Starting Out

Thu 15th Jan, 2004

Posted by Staff in Business Advice, Interview

For anyone just starting out or for any of you who may just need a reminder of exactly why you got into this business, EP posed the following question to some of our most successful EP members.

QUESTION: What's the best piece of advice you have for young photographers starting out?

David Burnett

"The most valuable thing I own after all these years of being a photojournalist, is my pictures. I have never done work-for-hire, and can pretty much find anything I have ever shot. It may take a while, but I know its there somewhere. In an age where publishing companies are demanding more and more of photographers, and generally paying less and less for it, the key is to remember that ownership of your images is really the ONLY thing that makes you a photographer, and when you get to be older, and wiser and wish you had those pictures, if you take steps now to insure it, you'll be very happy for it."

David Burnett has worked for news magazines since the 1970's traveling to some 75 countries in search of pictures for Time, Life, ESPN, Fortune, and others. He is the winner of World Press Photo and Magazine Photographer of the Year. His work is represented by Contact Press Images, the photojournalism agency of which he is a founder, in New York.

Rick Rickman

"The best advice I have for young photographers just starting out in this industry is to be more interested in the people they cover than they are in the gear they carry. Be willing to do whatever it takes to create interesting images that convey truth. Be continually aware that there's a fine line between self-confidence and conceit. Most importantly, always be aware that carrying a camera entitles you to nothing but an opportunity to show the world a view that you've deemed important.

"If you intend to succeed, become well versed in negotiating skills and good business practices. Learn to listen carefully to the needs of the client and never take a job that you can't deliver everything you promised. All you have to sell is a good sense of vision and your word. If either is flawed you should re-examine your career path."

Rick Rickman is a freelance photographer living in southern California. He has worked for most magazines being published in the US. He is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He is co-owner/shareholder of a Sports Picture Agency. He is a member of the EP Board of Directors and father of two beautiful children ages 10 & 22.

Peter Howe

"If you can imagine yourself doing anything other than photojournalism, don't become a photojournalist. It's a difficult profession that demands total commitment.”

"If you don't have a private income make other arrangements for your financial survival that do not depend on the sale of your photographic talents. In the beginning, you won't make it from photography alone.”

"If you're offered a job on any kind of local newspaper take it. It will not be beneath you, and even though it may be boring to shoot town hall meetings, it's not as boring as waiting table, which will be another alternative. Furthermore, you get to use your camera every day and have health benefits.”

"If you're starting out as a freelancer ... not a good idea, but if you insist ... don't go to far-off exotic places to shoot your first stories. Look in your own backyard for stories that interest you, have value, and may be saleable. The advantage of this is that you will understand the culture and the framework of the story, plus it's cheaper.”

"If you do want to travel to work in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan or any other Stan, read as much as you can about the place before you go so that you do get some level of understanding of the nature of the society that you will be visiting.”

"THE MOST IMPORTANT -- don't sign any contracts that give away your rights, however, desperate you are. Not only will you be taking bread out of the mouths of your fellow photographers, you will also be sacrificing long-term financial security for short-term expediency."

With over thirty years experience in the photography industry, Peter Howe has worked as a photographer, editor, agent, writer, and curator. Presently he is occupied as an author and commentator on the subject and is a regular contributor to many of the publications that deal with photojournalism, including the Digital Journalist, American Photo, Columbia Journalism Review and USA Today. His last book "Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer" was published by Artisan in the fall of 2002. He recently curated the critically acclaimed exhibition "War in Iraq: The Coordinates of Conflict" at the International Center of Photography in New York. During 13 years as a photojournalist, he covered stories ranging from the civil wars in El Salvador and Northern Ireland to Papal visits, political conventions, and inaugurations. He subsequently became the Picture Editor of the New York Times Magazine and Director of Photography for LIFE magazine. From 1997 to 2000, he was VP of Photography and Creative Services for Corbis. He is currently working on a book about the paparazzi to be published in the spring of 2005.

