Choosing a photographer
Vintage Photo Books

you are at : [Should you take up Photography as a Career]

Should you take up Photography as a Career?

I publish the enclosed letter I recently received (that I have edited to conceal the identity of the  writer) as it illustrates a typical request from people looking for a future in photography.   I will answer the request with my thoughts.

     I recently visited your web page.  My name is XXXXX ZXXXX and I am a XXXXXX teacher half way around the world in XXXXXX.  

I have no formal training as a photographer and do not even have a portfolio to speak of.

I have always enjoyed looking at pictures and find immense joy in discovering a picture that moves me deeply.  

I love photography and have found that it is the only job field that I have a passion for.  I would love to travel the world taking pictures. 

     I was wondering if you receive this e-mail and have an extra fifteen minutes if you could help me by answering a few questions.

  1. How did you get started?
  2. Is it easy to find work?
  3. I am not looking to be rich but will I be able to support myself?
  4. What is it really like being a photographer?
  5. Do I need formal training?
  6. How can I find someone to apprentice under?

    I would greatly appreciate you response to this letter.  Any advise that you could give would be most welcome.

It is unfortunate that a lot of people enter Photography as a business with little or no training. At the best they may have been a leading light in a local or National Camera Club and have made it to A grade and even received some "Letters" after their name.   At the worst may have done a few weddings have had rave reports, get made redundant or decide to "enter photography" and then either buy a struggling business or set up one themselves, then sit back and hope something will happen. 

It becomes a different story switching from being VERY busy with two jobs one of which pays for all of the household expenses to one new business where you still do the photography side of the business in the same time as before (or perhaps you can now stretch it out to take up more time), but a new equation now enters the arena.... most find that the prices they were charging as a part-time job looking for enough money to be able to buy as much photo gear as they want changes when it also has to pay the household expenses.

They then have to put their prices up, to a level a little less than the local established professional, ( a little less because they feel they do not have the same experience or the same overheads*), and they find that all of the rave reviews fade away because now all of these people are having to pay close to the going rate.... the photography does not look quite so good. So now they have less work than before and find that they are really struggling to make money. 

It is at this stage the if they are lucky their wife goes out to work!  However if they are unlucky and their wife was already working at a good job like a Head Teacher or Business Executive they may never find out they are loosing money.

I remember one wife who was a high powered Business Exec. coming to see me saying "I always said I would not interfere with my husband's business, but where is it going...."  I told her the bad news and then mentioned his car and she said "Yes that is another hobby I am supporting".    He eventually closed his studio and as far as I can tell they are still together.

I have used the "male" gender in the above comments, but it applies equally to the female of the species.   Many wife's have a "Hobby" job that the above equally applies to.... however having said that I do know of one "wife" who was so successful at photography that her husband gave up his high paid Exec job and went to work for her!!!   With his skills Anne became a household name right around the world!!

So you want to be a National Geographic photographer

Let me start off with the success story of a Photographer  I know who I will call "Mike Long". (names & places have been changed)

Mike was one of the first to attend NewTown Polytechnic when it started. It was in those days a one year course and he convinced the organizers to allow him to do what I would call a post graduate study of a extra year.

At the end of that year he set of to achieve his objective of becoming a National Geographic photographer within ten years.    To do this he worked out that he would have to publish four books within this time, would have to stay focused on his objective so would not have time to get married, would have to work at Commercial Photography for six months of the year to support himself for the following six months.

So he left NewTown and went to OtherCountry and worked in BigTown and earned enough money to achieve his objective and in due course four books bearing his name appeared on four different countries.

He did start getting jobs for National Geographic photographer and last I heard was on their Staff and was married all within his ten year limit.


Now change the details and that could be the success story of any Artist, Musician, Dancer, Sportsman.

  1. They need to learn their craft well. 
  2. They need to have total intense dedication. 
  3. They need to have a plan for success
  4. They have to put their total energy towards their final goal
  5. When they get to their goal they can relax 1% otherwise remember what goes up usually comes back down again.

George Bernard Shaw is credited with writing.
People who get on in this world look for the right opportunity and if they can't find it they make it.

I have always believed that to reach a little bit of success in any form you usually have to exchange a little bit of what you currently have to reach that new goal.

For example for a Dancer or Gymnast to reach their peak they may have to practice 6 to 12 hours a day and get plenty of rest while all of their friends they went to school with are out enjoying themselves with all sorts of leisure pursuits.  They sacrifice this to reach their goal and if they don't they do not become one of the best there are.

Before you start on your venture decide if you are prepared to "pay the price".   There is no use fooling yourself on this question as in the long run you will be just wasting your time.

I have always said there is no shame in being where you are if you know where you are and you like it. You could be one of the lucky ones and have a wonderful life.

One observation stands out about all of the Successful Photographers I have ever met is that the really good ones have often Graduated from University with a Fine Arts Degree. Some were going to be Artists with Oils & Canvas and changed their direction to Photography.

It is for this reason that I suggest that even a basis Art History course will start you off in possibly the right direction. It will at least let you understand composition a little, which will do you no harm.

See some of the FAQ at National Geographic

What about emigrating to another country

Will going to a photo school help...

On Being the BEST

More reading





What They Didn't Tell You at J-School

So you want to be a National Geographic photographer

The person who wrote the letter that started the flow of these words asked "how did I get started" & I wondered of the relevance, but it may help someone. Click here for the story

Now let us take the easy questions first.

