Professional Photography | A Tough Profession

Green rocky terrain and blue waters, underneath a stormy sky, provide an incredibly beautiful outlook near the town of Skopun on the island of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands.

There are dozens of potential difficulties a stills photographer has to contend with on location. And we have to make decisions on the fly making great images in often just a minute or two. What makes it worse is that most people think you're just making snaps and, as they also own a fancy pants DSLR or Mirrorless camera, they can do just as good a job. Actually it tends to be the guys who think this way. And everybody says they know Photoshop. Give me a break!

Photography For The Masses Comes At A Price

The democratization of digital photography has been great in so far as it has opened photography up to millions more people than was the case in the days of film. But, just cause you can do it does not mean you can do it well. As almost everyone has a camera, many people think they are as good and, as reliable under pressure, as a professional photographer. Well, I've got an oven, a fridge and a micky microwave - but I ain't no cook.

A casual portrait of a group of young women, in traditional dress, in rural Bali, Indonesia.

It Was Easier In The Old Days

As I work predominantly as an educator these days I very rarely undertake commercial work, though sometimes I do so just to stay relevant and to work with interesting people on challenging assignments where I think my photography can make a difference. It's true to say that I was often given far more respect as an 18 year old lad with little knowledge and very little practical photography experience than was the case during my 40's, despite significant experience and considerable extra knowledge gained over many years in the school of hard knocks.

But you can't let such things stop you from doing your job, as well as you possibly can. I never did.

Sometimes You Just Have To Walk The Walk

I'm originally from a small country town. I remember being given a hard time by the drivers when I arrived at the bride's house to photograph my first wedding. The following week I showed up only to face the same crew.

But this time I was prepared. I'd ditched my soft camera shoulder bag and replaced it with a shiny aluminum case emblazoned with Nikon Professional stickers. I approached the driveway confidently and the drivers parted before me as though I was Moses parting the Red Sea. I had arrived. Respect followed me for another six years until I left sleepy hollow and headed for the big smoke, when the creative journey accelerated considerably.

Marshy lake country in southern Iceland illuminated by warm, atmospheric light.

Never Work With Animals Or Children

Given decent working conditions a good photographer can produce a very good result. But, when set up to fail, it takes all your skills to produce a similar result. However, with a thick skin and a mission (a reason for doing what you do, that goes beyond profit or the often preposterous demands of the account executive), it's possible to both produce great work, thrill your customer and have a great time in the process. It's not how the job starts that's important, but how it finishes.

The commercial world is full of wonderful people, but it does take experience to recognize them and time to build the necessary relationships. You also need more than an ounce of courage to stay away from the less professional, more insecure (e.g., nasty) types who'll bleed you dry as a way of elevating their own sense of significance.

My advice is to stay away from children, no matter their age. Professional photography is an extremely demanding profession which is why you want to surround yourself with psychological mature individuals. The kind of folks who, when push comes to shove, are willing and able to roll up their sleeves and do what's necessary to provide the environment in which the real creatives can thrive.

The trick, when a so-called opportunity comes your way, is to avoid taking urgent jobs from people you hardly know, particularly when they involve unrealistic or unfair deadlines, few details as to what's expected and little financial gain. You may have the hope of getting better work in the future. But the precedent you've established makes that almost impossible. By trying to help your customer out you've devalued your own worth. Most likely they'll drop you like a school case when the jobs done, but not before sucking the marrow from your backbones with new demands and totally unrealistic deadlines.

Do you want a business where you begin to sweat bullets when the phone rings at five minutes to five on a Friday afternoon. Seriously!

An abstract image made at the incredibly beautiful La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Photographer's Ideal Customer

Building a high end photography business is not about gaining more customers. It's about building relationships with better and more loyal customers. And you'll continue to earn your customer's loyalty through your affable nature, excellent work ethic and ability to overdeliver on time, every time. A quality customer will recognize your value and will work extra hard to ensure you have what you need to complete the job and, thereby, solve their problems.

It's probably a better practice to invest some time meeting and qualifying (i.e., educating) new customers as to what you can do for them in a way that is line with your own business, creative and personal objectives. In such discussions you should listen intently and be guided by your own intuition.

A bridge, covered in snow, takes visitors over a frozen river at the wonderful Snow World in Harbin, China.

Photography As A Business | Are You Suitable?

Photography has always been a tough industry. Now, with a multitude of people entering the business every year, the business is particularly competitive. If you see yourself as an average photographer I would advise you to find a job that pays you well and enjoy photography as a serious hobby. At the very least you'll be in a position to afford it. The same is true for anyone who is a fantastic photographer, but a poor sales or business person. Why let the stresses of business kill one of your life's great joys?

If, however, you are an average or fantastic photographer, with a great head for business, there are many opportunities open to you. I simply make the point that there are few truly creative people who have a head for business, unless you count making money as being creative. 

They are, of course, a few fairly average photographers who've made a lot of money. Almost certainly their reason for being in business is to make money, rather than because they are passionate about photography. Please, don't underestimate that point.

Often a business is successful because it's based around a solid partnership. The creative partner is free to make wonderful pictures and is guided and protected from the world of business by their better half: the partner who actually runs the business. Ah! But then so many folks marry for love.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru