Ah, “photography”, you loosely defined word that everyone seems to have their own definition of. It’s amazing how polarizing you can be, isn’t it?
And one of your most polarizing aspects seems to be exactly how much retouching is considered reasonable. Purists claim no retouching of any kind is allowed (then they usually reference Ansel Adams, which is quite ironic considering the amount of dodging and burning he brought to the field), while others gladly accept Photoshop as a regular part of their photography tool-belt.
In general though, there’s a viewpoint around the photography community, that too much Photoshop is a bad thing. That it destroys photography as we know it, and those who retouch an absurd amount should be banned or beheaded or at least mildly reprimanded (depending on which Facebook group you happen to be in). But before we all start gathering our pitchforks, can we maybe examine this concept of over-retouching for just a second?
First of all, let’s all admit that the term “over-retouching” is pretty specific to the type of photography in discussion. In photojournalism or documentary style photography, even the slightest adjustment in Lightroom may be completely off-limits, yet for someone such as myself, who makes a living on work that admittedly straddles the line between photography and photo-manipulation, the definition of “too much” is entirely subjective.
And speaking of subjectivity, this brings me to my second point: we each have a preference for a particular editing style. I, for example, am not a huge fan of HDR. Actually let me rephrase that: I loathe the use of HDR. I can’t stand it. Out of 1,000 examples of what would be considered “well done” HDR, I’d only admit to liking one or two photos…and that’s strictly on the occasion that the photographer whose photos they were was standing right next to me and I didn’t want to completely crush his soul. But I’d be lying, because no matter how far down I dig, I just can’t bring myself to like HDR treatment of photographs.
However, as much as I hate this particular editing style, that doesn’t mean it should be banned from ever being used. It doesn’t mean I should be breaking down other photographers simply because they do enjoy it as an editing technique. If anything, it only means that I won’t be using HDR anytime soon on my own photographs. It’s a personal preference and nothing more.
Lastly though, the real issue I have with such hateful rhetoric of “over-retouched” photos is this: doesn’t everyone start off with a little too much adjusting?
Granted, if you started in the days of film and you didn’t have your own darkroom, it was probably pretty tough to manipulate anything in post-processing. But let’s talk about the 21st century, when most new photographers started out with access to both a camera and at least a decent version of Photoshop or Lightroom. Didn’t we all go a little crazy in the beginning?
I know I did. I was burning up those saturation and clarity sliders. Everything needed to be brighter! More color! More contrast! More, more, more, MORE!! (Cue evil, maniacal laughter here.)
My early work, like so many other photographers, was awful. I wasn’t experienced enough to be able to see color casts or recognize the breakdown of color information from over-manipulation. My skin tones were severe and unnatural…and I had no idea. I tried my hardest to get the best possible shot in-camera, and then adjusted however much I needed to make the photo “better” in post…or at least what I thought was better. Looking back though, everything looked pretty damn…well…amateur (in fact, if you scroll to the bottom of my Flickr account, you can see exactly what I’m talking about – I haven’t taken one photo down since the beginning).
People tried to help, but their feedback fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t that I was trying to be stubborn; I honestly just had no idea how to tell the difference between good and bad photography, and I simply couldn’t understand their critiques. They said the skin tones were bluish – I couldn’t see it. They said the vignette was too strong – I didn’t know what a vignette was. In short, I was exactly like the vast majority of the general public, because in terms of photography skills, I wasn’t a photographer yet. I was still a member of the general public…except with a camera in my hands and Photoshop at my disposal.
As embarrassing as it is to look through my early photos, I’m glad I spent the beginning of my career in the “overly-retouched” category, because it was the only way I was able to learn. All of that experimenting brought me to where I am now, where I rarely, if ever, use the saturation slider. My editing style leans towards a much softer and much more natural aesthetic – especially the more I shoot film.
Looking back though, if people had consistently destroyed me for my use of over-retouching, I may have completely avoided Photoshop altogether and I wouldn’t have learned near the amount of useful information I know now.
Therefore, after all this examination, I raise the question: why the constant bashing of overly-retouched photos? Either it’s overly-retouched according to your own personal preference, in which case your bashing serves only to prove your own photography superior in some conceited way, or the retouching really is awfully done, in which case it’s probably a new photographer simply feeling out their own editing style, and your bashing serves…well the exact same purpose.
So can we call a truce? Can we just admit a few simple points here:
1.) Every photographer has a different editing style, some that we find pleasing and some that we don’t. If someone’s editing style doesn’t match your own preference, certainly you can agree to disagree in a somewhat respectful manner, right?
