Career Choices


Is photography a viable life choice as a career? What are the various career paths possible with photography today?

Answer by: K Madhavan Pillai, Chief Editor, Better Photography

Photography is a wonderful life choice. It is relaxing and healthy. It makes you sensitive, appreciative and observant. The more you immerse yourself in it, the more you ‘see’. It grows on you as you grow. It works surprisingly well in tandem with your other interests. It is a fantastic way to share, to get involved with a like-minded community, and a great way to make friends. From the perspective of enjoying photography as a hobby, or as a more serious pursuit, for most people it works best to maintain it as avocation different from a profession.

When you think of photography as a career, there are harsh realities. Let’s take a few pointers from recent trends. The price of stock images have been dropping for quite a while now. Where licensing an image for commercial use would cost an average of USD 100 a decade ago, today it is about USD 4. In a recent report, photography was termed as one of the twenty worst professions to be in, with among the highest employment layoffs, and among the lowest media salaries, and consequently, low annual increments. While cellphones are thriving, with the singularly most sellable feature being its camera, it is not news that it has almost wiped out the compact camera segment and reduced the sales of other types of cameras. Manufacturers have reported a massive drop in sales, in excess of seventy percent, since 2010.

Trends are often cyclical, and figures tend to hide other realities though. The most expensive photograph in history is by Australian photographer Peter Lik. Entitled Phantom, it was made in 2014, and sold for USD 6.5 million. The market for limited edition art prints has expanded exponentially in the last decade, both in India and abroad, by over hundred percent in the last three years. Likewise, the top ten percent of independent professional photographers, across genres, have not only increased their assignment fees, but have also become more specific about the kind of work they do while diversifying their revenue streams across publishing, printing and consultancy. Wedding and event photography, particularly in India, has emerged as the biggest professional segment in photography today. Average spends on photography at weddings have increased by about hundred percent in the past five years alone, with capable young professionals establishing themselves well within three to five years. The number of institutions teaching photography and offering degrees have also seen a massive growth in the past decade alone.
It is quite clear that there has been a significant movement from regular photography to specialisations, and from employment to independent assignments. The art scene has boomed with lines thinning out, and there are more platforms to showcase work, now more than ever. And the dialogue on various subjects in photography has increased manifold.

The top end of that market has seen tremendous increases in rates for top-of-the-line photographers. The top twenty percent of photography professionals and artists command eighty percent of all the available money in the market. This might seem like a new normal for photography today, but has been the case in other industries for the past century or so.

The obvious next question is how to get there. Here, I like referring to the ‘10,000 Hour Rule’, proposed by journalist and author Malccolm Gladwell, in his book titled Outliers, The Story of Success. In it, after a lot of research into the lives of the most singularly successful people on the planet, he proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to arrive at the top one percent in any field.

You need to understand that there is no magic bullet. There is no free lunch. The honeymoon period that photographers enjoyed with the coming of digital photography (as it was with every technological shift) is now over.

Music is a good example. It takes thousands of hours of discipline and rigour to achieve proficiency with an instrument. And then thousands more for virtuosity, experimentation, and creation. Many don’t make it to this point, and those that do, often need to find the will and resources to persevere more, before they become known, admired, and valued. In the midst of this, a musician may offer his or her skill as a service, to earn an income. The coming of electronic midi keyboards, sampling, and editing software has created new lines of work, but has done little to diminish the value of mastery of the analogue instrument.
A career in photography is not very different from this. In fact, photography is getting to be closer to other forms of art in this sense.

Hard Truth 1: Band-aids and Stitches
This might sound strange. Few other professions are as easy to make that initial foray into as photography, with very limited knowledge and resources. I have seen many youngsters fish for assignments and get one, just a few weeks after buying their first camera, earning them five or seven thousand Rupees for a few hours of work. But owning a camera does not make a photographer, merely a camera owner. In today’s context, that’s more akin to dressing a paper cut with a band-aid… except that you will never get paid for it. And if small sums of money are being made by camera owners, that is because cameras are so much more expensive than band-aids. And yet, for a deep gash, you would not hesitate to pay a fee to someone who spent six years attaining a medical degree, to stitch you up.

Hard Truth 2: An Initial Necessary Separation
There is somewhat of a dichotomy in how people think of photography. On one hand, in its most popular form, photography is often considered a pursuit to bring an inner vision to life. In that sense, it needs personal involvement and investment. On the other, there is somewhat of an impersonal thought of a having a career in this, of making this a form of livelihood or a profession. Converting a deep-rooted fascination for a subject or a muse, or a personal form of practice, into a profession, can be extremely satisfying.

