How to be a photographer

Dan Milnor has built a wide-ranging and hugely successful career out of his passion for photography. So who better to ask how to become a photographer? Whether you’re just starting out or in the process of developing your own career this is a chance to hear from someone who knows what it takes to get to where you’re going.

What is the definition of a photographer? 

This might seem like an odd question, but let me start this entire exercise with a critical statement. You don’t need to BE a photographer to BE a photographer. If you want to become a photographer, the first thing you should do is define what that means. Do you simply want to raise your skill level, make images for fun, and show them online? Or do you want to become a “professional,” make a living from photography and exhibit your work in museums and galleries? Or do you want to do a combination of these things? Defining what your objective is will help you find a way forward.

Should I go to school or learn online?

I spent four years studying photojournalism, so I’m a bit biased here, although I realize that there are other viable means of learning the craft. However, in my opinion, building a career on something like YouTube is somewhat shortsighted. That’s because typically platforms like YouTube will showcase more of what’s popular or trendy, rather than provide an in-depth education, which is what you need if you are interested in having a multi-decade career in photography. Most people might fall into the middle ground of perhaps learning technical data online, but practicing and training with mentors, workshops, or formal education.

What basic technical skills do you need to become a photographer? 

For some reason, people new to photography tend to place a significant amount of importance on the technical side of photography. More so than the aesthetic side, and I can see how this might seem natural. However, the technical skills required to become a photographer aren’t as daunting as one might assume. Things like the basics of shutter speed and aperture settings are skills that can be learned and implemented quickly. The same can be said for a fundamental grounding in film processing or digital post-production. But, just know that real skill emerges when one becomes proficient enough in these areas to NOT have to think about the technical side.

There is also the business side of photography. That means everything from negotiating to marketing and fulfillment. These are all things you will learn over time and are critical for long-term success.

How to become a photographer

Is there anything I can start doing, regardless of budget, that would help me reach my goal of becoming a professional photographer?

Yes. Practice. Every single day. Photography is a skill, like fencing or accounting. Getting good requires a great deal of practice so the more field time or studio time you can muster, the better off you will be. You are going to make mistakes, but so what? Everyone makes mistakes. Just keep snapping.

Also, start looking at what is already being done in the genre of your choice. Now, you have options here. Looking at work online, which I’m personally not a huge fan of, or looking at photography books, which I’m a HUGE fan of. Here’s why. The online photography world is an endless rabbit hole, mostly comprised of subpar work being promoted as awesome. Photography books, on the other hand, are expensive to produce, time-consuming, and challenging in a variety of ways. Consequently, photography books tend to be well thought out, edited well, sequenced well, and designed with the utmost perfection. You can learn A LOT from these pages. Books will also show you the history of your profession. What has already been done? Who did it? How can you add to the conversation?

What about assisting photographers or finding a mentor? 

Yes, yes, and yes. I spent at least four years assisting other photographers, even some who worked in fields completely unrelated to mine so that I could learn a specific technique or two.

I once assisted someone who photographed reflective medical parts with a 4×5 camera, one agonizing Polaroid at a time. We would spend twelve hours doing ONE photograph. I nearly lost my mind, but I also learned how to light a reflective object, which is no easy matter. I also assisted photographers who worked for National Geographic Magazine, Time Magazine, Life Magazine, and commercial clients like Adidas, because that was the kind of work I saw myself doing. And here is the wonderful thing. Once I had a relationship with these photographers, and they knew I was serious about becoming a professional, they made sure to teach me about all aspects of being a photographer, not just how to make images. These generous folks taught me about the business of photography, right down to how to do my taxes.

Mentorships are also invaluable. After nearly thirty years of doing photography I still have mentors, people I trust entirely to speak the truth about my work. These folks tell me when I’ve nailed something, but more importantly, they tell me when I need to keep working.

What about having a website and social media presence?

Yes, to both. But keep in mind the viewing habits of the modern editor, agent, or prospective image buyer. Short and to the point. That means that editing for the web is critical.

A potential client will typically know within seconds whether or not they are going to work with someone. So, show your best work, your most original work, and don’t skimp on things like the “About Me” page. Clients are hiring your photography, yes, but they are also hiring YOU as a human being. Showcasing what else you are skilled in, or interested in can play a significant role in your securing a job.

As for social, don’t go overboard. You don’t need to post all day every day. Successful professionals don’t have time to study your feed all day long. Also, remember that Instagram is all the rage today, but in a few short years, we are going to be talking about another, newer network. Think of your website/newsletter/blog as the long-play, and your social as an ever-changing short-play.

In essence, what you are attempting to build is a branded platform with you in the center. Web, social, and print to start with. You could then branch out to things like podcasts and motion channels.

How to become a photographer

What is the ratio between the business side of photography and the actual photography side?

I wish I could say it was 50/50, but working full-time as a professional photographer is about 80% business and 20% actual photography. However, this does depend on the style of work you do, your business setup, and whether you have a team or work independently.

Working as a photographer is about efficiency, so things like post-production must be sleek and streamlined, otherwise, you will end up working nights and weekends. Let the software do some of the work for you by automating your books and model releases, etc. Think about things like hiring a bookkeeper, an assistant, or a digital tech for on-the-job processing.

The more streamlined the business side, the more shooting time you will have.

Are there any other industry related things I should consider? 

Yes. Attend festivals, portfolio reviews, openings, museum shows, etc. Get out there and stay out there. Things like Review Santa Fe and The Palm Springs Photo Festival are key annual events that will expose you to all sides of the industry.

Signing up for portfolio reviews will not only provide feedback on your work. It will also force you to learn how to talk about your work, how to define your position in the industry and explain what you do and why.

How do I price my work?

Pricing, licensing, and establishing a legitimate pay structure is crucial to your long-term success. Many photographers work with agents or agencies who can help in this regard, while others use software to establish their rates. Working for free should be avoided. The idea that someone will hire you for free, love you, and then begin paying you legitimate rates is not a great strategy. It’s not to say I haven’t seen this work, but the success rate is very, very low. It is better to keep a part-time job that allows you to say no to those unpaid gigs.

What is the single most important piece of advice for becoming a professional photographer?

Making original work is the single most important thing you can do. Now, this isn’t easy and it might take you years to figure out how to do it. That’s okay. There’s no rushing certain things, and this is one of those things.

Your work should be different than my work. Your work should be as unique as your fingerprint. Original work has value because a client has to come to you to get it. The vast majority of images you see, especially on platforms like Instagram, are derivative works; content not photography. Content is work that crosses your eyes but never hits your brain. Photography, on the other hand, involves those rare images that are IMPOSSIBLE to forget. Seared into your psyche for the rest of your life. You want to be a photographer, not a “content producer.”


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