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HOW TO SUCCEED AS A WORKING PHOTOGRAPHER

By Mark Robert Halper - Photographer

Iíve been asked how I managed to become and stay successful at a photographer for the last 15 years. Well, I donít have any great secrets to offer, but I do have some guidance and advice. Take what is useful and discard the rest at your own risk.

Now, this list isnít comprehensive. It might not even be well rounded. It is good advice, take it. Wisdom rarely comes in neat little packages.

1. Act Like a Business.

People will respect you more and treat you better if you look and act like you are providing the valuable service you offer in return for appropriate compensation. Get (good) business cards. Put together a professional portfolio and/or a website. Find out what the necessary licenses are to operate a small business. Sit down and list the differences between the small businesses you continue to use, and those you wold never use again. Emulate the good behaviors. Nearly all of it applies to accountants just as easily as photographers. Now, this list isnít comprehensive. It might not even be well rounded. Wisdom rarely comes in neat little packages.

Successful business make money. But it isnít just about how much you bring in, it is just as important to know how to manage it.

2. Live Below Your Means.

Sounds simple. It is. Figure out (based on income averages, not on your current really great month) what you think you can afford to spend on ongoing expenses. Assume that you will put nothing on a credit card that you donít already have the money in your pocket to pay off at the end of the month. Now, understand that it actually costs more than you think it does. Lower what you spend by one notch. (letís say 10-15%.) Good, now you are probably living at your means. Go one more notch (down). Now, youíve got it. OK, it isnít spectacular. Your friend who makes far less than you can now afford to eat at restaurants that you just crossed off your list. Donít worry, it works out in the end. Wait till you see the kitchen you will be able to afford when you finally buy that house youíve always wanted with that really great down payment you took out of your savings. Yes, savings. Even when things are tough. That is where that extra notch worth of money goes. Youíll thank me later, and youíll be able to afford that restaurant again, and sooner than you think.

3. Just Because You Have the Money, Doesnít Mean You Can Afford It.

If you have $10,000 in the bank, you can walk into your camera store and buy nearly any item on the shelf. You also get that really cool plasma TV. You can finally trade in your car for that much better bright red one youíve had your eye on. And, with the sale at the camera store, the open box price on the tv, and the value of your trade in youíll even be saving money! What will you do with all the money you save? Seeing it, are you? You can only spend that money once. The money you ďsaveĒ is just a little less that you are actually spending (there is no savings that you can take to the bank). Now, what happens when you hit that hard month? What about that hard summer? Maybe your equipment needs some major repairs. People who have money only have it because they have specifically not bought all of those things that they can afford. People with money almost always ask what it costs, the line about ďif you have to ask, you canít afford itĒ was probably coined by a sales person behind on their own rent.

4. Opportunities Are Rarely Convenient.

They also donít announce their presence at the top of their lungs, come knocking at your door, or rearrange themselves to order. Very often they are awkward, poorly timed, require extra work, and you ought to think yourself damn luck to get them (because they are rare and valuable). I know of a photographer who at one time insisted she wouldnít stoop to shooting for Target (never mind that she only worked about once a year); she was about Neiman Marcus. As far as I know, she still isnít working. Your first projects may involve subject matter that isnít interesting to you, schedules that cost you more in lost time at your day job than they actually pay, and other very real obstacles. See them for what they are, not gold plated opportunities, but oysters with rare pearls underneath the goo.

(A footnote here: I am not suggesting that you work for very little money, and strongly caution you against people who expect you to do something for very little or nothing now in exchange for the potential of more work. What I do suggest is that even charging a fair price something may not make financial sense at the moment, but the experience and the relationship are far more valuable.)

5. Keep Your Word.

Do what you say, in the way you say you will do it, and deliver it on time and in budget. It is just that difficult, and just that important. On the other hand, if your clients change the job parameters then they have not kept their word and you will need to reevaluate based on current information.

6. Get it in writing.

See that little example above? When you thought you agreed to spend one day doing six shots for a flat fee, and your client says you agreed to spend one day shooting and there are still three hours to go in your day and youíd better do another few images with they time they paid for, things get complicated. First off, be very clear about what is and what is not included. Go into detail. Cover usage (a subject for another article, but if you donít know what it is then I suggest you learn about it before you get started). Then, put it all down on paper. try and cover the contingencies. Be specific. There are forms. There are prewritten terms and conditions (APA, ASMP, and editoralphotographers.com all have contracts worth looking at). Donít ever hide what your clients might find important. If things start to go south, be reasonable. Be fair. Donít allow yourself to be bullied. If the paperwork is on your side, then everything you give them is a gift they will hopefully appreciate.

Now, what if your client doesnít want to sign a contract? First find out their specific objections. See if you can work with it, anything that you both agree to is fair. Be reasonable, but donít let them take advantage of you. They still wont sign? Congratulations. Move on. You have successfully avoided a nightmare.

7. If You Take the Job, Do Your Best.

Smaller jobs and smaller budgets might mean using fewer resources, shooting less film, or creating a simpler image. It never means putting in less effort or caring less about the results. If there isnít the money to do it right, then donít do it. Youíll simply get blamed, and justifiably so. If you think you will resent the job, donít take it. Period. It isnít fair to you or to them.

8. Do Just One Thing.

Ever run into those model/actor/musician/painter/film director types who work at the local coffee place? A few may even be talented, but still fewer will ever move past Barista. If you are running two races at the same time, and I am only running one, I will win. Running two races allows you to switch whenever you hit a wall. In the end, while your competition learns to scale walls, you will spend most of your time running between races. If you choose to run two, finish the first before you begin the second. Doing one thing well is hard enough, focus on it. Most people I know with success in multiple areas focused on each one in turn, not at the same time.

9. Work Smarter, Not Harder.

Take a look at what the competition does and understand why. Go over it again. Really see what they are after. Ask yourself if there is a better way to do it. What about a way to do it that may not be as good, but is actually better because you will be the only one doing it? Iíve frequently been in a big store and come to the line of registers only to find most of them seven or eight people deep. On closer examination you may be surprised that there are quite often two or three off to the side with much shorter waits, and even more surprisingly a return counter that is empty and quite willing to ring up your purchase. You donít need to cut in line to get ahead, you just need to look a little harder to circumvent them. Spend a little more time thinking, avoid following the pack, and never assume that because nobody else is doing it that it wont work.

M A R K . R O B E R T . H A L P E R . P H O T O G R A P H Y
studio 323.664.7070 | toll free 888.273.2838 | fax 323.664.9970
1543 Westerly Terrace | Los Angeles | California | 90026
http://studiomark.com | mark@studiomark.com


Mark will be offering a two weekend workshop entitled "Photographing and Lighting People for Publication" beginning May 28. Please visit studiomark.com/workshops for more information.

To learn more about Mark Robert Halper click here to go to his listing:
> Mark Robert Halper

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