I receive many requests from photographers and aspiring photographers (students etc). Unfortunately I don't have the resources to respond to these requests for information individually, so I have provided this page to answer the most common queries. Please note also that I do not employ assistants or volunteers nor provide specific advice on technicalities, shooting locations, employment, etc.
There are many companies, organisations and individuals in the business of providing information and training. For example there are quite a few professional photographers who run workshops and short courses and of course photography can be studied at colleges and universities.
Detailed technical information is available in a wide variety of books and magazines and can be gained from photographic societies (both amateur and professional). I recommend the library and newsagencies as the first place to start on the road to self-education.
Being published by a major publishing company can be a quick way of throwing away years of work in return for a pittance, just as self-publishing can be a very quick way of tearing up a lot of your own cash. As thousands of writers have discovered.
I recommend studying subjects such as typing, journalism, bookkeeping or business management and/or marketing at college or university if you want to publish a book yourself.
The latter subjects do come naturally to some people, or you may successfully teach yourself on-the-job over a number of years. Such ‘dry’ subjects might not sound enticing but ideas only become a reality and ‘success’ if you’re dedicated to doing the hard yards as well as the fun stuff.
‘Overnight success’ usually involves a hefty slab of work, persistence, failure, disappointment and sheer hard grind that is mixed in with the rewards, and the higher you aim the more decades it takes to get there.
Self-motivation and discipline are probably the two most critical determinants of anyone’s success in whatever field you care to mention.
It is frequently said if you want to actually sell your self-published book then you have to spend more time marketing it than you have to spend on writing it. It’s pointless producing it if no one gets to see it. But the amount of time and energy this all involves cannot be underestimated.
Some people think buying a Porsche will automatically turn them into a race winner, or buying a Toyota will instantly transform them into a great off-road driver. I’ve tried buying fancy cooking gear in the hope that our kitchen would turn into a restaurant, but it hasn’t happened yet.
For some reason even more people think buying a Nikon or Canon will automatically produce award-winning photographs.
I use a variety of cameras with standard lenses. The brands of equipment used make relatively little difference. Any gear produced by the most well known manufacturers will be of reasonable quality and will have a drawback or two of some sort.
You tend to get what you pay for, but it is easy to pay for more than you actually need and end up with equipment that is unnecessarily complicated.
When buying equipment explain to the salespeople exactly what you want to use it for - this is the single most important thing you must keep foremost in your mind when buying gear. If the salesperson you're dealing with knows what they’re doing they’ll be able to give good reasons for the equipment they’re recommending for your particular purpose and give logical answers to your questions. Remember that the more specific your aims, the more specific the gear you'll end up with and the better results you'll get in your specific field. If you want gear that'll do a reasonable job of photographing everything under the sun then you'll be buying a compromise (it's similar to choosing motor vehicles). Maybe good all-round gear is exactly what you need, but make sure you think it through carefully before buying.
Professional photography can be a very rewarding and enjoyable profession but it would be stupid to pretend it’s a particularly easy field to work in.
Unlike the government-regulated occupations such as the medical or teaching professions, or the ‘sellers market’ professions such as trades people, or union-strong occupations such as mining, commercial photographers mostly work on their own and have to battle for a realistic rate of pay all on their own.
As there is an increasing oversupply of photographers (both professional and hobbyists) undercutting is rife and the customers (publishing and advertising companies, etc) are making the most of the situation. As a result many photographers take on jobs that do not even cover the direct costs of doing the job, let alone cover the overheads. Rates in dollar terms have fallen dramatically over the last 3 decades, and when adjusted for inflation, rates have really fallen through the floor.
The professional photography world is in the midst of fundamental and very rapid change.
Equipment costs have skyrocketed. Quality film equipment used to do a good job for decades but digital equipment is virtually worthless within just three years.
A basic digital photography set-up of professional quality will cost $30,000 upwards. Virtually all professional photographers now require a current model computer, expensive and frequently updated software programs, premium computer screens, calibration equipment, good quality printers, the latest data recording equipment and expensive data backup hardware to ensure professional quality archiving.
Large quantities of time and money have to be regularly expended on keeping up to date with rapid industry changes – training and re-training every time software and technology updates.
Commercial Photography — Editorial and advertising (newspapers and magazines)
Australia has a small population and newspapers and magazines are controlled by a tiny number of big businesses so it has always been a buyer’s market not a seller’s market. This will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Editors think photographer’s costs have reduced because they are no longer buying film, whereas professional digital photography is actually more expensive for many photographers due to the upfront and ongoing investment in rapidly depreciating technology.
Payment rates for advertising and magazine images are much less than 10-20 years ago and are quite often below the actual cost of production. As a result professional photographers are increasingly dependent on stock image sales, book publication etc to remain solvent.
