From the very inception of photography and the invention of the camera, defining what a photographer is has been controversial. In the early days, photographers weren't artists—they were technicians. Painters were the real artists.
Today, photography uses many of the same tools as other creative workers and the distinction between photography and other domains gets more blurred every day. Consumer-grade cameras and computers are good-enough for many (if not most) photographic applications, and those same cameras are now capable of producing cinema-esque video in the right hands. There is more confusion about what and who a photographer is today than ever before.
Is Photography a Profession?
What is a professional? Is being a pro about having credentials and a corner office? Is it about the bottom line of your bank account? Making money is certainly part of it, but for some of us, we become professionals long before it's a sustaining career. Or is it more about your consistency and dependability? Creativity? Craft?
There's an awful lot of anxiety about photography and work. Over the past two decades photography has been radically and rapidly changing market and domain. And it is still in a process of upheaval, with exciting new forms and formats emerging all the time. Nobody really knows where the practice and profession of photography is going, technologically or otherwise. Under these conditions, what's a photographer to do?
Being Ready for the Unknown and Unknowable
They say baseball is a game that's 90% mental, 10% physical, and the same could be said about being a professional photographer. Professionals get their ducks in a row. They know what they do is first and foremost a business, even if it's a part time business.
Photographers approach their clients in a professional manner (that's not to say stiff and boring, but always appropriately professional), even when their clients' demands are outside their comfort zone. When you set yourself up to be in a head-space where you consider yourself a professional, you approach photography differently than the enthusiast who just likes taking photos.
Being Ready to Work
Most importantly, professional photographers know that even on their worst day, they can produce quality images that satisfy their clients' needs. Not every day is going to be your best day ever. Not every image starts with a blinding light of inspiration from the heavens. Some days you simply aren't going to be wholly original and satisfied with your work. But even on your worst day, you still get up and get to work.
"Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work." — Chuck Close
Anyone can get good photos every once in a while. Amateurs take pictures when they feel like it, which is perfectly fine: there is a lot to be proud of as an amateur photographer. But if you're waiting for the divine spark of inspiration before you create something, you'll never create anything. Professionals take responsibility for their work, and they work hard to make things happen. Even when it's not fun, and it's not always fun.
The Many Hats We Wear
Becoming a photographer isn't all about being behind a camera. More and more we see in the news how newspapers and ad agencies are letting go their photographers in favor of independent contractors (and hiring back many of those same photographers). Far and few between are jobs where you can show up with a camera, get hired as a "photographer", and make a decent living doing nothing but pure photography. For many of us, we have to go into business for ourselves, and now we have to take on many roles we never learned to play.
When you first get started, you have to know:
- digital asset management
- photo organizing
- customer service
- business administration
- web development
- graphic design
- video production
And that's just a small list of things you have to know, not even the things you can use to build a hybrid business. Once you become successful, you can hire out many of these tasks to people who can do them better than you can, and work your way back to doing photography (and the other core skills you market), but there are always going to be multiple things to work on to be successful.
Being "just a photographer" isn't good enough anymore for many people. If you are a designer, illustrator, video editor, archivist, retoucher, or book designer, then photography can be a natural extension of your business. A logical step for many photographers is to offer video, which can boost your value incredibly if you position it right.
Whatever your combination, first you have to build the skills, and that's often harder than it seems. Next you have to figure out how the pairing of that skill mixed with photography solves your clients' problems.
The Photographer Hybrid
To an extent, we are all hybrids.
In the course of your work you will likely be asked to do video. You'll have to know graphic design to compose photos that have negative space for advertising layouts. Everyone and their dog needs a website, and people will ask for that, too.
Maybe you aren't necessarily a full-time photographer, but work in a role where photography is a large part of your responsibility. Think Etsy seller, social media manager, or digital illustrator.
You may not go to extremes yourself to become a hybrid photographer, but something as simple as integrating video into your photography services begins to blur the lines of your job description. Since most DSLRs can do HD video, clients expect anyone with a camera to have this ability.