2.) Some photographers simply haven’t reached the point in their development when they’re able to recognize their own over-retouching, in which case surely it’s possible to still offer them help without completely crucifying them for it as well?
3.) We were all there too at some point. None of us started out with perfect shots straight out of camera and we certainly didn’t have the perfect editing skills to accentuate the decent shots we did take. We’re all probably a little embarrassed to go through our own early work, and mocking other photographers because they might be in a different stage of development than you is really a pretty dick move overall, agreed?
I sure hope so. Because I really don’t have a problem seeing a cluster of poor, “overly-retouched” photos scrolling through my news feed from a new photographer excited about learning how to dodge and burn for the first time. Are they probably grossly overdone? Of course they are, but I’m sure we all overused the dodge and burn technique just as much the first time we learned about it too. It does bother me though, to see a collection of pompous, bitter “professional” opinions about how honest editing mistakes and experiments are destroying the industry. For the love of Ansel just let people play around and find their style, and in the meantime, remember where you came from and don’t be such an ass about someone else’s journey.
But that’s all just personal preference, of course ;).
I’ll admit, there is a lot to learn if you’re hoping to start selling art in galleries. How do you approach a gallery, and then if you do finally get a meeting, what do you say? What are they even looking for? When they ask to see your portfolio, what does that even look like? Do you price your work or does the gallery price your work? How much commission is the normal amount for a gallery to take?
And on and on and on and on…
Well, I’m going to try and answer all of those questions and more, all in a single post. Wish me luck.
Where Am I Getting This Information?
I’ve displayed in several galleries throughout my career, but the most I learned about this subject was at Fotofest.
For those of you that don’t know what Fotofest is, I’ll give you a brief description:
Basically, it’s a biennial (the next one is in 2015), 4-session festival where there are portfolio reviews, workshops, art displays and much more. Each session is a 4-day period with different reviewers, workshops,etc. Each portfolio review session, you meet with anywhere from 20-30 reviewers. These reviewers are fantastically well established people in the photography/art/publishing community. They are gallery owners and curators, book publishers, magazine editors and private collectors. You sign up for a session (and pay about $1000) and you get a 20 minute slot to meet with each of the reviewers on your list. You have exactly 20 minutes to pitch your portfolio and get feedback. At best they love you and either buy some of your pieces or book you for a show. At worst they hate you and you leave feeling them burn a hole in the back of your head with their very disapproving eyes.
That last part is an exaggeration. The vast majority of reviewers I met with were full of incredibly useful feedback. One was a complete witch, but she’s been banned from ever reviewing again, so good for Fotofest!
Here’s the other thing though, there are 2 very important lessons of Fotofest I wish I had known:
1.) The only reason you would attend 2 sessions instead of only one is if your work is extremely well-established and you’re looking for connections, not feedback. Trust me, after you’ve been through one session, you don’t want to show your work to anyone ever again until you’ve gone home and worked on it. No matter how well you do, having your work picked apart by 30 people in a 4-day time frame is brutal, and you definitely need some rebound time to go home, get drunk under your kitchen table, reevaluate every artistic decision you’ve ever made and then get back at it the next day.
2.) Each session naturally becomes very specialized; the photojournalist/documentary reviewers naturally all gravitate to one session, the abstract/conceptual art reviewers all gravitate toward another, the book publishers all gravitate to another. They all know each other, they’ve all communicated before hand to see who is going to which session, and they book their own tickets accordingly.
Quick tip: there is a Facebook group for people signed up to go – join this group and ask other photographers what kind of work they do and which sessions they are attending. If this is their third time and they do the same work you do, sign up for whatever session they are in, because they probably made the same mistake I did the first year and they’re still having nightmares about it.
I didn’t know either of these rules so I made both mistakes of attending 2 sessions instead of one and signing up (on accident) for both the abstract/conceptual group and the photojournalism/documentary group. Needless to say, my style of photography did not go over too well with the documentary group.
No…that did not go well at all.
But, after the first day in the documentary group I learned what was going on, and knowing these people were very knowledgeable in the art community, I didn’t want to waste my time showing them a useless portfolio. So instead, I’d sit down for my 20 minutes, push my portfolio box to the side and say, “Look, you don’t want to see that, I’m in the wrong group and I know it. But I do know you’ve owned a gallery for 25 years, so instead I’d like to talk to you about the process of pricing, sizing and limited editions.” They’d respond with “Absolutely!” and we’d get down to business.
