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The First Question You Should Ask Yourself When Starting a Career in Photography

In my never ending quest to state the obvious things that we all tend to forget, today I will talk about another simple truth. To get what you want, you first have to know what you want.

I was recently on a Zoom call with a younger photographer just starting out and she asked the question that all young artists ask in the early stages of their careers ask: “How do I get from here to there?” Putting aside for a moment whether or not I feel as though I’ve even reached my own “there” yet, there were a number of photographers on the call, all at varying levels, and I could easily relate as I had asked the same question nearly two decades ago when I first started. What guided my advice and made the question so easy to answer was the manner in which it was addressed.

I, myself, am an advertising and editorial photographer and director working mostly with lifestyle, fitness, and activewear brands and publications. Other colleagues on the call were entertainment photographers working mostly with celebrities and movie studios. Others were beauty photographers focusing on cosmetic products. And within each of those disciplines the aesthetics of each photographer and their working methods varied greatly. They were all very good at what they did. But they all did very different things. So if their careers were to be viewed as destinations they would be as different as Florida and Idaho.

To set forth an analogy, let’s think about your career as going on vacation. I laugh as I write that because making a living as an artist is definitely no vacation, but that’s a topic for another essay.

When deciding on a vacation destination, you first have to think about yourself. Are you a rustic person or a city person? Do you want to explore and learn about a vibrant new culture, or would you rather spend the entire vacation sipping an alcoholic beverage while splayed out on a beach chair? In short, what sort of things make you happy? What are the things that get you excited about going on vacation in the first place?

For our example, let’s say that you are a city person and want to spend the vacation searching art galleries and immersing yourself in local cultures. You’re probably not going to choose a beach resort. But you now have an endless number of urban cities to consider. Paris, New York, Milan, Rio, the list goes on. So you have to do a little more introspection and decide which of those destinations is the best fit for you. Only then can you buy a ticket, hop on a plane and head off into the world.

True, you could just go to the airport, plunk down your money and ask for a ticket. But the gate agent is likely to ask you where you want to go before processing the order. I suppose if you have a particularly non-suspicious gate agent, you could abdicate that choice and allow them to book you onto the earliest flight of their choosing. But the odds of that flight landing where you wanted to go are relatively slim.

The same goes for building a career. It’s good to explore your options. Especially early in your journey. But once you are starting to dig into your career in earnest and have decided you want to make this your living, you’ll need to decide on what you want that living to look like in order to know what path to take to get “there.”

Do you want to shoot for magazines? Do you want to shoot weddings? Are you inspired by newborn photography? Or do you only get excited by the sight of a couture gown? And more importantly, why do you only get excited by fashion and not, for example, landscapes? Early in your career, it is just as important to explore yourself and your own motivations as it is to explore photographic techniques. If you’re building a career, hopefully one that will last for the rest of your life, it is essential that you really consider what it is that you’d like to spend that hopefully long life doing.

With talent and hard work, you can reach any destination. But first, you have to know where you are going.

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