taking the photos" is fumbling through a manual because he or she isn't sure which f-stop to use? Sometimes a professional photographer will only have a couple of seconds to adjust the setting on the camera so that a once-in-a-lifetime shot isn't missed.

Although quite obvious, professionals must know the basic parts of a camera; zoom and wide-angle camera lens, memory cards, shutter speeds, f-stops, focal planes, depth of field settings, etc., which all may seem a bit dull, but are very necessary to create great photos. Setting a camera on "automatic" will never give the same professional results. Photographers must have extensive knowledge of lighting techniques, and how ever-changing lighting conditions play a part in framing a good photo. They must understand color and have a thorough knowledge of color theory, along with an understanding of over and underexposure techniques. A photographer will understand the various software needed to alter, enhance or edit a photo, such as Adobe Photoshop CC, Affinity Photo, Pixlr, Lightroom, Photo Plus, and Acorn, just to name a few.

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Build a Top-Notch Portfolio

A Strong Portfolio Will Help You Find Jobs & Sell More Work

A portfolio is a photographer’s best friend, and often the most important component in a photographer's career. It is the first impression most employers see, and is usually how a photographer's work is judged and evaluated. Creating a top-notch portfolio can make all the difference in getting an internship, landing a job, selling your work, building your reputation, or being shown the door. Your portfolio should contain only your very best work, preferably work you've completed recently. It should also contain a wide range of photos; landscapes, portraits, black and white and color photos, and should also show a wide range of techniques.

A strong personal brand is also very important, as it identifies you as marketable to potential employers or as you pursue a freelance career. Your brand highlights your talent and accomplishments and sets your work apart from others in the field.  Connections in the industry are also important to a photographer’s success, as word of mouth is second-to-none to landing a job.  Networking can begin in school, through internships, clubs, or by joining associations and attending photography shows.  Some photographers may find it difficult to network, and others may completely dismiss it as a waste of time.  But, as time-consuming and uncomfortable as it can be networking is vitally important to a photographer’s career (second only to a professional portfolio).

Get to Know Our Experts

Jeremy Lawson

  • Title:
    Wedding Photographer & Portrature
  • Company:
    Jeremy Lawson Photography
  • Where:
    Chicago, IL
  • Experience:
    11 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have been photographing since I was 14 years old. I self taught in high school and then went to college for photography – attending Indiana State University and then transferring to Columbia College in Chicago. I definitely think studying photography was worth it. I think that also because I am lucky and became successful doing it. I do wish I would have known more about the business end of things. Most art schools teach art, not business. It would have been nice to have more classes about running and maintaining a business.Today, I work 7 days a week. Work from home and pretty much make my own schedule. I usually have 3-4 shoots a week during busy season (May-October). Editing, photo shopping and general office work take up the rest of my time. I average about 50-60 hours a week.I love that I am able to make a living doing what I love. I love working with different types of people each shoot. Weddings are so great because it’s the happiest day of someone’s life. It’s nice getting to be a part of it. But, I do work from home and I think it may be nice to have an office. It would limit the amount of time I am in front of the computer! And the only thing I really do not like about shooting is the humidity! Unfortunately, I can’t change that.

    Advice

    Get experience

    I would recommend shooting any and everything you can. Free, paid…whatever you can do. The more work you have to show potential clients, the better. Look for someone in your area to assist and intern when you can.

    Andy McCallie

  • Title:
    Sports Advertising & Lifestyle Photographer
  • Company:
    Freelancer
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    2.5 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I’m a self-taught photographer and rarely do my work days look the same, and I love that. I still assist for other photographers and producers and those days tend to start early and be quite long (10-14 hours depending on the job). On days when I’m shooting for myself, it really depends on the shoot and client but they tend to be shorter (and much more enjoyable!).What I really love and cherish in my job is the absolute need to be creative. I worked in Hollywood for a handful of years and there was very little of the kind of creativity I was looking for. In the early years, financial stability is always tough to come by, so it would be nice to not worry as much about money. The positive side of all that is I’ve learned how to adapt my lifestyle and mindset to need less “stuff”.

