After 20 years of teaching you would think that I have answers to each and every question that comes my way. Well, I wish it was the case. Sometimes the question is not that easy to answer because to properly answer it, I often have to ask more questions. Just think about this example: someone comes into B&H or Calumet photo and ask the sales person for a lens. What will automatically happen? The sales person will start asking questions, actually many questions. From which camera system, the focal lens, what type of subject, to how much are they willing to spend. It is exactly the same for me when I am asked by someone, what a portfolio should include or look like. Why? Because when planning a portfolio, a photographer must take into account the market they will serve as well as many other aspects of the business, including such variables as location, cost of doing business in the area and all existing and possible sources of income. Do you think the Mime in New York City ( the one in the picture) knows his market?
Many years ago, on the first day of my class, I would stand in front of my new students and ask them: “Today you are here, in the classroom getting ready to enter the world of commercial photography.” As I wrote an “A” on the blackboard and underline it to show them, that "this is where they are today". I walked a step forward and wrote a “B” at the other end of the blackboard. "We know that “A” is here, today. Now what will be the quickest way to get to “B”? “A straight line!”, someone answered. “Yes a straight line will be good, can you elaborate?” Truly, I can tell you that 100% of the time my poor students looked at me like I was an alien, which I am, and I do take the blame for the really poorly designed question. Finally I would say:” Since we know where point “A” is: today, this classroom, etc. the quickest way to get to “B” would be to know where “B” is! Let say point “B” is: Being in San Francisco shooting high end advertising automobile photography, or owning a portrait studio that shoots weddings and family portraits in New Hampshire. Then one can define the best path to get to that point, and form a clear and educated plan of actions. Correct?” The confused faces appeared to say: “We are not sure what you are talking about, if it is the accent or the just the long vacation.” . The fact is thatt with commercial photography a well-defined plan will carry you further. Knowing what your goals are will help you define a plan to reach them.
So a few days ago an excellent student of mine, while shooting a beautiful photograph, started a discussion on his future portfolio and what should be included in terms of types of images and style. I responded by asking questions. Whether he planned on shooting or assisting when out of school? Shooting, was his answer. I asked him if he did have any clients that could provide income right away, if he was planning on moving to a different location? I am sure initially, it must have been a little annoying but with each answer he gave me, I could respond easily and explain my point of view. Jumping into being a photographer right out of school usually means generating income from photography right away. A different location would imply different types of clients. For example being in Boston, you should know that the major industries can be broken into three groups: Health care, Banking and Education, therefore shooting fashion photography may not be very lucrative. After ten minutes of questions and answers, things started to be a little clearer for him and even though our conversation was far from finished, he could go home and start considering his next steps in a clearer and more educated manner. Once he knew the location of his business, he could figure out the types of companies and the work they will need to hire a photographer for. Once that is defined, he could figure out what style may be more appropriate etc. So designing and planning your portfolio with your potential client in mind will be very helpful.
As a result of this conversation, I decided to write down a set of questions that I would have all my students answer in a written form, so that they would not feel silly or shy, or be embarrassed.
This list of questions, I would ask anyone hoping to get into commercial photography, it may be in different ways but similar in theme.
1. What is it that makes you special as a photographer?
2. Where do you want to be in one year?
3. Where do you want to be in three years?
4. What are the steps you will be taking to achieve these goals?
The first question should help you define the reasons why someone would decide to hire you instead of another photographer? It should also help you define who you are as a photographer. For instance one could say: I am special because of the way I see things, I am special because I am awesome with kids etc. No matter what it is, make sure that whatever it is that makes you special must be featured in your portfolio.
Having a short-term goal (1 Year) will give you a plan and instill a sense of urgency to it. Is that important? Well how many students do you know finish school (upper education) and wait for things to happen? A one-year plan will provide some guidelines and accountability. Schools rarely require that their students define a course of actions for once they graduate, so they leave school often unprepared.
A three-year goal will guide you, once the excitement is gone and the reality has settled in. Usually businesses either succeed or fail during the first three years, and even though Photography sometimes takes longer, by then you should have a good idea whether this is going to work or not.
Once your goals have been defined it is easy to lay down a path to reach them. To go into each possibility in this article would take way to long. Going back to the conversation I had with my student, he wanted to get into the national market. That’s great but my advice was to go for the regional market first, as it would be a more realistic goal. Once he did access the regional market, he would acquire experience with larger projects and could move toward his ultimate goal of working for the national market.
Whatever your situation is, whether you are a young photographer hoping to get into large production advertising, or a soon to be retiree hoping to earn some income from his/her favorite pastime, being able to answer these questions will greatly help you. What I do with each students is review their answer and see what they do to prepare. A young woman wanted to assist and be a retoucher once out of school. Now I can review what her level of skills his with Photoshop so that she can really be prepared.
(Questions, feedback use the comment and I'll respond as soon as I can. Thank you)
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