Claudio Edinger

"Find a subject you love and spend 10 hours a day, every day, photographing and then editing it. Study all major photographers' work and life. Study all major painters, writers and composers' work and life.”

"And especially ... get a daytime job that pays very well ... just kidding..."

The author of 11 photo books, Claudio Edinger work has been published in all major magazines, including Time, Newsweek, Life, Fortune, Vanity Fair, New York Times Sunday Magazine. Based in São Paulo, Brazil, he is a two-time winner of the Leica Medal of Excellence and winner of Ernst Haas Award. He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1952 and lived in New York City from 1976 to 1996.

Chip Simons

"Well, if you are going to do photography for a living... then you better start by taking tons of pictures. You need to get a lot of water under that bridge so you don't get overwhelmed when the rains come.”

"You need to get fluid with your gear so it does not get in the way of creating good pictures (you should be able to set up lights and shoot without a light meter.) Can you light a portrait with a blindfold on? How about load film and set your f-stop?”

"You need to find your own vision and develop a style that will set you apart from the 30,000 or so people that want your job. If everyone looks alike...why wouldn't they just hire their friends or the lowest bidder?”

"You should also set a standard for your photography and your professionalism as someone that gets the job done, above and beyond the call of duty. If you are happy and satisfied with what you produce then the client usually is too.”

"Make a photo shoot with you an enjoyable event as are stealing the subject's time...make it easy on them.”

"Don't let yourself get in the way of yourself...if it were easy, everyone would be a professional photographer.”

" are only as good as your last picture."

Chip Simons is a self-taught professional photographer for over 20 years. His colorful and whacky photos are seen in magazines, postcard racks, and dentist offices worldwide. He lives at a petting zoo/spa complex near the river in New Mexico.

Brian Smale

"Based on my own personal failings, and in no order of importance, here are my top 15 recommendations for those of you just beginning this so-called "career":

  1. Floss (Seriously: Dental surgery can cost a fortune. Plus your teeth will be sparkly white, and your breath will smell nice too.)
  2. Keep your overhead low.
  3. Start a retirement account N*O*W! Make the biggest automatic monthly/weekly contribution that you possibly can.
  4. Keep your credit rating as close to perfect as possible. Always pay your bills on time.
  5. Keep a separate savings account for your taxes. Whenever you get paid, divert a percentage that is equivalent to your tax rate. Always pay the taxman on time.
  6. Don't be afraid to ask for an advance on larger jobs.
  7. Don't piss people off, unless absolutely necessary. It will come back to bite you some day.
  8. Get liability insurance.
  9. Diversify your client base. So, if the bottom drops out of... say... the magazine market, you will still have income from another sector of the photo world.
  10. Register copyright on everything you do, starting today.
  11. Get model releases whenever possible.
  12. Make sure everyone is clear (in writing) about who gets what, for how long, for how much.
  13. If you are currently in photo school, stick around and get an MFA. Believe it or not, some day it could be worth it.
  14. Have a Plan "B". (See Number 13.)
  15. When someone asks you to give advice, decline. It makes you think of all the mistakes you've made!"

Brian Smale is an award-winning magazine photographer whose work appears in Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Texas Monthly. His photographs have also graced the covers of many books by Emeril LaGasse though he firmly denies that his nickname Brian "Bam Bam" Smale was the origin of Emeril's famous catchphrase. He has been doing this for long enough to get a gold watch ... so where is it? He is a member of the EP Board of Directors and he says "Wish I'd read this list 25 years ago!"

Brad Trent

"Make sure that you pay as much attention to the business of photography as you do to keeping interesting images in your portfolio. Over the years, I've seen some amazing photographers end up out of the business simply because they were horrible business people. No amount of artistic talent will guarantee success in the photography business. Having a clear business model based on your type of photography, knowing your clients needs, understanding business & creative trends and keeping your economic house in order are, in many ways, even more, important than your ability to take a picture! And one last thing...if you're just getting started, try your best to NOT go into business under-funded! Living a hand-to-mouth, Bohemian existence may make for a good novel, but in the Real World, you should have at least 6 months of operating capitol socked away before you try to make a go of it. Be brutally honest about what your monthly overhead will be, including your rent, promotional expenses, insurance, student loans, car payments, movie tickets, double-mocha latte's...EVERYTHING! Even if you're the most amazing photographer since Cartier-Bresson, it's going to take a while before you start seeing regular paychecks!"