I met with over 50 reviewers in my two sessions at Fotofest, and combined with my own experience of working with galleries, here is the gist of everything I’ve learned:
Finding the Right Gallery
Even if you get into a gallery, if it’s the wrong fit you’re in for a giant waste of time and money. Here are a few things to do before even approaching a gallery for display:
Check their website – Is it updated? Do they have photos and descriptions of current artists?
Any gallery you are going to work with needs to have a strong online presence. That means they need a calendar of events, up to date artist bios and portfolios, pictures of the actual gallery space, functioning social media buttons and a newsletter signup link. You want to know they make it very easy for people to keep in touch with them. The less steps a buyer has to make to buy the art, the better.
Also check out the overall look of the gallery. Is it well lit or dark and dungy? Is it clean and clear of other items, or does it appear cluttered and messy? Do they have a million little trinkets on desks, tabletops or even draped over other art pieces (aw hell no), or do they have clear spacing between one art piece and the next? You want as little distraction as possible. People are there to see your art, not to dig through budget finds at a flea market.
Do they sell something other than art?
Let’s say they are also a coffee shop, or a furniture shop or a restaurant. This usually means their main business is not selling art, it’s selling something else. If your art is displayed in a furniture store/gallery, for example, you are accepting that most of the people walking through their doors are coming there to buy couches and dressers, not art. There is nothing wrong with displaying in a combo gallery/other business, but it does affect the amount of commission they can ethically collect each time you sell a piece (we’ll get to that later).
Visit them in person – how does the staff treat you?
If you walk in and the owner waves to you in between a conversation they’re having with a friend in the back, and then you do a complete circle, walk towards the door and receive a half-assed “Thanks for stopping in!” as you leave, this is not a gallery you want to display in.
You want someone to meet you at the door and ask how your day is going, if you’ve ever been in before and if there’s anything specific you’re interested in. If you’re looking on one display, someone should be there saying, “Doesn’t he do amazing work? You should see his next collection, Memory Fields, that’s set to go up next month on the 21st. He’s got a few sample pieces on his website (listed right here on his business card she gently hands you). I’d be happy to show you more if you’re interested.”
This is important because this is how they will act when you have art hanging in the gallery. Do you really want to be showing in a space where someone just sits in the back and bullshits with their buddies? No. You want someone that is going to treat every person that walks in that door as a potential sale – because they are a potential sale.
Exactly what kind of art do they sell?
If you specialize in, let’s say, surreal portraiture, a gallery that displays strictly Japanese flower photos is not going to be interested in your portfolio. Don’t even try and push it on them; they know what they like, and it isn’t you.
What kind of price point are they selling?
If the art they have displayed is upwards of $30,000 and you’ve never made a sale, just keep moving. Those works are selling for that price because they are established artists. And you are definitely not an established artist…or you wouldn’t be reading an article about how to start displaying in art galleries. Find a gallery that is selling art for something at least relatively similar to your own price point.
Approaching & Submitting to a Gallery
Approaching a gallery seems intimidating, but in reality…actually never mind, in reality it’s just as intimidating as it is in your head. But you’ve got to remember, gallery owners are people just like you and they would much rather be approached by a proactive enthusiastic artist than drag along an insecure artist that has no idea what they’re doing. So suck it up, and do the following:
The In-Person Approach
If you’re hoping to schedule an appointment with a gallery owner, go in person. All you’re doing is asking if they ever meet with potential artists or do portfolio reviews. DO NOT bring your portfolio to the gallery. This is essentially saying, “I am so unbelievably talented, you’re definitely going to want to stop what you’re doing and take a look at this.” It’s cocky and presumptuous. Bring a business card in your back pocket and leave your portfolio in the car.
They will either respond with 1 of 3 things: 1.) No, they are currently not accepting artist submissions, 2.) No, they do not do in-person appointments, but they do have an online submission process (which they will direct you to), or 3.) Yes, they do offer portfolio review sessions that cost (x) amount and they have an opening on (x) day and time.
If you are asking for a portfolio review know that you’re going to have to pay for it. Their time is just as valuable as yours and they aren’t in the business of handing out charity review sessions. A portfolio review is a great way to get your work in front of them though. They will either give you great feedback or like you enough to talk about a future show.
The Online Approach
Most likely, they will direct you to an online submission process. This will be on their website and will have very specific instructions. Follow these instructions – they are there for a reason, and chances are if you don’t follow them exactly as they are written your application will immediately be thrown out – this is no time to go rogue.
Usually, they will ask for a CV (this is your artist resume), your artwork list (title of your collection, medium [the type of paper it’s printed on], your piece dimensions, edition sizes and pricing for each), your contact information, links to your work and sometimes a few low resolution example images.