However, with most genres of photography, the two don’t always go together. The difference is in shooting for yourself to bring your own vision to life, and in shooting for others, in accordance to a given brief, to bring their vision to life. The knowledge you gain through personal creation, of mastery over the craft, or of applying technique to solve problems is what becomes valuable to others.

This often needs a degree of separation between its personal and professional aspects for a career in photography to take off successfully. With success, you can merge the two and become more selective with the kind of assignments you take up.

Hard Truth 3: Three Fundamental Aspects
Unlike older, conventional, or more pure forms of expression like painting, music or sculpture, photography has huge practical sides to it. Firstly, in its consumption. In today’s world, no other form of media is as simple or quick to distribute, see, and precisely understand, without the barriers of spoken or written language, also bringing with it the impression that it is just as quick and easy to produce. And, in many ways, with cellphones and cameras producing intelligent exposures and good looking tones straight out of the box, it is.

The second practical aspect of photography is seen in its very varied applications. Humans need to see, in immaculate detail, in context, in juxtaposition, across every known field of industry, science, study, or human endeavour.

These two practical aspects are, in essence, opposed to each other, when it comes to getting started with professional photography. While the latter forms the market for a photographer, the former pushes the prices down, for services rendered. This is where breadth of practice, depth of knowledge, specialisations, and significant peripheral skills come into play, especially over time. This brings me to a third practical aspect in building a career.

Apart from knowledge and training, how you communicate, speak, write, present yourself, position yourself, publicly promote your photography, how you market yourself and build an identity, is vitally important to how your clients perceive you. On the business side of things, your selling and negotiation skills, your readiness in being able to execute projects, your partnerships, quality and discipline in deliveries, how you keep in touch, and how you chart your own growth, all of it makes the difference between an average or a successful career.

Your Very Own Personal Mantra
You also need a mantra, so to speak, chalked out for yourself, keeping your own realities in mind. It keeps you grounded and focused. For instance, this was my mantra when I started commercial photography…

A consummate delivery with excellent communication leads to a happy client. Keeping in touch with that client, and putting the work you have done out there, begets two more assignment, and two more clients within the year. While this does not sound like much, it would perhaps surprise you to know that you will have 23 clients and 48 assignments on hand, by the end of the third year. A bit of discipline and focus will multiply this by a factor of three.

A lot of very successful photographers today have used this method to build up businesses very quickly, especially in event photography. But this is easier said than done. Discipline is difficult, and there are sacrifices to be made. Not all forms of photography can use this method of working, though. If you are employed by a company as a photographer rather than being self-employed, your goals and measures would be different, and need to be tailored accordingly.

About Career Paths
Photography, it’s expertise and knowledge about specific areas within it can be broadly split into several areas. The science, craft and art of photography, and its various applications, can be both viewed in its purist form or as a functional requirement of society, and just as much in other arts, varied sciences and fields of research, and industries. If you consider that among the most significant functions of most kinds of photography is that of documentation, from weddings and culture to artifacts and objects, the role of a trained eye can be helped, but not replaced by technology. There is also the role of photographic exploration and investigation. From photojournalism, to social issues, to bringing masses of humanity into awakening to ground realities, nothing authenticates and spreads an idea as efficiently and as immediately as photographs. Photography is also just as much about intimate memories as it is about casual, fleeting evidences about specific objects, places and faces, as it is about perspectives and spaces.

Then there is the history of the subject in its various genres and forms, its study, preservation, and its association with allied fields, and its applications in various industries. There is the bringing together of it all in the form of published material, conventional and electronic. There is the role of education, to teach and inform. There are also huge areas of sciences, engineering, research and manufacture involved in imaging and photography.

The fact is that most people, photographers included, tend to have a rather myopic view of possible careers related to photography. The fact is that there are more people, including practicing photographers, who dissuade others from pursuing a career in it because of this myopia. The fact also remains that a career in photography now is no more or less than other professions like music or even medicine. And for a career in photography to succeed, you need to work hard, take risks, approach people, self promote, be exceptionally and visibly good at what you do, and most of all, have an unshakable conviction about your photography.
A wonderful example is Fred Herzog, Better Photography’s Great Master this month. He is one of colour photography’s earliest pioneers. Some of the choices he made are a part of his story in this edition. It may be argued that the times were very different back then, sixty years ago, but then again, reach your own conclusions on reading about him.

Is photography a viable life choice as a career? To me, the answer begets another question… Do you have it in you to make a successful life choice and career out of it? The answer you get will, in all likelihood, define the answer to that question.