Brad Trent left the wilds of Canada for New York City in the summer of 1982. After 5 years of assisting anyone silly enough to hire him, he hung out his own shingle and since then has worked for clients as varied as Life, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Business Week, The New York Times, the NFL, AT&T, General Motors, Pacific Bell, IBM and GlaxoSmithKline. He is a member of the EP Board of Directors and he lives a hand-to-mouth, Bohemian existence with his wife and 5 cats and is considering writing a novel.

Michael Grecco

"I think the most important thing that a young shooter can do is to learn everything there is to know about the business while keeping his images in demand and fresh. By creating images that people want you instill a feeling of need, and clients will then want to go out of their way to work with you. By learning everything, there is to know about the business you will also learn how to protect the intellectual property you are creating (your images) through copyright and licensing skills. That will help instill the respect that you and your images deserve. This two-part approach will serve you well."

Michael Grecco is an internationally recognized magazine and advertising portrait photographer who shoots covers and features for such magazines as ESPN, Wired, Time, Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, and Esquire to name but a few. His award-winning work has been included many times in such prestigious competitions as the Communication Arts Photography Annual, the American Photography Annual, and the PDN Photography Annual.

Seth Resnick

"For any photographer starting out, I think the most important thing to understand is that there is no sympathy for those just starting out. When you go out in the real world you are my competition and you are as good as your last job period. The second most important thing to understand is that photography is a business and while making great images is important, your ultimate success will be determined by how well you run your business. The third most important thing to learn is how to price your work and remain competitive in a very complex market."

Seth Resnick is a Miami based photographer who has been published in over 2500 publications worldwide and was the Past-President of EP. He is a co-founder of D65, a partner in PixelGenius and an alpha/beta and feature consultant for Adobe.

Adrienne DeArmas

"Several rules of thumb come to mind that any new (young or old) photographer should always remember.

  1. Never ever, ever, ever leave home without your camera. I have called many of the inexperienced shooters I know with a chance to work for a major magazine at the last minute only to find that they are at the gym (or the bank, the grocery store, fill in the blank) and would need to go home to get their equipment. If you don't have your equipment with you AT ALL TIMES, how will you be able to shoot that exclusive photo that only you were there to witness?
  2. Always be professional -- before, during and after the shoot. This means having a suit and tie for business portrait assignments. It means checking batteries, having enough flash cards, a ladder, a working cell phone, a backup camera. Research your assignment -- know something about your subject, be able to converse intelligently with him or her. Most importantly, talk to your editor. Listen to what they want and what they are saying -- even if you know it's impossible or wrong or guaranteed to yield disappointing results. Call them before the shoot - let them know what you will be doing, when, how, why, where, etc. Call them IMMEDIATELY after the shoot has finished. give them a play-by-play but do NOT describe your images. Assure them that you think you got what they wanted. Remember -- they are taking a chance on you. If you screw up, it's their fault, not yours. Edit immediately and deliver ASAP. Follow up with them after they have received the film, but be mindful of when they close. Lastly, if you do not value your time and your talent, no editor will. Editors often use new photographers to make ends meet budget-wise. But if you work for an editor at less than your peers charge, the editor will think of you as less of a photographer than your peers."

Adrienne DeArmas, a former museum curator specializing in digital asset management and exhibition development, currently works as an agent and archivist for photographer Chris Usher. Previously, she and Usher co-founded Apix, a Washington, DC-based photo agency dedicated to working with young photographers.

Adrienne DeArmas is with Chris Usher Photography & Associates at

Peter Gregoire

"My best advice for a young photographer in terms of their photography would be to say that if the have something that they are really interested in or driven to do either stylistically or subject matter wise that they should pursue this even if it is not immediately popular or get immediate recognition. If it is a unique idea it will, in the end, bring success with enough persistence.”