Your artist resume is basically exactly the same as any other resume. You’ve got your contact information, your website, a short bio and description of your work. Then start adding on anything that is relevant, like art/photo-related education and awards, publications you’ve been featured in, teaching experience, recent exhibitions followed by recent solo exhibitions. Do a quick search for “artist resume” and you’ll see plenty of examples of the layout.
Sizing, Editions & Pricing
Everyone has specific sizes according to their art, so this is going to be very general, but there is basically one rule that every, single, gallery owner told me to follow: have no more than 3 available sizes. The reason, simply put, is so you aren’t (accidentally) taken for a ride for other galleries.
Let’s play the hypothetical game for a second. Let’s say you have square format photos, that come in 5 sizes (in inches) 10 x 10, 20 x 20, 30 x 30, 40 x 40 and 50 x 50. Great. Now let’s say you’re applying to 20 different galleries and 2 of them love you and want to feature you. One wants you January – March, the other from April – June. The first gallery prefers the 30 x 30 size, the second gallery prefers the 20 x 20 size. That means you have pay for the cost of printing, framing and shipping a whole other show (which can range upwards of $3000). Limiting your sizes isn’t going to cause a gallery to shy away. If the second gallery likes you and you only have 30 x 30 instead of 20 x 20, they’re going to take the 30 x 30 – which means you can just move the first show to it’s new location when it’s done. This keeps you from having to pay a fortune for 2 different shows in 2 different sizes.
Your sizes also need to be spaced enough apart to be used for different purposes. You want one small size (10 x 10), something people can hold. A “little jewel” as it has been explained to me by curators. Then you want your main size (30 x 30) that is large enough to hang comfortably in someone’s home – this is the size you will be displaying most often in galleries. The largest size (50 x 50) is specifically for art collectors and for lease agreements. This is usually the largest size you can print without losing quality. Your large size will probably seem a bit comically large, but that’s kind of the whole point – it’s a statement piece.
You don’t have to edition your pieces, but…let’s just say I’ve never met anyone who suggested against it. Having limited editions increases the value of your artwork. People aren’t just paying for the actual art piece, they’re paying for the exclusivity. Edition sizes range anywhere from 3-500, and it really depends on the kind of art you’re doing. A photographer that has one size of print, may have a total edition size of 25, for example. That means they can only sell 25 prints of that photo, and then they’re done. No more selling of those prints once the edition has run out (there are reintroductions of an edition, but if you’re ever in the situation to reintroduce an edition, you’re probably super famous…and also dead).
Sound kind of scary? It’s supposed to. In all actuality, you rarely sell out of editions, but it creates a sense of urgency and exclusivity among buyers. The edition sizes also get smaller as you go up, creating even more significance. My pieces, for example, follow this basic pattern:
Size (in inches):
10 x 10, Limited Edition of 15
30 x 30, Limited Edition of 7
50 x 50, Limited Edition of 3
Pricing can also be a tricky subject, and needs to be dealt with on a very case by case basis, but at least this will give you a jumping off point.
Labor + costs of production + printing & shipping costs + profit = Price.
It’s also important to research your local market to see what comparable art is selling for. While some people may advise against this, since art sells for virtually anything nowadays, I still think it’s just plain smart to know what your competition is doing. The art market in Montana, for example, is much different than New York. If I were to price my art in Montana for the New York market, I would probably have a very, very hard time being taken seriously.
I also take the gallery’s opinion into account on my pricing. The reason being, they know the market better than anyone and they know exactly what range they can sell to their current client base. They need your prices high enough to show value, but low enough to be comparable to other artists they’ve had in the past. If you’re priced the same as a well-established artist they just showed in their gallery but you don’t have near the track record, it makes it difficult for them to pitch your work to clients. They have their own credibility and reputation to protect, and that means they can’t sell on potential alone, so price your work accordingly.
It’s also important to note that you can move up, but not down. I say to ask local galleries about the local market because if this is your first gallery, this is probably where you’ll be displaying. But know that if you start in New York, then try and display in a gallery in Montana, you can’t lower the cost of your pieces to match the market. That’s illegal.
Some artists also raise their prices as editions start running out, since they are, in fact, more valuable. It’s up to you.
Costs & Commissions
Typically, it’s up to the artist to pay for the costs of the show. This includes printing, shipping and framing. Since you’re selling your pieces as art, they need to be printed on archival certified paper. The gallery typically handles all of the hanging of the art. It’s important to work with the gallery on this process. My fine art pieces are typically either matted and framed or simply mounted and hung floating off the wall, depending on the gallery. My underwater photos have been displayed both mounted and floating off the wall or hanging on clear fishing line so they have a slight sway and movement to mimic the surreal motion of the water.
