Dear New Photographer…

Lost In Thought

Dear New Photographer, 

I’m writing this post because I was up late last night on a Facebook forum, reading close to 200 comments about new photographers and what slime they are to the industry. How they’re stripping photography of it’s “art” and destroying any decent business practices. I read every comment, feeling more and more sick to my stomach the further I scrolled down the page.

“Who do these people think they are? Don’t they remember when they were new and making all the same mistakes?”

I know this year has probably had it’s ups and downs for you; the excitement of booking your first paid gig, the confusion of all that “must have” photography gear and the hurt and guilt of being single-handedly blamed for “ruining the industry.” I know the phrase “what to charge for engagement photos” is probably one of the first things to come up in your Google search bar, and secretly you’re still wondering why using the eraser tool in photoshop is such a horrible thing.

I also know that you’re afraid to ask for advice at every turn because for every established photographer that is willing to help, you’ve got 30 more breathing down your neck that are doing everything they can to cut you down. I’ve been there too – I’ve had my work ripped apart online by a “reputable” photographer (who went out of business earlier this year), I’ve bought things I didn’t need because some famous photographer endorsed them and I thought it would make a dramatic improvement in my work (it didn’t), and I’ve used the crap out of the eraser tool (layer mask, folks).

So what I wanted to do here is give you a heads-up. A bit of a rant mixed with some advice I wish I had known in the beginning, this is just about everything I wish someone had told me the first day I got that used and slightly beat up (but still very new to me) camera in my hands.

Beware The Vultures

– “Clients” will use you for free photos. 

Countless people are about to ask you for free photos. New parents will adamantly lend you their newborn baby to “practice” on or will offer up their family to help you grow your “portfolio”. Magazines and businesses will ask for those landscape photos of yours in exchange for “exposure”. Don’t confuse these requests with paid shoots or even as complements, they are neither. These are people wanting free shit, plain and simple.

Now in the beginning, you are going to have to do some things for free – you need the experience and you need to build your portfolio – but know this: anything you shoot for free that isn’t related to what you eventually want to be paid for, or a personal cause, is a waste of your time. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to shoot newborn photos, but I was interested in shooting weddings. So between two non-paying jobs, I took the one that added to my wedding portfolio and referred the newborn shoots to someone else.

Don’t take this to mean you should specialize immediately – you shouldn’t. You should shoot as many different things as you possibly can to try and find what your really passionate about, but don’t feel obligated to take any free job that comes along.

– Other photographers will use you as an unpaid assistant. 

I highly, highly recommend interning, but the point is to get something out of it. If all you’re doing is running errands, getting coffee and carrying heavy gear, you’re getting taken advantage of.

If you’re in an internship, ask questions. Ask about the camera settings, the lighting, the posing; everything! Why are they using one light when earlier they used another? Why do they keep telling the model to put her chin down? What aperture do they shoot at for large groups? Is there a reason they prefer one lens to the other? Some of these are questions better asked at the end of a session, when the client is gone, but if you have a question, ask. If the photographer you’re interning for blows it off or won’t answer your questions, find someone else to intern for. This person is after the free labor, not in mentoring an upcoming photographer.

P.S: Look out for any mentor that requires you to sign a No Competition Clause or a waiver saying you’ll work for free for any given amount of time. If they bring this up – RUN. Oh my god, run. 

– More experienced photographers will try to sell you things. 

As a newbie, you are actually part of a growing market; a market where you’re willing to pay money for a short track to success, and there are a many other photographers ready to pounce. People are going to try and sell you workshops, gear, actions, presets, tutorials and more. All taking advantage of the fact that you’re willing to pay for something you don’t already have.

Now, I am a huge supporter of photographer education – the main reason I created was to help newbies get their businesses up and running. I teach workshops, give online coaching, and give away actions, presets & texture packs all the time, but you should know how to find the good ones. If you’re thinking of attending a workshop, ask to see references or testimonials from other workshop attendees. Ask to see an itinerary of everything you will be learning. Email the instructor to start a dialogue and see if your skill set is at the right place to be learning what they are teaching, and make sure any images you take at the workshop belong to you. You want to walk away feeling like you’ve actually grown in your development, knowing that all images taken by you belong to you, and that the money spent was worth every penny.


