Every now and then someone asks me how I got started in photography. I give them the same story again and again and after enough time that story has sort of turned to mush. It’s just that I tell it and each time I’ll include slightly less detail. It’s easy to want to rush through it after so many tellings. Well today I took a minute to think about it all over again. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with my tale. What I will discuss is the plight of the amateur photographer (henceforth referred to as the AP). Remembering being an AP as I pondered earlier today gave me recharged respect for those fighting that noble battle. It’s possibly one of, if not, the most difficult stages in a photographer’s career.
The AP is a breed unlike any other among industries. The AP is much like a tadpole. Hundreds will spawn at once, all feeding off of the same tiny, nearly microscopic, amounts of nourishment in whatever small pond they happen to co-inhabit. At any given moment there are thousands of APs in and around a major city. They’re all hunting down any little job they can find – mind you not for any ill mannered reason. They simply want to prove themselves, get a start and have a chance to build that portfolio. The question is will they land the job?
AP’s typical choices: Build my portfolio by asking friends and family. Build it by working and offering my professional services for low low prices that cannot be beat by any respectable photographer. Build my portfolio by working for free.
The competition is fierce and undercutting is commonplace. Lately there have been postings for people looking to hire student photographers for free. In exchange for services rendered these photographers can build their portfolio. It’s an option many APs will take and not one to be ashamed of either (I’ve done it) as it can be more important to gain experience than to earn capital. The problem is how will these APs eventually earn what they’re worth. How can an AP raise their price when there are 300 others who are still 1 stage behind and offering their services for slightly less. The consumers will nearly always have a cheaper option, all the way down to free.
I’d love to give some magic formula to any would be photographers right now. Some information that can unlock the secrets of rising through the ranks. The simple truth is we all have to tough it out. Many APs will turn out to be that tadpole that just didn’t get enough food to survive. Some times it will be unfair. Among the students and amateurs lies an abundance of extremely talented photographers. They are gifted and have vision though some of these APs will not make the cut. The only reason being not having enough opportunity. It’s heartbreaking to think about. The bright side is that we get to choose how much opportunity is enough. We each get to decide whether or not to continue pursuing our dream and ultimately, if any AP wants to succeed bad enough, they will.
This much I can promise. No photographer that succeeded from the AP struggle understands what the letters “q” “u” “i” “t” spell out. I think it might be a word but I’ve never heard it. Nor can I make out it’s meaning. Looks like someone misspelled quilt, which is a nice warm knitted blanket! It’s that perseverance that separates the tadpoles from the frogs.
I’m fortunate in many ways right now. I do still have to work extremely hard but as a commercial photographer I realize that my competition is far more sparse than that of most other types of photography. I don’t really have to worry as much about undercutting and so that brings me back to the beginning of this post where I realized that I have forgotten exactly how difficult being an AP can be. APs deserve a lot of respect. Not many jobs out there require that you start out working for free. Volunteering your time is not something you might consider when applying for a job. At the very least you’d expect to make minimum wage. Well an AP not only might earn nothing on a job, but they’d lose some cash simply for travel, or if you work in the cost of their equipment.
All you APs out there keep fighting. Giving up is only an option if you dream of wanting to become a photographer, rather than dream of becoming a photographer. Many of you are far more talented than I, and surely you will be a pain in my side soon enough. Until then though.