"As far as the business part goes I would suggest using sound business practices and to avoid as best as is humanly possible all the bad deals that we as photographers are constantly being offered."

Peter Gregoire is a graduate of the Rhode Island School Of Design and has been a photographer based in New York since 1983. I have done corporate and advertising work for many Fortune 500 companies and my editorial clients include Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Golf Digest, Time, Traditional Home, House Beautiful, Business Week, Barron's and USA Weekend.

Katherine Lambert

"First, I'll reiterate conventional wisdom: assist. Make it someone whose work you admire or whose specialty, at least, is what you'd like to be doing. This is valuable for all the obvious reasons and you may well find out that that specialty is not for you. Do you really want to be in a studio all day? Do you really want to stay up odd hours on those architectural shoots? Do you really want to have to charm difficult executives or primadonna entertainers? There's absolutely no other way to you learn the things that you can learn by assisting.”

"Having said that, I'd like to emphasize avoiding the Assistant Trap. Not that you shouldn't try to be a fantastic assistant in every way possible, but the better you are, the more chances there are that you will get caught in this rut. I've seen it happen so many times to people who have assisted for more than about 5 years. The solution to this is always, and I mean every week if you are serious, shoot for yourself. Do some serious self-assigning for the kind of work you want to get and at the end of your assistant gig you might have a pretty decent portfolio. Plus, if you have a tight relationship with a good photog, they might let you borrow equipment occasionally to try out your great ideas.”

"Look at and study as much work as you can: galleries, books, magazines, advertising, resource books, etc. Try to figure out how images were made and get inspiration for your own images. This way you'll know what people get paid to shoot, what current visual styles are and therefore not embarrass yourself by showing irrelevant work when you do get out there in the big bad marketplace. Lastly, don't show work prematurely! This is so important -- you may not be able to get your foot back in the door if they remember bad work."

Katherine Lambert specializes in portrait photography for numerous magazines and design firms from her base in Washington DC. Katherine has been doing this for over 20 years.

Mark Richards

Diversify, Diversify, Diversify.

"In a long career things will come and go; without diversification, you will be a prisoner to your past. Start off thinking about stock photography. Understand art and understand money - you need both. No matter what you start off doing in Photography, it is rare that you will be doing the same in 10 years. Family is forever; an editor, a magazine only lasts a while."

Mark Richards is a 13-time winner in Communication Arts Photography Annual. His coverage includes Afghanistan to Russia, street gangs to Haiti, Computer cultural and Fortune 500 CEO's. You can find his work at Tony Stone, Taxi, The Image Bank, Photo Edit, Zuma, Corbis, Workbookstock and at Mark was a member of the SF9 that founded EP and he remains on the EP Board of Directors.

Alicia Wagner Calzada

"When you are starting out, try as many different genres of photography as you can, journalism, commercial, portraits, art, advertising, public relations, weddings. This is the way that you can narrow down your area of interest. While doing this, search for a niche, an area where your community is under-served. You want to build a reputation as the "go-to" photographer for something that is needed. It is much harder to break into a genre that is already flush with photographers.”

"You want to be in a position where clients come to you because of the service you provide, not because you are cheaper than the next guy. That is bad business. The photographers that are already successful are a success because their numbers work. They charge a fee that the market will bear and that will cover their expenses. If you undercut the photographers in your market, you will soon find that you can't meet your expenses, and it will be too late to ask for more. Feel free to ask the best photographers in your area for advice.”

"Learn as much about business as you can. Start out with good business habits, and you won't have to spend time, energy and money breaking bad habits later. Also, a website is essential to giving potential clients a way to get to know you. Many clients have last-minute needs, and will call the new guy because the photographer they know is not available. By directing them to your website, you can show them immediately that you are capable of accomplishing their needs."