Seek Out Meaningful Criticism

– Know where to go for the feedback you’re looking for. 

I love my mom and I love my fiancé, but when I’m looking for good, constructive feedback on my latest work, neither of them are the best people to go to. For one, they’re incredibly biased, and two, they know nothing about photography.

When I need good, quality feedback, I approach a successful photographer that is knowledgeable in the field my photography is in. I shoot fine art portraiture; a landscape photographer or photojournalist that loathes the use of Photoshop isn’t going to get me anywhere. In addition, neither is a Facebook, self-proclaimed photography “Pro”. Seek out the people that will give you unbiased, professional, relevant feedback. That’s how you grow.

It takes a little bit of effort to get that kind of feedback. Email a photographer you respect or try and schedule an appointment with a local gallery or editor. Sometimes you have pay for these kind of things, but it’s worth it.

– Be impartial about gathering advice, but very selective in applying it. 

No matter the advice you receive, people don’t know you. I was once told that my images were far too commercial to be considered art, and I should instead pursue work in fashion. All fine and well, except I didn’t want to do fashion work – I wanted to sell in galleries. Convinced I needed to shoot more fashion, they gave me plenty of advice about how to further commercialize my images, so I sat there and I took all of it – and then did the opposite. Their advice wasn’t necessarily right for me, but the knowledge was still very valuable. Now gallery sales are a large part of my income.

– Know you probably aren’t going to like what you hear, and shut-up when you hear it. 

The whole point of feedback is to get better, which usually means something you’re currently doing can be improved. It never feels good to hear you’re weak in a particular area, but the sooner it’s pointed out to you the sooner you can do something about it. I’ve stated in other posts how valuable my time at Fotofest was – not because of the positive feedback I received (I did sell 4 pieces), but because of the feedback where I was slaughtered. Brutal honesty hurts, but I learned more in two weeks than I had in two years, and my work has made a dramatic improvement because of it.

– Shrug off the jerks. 

There are plenty of people out there just dying to give feedback to a new photographer, simply on the basis of cutting them down. Some old, jaded, bitter photographer that still can’t get over the fact that this whole digital “fad” hasn’t worn off yet. Yes, film is awesome, but so is digital and wet plates and colloidal tin types and God knows how many other forms of photography there are in the world today. Be very aware of the narrow-minded.

Value Business Skills AND Photography Skills

– Just because there are a lot of photographers does not mean there is no room for you.

As with any other business, the quantity of vendors does not determine the success of a new vendor. A new vendor’s success is determined by the quality of their product or service, their reputation, their marketing plan, their community involvement, their prices and countless other things. Every business is different, just as every photographer is different. Figure out what it is that you can offer that is different than what is out there already and run with it.

– Get ready to work…a lot. 

I can’t honestly remember the last time I had a day off. If I’m not shooting, I’m editing, or answering emails, or sending out submissions, or planning, designing, and budgeting the next shoot. Every ounce of free time is spent doing something photography related – which is pretty awesome…mostly because I’m utterly obsessed with photography. If you aren’t obsessed though, this isn’t going to be the best career for you. You need to know your workdays will be long and your days off will be few, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, than welcome aboard.

– Use the business model that works for you. 

Hey guess what, when it comes to client work, I’m a shoot-n-burner. I shoot entire sessions, edit out the best photos and give clients the digitals. It’s what works best for me. I don’t build my business around the idea that I need to make money on prints. I make money on the cost of the sessions. Could I be making more if I sold prints? Probably. Would it be worth my extra time? Not to me. I don’t want clients coming back 8 months from now asking for 8 x 10s. I’d rather focus on booking another wedding, teaching another workshop or emailing another gallery. Each of those things has a much better value to me than filling another order of 11 x 14s and 5 x 7s.

