For the last 5 years or so I have returned to my alma mater Rochester Institute of Technology to do a lecture on the business of photography for the 3rd year advertising photography students. In order for me to gain a wider perspective on life after graduation I sent out an email to all the RIT photography school graduates I knew and asked them for their help.
I asked them to write a note to the current students at RIT telling them what they wish they could have done differently or what they should have studied more of while they were still at RIT. I also encouraged them to add any additional information they thought would be helpful for the students or the school. I was surprised to see how similar many of their responses were. Here is a compilation of some of the best responses.
Photography is a BUSINESS. If you can take great pictures but don't know how to approach prospective clients, market yourself, negotiate assignment contracts and stock usage licenses, your images aren't going to make you a dime. In due time you'll likely go out of business and learn about things the hard way. Last but not least, register each and every image you take with the U.S. Copyright Office and never EVER sign away your copyright.
You need to have a game plan. Networking with working professionals is key. Seek out and learn all you can from art directors, art buyers, photo editors, photographers whose work you admire, etc. The more the merrier. Reach out to them while you're in school and it will be that much easier down the road.
Don't have tunnel vision. If you're in the ad program or editorial, learn about something that's not in your program. After school, it might surprise you when you have an inkling one day to do advertising work instead of editorial (or vice versa), but all your training is one area and not the other.
If you're assisting after school or working as a photographer and decide to shift gears (i.e. move from one genre of photography to another), don't jump the gun until your 100% ready. This business is about as competitive as it gets and you need to be on top of your game in order to survive no matter what you do.
Business / marketing / accounting courses should be required!! Almost every person graduating with a degree in photography is going to own their own studio. I didn’t feel like there was any emphasis on the business side, learning how to develop a business plan, basic accounting, etc. These are all things that I am learning the hard way and I would have really benefited from learning some basic things in school.
The advertising photography degree should include some carpentry / shop / woodworking / mechanical type course. I would benefit greatly from some course that would make me a little more mechanically inclined for set building. A better understanding on how to price commercial work would have been nice too.
I think it is really important to stress the business side of photography. Most people do not understand that only about 40% of your time is spent shooting and the rest is spent building business relationships and keeping the ones you have made going; as well as promoting and doing things to keep the book fresh and such.
I also think it important to stress that a well-designed identity for your business can make or break you in the creative world. My philosophy is if you do not know how to do it yourself and make it look good, find someone who does. Good business is not about doing it all yourself, but having the right team of people who can help you execute the job to perfection.
Tell them that you make zero money in editorial photography. Some jobs pay but they cancel out the ones that don't pay. For marketing, send out emails and promos: Photography is a relationship business.
There are about 20 professional photographers total in NYC. Everyone is else is basically a hyena fighting for free work. Editorial day rates haven't gone up in 20 years. If you are a photographer and you are in it for the money, you should probably quit. I would mention if it’s not worth it to you to starve as a photographer, you should quit while you’re ahead.
The race is won for the ones that stick it out. I shoot for several major magazines and have shot advertising but still struggle to pay rent. Also tell them that print is basically dead. The photographers of the future will starve to death. If Armageddon comes, photographers will be left with a skill that cannot be traded or bartered for; photographers are the first humans to die.
I would be very straightforward and tell them what they should do, and just what you did to get where you are Steve. You worked day and night at RIT, you still do, and I believe that’s what you should tell them.
RIT is nothing like the real world! You learn so much once you are out of school. The good thing about RIT is that you learn some skills faster than you would otherwise. Many photographers out there in the business never got a degree in photography, and had to spend years learning from trial and error.
Technically, I would have tried to learn more about some portrait lighting, but that doesn't matter at all when you begin to assist, you learn everything you need to know on the jobs. An assistant’s attitude and enthusiasm is the single most important thing. Make friends with everyone.
Keep yourself militantly informed of everything going on, trends, galleries, shows, the whole lot...read, read, read. Keep up to speed with loading film; you may still need to do it. Know a crap load of digital; you will definitely need to know that. Save as much money at school as possible and don’t buy equipment right after school, wait a while, after you assist for a bit, to get a better idea of what type of photography you like. I spent a bunch of money on lighting right out of school and hardly used it after I realized that natural light was for me. (However, I secretly don’t regret it. I shot a lot of lighting jobs right away, and I needed that gear, and I still use it occasionally)
Don’t buy zoom lenses; buy only the very best lenses. Contact as many photographers as you can about getting work, cold calls, emails, don’t spend too much time with promos. Write a hand written thank you to someone once a week. Dedicate a lot of time looking at magazines and online to see what’s being done and who is doing what.