Every gallery is different, but most galleries take somewhere around a 50% commission from pieces you sell. Some take 40%, but rarely do any take more than 50%.
Some galleries take a very small percentage in exchange for a monthly payment. Say it costs $300/mo to display in the gallery, but they only take 30%. If you can, avoid this type of gallery – and here’s why: you want to show in a gallery that only makes money when your art sells. By charging a monthly fee to display, they are essentially covering their costs without having to worry about the art selling, which means it’s taking away their incentive to promote the art. If you don’t sell anything they don’ t really care – they’ve already covered their costs on your monthly fee, get it? You want to display where they don’t make a dime unless your art sells.
Let’s also revisit the idea of combo galleries: places where they run a completely separate business while also displaying art for sale. Places like this should be taking no more than 30% commission at the most and here’s why: their commission is your way of paying a gallery for all that they do. That’s all the promotion to bring in potential art buyers, their contacts of past buyers that will be interested in your work, events that are specific to the art-buying community and much more. All the promotion a gallery does goes toward selling your work, and that is worth 50% of the commission.
In a combo store, however, a very small portion of their income might go toward bringing in potential art buyers. If they’re a coffee shop, for example, the vast majority of their marketing and promotion is going to getting people to come in to buy coffee. If someone happens to walk in and buy a piece of art, fantastic, but they aren’t actively pursuing it. Since only 20% of their income goes to promoting the art in their store, they should receive only 20% commission.
Contracts can be pretty complicated, and while there are many details that ideally you’d have your lawyer look over (you know, the one we all have on retainer), here are a few things to at least make sure of:
How much you will be paid and when. This is generally your percent commission and a date your commission will be distributed, usually at the end of the month.
How long the contract lasts for. Most contracts are about 3 months long. If your contract has a possibility of being renewed, most galleries will need new work to display in the new period.
How your art is displayed. You want to make sure either your entire collection or at least 50% of your collection is always on display. Some galleries show part of the collection and then rotate pieces out throughout the contract period. In this case you need to know exactly how many pieces are guaranteed to be on the floor at all times.
How soon you are notified of a sale. I require to be notified within 24 hours of a sale. This is extremely important to make sure you don’t sell more than you have available and that your clients will get the exact edition number they were promised.
Who is in charge of damages while the art is held at the gallery. If the gallery catches on fire and your art is destroyed, that should be up to the gallery to cover. Some require you to have insurance of your own to cover any damages that may happen while it is in the galleries care, but to be honest, it’s very difficult to file an insurance claim for a piece of art that you haven’t even seen for 2 months. If it’s at the gallery, it’s the gallery’s responsibility.
How the contract can be terminated. If something happens, you need to know what the penalty would be for terminating the contract on either side. Just as you could be liable for a fee if you pull your art before the end of the contract period, the gallery can also be held liable if they don’t display your art for the entire contract period.
Who can sell your art. This will cover who else is allowed to sell your own art, including yourself. If this is a solo show, for example, you may not be allowed to release any images online or have them displayed at any other location. This is also relevant because if you are selling art on your own, without any referrals to the gallery, they can choose not to promote you…which is fair.
Think about it – if they spend all of their efforts handing out your business cards and sending potential buyers to your website and then a buyer contacts you to buy a piece and you make the sale completely independent of the gallery, all that work on their end would be for nothing.
Therefore, it’s good to have an agreement that if you have pieces in a gallery, and buyers come to you that were clearly introduced to your work through the gallery, you need to refer them back so the gallery can collect their commission. It might feel like a very difficult thing to do (especially when it’s cutting your profit from the sale in half) but it’s the right thing to do, plain and simple. Plus, the more loyal you are to the gallery, the more they will promote you, because they know they can trust you to send potential buyers their way.
Ask for previous artists’ references. I have been in galleries before that have been very unethical in the way they do things (I don’t want to name names or anything so let’s just make up a pretend one, like, I don’t know, the BeHuman Gallery located in Houston, TX). Had I spoken to previous artists about how this gallery does business, I probably would’ve come to the very obvious conclusion not to display there. Lesson learned.
Selling Your Work at the Opening
One of the most stressful parts for any artist is selling their art at the opening. You’re going to have to convince who knows how many people to try and buy one of your pieces, all without conveying that if they don’t buy anything there’s a good chance you will be homeless by the end of the month.