Don’t feel bad, for one second, about begin a shoot-n-burner, charging less than everyone else, shooting for free or doing anything else other photographers are going to berate you for. The fact is, you have to shoot some things for free in the beginning and you have charge less in the beginning. It would be unethical not to. You don’t have the skills, the experience or the portfolio to be charging what established photographers do. And in all honesty, if your low price is taking business away from them, they’re doing something wrong, not you.

– Raise your prices when you’re worth it. 

All that shooting for free or at very low rates is no way to make a living though. As soon as you’ve got a decent portfolio together, you’ve got to start raising those prices to something more reflective of the kind of images you can produce. And yes, you’re going to lose some clients, but the truth is anyone paying you $50 for a full photoshoot isn’t a client anyway – it’s someone taking advantage of an exceptionally good deal.

– Never underestimate the value of social media. 

Learn how to use social media or get left in the dust. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a magazine, saw an ad for a company, remembered that company, went home and googled them, ended up at their website, searched for whatever product I saw in the magazine, and bought that product. I can, however, remember the last time I saw something scrolling through my Facebook news feed, clicked the link and bought it. That happened earlier today.

– Other photographers are your best friends. 

Great photographers slowly become more specialized over time. It’s only natural that the more we shoot, the more we begin to refine our skills in certain areas. Which means every photographer in your town won’t be shooting the same thing you are, and the ones that do, won’t all be going after the same target audience. If you’re a wedding photographer, be friends with other wedding photographers. There are countless weddings in various price points; way too many for one person to shoot them all! If you shoot weddings, refer newborns to the newborn photographer, lingerie shoots to the boudoir photographer, seniors to the senior photographer and they’ll all refer weddings to you. It’s a two-way street where everyone wins.

– Get over your goddamn watermark already. 

1.) No one wants to steal your images right now. You’re not that good. There are a lot better photos out there that people could steal.

2.) Putting a giant watermark in the middle of your photo does not keep people from stealing it, it keeps them from enjoying your work.

3.) If they really want to steal it, a watermark isn’t going to stop them. Hell just last week I had to use one of my photos for a flyer, and I didn’t have the original on hand. So I took one from Facebook, cloned out the watermark and pasted it on the flyer. Worked for exactly what I needed it to do and it took all of 6 minutes. The watermark didn’t even slow me down.

4.) “But my watermark let’s people know who took the photo! And removing it shows criminal intent!” Fair enough. In that case put it in tiny letters a corner somewhere, similar a signature on painting. If it’s not taking up the whole photo people will be much less inclined to crop it out anyway.


Redefine How You Feel About Failure

– “Getting it right” is subjective.  

So much about photography is finding your own personal style, and that’s usually done through making a lot of mistakes. I remember the first time I accidentally left my shutter speed too low (because in the beginning I didn’t know how fast a shutter had to be to stop movement) and a huge number of my photos were blurry – and I LOVED it! Soon I learned how to control that blur and use it in a way that I wanted. What would’ve been a complete failure by conventional terms was actually a huge step forward for me.

– Welcome the mistakes. 

Learning from mistakes now will help you from making them in later, probably more crucial situations, so be a little more liberal with risks in the beginning. A mistake in your first wedding probably isn’t going to kill you; no one knows who you are and you’re shooting it for free for a family friend anyway. That same mistake at a wedding where they’ve put down $6K and you have a business and a reputation to uphold is probably going to be much more damaging.

– Learn all the rules, then break them. 

As much as I hate rules, they’re there for a reason. The first time I heard about the “Rule of Thirds” my mind was blown. I quickly began rearranging all my images to fit, and I was pleasantly surprised. And then I was bored. The “Rule of Thirds” is now one of my favorite rules to break – but it’s broken with intent, not by accident. There’s a difference.