Stock Image Libraries
The worldwide stock image business has also become concentrated into a few very powerful hands. For example Getty has bought out a number of smaller image libraries to create a worldwide business of mammoth proportions.
There is also increasing worldwide syndication of generic and royalty-free images by newspaper and magazine publishers. They are gaining the rights to these images by demanding freelance photographers sign contracts giving the magazine and newspaper owners the right to syndicate and on-sell the photographer’s images for several years, with little or no payment to the photographer.
Beware of rip-off photography competitions
Increasingly large businesses are avoiding paying market rates for quality images by running well-publicised competitions that have small-print conditions such as signing over copyright ownership or allowing perpetual use for no payment.
For example one very large worldwide business has been running an annual competition attracting more than 100,000 images, all of which have been signed over to the business to use for free.
The free use of more than 100,000 images in perpetuity is obtained for an outlay of much less than $100,000. In addition, the company states in their competition terms and conditions that the images may be digitally altered when used, without the photographer’s permission being sought.
The entrant also signs an indemnity on the entry form so if the people in the photographs raise legal objections to the use of the images, the photographer is liable for all legal costs, not the company using the image.
The increase in the number of these clearly unfair competitions prompted me to write a comprehensive set of photography competition guidelines that are freely available from the ACMP website.
My basic belief is if a photograph is worth publishing or using in any way by a business or organisation, then it’s worth paying for. It makes no difference whether the photographer works as a professional or as an amateur. If the business or organisation using the image does not pay for it either with cash or in-kind benefits of some sort then the photographer has been taken advantage of.
Increasing In-House Photography
On the local front, many businesses that would have paid a professional to take their photographs a few years ago now get staff to grab a few images with the company-owned cheap digital camera.
There are now far more photographers around than could possibly earn a reasonable living from the work available, but there seems to be no reduction in the numbers of hopeful graduates from university, college and TAFE studies.
Unfortunately the teaching emphasis often seems to be too heavily weighted toward technical issues and too light on in the business front, resulting in graduates with little idea of commercial realities.
The smartest thing any student can do is join professional photography bodies such as the ACMP or AIPP, and encourage fellow students to do likewise. Direct benefits (eg. advice from others) and indirect benefits (such as lobbying to improve copyright laws) will more than repay the cost of annual membership.
Compete on Uniqueness, Quality or Extra Good Service Not on Price
There are an awful lot of photographers who operate businesses with very little point of difference, and life is a constant battle of survival.
If you work locally, this point of difference could be that you know better than anyone else the local residents, local businesses, local climate and landscape etc.
If your market is spread over a larger area then it is absolutely essential that what you are doing is different to whatever else is being created. If you’re just producing what others are already doing then you’ll end up having to drop prices and there is no faster way to go broke! If you are copying then you’ll always be at least one step behind the original.
Instead look around, find something you enjoy that no one else is covering adequately, or find your own unique style, make sure there is enough of a market for it, then learn to excel at it.
It is essential to understand that if no one is doing it already it’s probably because it’s a very specific market and maybe a very tiny market, so persistence might be required to make it work in the long-term.
Start your career as a photographer in the same manner in which you would like to finish
Take care not to undercut others – this will only encourages businesses to expect photographers to work for less and less, and as in every other walk in life a ‘do unto others’ policy is best.
It is in the interests of other professional photographers to share information such as pricing with those who are new to the business. But it is only fair to expect you to cough up a regular membership fee for the benefits (which will more than recoup the cost of membership anyway). Expecting others to share commercial information with you if there is nothing in it for them shows a distinct lack of consideration.
Take your time and be patient when starting out. Accountants encourage the belief that a small business will take 12 to 24 months to become profitable but many small business owners I know say it took them a number of years for their bottom line to show a clear profit.
My recommendation is that aspiring photographers embark on another career, treat photography as a sideline that they can test out, and the sideline goes well then launch into it full time when you have sufficient capital and confidence.
The Changes Caused by Digital Photography
- Most professional commercial photographers are blokes. A rarely mentioned side effect of the shift from film to digital is that there will be even fewer women working as professional photographers in years to come, because:
- The huge capital outlay on equipment and regular quantities of time required to keep skills current means that part-time professional photographic work is becoming uneconomic (unlike film photography).
- Most professional photographers spend more time working on computers than they do taking photographs, unless they’re employing others to produce the final images. More males than females are interested in spending the large amounts of time required on technicalities.
Women are not better photographers than men or vice-versa, but as men and women usually view the world differently it is in everyone’s best interests to have as wide a variety of professional photographers as possible.
