Photography Education: Becoming A Professional

Posted on 9/17/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Young people just out of high school wonder education they need to become a professional still photographer. Thousands out of a job are also trying to launch photography careers. It may be the worst time in decades to contemplate a career in still photography. Given tech advancements, it has become easy for those needing pictures to create quality images themselves, without relying on a professional photographer.

In addition, there is a huge oversupply of images, easily available on countless Web sites. Many are being licensed at a fraction of what it cost to produce them, even when you take into account that some may be licensed multiple times. It is impossible to make a living in a business in which your production costs are greater than your income. Most photographers are self-employed (very few salaried staff jobs) and most can't afford to operate their business at a loss.

Given the state of the industry and the world economy, it's wasteful to spend tens of thousands of dollars on formal education at a trade school or university in an attempt to learn photography.

A better strategy is to first purchase a good DSLR and shoot, shoot, shoot. To figure out what to shoot, go to microstock sites (,, and and search for subjects that interest you and subjects that appear in magazines. Organize the search returns by downloads, so you can see which specific images have sold the most times.

Compare the number of times the best-selling images have sold in various subject categories. Learn which categories are in greatest demand. Produce pictures that are similar in concept to the best sellers. Don't copy. Try to improve on what other photographers have done.

Submit a few of your best images to all of the above sites (and more microstock sites, if you like). Don't be discouraged by rejection. Try again. Keep shooting. Figure out which of your images sell, and which ones don't. Decide if you enjoy producing the kind of images that are in demand.

Learn to light your subjects. Using light effectively, whether it is natural light or artificial, is a major part of every successful photograph. Rent lights rather than buying them in order to learn. Attend seminars, workshops and trade shows. Some important ones upcoming are: Photoplusexpo, ImagingUSA, WPPI and PPA. Attend meetings of local chapters of Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and American Society of Media Professionals (ASMP). Many of their meetings are open to non-members.

Contact the most successful photographers in your area and see if you can intern or assist them. Money is not important here. Experience is everything. Learn how these professionals plan and execute their shoots. Most professionals can use extra help, but they don't have time to teach. Observe, but be careful how much you question. They need gofers who don't have to be given a lot of instruction and can save them time. They need problem solvers and logical thinkers who can communicate successfully in writing, on the phone and in person. They need self-starters with persistence and drive. The best assistant I ever hired came to me without a portfolio, but with all of the above abilities and a desire to learn photography.

Become an expert in Photoshop, Lightroom and digital asset management. There are lots of good videos tutorials online where you can polish these skills. Such training is available at trade shows. As the industry has moved from film to digital, at least three-quarters of the time spent in producing good pictures is in post-production (after the image is captured). Most professionals are looking for someone skilled to help them in this area so they can spend more of their time shooting, managing their operation and finding new clients.

With microstock, post-processing is also extremely important, but difficult to learn. The information is widely distributed and accessible on blogs, forums and social networks, but finding it can be very time consuming.

Being a successful photographer is as much about having solid business skills as it is about taking pictures.

Photographers with mediocre talent and good business savvy often operate much more successfully and run profitable businesses than those acclaimed by their peers as being great creatively but lack business acumen. A business coach can help you learn, plan and organize. There are many such coaches around the country. One is Beate Chelette's "Cash In A Flash System." Her address: Chelette Enterprises Inc, P.O. Box 1293, Culver City, CA 90232.

If you want to make a career of communicating with images, consider learning video production rather than stills. Print is becoming less important as a way of getting information and online is growing. Online can use video, and it is often more effective than stills. At some point, demand for video will far outpace the demand for stills. Maybe three years, maybe 10, but that's where things are headed.

Producing good video stories with sound and narration is much more difficult than producing stills. There will be much less competition from part -timers and amateurs. Still photojournalism is dying. Documentary photography is not a way to make money.

In this career, don't expect to get rich.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Sep 17, 2009

    You amaze me in that you suggest young photographers send images to Microstock agencies and yet you-- and many others-- write that it is impossible to make a living doing Microstock!

    Why not tell them to START correctly --- send to Rights Managed agencies! You want to send them to Micro and complicate the entire system even more.

    There are almost entirely amateurs doing Micro images. If they want to have a CAREER in photography, teach them the RIGHT way please.

    I write this from Italy, believe it or not, on assignment because I have a REAL career as a photographer!

    Bill Bachmann
    Orlando, Florida

  • Tim Mcguire Posted Sep 26, 2009
    I must second Bill's comments. It seems very odd to start an article by writing about how one makes a career in photography, then say you can't do it in micrstock, but then you go on to tell them to submit their best images to microstock agencies.

    Much of the rest seems to be better advice.

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