– Challenge yourself.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in this industry. A 365 day project or a 52 week challenge is a great way to change things up a bit. In addition, start shooting things you aren’t necessarily familiar with. If you’ve only ever shot families, take on a pet shoot. Take a drive to somewhere new and shoot a few landscapes or try your hand at some street photography. You may not completely switch gears, but you’ll no doubt learn some new skills you can apply to your current photography.

Keep Reminding Yourself Why You’re Doing This

I love my job. I love waking up every day to take photos. I even kind of love slaving away in front of the computer spending 40+ hours editing a single photo because I know at the end of it all it will be worth it. I also know that there is plenty of room in this industry for newer, upcoming photographers and the world would be a lot better place if more people loved going to work every day just as much as I do. So overall, dear New Photographer, don’t ever forget that end goal. Keep plugging along, keep learning, keep growing, keep researching, keep shooting and keep taking things one step at a time.

I can’t say that this roller coaster ever really stops, and I can’t say that you’ll ever stop feeling like a newbie, but in a way, I don’t think we ever should. The second we think we know everything is the second we should probably pack it in. I hope I’m a newbie forever :).

And if you ever need someone to talk to about said roller coaster, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email, Instagram or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).

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Posted on: September 26, 2014, by :

90 thoughts on “Dear New Photographer…

  1. Really helpful and wonderful read! 🙂
    Glad I came by this on facebook, it’s really a timely reminder to certain things I am (very awkwardly) admitting/guilty of doing. Really would love more of these posts! (:

    1. Glad to hear it! We’ve all got some awkward things we’re learning our way through, just keep moving forward!

  2. Excellent article!!! I am very new and very excited, however realize I have a TON to learn and a very small budget to work with. I am thankful for your wisdom and insight and the hope you instilled to follow the tug On Our hearts that we can do this in a world full of photographers.

  3. Thank you for this post. A very insightful read. I have been photographing for years, but new to it as a business. I will try some of your tips.

  4. Great article. I wish someone had told us several of these things when we first started. One thing that should be addressed a little better is the pricing aspect. Yes there are people that want free stuff, but there are also people who don’t really know the value of photography. Charging less is hurting the industry, not because the businesses that have been doing it are doing it wrong, but because it shifts photography from a service to a commodity. All the other points were really good though.

    1. Thanks Chris! I should’ve gone into pricing more, but I’m actually saving that for a whole other post. In short, charging less isn’t hurting the industry. Every industry has high cost and low cost: fashion is a great example. You can get a dress at Goodwill for $2.00, but that’s not putting Vera Wang out of business. Photography is just another example, but that’s for another post :). Thanks for your comment!

  5. Well said…I consider myself a newbie. I’ve been shooting less than a year and am that phase where I’m setting up shop to reach the clients I know are worth it. But I’m already competing with those who will shoot everything for free just to beat out the seasoned photographer. But it always makes me realize that they weren’t my client to begin with when I look at the images they did get from that photographer and tell myself I could’ve done better. With that said, I’m longing for a new paying client. It’s been awhile so be I’ve had one and I feel like I’m getting left behind. It’s fine. It’s no ones problem but mine. But I want to be completely organized and ready to market myself to the clients who will pay what I’m worth!!

    1. Absolutely Leslie! It’s great that you know you are out of those beginning “shoot to build my portfolio” stages. Competition with the other newbies that are still shooting for free isn’t your competition though. Those are people that can’t afford a full photoshoot anyway – so let them have them and focus on your true target audience. Really narrow down everything about them that you can to start marketing smarter and more effectively. Good luck with everything and keep shooting! 😀

  6. I agreed with some of the stuff here but this ( this is upsetting and not true ))) ——- –

    Other photographers will use you as an unpaid assistant.

    I highly, highly recommend interning, but the point is to get something out of it. If all you’re doing is running errands, getting coffee and carrying heavy gear, you’re getting taken advantage of.

    If you’re in an internship, ask questions. Ask about the camera settings, the lighting, the posing; everything! Why are they using one light when earlier they used another? Why do they keep telling the model to put her chin down? What aperture do they shoot at for large groups? Is there a reason they prefer one lens to the other? Some of these are questions better asked at the end of a session, when the client is gone, but if you have a question, ask. If the photographer you’re interning for blows it off or won’t answer your questions, find someone else to intern for. This person is after the free labor, not in mentoring an upcoming photographer.