Planning for a Career in a Hybrid Profession
The problem with planning a career in a hybrid profession is that there are no models to follow. Whether it is adding new technology to your offerings, trying new techniques in your photography, or even making cinemagraphs, you have to constantly be looking out for what makes you unique and different. It's not about chasing trends. It's about staying ahead of the curve.
Do a Self-Inventory
Do a self-inventory to decide what your priorities are. There are so many different ways to make a living as a photographer. Mixing in your other talents makes your practice unique to you, and this is a strength. If you chase every genre you can get your hands on you end up being mediocre at many things instead of the expert in your field. Identify what you are good at and enjoy, who your ideal clients are, what their problems are, and find new ways to solve them. Sit down, think about it, and write it out.
Set Your Priorities
A great way to decide on your priorities is to look at your business and apply the 80/20 rule. You'll likely get 80% of your income from 20% of your business (whether that means clients, a particular product offering, or even marketing campaign). Unless you hate your current business and plan to switch things up, this will crystallize what in particular your business is doing well, so you can focus on that as your priority.
As an example, I do weddings, commercial work, video work, and tutorial offerings for photographers. Currently, the large majority of my business is weddings, so that is definitely a priority over commercial work, with video work tailing in last (never marketed, only done on request). While I love weddings, I also want to grow my tutorial offerings, so that is going to be the secondary part of my business. Doing both of these things requires different marketing, different focused efforts, and different skills to keep current in the industry.
Keeping Your Professional Skills Up for Two Practices Instead of One
As I do more and more video work, I find myself split in my free time over whether I would rather do personal projects in photos or video. In addition to slowly building out a dedicated video kit with LED lights, an array of audio options and stabilizers, I also have to learn new skill sets to make my craft better. Granted, a few of these things cross over, but now I have two skills sets that need honing and hours of practice instead of one.
Set a Regular Creative Learning Date and Stick To It
If you want to build a hybrid business, you have to schedule time on your calendar to improve yourself. If you wait for it to happen, it won't. If you say "I'll do it later", what you are actually saying is "I'll do it never". Whether that is signing up for a workshop, scheduling time to watch an online course, or just going out and practicing your skills, you have to make time for it. If there is something that you've been meaning to get better at, open up your calendar right now.
Now that you have your calendar open, find one hour this week where you can practice your new skill. Everyone can find one hour. Maybe it's skipping that extra TV show or getting off Facebook for a day. If you take the time to read these articles but never put any of them into practice, it's wasted time. You have to get out there and practice. That's the only way to improve your skills, and it's the first step to creating a hybrid business.
Marketing a Hybrid Business
Is it two separate businesses, client lists, and needs? Or one? There is no right answer; depending on what you end up doing the answer may be different.
I'm just one person with no employees. For me, it's easier to have one business. Yes, I set up two websites (that link to each other) so that wedding clients can have a separate place for their own information and pages no one else will care about, while still being able to see the creative work I do personally and commercially if they so choose. The other demographic I cater to are enthusiast photographers (by creating tutorials for them).
Many of my brides or grooms hire me because they are shutter-bugs and appreciate what I do differently from other photographers. Because there is a large crossover in my demographics, it makes sense for me to leave it under one business. If you have different skills that don't cross over or mix well (for instance, boudoir and high school seniors do not mix), then it would make sense to set up different businesses or sites that do not connect or reference each other.
The ubiquity of good photography makes it harder to be a photographer. Anyone can take a good photo. To have an edge, you have to pair your photography skills with another skill that makes you special. When you can add a little something else to your business, so your work isn't so easily duplicated by any guy with a camera, then you'll stand out from the marketplace.
Professional photographers aren't going away any time soon—quite the opposite in fact. But the ways in which we do business are evolving at a rapid rate, so to be a professional photographer you have to keep up your skills in many different areas that aren't pure photography.