Each week, I receive emails from high school students researching career week to professional photographers requesting suggestions on how I got involved as a National Geographic photographer. The two simple answers are with dedicated persistence to the art and lots of honest hard work.
Looking back at my 25 years as a freelance photographer in the adventure travel industry and producing several assignments for National Geographic, here are 12 valuable lessons I would like to share:
• Photography should be your obsession and not a hobby. Perhaps my best visual training was printing millions of marginal photos while managing a 1-hour lab. Develop your own unique style through visual immersion.
• Working as a college newspaper and yearbook photo editor introduced me to the business end of the industry managing budgets and assigning projects. You will need business sense to survive as a professional photographer. The reality is 80% of my time is dedicated to business and the other 20% is travel and producing work.
• Communication is key! Always follow up with clients and keep your promises. Your word is the most powerful tool in this industry so keep a viable database and contact your clients regularly. Formal emails and phone calls are still the preferred communication even in this crazy “mobile” world.
• As cliché as it sounds; pursue your passion and the money will follow. Success rates will rely on two variables; time and money. My two passions that I have consistently pursued have been wildlife conservation and adventure travel. Early in my career, I partnered with non-profits and travel companies that shared my passions then and now.
• Knowledge is power and ignorance is not an option. Becoming passionate about your subjects and your research will show in your production. Being open-minded and conscious about sensitive subjects and peoples’ values while filming is mandatory as a journalist.
• Value your work. If you don’t, then nobody will. One of the biggest mistakes starting out is selling yourself short in this industry of rejections. Free is not an option, even “for credit and exposure” as been repeatedly quoted over the years. Remind the editor that “Income minus Expenses equal Profit.”
• Respect is everything. The environment and wildlife do not have voices so you need to stick to your ethics and behave like a photographer. Respect other “artists” intellectual property because we are a small group of professionals working together in a volatile industry.
• Honesty is the best policy. Its a small world out there so emit positive vibes and never deceive. Truthful captioning in this digital world is more important than ever.
• Joining a professional organization will help you share ideas with like minded people, network with potential clients and give you power in number to create positive legislation for our industry. Personally, I joined NANPA from the very beginning because they share my visions and ethics as a “nature photographer.” Another bonus is affordable business insurance.
• Being both mentally and physically flexible are important. Physically stay fit since camera equipment does not get any lighter and assignments seem to get more demanding. Mentally you need to be competent to constantly alter your workflow due to industry change in software technology and client requests. Examples would be the paramount change from film to digital and more recently the increase demand for assignment video.
• Buy the equipment you need not want. This is a tough one with so many options and great incentives with new cameras. As a professional, I always buy two of the same camera bodies and usually the best lenses I can afford. Last year’s DSLR models are more reasonably priced and the hardware more stable. If you wait for a least one firmware update before purchasing a camera, you’ll avoid being a beta tester. About every two years, I upgrade to newer camera models.
• Give back more than you receive. This is perhaps the most ethereal but also the most important topic mentioned. Whether its mentoring a photography student or donating your time to a non-profit, giving back to the industry will ensure its future and viability for many generations.
So the reality of being a freelance photographer are days of monotonous office time, hours of software troubleshooting, fixing broken equipment, constant self-promotion and an unpredictable P&L. There are also no vacation pay, sick days, medical plans and matching contributions. Days often begins at 5am and end around 9pm.
So why do I do this? Its the best job ever!
If your passion is to work with all types of people from all walks of life in all corners of the globe under unpredictable conditions with a scant reality of the outcome….then this is a job for you.
Now that we got the basics covered; be the most honest creative photographer you can and be sure to share your experiences with someone who will appreciate your work. Go Create!