    P.S: Look out for any mentor that requires you to sign a No Competition Clause or a waiver saying you’ll work for free for any given amount of time. If they bring this up – RUN. Oh my god, run. —–

    For real … I have an assistant and I paid her $10/hour… she used to charge $50/shoot having on consideration that ONE SHOOT is approximately at least 6 hours of work ( between editing , booking , shooting , driving time bla bla bla ) she was making around $8/hour. Now if she was paying taxes … she was getting less that our minimum wage .. So to make a it clear I train her , helping her out not just with camera skill but with business as well .. and of course we have a No Competition Clause ( saying that she cannot work on her own for 2 years on 100 miles around me) ….. So she is getting a lot from me… ( pretty much more of what I’m getting from her ) I can just bring my cleaning lady to hold my reflector and carry my stuff around ( well not carry my stuff around because I do that myself ) ……. But anyone can help me out getting kids attention … I can pay someone minimum wage to come with me for 6 hours a day…. She is pretty much getting pay to get an education on something she loves to do… and you telling those to run away to don’t take this chances… You pretty much want me to train someone and then let then go out there and charge half of what I charge .. TAKING MY BUSINESS AWAY … I run a studio with a rent of $1000/month ,I pay my taxes , I own a 5D mark II , 70-200f2.8 , 50f1.2 , 85f1.4, 24-70f4,24-105f4… Just do the math and you gonna see how money is already there… … let’s leave the other things like website and marketing on the side …


    1. Betty, thank you for reading my article! Your point paid internships though, isn’t one that I mentioned. There’s nothing wrong with having a paid assistant, and if you’re going to be paying them, by all means make whatever rules you like. But having an UNPAID assistant is very different and something many newbies get in trouble with. They’re all ready to work for free, and experienced photographers take advantage of them, plain and simple. And I don’t believe in no competition clauses in any shape or form, but that’s a personal opinion that we’re probably just going to have to agree to disagree on.

      And your advice to find a mentor is great advice – but they are still going to have to do some shooting for free. No mentorship is going to replace getting out there and shooting, and like I mentioned, they can’t charge what others charge. Without the experience, knowledge, portfolio or all those other things, like backup gear and insurance, it would be flat out UNETHICAL for them to charge a client for their work. By shooting for free they are in no way disrespecting others that have made it this far – they’re just learning. It’s how you gain experience in literally every other industry – you do a few jobs for free to learn and build a portfolio. Photography is not unique in this way, but we sure seem to have a lot more people overly bitter about it.

  7. Loved this! Im a baby to photography, been shooting for a year now. Im totally obsessed and my obsession is deeper and deeper every time i push the shutter. I feel totally overwhelmed with negativity when i reach out for help at times. Your words are restoring hope. Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad to hear it! And that’s exactly how I felt when I first started. It’s so addicting! Keep shooting and keep improving 🙂

  8. I think this is a great read for newbies like myself!!! I appreciate your honesty and willingness to help a beginner out.

  9. Thank you so very much for this incredibly relatable, insightful, excellent article. As someone who is experiencing a bit of the growing pains that are inevitable on the road from a deep, passionate love of photography as an amateur toward the exciting, sometimes scary, direction of professional fine art photography, this was a comfort and an inspiration!

  10. Outstanding post! Nailed it for me as a hobby photographer hoping to make it a business one day. When there is no pressure at this point, I’m more creative. It will take time. Thanks for the post; sure helps.

  11. Thank you for posting. Some very valuable points in here without a barrage. Identify with what the author states. Photography is a journey and one that continues. If you embrace the nuances and enthusiasm for learning, for seeing the negative or ignorant comments or plain criticism, for
    ‘Moments of learning and perhaps new beginnings or reflections’ you are on to something.
    Valuable piece. Thank you.