I get it, and thankfully while I definitely struggle in some areas, selling my own art at an opening is most definitely not one of my weaknesses. Not even kidding – I can sell the shit out of my own art at an opening.
And so can you. For those of you that are terrified of even the thought of talking about yourself for 4 solid hours to complete strangers, here’s a little script:
Step 1: Introduce yourself, thank them for coming and let them know you’re available to answer any of their questions.
Step 2: Answer any question they ask in great detail.
Step 3: Refer to more of your work for as examples.
Step 4: Answer following questions in great detail.
That’s it. Really. You want to go into great detail with your answers because the more they know about it, the more they want to buy it. They don’t want something they can hang up in their hallway, they want something they can point out to guests in their home and explain how awesome it is. Here’s an example dialogue:
Me: “Hello there! I’m so glad you took the time to come out tonight. If you have any questions on anything, don’t hesitate to ask, I’d more than happy to answer them!”
Client: “Oh! Thank you so much! Are you the artist?”
Me: “I am! This piece right here is mine, it’s called Insomniac.”
Client: “Oh I see! I was looking at these tree roots here, that’s so interesting!”
Me: “Thank you! I actually had to individually draw those out of a different photo. It took about 100 hours of straight editing time to achieve that effect.”
Client: “Wow, I had no idea! Hey honey, did you know this took over 100 hours of work?”
Client’s Spouse: “Oh you’re kidding!”
Me: “Not at all! This piece over here, called Keeper of Spring, took about 80 hours. It’s a combination of 46 separate photos.”
Client: “Crazy! So how does that work exactly?”
Me: “Well first I set up a tripod, and then I have to click the first photo, and then (yada, yada, yada).”
See how that works? Now, instead of just looking at an interesting piece of work, they are thinking of everything that went into it. The excitement they feel right now is the exact excitement they want someone else to feel when they tell the story later. And that folks, is how you sell an art piece.
I know working with galleries seems like a very intimidating and complicated process, but the important thing is to take the first step and understand that they are people too. They got into this business because they genuinely love the art community, and they want to help in any way they can. Don’t go in with guns blazing thinking you’ll get taken advantage of. Just let your work speak for itself and keep an open mind. Hell I got my first show by walking into a gallery and showing them a photo on my cell-phone. True story.
If you know anyone that might benefit from this post, feel free to share below!
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 PhotoFern.com 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 :).
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Let’s open with an obvious statement, just so we’re all on the same page: photography gear is expensive.
Wait, let me clarify: photography gear is crazy expensive. I bought my camera last year with my entire saving plus whatever I had in my checking account (talk about going all in).
This makes purchasing gear that much scarier. For most of us, we either fall into one of two categories: the “Forever Sticker Shocked” or the “Expensive Disappointments” (write those down for future slow-pitch softball team names).
For the sticker shockers, we are constantly buying the cheapest gear we can find. We buy the tripod made of plastic and duct tape and pray that it will stay standing in a light breeze. We glue pieces of our camera back together and hope it lasts through just one more senior shoot. I mean for crying out loud, I spent 3 months building my own underwater camera housing. And there is no fear on earth like putting your entire, not even remotely waterproof life savings, into a homemade device that looks remarkably similar to a pipe-bomb.
Yes, I have definitely played for the “Forever Sticker Shocked” team.
But I’ve also played for the other side. I’ve sucked it up and spent money on a piece of gear I figured I absolutely needed, and guess what, it didn’t do the job either. Turns out it doesn’t matter how amazing something is, if it’s not the exact thing you’ll need it’ll still end up sitting in the corner, collecting dust.
So I’ve decided to make your lives a little easier. Included below is my entire preferred gear list, with all the specifics, that I use on virtually every shoot. I love these items so much they don’t even get checked on a plane. No seriously – I’ve had 20 minute arguments with flight attendants about the size of my bag and whether or not my tripod counts as a separate carry-on (it doesn’t, by the way, as long as it’s attached in some way to your other bag).
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
This was the first camera I bought, and honestly, the only reason I chose this one over the gazillion options was because it was the same camera my mentor used. I also bought the one that came with a kit lens (don’t get the one with the kit lens, you’ll never use it again). I think I even had her write it down, because Canon 5D Mark II doesn’t roll off the tongue too easily when you’ve never heard of it before.
But here’s the thing – your camera is not exactly the most important item on this list. The specs are all going to improve the further up you go in price (you can bet your ass I’m counting down days for the Mark IV to come out so I can take advantage of the following price drop of the Mark III), but everyone is comfortable with something different. Hell Chris Keeney’s CK Holga 120N photos can make anyone want to go out and buy a toy camera.