5. Do you need formal training?

As a starting point you could start off with my suggestions on "Learning Photography"

You will need to be able to operate a camera better than any one you know and be able to pick up any camera and get results.   You will need to be fast with your actions and be capable of doing fantastic cropping within the camera.  You will need to be able to turn in well exposed transparency's, know instantly what lens you are going to use the moment you see the possibility of a image and be ready in time to capture the image before it happens.   You will need to be able to recognize good results from looking at your images and know what you are going to do to turn them into fact you need to know this almost at the moment you press the shutter.

Yes the best way to achieve this is by some sort of formal training be it a school or via the web, but I thing first you need to decide that you want to be a #### Photographer rather than "Traveling the World taking pictures" I believe that if you know exactly where you are going you can plan each step.  By having a clearly defined goal it allows you to define exactly where you are going.

4. What is it really like being a photographer?
Very little glamour, a lot of hard work and often working when everyone else is at leisure.   Learning to lug lots of gear around and being able to make do when some of it fails.   Often years of hard work looking for the next job while you are waiting for that break...and then making sure you stay on top and another former Teacher does not step ahead of you.

2. Is it easy to find work?
No.  Almost everyone who picks up a camera would like travel the world taking photographs so there will be intense competition and only the best will be accepted.   It will be possible to get work in a allied photographic business, say assistant in a Laboratory but that will probably mean a drop in pay from what you are doing and is not very likely to put you behind the camera. let us look at the different fields

  1. Wedding Portrait: Often these are one person business and they do not have the resource's to pay a reasonable wage while they are training you.... then when you are trained there may not be enough work for two photographers.

  2. Commercial, Advertising Photographers often need assistants, but if they are any good will have a good waiting list and will have the pick of the best talent.

  3. Newspaper/Travel. I place these together as it could be possible to move from one to the other, but like all of the others the will have the choice of all those looking for work.

The best suggestion that I have is that you use your present position to bankroll your entry into learning photography and building up your portfolio and like Mike Long opposite you set out to become the best in your field.

How good do you have to be?  I like to answer this in this way "if a horse wins the Grand National by a photo finish even if they have to get a powerful magnifying glass to see the hair's difference between the noses, it is the winner and will go down in history as the winner where as the one that came second will be forgotten. So win by a photo finish if you have to... by a hairs breadth you will still be the winner. 

3. Will you be able to support your self?   Often I have said that unless you are a brilliant photographer you perhaps should have another job and use your holidays to do the photography you want to do. This will be without any sort of pressure and you will only have to please yourself.

I say this because I have been involved with so many photographers who barely make a basic wage and rely on their partner to fully support them. To the other end I have met some very successful photographers and it is not always photographic ability that is the deciding factor, but more to do with their business ability.

6. How can you find someone to apprentice under?

As I said above all successful photographers have the pick of applicants and with out a portfolio or experience or knowledge you are stacking the odds against yourself.   I would get all the magazines illustrating the type of photography you are interested in i.e. Interested in Fashion buy Vogue, Interested in Travel buy World Traveler, Airline magazines or the like....try and copy the type of photo published...look round you town/country for opportunity's in your type of photography... 

....but nothing in this world is easy....if it was everybody would be able to do it.

....and finally remember there are three sorts of people in this world:-

  1. Those that make things happen

  2. Those that watch what happened

  3. Those that wonder what happened.

Go out there and make things happen....

Good luck .....let me know if this has been of any help to you

Apogee Photo Magazine.  The Internet's Photography Magazine: designed to inform and entertain photographers of all ages and levels everywhere in the world teaches photographers how to make better photos. The site features great tips to improve photographic technique, camera comparisons, photo contests, a useful Q&A, free email newsletters and workshops, and expert help with digital imaging.

It is wonderful with another income to be able to take the photographs that YOU want to take to please YOURSELF and if you happen to sell some it is wonderful for your ego.....then if there is ever  enough income to replace your fulltime income you can move over from a point of strength....

Compared to having  to hawk your wares around like a peddler tying to make some money to have a poverty level income as you probably would have if you put everything into becoming RICH & FAMOUS as a top photographer!!!! 

However in all of the arts, Artists have had to starve, to be able to do their best work so perhaps my first option should not be considered and only thought of as the cowards way out!!!

* A mistake that most photographers make in setting up their price list is by collecting the pricelists of all of their competitors and saying ...well I am not as good as them but better than them so the set their price between the two... but they over look the fact that possibly their competitors did the same and perhaps the studios that they collected the price lists from have turned bottom up from bad pricing.

You need to work out your costs and make a price list that reflects your overheads. To aid you in this you will find a Spreadsheet at It will be a starting point for you, but you will have to develop it to suit your business with the help of your accountant.

Also read Productivity and your hourly rate

Do not start of with not enough work and decide that the existing customers will have to pay for your lifestyle.   I know of many photographers who when their accountant tells them that again they have made very little money go back to their Studio and put up their prices.   This creates the effect that they get less customers the following year and so the story carries on in a circle.    What they should have done is doubled their customers instead of doubling their prices.

My Thoughts on Success in Business

Some good advice

Some of the best advice I have read about getting into Photography as a career is on the BIPP site at here it is most complete and informational.

How to Ask Ivan for advise... tips

MORE comming soon.....