When I was going to school for Photography I already had a bachelors degree, was employed full-time in a completely unrelated field and was taking a few classes to keep myself busy and hopefully out of trouble.  So when I lost my job in the midst of that, I had the bright idea to stay in Photo school and pursue my new and improved career: Tori Soper-Commercial Photographer.  Well, that didn’t last very long as the more time and money I spent on being educated in the classroom the less I felt that I was learning about the practical side of photography.  How many times did I need to answer the question “what does the absence of green in this photograph mean to you?”

When most people are in the midst of cementing their career path, I started off on a new one as a Photographers’ Assistant to anyone who would have me.  The tasks ranged from picking up lunch, running film back and forth to the lab (yes, film), processing in the darkroom and more hours than I care to count that consisted of standing around waiting for something to happen.  But that was the beginning of a real, concrete, oh my-is this what it’s really like? learning curve which I’m still riding 15 years later.

In honor of my brief stay in Photo school and also in support of the many photo students who have come to me with questions as well as Assistants who are in need of advice, I say heads’ up, here’s a few things that they never taught you in school.  Commit this to memory.

1.  Find Your Niche

When I first started moving away from Assisting and into shooting full-time, I was happy to shoot anything and so I did.  From food to fashion, portraits to pets, you name it,  I did it.  And this served me well at the time as I needed the experience and more importantly, the cash.  However, you can’t be everything to everyone and I have yet to find a Photographer who excels in every specialty.  Do one maybe two things and do them well.  If it’s people you want to photograph, excellent!  Then ask yourself: photojournalism, portraits, corporate, advertising?  There are so many options to pick from that specializing should not be seen as limiting yourself but mastering a skill that you can evolve with.

2.  The Language of the Law

One of the things that intimidated more than anything when I first started out was the language of estimates, invoicing, usage terms and copyright.  There are many nuances to creating a rock-solid estimate that can hold up to question and the key is to simply know what you’re talking about, understand what your client is talking about and make sure you have the paperwork to back this up.  This is incredibly important when providing photography on a business to business level as our clients may not know the lingo and it’s our job as their provider to fill them in on the details.  So, never leave anything to question and make sure you get it on paper.  For more information on commercial photography usage terms, check out this out. 

3. Do the Hustle

Especially when first starting out, you’ll have to be ready to move quickly, be somewhat of a Renaissance man and be prepared to hustle because at any given point, you’ll be doing the job of at least ten people at once.  If I had to post a job description to fill my own position it would go something like this: “Currently recruiting for an Administrative Assistant, Web Designer, Marketing Director, Accountant, Digital Tech, Telemarketer, Blogger, Envelope Stuffer, Janitor and Dog-Walker.  The faint of heart need not apply.”  Yes, there are days that are chill and move at a normal pace but then there are days that are filled with a little bit of everything from shooting to post-production, keeping up with invoicing and of course, my little boy Charlie doesn’t understand that I’m on a deadline and he does love and need his afternoon walks.  Just know, it’s not all all about clicking that shutter, in fact that’s just a very small part of this business.  Be ready to wear many hats.

4. Stick With The Tried and True

Photo gear is cool because deep down inside all of us Photographers are technology geeks at heart.  However, stick with what works.  Just because the new camera has all of the bells and whistles doesn’t mean it’s going to make you any better as a Photographer.  It’s you, your work and your sparkling personality (not the camera) that your clients are interested in.  So, instead of checking out the photo items for sale on  Ebay every morning with your cup of jo, check out other peoples’ work that inspires you, replicate it with the tried and true equipment you have and save your money.  Expect more from yourself than you do of your equipment.

5. It’s Not You, It’s Me

So says our clients.  Humility goes along way.  Yes, self-esteem is a wonderful thing but just remember it’s not about you, it’s about your client.  They hired you because you have work that proves to be consistent with their style and their vision so the key is to marry what you can bring to the table with what your clients need to see in the final product.  It’s a very fine balancing act in that you  have that creative energy that begs to be expressed but always make sure that this drive ultimately illustrates the ideas that your clients came to you to put into a photograph.  Of course experiment and of course offer up ideas, just remember yours is just one of the voices in the room.

6. Staying Creative While in a Slump

This is a toughie.  December rolls around and then here comes January and I haven’t picked up my camera as regularly as I normally do in what seems like forever.  It happens like this every year…I feel like I’m in a slump.  Well, thankfully you don’t have to go far to get motivated.  One of the things that works for me is to go through my portfolio pieces and consider how I may have lit things differently, how I could have enhanced the images more in camera.  This brings me into playing with new lighting concepts which I then start to incorporate as soon as the work does start rolling in.  Over the last several assignments, I have completely altered the way I am lighting my editorial subjects and though I do like the images, being better was not necessarily my first priority….being different from my norm was and in turn I think these past few shoots have resulted in even stronger photographs.

7.  Don’t Get Too Comfortable

If you can drag yourself over to the library for a good chuckle, check out some magazines issued 10 years ago even 5 years ago.  There’s a huge difference in style, in the light, even in the predominant colors.  Way back when, it was crucial to have everything in focus whereas the in thing these days is a very shallow depth of field.  The industry changes so incredibly quickly that although you might find your niche, it’s best not to get too comfortable as what works today won’t necessarily be what’s going to work tomorrow.

8. You’ll Make Mistakes and You’ll Live

Ok, this is so elementary but when you are the one making the mistakes it feels like the world will spin off its’ axis, you will never work in the field of photography again and you’ll probably need to sell your house, car, camera and so on.  But alas, that would be a very limited perspective because if you’re not making mistakes you’re not pushing yourself, you’re just not trying hard enough.  The road to excellence is not paved by perfection.  Instead, that path mostly consists of blunders, screw-ups, rejection, mistakes and a boatload of persistence.  Not to mention aiming for perfection makes you a little bitter and incredibly hard to work with.  So, chill because perfection is not the key here, endurance is.  Which leads me to…

9. Rejection is Way Better than Ambivalence

There are more ups than downs in the field of Photography.  You’ll hear more of “no” than you ever will “yes.”  One of the best things you can do for yourself is learn how to handle, survive and succeed though the valleys as well as you embrace the peaks.  Perspective has a lot to do with it for me.  Consider this, I maybe get every one of five assignments from clients that  I have never worked with before.  That’s about a closing rate of 20%.  Seems pretty shabby.  But what would that mean if I was closing 100%?  Does that mean I’m the cheapest Photographer on the block?  That’s not what I’m shooting for and neither should anyone else in this industry. Besides, at least with rejection we are on the radar, we are relevant…it is ambivalence on the part of the potential audience that should be more of a concern.  So, steady on, the greatest thing you can do for yourself as a freelancer is learn how to ride the waves through patience and persistence.

10. Value Your Work

How can you quantify in a dollar amount the value of what you produce?  Consider this, with the predominance of social media we are seeing a rise in visual content marketing which uses images rather than words to communicate about a businesses’ product and services.  And why are graphics being used more than ever?   Because our brains can process images waaaay faster, actually 60,000 times faster than text.  In creating these images, we are telling stories that our incredibly busy and equally distracted culture can absorb, remember and ultimately be influenced by.

Excellent images are story tellers and consequently money makers.  So, yes, know your competition, know your cost of doing business but also always keep in mind, that a picture is worth 60,000 words.  Once  you have that committed to memory, you will always be compelled to value your work.