    Everyone, especially friends and family, will tell you that being a professional photographer is hard. And they’re right. But what they don’t tell you, presumably because they don’t know, is HOW it will be hard. I knew it would be tough to make money at first. I knew it would be tough to break into the assisting world and prove myself as a reliable assistant. But what I didn’t prepare for was how to deal with the silence. In the beginning there are periods where none of your cold emails and calls will be returned. I would go for a week or two getting work here and there and feel really good about things and then all of a sudden, you’re hit with the silence. It can last weeks, which feel like months, which really take a toll on your desire to be creative and push through, which is of course exactly what you need to do during those times.

    Advice

    Immerse yourself

    I used to try and reverse-engineer the lighting on every photograph I saw. I researched and found photographers I liked and studied what they were shooting, who was representing them, and why. Immerse yourself into the world of the best in your industry. If you like doing that and it comes easy to you, you’re on the right track.

    Be open to critisism

    Other than that, keep an open mind to criticism of your work and take photos as much as you can! As a photographer, you have a blank canvas and your job is to fill it with something that at the very least inspires you. It may sound silly and easy, but once I started, I became obsessed with what was inspiring to me and how to fill the canvas. I started to dislike the photos I was taking because I knew they weren’t good enough. I still feel that way. I’ve realized that I’ll never be completely satisfied with my work, but it’s the pursuit of that feeling that keeps me going.

    Thomas Robert Clarke

  • Title:
    Editorial Portraiture, Large event coverage, Product photography, Architectural details
  • Company:
    Thomas Robert Clarke Photography
  • Where:
    Philadelphia, PA.
  • Experience:
    16 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I shot yearbook and took some darkroom classes in college, but it wasn’t until I decided to quit my job in printing to pursue my dream of being a photographer that I enrolled at the Austin Community College program. My intention was to just test the waters to see if it was really for me, but as luck would have it the program is very highly regarded and I got a great education in the vocation of photography.Unless it’s a shoot day, I spend a lot of my time at the computer. I wear all the hats in my business and most of the time is spent generating business, maintaining current client relations, editing, working with designers, ordering prints and albums, social media updates, fielding questions from clients, hashing out contracts and licensing agreements, and the occasional interview.

    Nevertheless, it’s the variety that I really love. While the majority of my product work is food related I have also shot clothing, accessories, technical machinery, and more. Each has it’s unique challenges that keep the job fun. Add in a historical home renovation shoot every few weeks, the occasional wedding (I try to stick to 10-15 a year), and the editorial portraiture that has me interacting with sports icons, politicians, chefs, business owners and executives. All these aspects add up to a wonderfully diverse work life.

    Given my history I might say that I wish I had decided to study photography seriously at a younger age. I didn’t make the formal leap until I was 28. I will say that formal art classes previous to that were of great help in engraining ideals of composition and light. As a child I lived near a bookstore and would frequently spend hours in their magazine section looking at covers and skimming pages. I didn’t know it then but what I was doing was laying the ground work for my visual sensibilities. Ingesting nuances that bring images to life. Learning indirectly from the best photographers in the world at that time.

    Advice

    Get some education

    With regard to which path I’d recommend, I’d say get an education of some sort. I don’t necessarily advocate for “for-profit” art schools, but do study or apprentice/assist under a seasoned pro or two, take informal classes and attend product demos to understand all your tools, sign up for Kelby Training, and above all never stop learning.

    Observe

    Try to become an observer, meaning really look at things. Don’t just look at your friend, see the contours of their face. See how the light hits them as they move in relation to the light. Get in the habit of making evaluations when you walk into rooms. What is the light source, what direction is it coming from, how bright is it, given this information how would you shoot the environment or subjects within? I once had a teacher tell us to go on a photo safari no more than 2 blocks from our homes. The idea was to see the familiar in a new way. To this day I still practice this exercise a few times a year and whenever I move.

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