Alicia Wagner Calzada is a photojournalist who spent several years as a self-employed photographer. She is currently on staff at Rumbo and is Vice President of the National Press Photographer's Association

Rich Frishman

"I would advise any serious new photographer to specialize. Find what they really have a passion for shooting, develop the skills to shoot that specialty in a unique and creative manner, and clearly promote that specialty with potential clients. Once you have created your niche, then you can emphasize your versatility beyond that specialty with established clients.”

"Most importantly, treat your business as a business. It's great to be shooting what you love, but if you are a professional you need to make a profit, and you need to be considering the foundations upon which you are building your business, such as copyright and licensing."

Rich Frishman, winner numerous prestigious national and international awards, specializes in people on location: powerful environmental portraiture, eye-popping photomosaics, and compelling photo essays. Clients include IBM, Nike, National Geographic, Glaxo, HealthSouth, and Zurich Financial. His recent projects include the Day in the Life series and covers for Time and Sports Illustrated. He is a member of the EP Board of Directors.

Michael Yamashita

"Take a workshop with a photographer they admire. I don't say this because I teach workshops, in fact, the ones I do teach now are far and few in-between because of the fact they take a lot out of you and I don't have the time and energy to commit to it. The workshop offers a student an intensive, up close and personal experience with a real working photographer, and the daily assignments coupled with immediate feedback on the success of those photographs is an invaluable way to learn."

Michael Yamashita began taking pictures in 1971 while on a self-styled "roots" trip to Japan. What began as a pastime led to a career combining his two passions -- photography and travel. He has been a regular contributor to the National Geographic since 1979 and has worked in such diverse locations as Somalia and Sudan, England and Ireland, New Guinea and New Jersey. Although he has traveled to six continents, Asia is his special area of concentration. He has lived in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan, and shoots for a variety of Asian publications. At home in rural New Jersey, he spends his spare time as a volunteer fireman.

Bob Sacha

"Don't neglect your personal work. It's great if you can find work doing the kind of pictures you'd do anyway for yourself. But if you can't, don't quit making -- and showing -- pictures you've done solely for your own curiosity, passion, amusement or entertainment."

Bob Sacha is an award-winning photojournalist who spends his time circling the globe for National Geographic Magazine. In 20 years as a magazine photographer, he has produced cover portraits of subjects as diverse as Mike Tyson and Ronald Reagan. He travels extensively shooting feature stories for Time and Fortune Magazines and travel features for Islands Magazine and contributes to many other magazines in the United States and Europe. He also photographs annual reports for dozens of Fortune 500 companies. He also finds time to teach workshops in Maine, Santa Fe, and Italy every year.

Brian Smith

"First: The single most important thing you can learn is how to relate to people. Even if you are a still life, architectural or landscape photographer who never shoots people you still must relate to people like clients, architects, designers and, of course, accounts payable. So go out and find 50 strangers, introduce yourself to them and shoot a portrait that says something about whom they are -- not just what they do.”

"Second: If you are trying to move on to better clients, treat every assignment you get as though you are shooting for your dream client. If you are at a small weekly newspaper and your dream is to shoot for a large metro, approach every assignment as though it was your first week at that dream job. The same is true if you are at a large metro newspaper and dream of shooting for Rolling Stone. Start shooting every job that way. Too many photographers just slide by with the idea that they can raise their quality when they get the 'right' clients and then wonder why they never get where they want to be. The truth is that as you advance up the ladder, the assignments don't necessarily get any better but expectations certainly get higher. Raise your game ... now!”

"Third: INVEST! Stock, bonds, mutual funds, real estate ... Even if you are one of those lucky bastards with a staff job and a retirement plan, let a portion of your earnings start working for you. Most photographers starting out don't feel they can afford to put money away. The truth is you can't afford NOT to!”

"Fourth: Most importantly ... don't ever forget to have FUN!"

Brian Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who splits his time between Miami Beach and New York. His portraits of subjects ranging from athletes to rappers to CEOs appear in such diverse publications as ESPN, The Source, Forbes, Time, Ocean Drive, Business Week, Slam, Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair. He is President of Editorial Photographers and he compiled this Q+A.



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