Ideally this variety would also include a broad range of racial backgrounds, religious beliefs, economic circumstances and geographical location. (The vast majority of Australian commercial photographers are based in Sydney and Melbourne. There are relatively few outside the south-eastern corner.)
- The cheaper and easier amateur photography becomes the lower the standard of the average image taken. Time and thought are essential ingredients to produce good images (apart from the odd get-lucky shot). There is nothing like the high cost of film and processing to concentrate the mind when pressing the shutter button. Unfortunately it has now become a case of ‘near enough is good enough’. Rather than few numbers of good quality images we’ve now got vast quantities of slap-happy images.
- The throw-away age. Because images are so quick, easy and cheap to take on inexpensive amateur digital cameras these images aren’t valued as highly as they would be if more time and money had been invested in them.
- Many are not printed at all, or they are printed with materials that deteriorate rapidly. And because there are so many images taken a lot of time is required to assess, label and store them properly. Each time computer software, read/write and storage hardware changes the digital information has to be translated into the new format. Otherwise the data won’t be readable in years to come.
- Storage of high-resolution digital images is an expensive and problematic issue for all professional photographers, complicated by the rapid rate of technological changes and the burgeoning quantities of images requiring long-term storage. (All that film storage required was sleeves and a pen to write on them, and a clean, dark storage cupboard with minimal humidity or temperature fluctuations.)
- Most images for personal use are taken on digital cameras and with screen viewing in mind - this means that younger generations take very few portrait images - nearly every scene is landsape format.
Over the last 30 years we’ve sped from records, to cassette tapes, to compact discs, to dvds. Each required completely different technology to decipher the information.
Now there are more photographs taken on a daily basis throughout the world than ever before in history. But because most amateur photos won’t be stored correctly, it’s likely that future generations will have far fewer images to refer back to. Many professional images will be lost for the same reasons.
More time is the only thing I know of that would get me better photographs. I have been taking photographs for decades and have learnt it is true that ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’.
Professional photography, art and journalism associations:
- ACMP (Australian Commercial + Media Photographers Limited).
As the title suggests, most members are advertising & photojournalism specialists - freelance work for publication, stock libraries etc - individualist type work. Because there are far fewer photographers in this line of work in Australia, ACMP membership is a lot smaller than that of AIPP. ACMP used to have a very efficient email-based forum which had extremely useful discussions and a great deal of information shared on a wide range of technical, photography and business-related topics. The forum was extra good value for professional photographers who live in regional parts of Australia, who like to row their own boat, and appreciate a lively discussion with other professional photographers. I think that a higher percentage of ACMP members probably work on their own, as distinct from AIPP members. There is a personality difference between the average ACMP & AIPP member. Full members of ACMP used to be able to hold cross-membership with AIPP (and vice-versa), however in 2007 unfortunately the AIPP board decided to discontinue this cross-membership arrangement, without explanation, though there were more AIPP members that were cross members with ACMP, than vice-versa. My ACMP membership expired at the end of the financial year following the decision to shift the forum from an email-based system to a much less user-friendly and much less used website-based forum system.
- AIPP (the Australian Institute of Professional Photography)
AIPP has a very high percentage of members who are wedding & portraiture specialists. As many are located in regional areas, AIPP holds more regional events than ACMP, however these events are primarily focused on wedding & portraiture photography (album sales, etc). Many AIPP members are excellent photographers however as wedding & portraiture photography is not my line of work, I discontinued my membership when AIPP dropped cross membership in 2007.
- Australian Government Culture & Recreation portal
- NAVA (National Association for the Visual Arts)
- QAA (Queensland Artworkers Alliance)
- MEAA (Media, Entertainment, Sports and Arts workers Alliance - the Australian Journalists Association is now part of MEAA)
- Rural Press Club (Qld)
- IFAJ (International Federation of Agricultural Journalists)
- Australian Copyright Council has comprehensive information on Australian copyright laws. Their information sheets are very quick and easy to read. It is recommended that everyone familiarises themselves with the basics of copyright law, because it something that all people will encounter in the course of their everyday life (eg. if photocopying documents or photographs). Please refer also to the Copying Images & Writing section.
There are three main non-profit bodies that collect royalties on behalf of copyright owners. These royalties mostly come from educational institutions, but also government bodies and other users:
Established in 1995 to collect royalty fees for creators of visual art. Membership is free. Payments to members are made every 6 months, and a 25% fee is deducted from royalty payments. The right to claim royalties expires after 6 years. More than 5,000 Australian and New Zealand artists are registered with Viscopy, and there are links to similar organisations all over the world.
- Copyright Agency Ltd
Established in 1974, CAL collects copyright royalties mainly for publishers and writers.
Established in 1990, this organisation collects copyright royalties for rights holders in the film and television industry.