Plain and simple I use Canon over Nikon, Sony, Leica and many others because I like the menus better. I like how things are set up and organized. I like a full frame sensor because it’s a better fit for my photography, and I like the clarity it produces when I stick the thing underwater. So don’t worry, if you’re shooting with something else, feel free to keep it. This isn’t the part where I try to convince you to switch over to anything.
Tripod: ABEO Pro 283AT with GH-300T Pistol Grip Ball Head
This, however, is that aforementioned part.
Most of my conceptual photos require multiple shots – which means I need a steady platform to hold my camera. On a poor quality tripod, even a slight breeze will throw everything off. The setup I have now is absolutely perfect – I love it so much that it makes me sick to even look at another tripod that doesn’t have the swivel head. You mean you have to sit there and adjust every axis to finally get to the right angle? And then what if something changes, you have to do it all over again? Screw that, I just hold down the little handle do-hickey and swivel it into place. Bada-bing, bada-boom.
Plus the tripod itself is surprisingly durable, even for somebody like me that isn’t exactly…ahem…nice to their gear. I’ve used this thing in dust, dirt, mud, saltwater and some seriously impressive winds, and it’s still rockin’ it.
My current combination came to be with a little trial and error, but if you’re looking for something similar, your best bet is to purchase a kit. The ABEO Pro 284AGH is an awesome tripod with the exact same ball head, so you won’t have to worry about buying anything separately.
Remote Shutter Release: Opteka RFT-40 Wireless Remote and Flash Trigger
Why every photographer doesn’t have one of these I have no idea. The thing costs maybe $25 and is one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. It works up to 650′ away and even shoots through walls. Plus, not to mention, I’ve dropped the handheld trigger in water countless times and the thing still works great. Half the time I put it in my mouth and trigger it with my tongue so I can keep my hands free to fluff fabric, throw things in the air, and of course, keep an eye on whatever I’ve currently lit on fire.
Computer: 27″ iMac
Scoff all you want, but this is hands down, the best photography related purchase, besides my camera, that I have ever bought. My PC crapped out last year, and after a lot of prodding from my local group of photographers, I finally just bit the bullet and got a Mac. A big one. And I can’t thank them enough. Seriously, I easily owe them all 40 beers and my left kidney for steering me in the right direction.
I’m not going to get into too much technical stuff, but the bottom line is this screen lets me see every single tiny detail in my photos, and I like the workflow better. Everything is just easier. Doing anything on my laptop kills me now.
To give you an idea of how much I love this computer, I brought it on the plane with me when I was working in New York for a month. That’s right, I hauled this giant, 27″ sucker from Montana to New York. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Editing Software: Adobe Creative Cloud
Why pay several hundred dollars for Photoshop or Lightroom separately when you can $30/month (sometimes less, depending on the programs you use on a regular basis) for the always up-to-date, newest version of everything? Don’t answer that. Any argument you try to make here is futile. Switch to Creative Cloud and let’s move on.
Editing Equipment: Wacom Intuos Pro Medium
Now, for the longest time, I actually fought this one pretty hard. I just didn’t see the draw. It looked cool, but did I really need it? Was it absolutely essential to my photography business?
Turns out it is, and I feel like such an idiot for putting off a purchase as important as this one.
For those of you that aren’t quite sure what this is, let me explain. This is a tablet that comes with a “pen” that allows you to edit as if you were physically drawing on your photo. All that time spent outlining figures with your mouse (or god forbid, touchpad) is now gone. Just take your pen and trace along the edge of your photo – done.
Personally, what really convinced me to finally take the leap is how quickly obvious signs of carpel tunnel began setting in. I’d spend marathon sessions editing photos, only to find I couldn’t move my wrist the next day. My entire arm hurt, all the way up to my shoulder, and I had a hard time holding onto things with my right hand. All of this would go away in a day or two of course, but let’s be honest – these symptoms are not a good thing. If you’re going through something like this now, stop putting it off – you’re doing actual damage to yourself.
With this table, my editing time has easily been cut down but over 80%. What used to take me all week to edit now takes me one, very dedicated night.
Oh, and get the medium size. The large is too big to comprehend and I’m convinced the small size is just there to play the part of adorable little baby bear.
Now I use these two pretty interchangeably. It’s safe to say for any client work, the smaller, more manageable Heralder is my go-to bag. It’s pretty compact, but has a million pockets (I counted…1 million exactly) and they’ve all come in handy at one point or another.