Tell the kids not to Mess up their credit! You’ll need it later and it stays with you for a long time.
A) Take advantage of all RIT has to offer.
RIT is known across the board for its photography program, so having that on a resume says a lot about your background and your skill as a photographer. It’s not so important that you have a solid portfolio to show. That will come over time. Most likely you will get a job as an assistant of some kind. Here it is important that you know your equipment. Know the gear: lighting systems, studio accessories, and of course, camera bodies. You don’t have to be an expert at everything, but having a general familiarity with as many different types of cameras will prepare you to go into any situation and appeal to many different types of photographers.
B) Know your software.
It is a given that you will have some experience working with Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, or other common photo applications. But many photographers, especially ones with their own studios, may need you to take on a role more like a studio manager. Here it would be helpful to know software applications that are more business-oriented. Microsoft Office, especially Word and Excel, will be used often.
FileMaker or QuickBooks for billing or database management. Know how to effectively use the web to do research. Knowledge of web design applications is usually listed as “preferable, but not necessary”, on job listings. Knowing that alone may be enough to make you stand out.
C) Special skills that make you stand out.
Keep in mind that you will be competing with many other equally talented and qualified applicants for a given job. Anything to make you stand out and make that photographer hire you is something you want to emphasis. Knowing a second language or sign language will be helpful. Being comfortable with children or having experience working with animals will definitely give you an edge. Any unique skill that you have that is applicable to the job in some way is worth mentioning. Some of these skills can be best talked about in a cover letter, which should always accompany a resume. On that note, learn to write an effective cover letter. This is your introduction to the photographer, and excellent writing skills are always impressive.
In general my best advice is once you graduate and enter the “real world”, hit the ground running. Apply for jobs everywhere, go on every job interview, research jobs every day, and shoot as much as possible. This is your life now. It will be HARD. It will take you a long time to find success. Be tough, be aggressive, and be patient. Your hard work will pay off and before you know it, you will be hiring assistants to lug around all your gear. Best of luck to you all!
I was a photojournalism major but took more of an AD route after school (moving to LA and trying to assist for a year) so I don't know if the AD photo students were better prepared. I feel like what my education lacked (and still does to a great extent) was a real grasp of what it takes to set up, run and expand a business.
I did find the one photo business class I took very helpful. A better understanding of markets, business planning and adaptation as well as goal setting would have helped me. Just the idea of setting simple goals each year and making them happen took me a year or two to grasp.
I'm not so sure that the information wasn't there for me, I didn't know I needed it until I was far away from RIT. PJ certainly lacked the small business background that is, to my mind, more critical than photographic skill to a freelance photographer or assistant. I feel if I had been given a bit more of a business background it would have made that transition from student to freelancer considerably easier.
I don't know how that translates into your talk. I guess I would suggest that they try and gather as much information about running a small business as possible. They should try and separate the business from the photography.
One thing I always say to my students that I wish I had done differently as an undergrad was to speak up more when I didn't know something. I wish I had taken more risks at failing by trying difficult techniques and researching more difficult topics. There is no better time to fail and learn than when you’re a student.
Tell them all the business stuff. They somehow seemed to leave that whole thing out at RIT. Maybe because the class was too busy arguing about the true meaning or lack there-of of whatever was hanging on the wall during critique.
I think I would have pointed out that there are a lot more jobs out there than just shooting jobs. You can still be involved in the photography/art world without being a shooter. I didn't realize that until our senior year and I wasted a lot of time. Also, mention that there are a lot of different kinds of photography. My personal work is a lot more fine art-ish but that's not what I studied.
My last semester I took all the art direction classes and the copy writing classes and that kind of thing and that was great. I realized way too late that I didn't enjoy shooting what other people told me to shoot.
I would have loved to intern for an ad agency or a magazine publisher for a summer. I think that would have helped me find direction a lot sooner. On a side note, something that REALLY bugs me is when people don't research whom they're sending their promo pieces too. It drives me nuts when I get promo pieces for food photographers or fashion shooters because we never deal in anything like that and if they actually researched our company they would know that.
I wish someone had emphasized that RIT is NOT the real world and to take advantage of everything that the school has to offer because once you leave, it's gone. You have the ability to take more chances in college and make mistakes and use all the gear
Save money. Take business classes. Knowing about business really makes or breaks you. Know how to run your own business and the logistics that go with that is important. I feel like most of what it takes to become successful in this career is learning how to manage your funds, saving funds, and promoting yourself wisely.
Its hard work! You have to be willing to bust your ass because no one will be there to do it for you. They probably did tell us that though