The Skills You Won’t Learn in Photography School

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Now that I’m freelancing in several capacities, a lot of my income is coming from photography. But having attended photography school for years I know for a fact there are some big gaps in what you need to know to make it, especially in terms of business knowledge and professional skills. Of course you must first learn to operate a camera properly, know how to adjust your shutter speed and aperture accordingly, and you must have some creative eye for taking a good composition. Photography classes can teach you that stuff. But, with so many people calling themselves photographers and with so much easy access to cameras, making it as a photographer today has more to do with selling yourself than ever before.

Selling Yourself

Art is an often frustratingly subjective field. There is no benchmark test you can pass, no real qualifications or prerequisites, and the best you can do to prove yourself is to present a portfolio of previous work. With photography it falls mainly on the photographer to be a kick-ass salesperson and sell his or herself to a prospective client. This could include everything from creating a unique brand and niche, getting great at pitching complex project ideas, or even just being good with people. I’d be lying if I said this came naturally to me–my inner voice is always telling me there is someone better they could choose and there’s something that I’m lacking. But I’ve realized that most of the time those self doubts and perfectionist criticisms are just in my head. So I tell myself “fake it until you make it,” and when I am speaking to a potential client I emphasize all the things I am good at and the experience I have that can benefit them. And after doing this a few times, feeling like I was faking it, I’m finally realized I wasn’t faking it at all and I actually have what it takes.

Networking

I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it, but just in case, I’ll reiterate: so much of any career depends on who you know. Networking is crucial to most, if not all, jobs and photography is no exception. The more people you know and the more you put yourself out there, the more likely you will be top of mind when opportunities arise. Agencies and companies will generally hire people they know first, it’s that simple. Go to events and seminars, reach out to potential mentors, follow up with the people you have connected with. People are more mobile in their careers than ever, switching jobs sometimes as often as every year or two. Even if someone cannot help you right now, you never know how that connection may benefit either of you in the future. In a field as intensely saturated as photography and especially one where the benchmarks of good and bad are hazy and hard to define, your success over the next person will more often than not hinge on how well you network. I did 7 different internships in college and of those 7, I only really applied to one not knowing anyone at the company. Every interview I was given and every opportunity I was offered was through someone that I knew.

A Creative Vision

Photography school does try to foster creativity and help you try new things to get you outside of the box, but ultimately finding your own creative vision is something no one can truly “teach.” You must find this style on your own. This vision is developed over time and can be constantly changing. Most truly successful and iconic photographers have a uniquely recognizable style. When I see a photo that was taken by Annie Liebovitz, Irving Penn, or Elliott Erwitt, I can almost always tell that it is their work. I’m not saying that we should all expect to be the next Liebovitz or Penn or Erwitt but part of what sets an exemplary photographer apart from the rest is his or her particular vision.

Business Skills

This one is a doozy. Photography is something like 15% shooting and 75% business hustle. Too many photography programs don’t even touch on business acumen and if they do, it’s a cursory education at best. I guess somewhere along the line it was determined that art and business were just too dissimilar? Of course this is insane. Working as a photographer is essentially running a small business and you need to know all the things that come along with that like how to bill an invoice to a client, how to do your taxes, how to create a budget, and the like. I actually transferred out of the photography program at NYU in my sophomore year in large part because I was not permitted to double major in business and take the classes I wanted to take to learn those skills.

You Never Stop Learning

You may learn the basics in photography school, but so much of what I’ve learned has come from simply needing to or wanting to do something, not knowing how, and figuring it out. A friend of mine recently made a comment, that knowledge is free and there is no excuse for ignorance. I think this applies quite nicely in that no amount of selling yourself as a photographer and no amount of creative vision can fully overcome a lack of technical know-how. If you are expecting people to pay you for your skills, then putting the camera on the Auto setting and not knowing the difference between a 35mm and a 50mm lens are unacceptable. It would be ridiculous to call yourself a pharmacist without some base understanding of chemistry and it baffles me sometimes when I meet people who call themselves a photographer with no base understanding of how to work a camera. If nothing else, by continually learning new photography skills, you will continually improve as a photographer. This should be true of any career and of life in general. You should always be looking for ways to grow. 

How to Achieve Balance

When working as a photographer or any sort of freelancer, your job never really ends. We tend to emphasize the importance of hustling but it is just as important to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Whether its taking a day each week for yourself, turning your phone off for an hour to read a good book or take a bath, or planning better ways to manage your time to get things done efficiently, I find myself a lot more productive when I am able to maintain some time to recharge.

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