  12. Thanks for writing this Jenna! It’s brilliantly written. I have been photographing for a couple of years now and have met a lot of photographers who talk more about equipment and gear rather than light or emotion. Hope there are more people who talk about these things so that we can learn. 🙂

  13. I read this post from the CG Pro Prints site. Just wanted to say thanks for allowing them or petapixel to use it. Great advice and reading it inspires me to both continue to grow and to also be willing to share.

  14. I feel very vindicated here. I did everything you said exactly to the letter when I started and still now today. Thanks for the validation.

  15. I can’t begin to tell you how much your articles (especially this one) has truly inspired me. It was the type of insight that I really needed to hear and reflect on where I am at during this stage of my journey and look forward to reading more of kernels of candid opinions and wisdom.

    May I have your permission to republish some of these articles? They are QUITE informative and impactful.

  16. This is all pretty good but I cannot get past the fact that I think you are implying that is acceptable to not pay your interns given certain educational conditions. Please correct me if I’m looking too deeply into this, but I believe you should put photographers who ask you to intern for free in the same category of magazine editors who want your landscape work for free.

    For any students that read this, I would say this should not be conditional. Yes, you will have to shoot for free to start out. Do that on your own terms. No, you should not intern for free, unless you dream of being a studio assistant or administrator. If you want to be a photographer, you shouldn’t waste your time doing anyone else’s work for free but your own. And for the photographers who take these kids on – If one can’t afford to pay an intern 9 bucks an hour, no matter how killer an experience one is giving them, one is still looking for free labor and is ethically questionable at best and illegal at worst. I barely crack poverty barriers on my tax return but still pay my interns (which I only take on part time on a project dependent basis).

    1. Peter, you are absolutely right. I think it should be conditional – yes, there are certain times, in the beginning, when you’ve just got to do some stuff for free, regardless of what it is. If there is an opportunity for a paid internship for a person with no photography experience, by all means take it! But if you’re in a situation like I was, living in a small town with very limited access to any photographers that even have the resources for an intern, a free job can be the closest you’ll get to any education at all. If there’s an opportunity between a free or paid internship, the paid one would be fantastic, hands down, but if someone’s only option for any kind of internship is one that’s for free (like mine was), I want to make sure they’re at least getting something out of it in return.

      But in a perfect world, I’d post your comment on a billboard. Because you are absolutely, 100% right.

  17. While I’ve taken multiple high school photography classes, I am so excited I’m finally going into this field. This was very reassuring. Even after considering other arts to pursue, knowing about the criticism and sense of superiorities that come with them all, I could take this advice and apply it to them if I wish to ever change my major.
    And can I say that I also like breaking the rule of thirds?;>

  18. interesting that an article published some 18 months ago is still as relevant today as it was then. I really enjoyed reading your insights – what I really needed as I struggle in between the already mentored state and the flying solo stage. And the challenge is not the technical aspect of photography; it’s the business side that causes heartburn, it’s not knowing if the clients are about to roll up so that the month’s bills will be covered without cracking that piggybank….

  19. I’m a little late to the party but just wanted to express to you how much I appreciated this post. I am currently starting year two of business after having graduated in 2013 with a degree in photography. I continue to struggle to develop my business and get clients to utilize my photography services. After my initial struggles, I turned to forums and outside education to try to make myself, my business better. Continuing education is great and I have definitely developed my skills over the years but what I am realizing is that in this pursuit for success I started to change who I was, my style, what I loved to shoot, and the way I approached my business. Besides nodding my head to a lot of what you had to say (I may have already learned a lot of these things the hard way), your discussion of business and it being perfectly okay to follow the business model that works for you, even if other photogs look down on you, helped me to realize that the xyz business formulas that a lot of photographers insist you have to follow to be successful may not help. It’s perfectly okay to NOT follow them… If it hasn’t helped me this far why do I keep trying to force it?!

    Anyway- I just wanted to thank you for a great post and a much needed push in the right direction!


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