The UP-Rise backpack, I’ll admit, is just flat out enormous. But it’s so light with so much storage, it’s pretty tough not to fall in love with it. I usually end up covering some serious ground to get to the landscape I’m looking for, plus who knows what crazy props and gear I’m towing along. This bag is light, comfortable, and holds whatever you can possible throw at it.
Well there is it is folks, my preferred equipment lineup. You’ll notice I’ve left off lenses – mainly because those are so specific to your individual photography style.
I hope this helps clarify any equipment questions you might have, and if you have anymore feel free to leave a comment below!
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When I first started really getting into photography, the thought of underwater photos intrigued me. “How amazing it would be to capture images underwater,” I thought to myself. So I started researching exactly how one might go about putting their camera underwater, because lets be honest, this setup surely wasn’t going to do the trick (and yes, that’s one of my many beautiful cats lounging on my countertop).
But upon typing in my search inquiry, my heart sank. It looked as though there were two options: 1.) A camera bag and 2.) A housing facility. The camera bag, priced at the low end of the spectrum (roughly $100-$150), seemed to better fit my budget, but after reading the horrible reviews every bag received (“Hugely susceptible to human error”, “Leaked the first time I tried it in my bathtub”, “Leaks if placed lower than 1′ of water”, “Leaks because it’s Tuesday” ) I decided against it. I needed something substantial that put one of my most valuable possessions in as little of harm’s way as possible.
So next I took a look at housings.
For a 5D Mark II, underwater housing starts at roughly $1500 and goes up from there. $1500? I was nowhere near being able to afford $1500! I slammed my computer shut and thought to myself, “It’s okay. I just need to save up some money before I can start taking underwater photos. I can live with that.”
Except I couldn’t live with that. The thought burrowed into the back of my brain and wouldn’t leave. “Does this mean only people with $1500 lying around should be able to take underwater photos?” The more I was told I couldn’t take the pictures without proper equipment, the more I became obsessed with it. “There just had to be a way…”
And that way, I decided, was to make my own housing. I figured I could devise a structure that would allow me to put my camera inside, and I could use an automatic shutter release to take the photos from the outside. As long as all my settings were adjusted before I put the camera underwater…it was possible. So I recruited the help of my boyfriend’s step-dad, Scott, and we started to build.
The first prototype was part of an insulated cooler. I needed to have a removable lid so I could take my camera in and out. I figured we’d cut the bottom out, replace it with Plexiglas and seal any spots where water could get in. Seemed simple enough, right?
Not even close. As soon as I reached a depth over 3′ deep the Plexiglas popped off the bottom like a dandelion head. Apparently I had completely underestimated the amount of water pressure I’d be dealing with here…
Some adjustments had to be made. Instead of sealing the Plexiglas on the inside of the container, we sealed it on the outside. By pushing the small disc against the contraption to which it was already attached, the water pressure was working with me instead of against me. There were still some issues with the lid leaking (as per the water-soaked dive weights inside), so I thought an extra dose of duct tape might do the trick for now.
How wrong could I be. The bottom seemed solid, but water was still rushing in from the top. Since I couldn’t find an O-ring large enough to fit inside, I tried everything else: thread tape, weather stripping, plenty of silicone and countless other options. Sealing from the inside certainly wasn’t going to do the trick.
So we opted for an outside option instead. We tried a variety of rubber options with a combination of pipe clamps. We even tried an old bike tire, but it turned out that it wasn’t even remotely waterproof (who would’ve thought?).
Plus, water was slowly leaking in through the Plexiglas window. Somehow, it was coming in through the lid, seeping down through the insulation and coming back out through the bottom. I needed to start from scratch.
Instead of starting with something already built, I decided to design something myself. When I met with Scott that night, he showed me some of the designs he had drawn up and they ended up being almost identical to what I was thinking in my head. Since my camera measured a little more than 6″ across, I knew that would be my rough estimate of a sizing option.
The available pipe options I had locally went from 6″ to 8.5″. We took a chunk of 8.5″ pipe, a chunk of coupling and sanded some Plexiglass to barely fit into the rim of the coupling. We sealed it, placed the pipe on top, sealed it with AVS glue and used a rubber pipe cap and pipe clamp as the lid. This had to work. It was just too pretty not to!
Off to the pool I went (thanks to the Comfort Inn for constantly letting me use their pool over the last few months!) hoping this would be the one.
And the result?
It worked! It worked, it worked, IT WORKED! Thanks Scott for all your help, and be sure to click here if you want to see my first round of underwater photos :)!
Now to make a list of all the things I can put underwater…