being a photographer

Starting Out as a Photographer

Around this time of year, I get a lot of emails from photo students about to graduate. I think part of their curriculum is to go out and ask photographers they like how they got their start.

So, when Andrew Torres emailed me a few weeks ago, I decided to make a blog post out of it. Hopefully this answers his questions about how to start out as a photographer. At least it tells my story and I can reference it again the next time a photo student emails me.

AT: How did you get started in photography and what education/training did you receive?

LB: I learned the basics of photography in high school and did it as a hobby for a number of years. In 2001, I quit my web design job and started working as a studio manager/1st assistant for an architectural photographer by the name of Philip Beaurline. I knew some Photoshop from my design days, but I know nothing about professional photography. Everything I know today I learned by working for him.

It was a very lucky time to make the shift into photography. He was still shooting film and he was shooting with a view camera primarily. I learned to load film, label shot rolls, and how to set up a view camera. After the shoot, the film workflow became my responsibility. I took it to the lab, made selects on a light table, drum scanned the selects, cleaned it up in Photoshop, made prints and CDs, and then delivered the job to the client. So not only did I learn all the nuances of film and the look of film, but I also learned all the digital post production side of things, how to interact with clients, and to know how to properly deliver a photo shoot. It was really an amazing experience and I don’t think I would have learned as much had I just freelanced as a photo assistant.

AT: Would you recommend internships or assisting before starting your own business?

LB: Absolutely. I think internships are good place to start. It gets your foot in the door and there’s not a big commitment on either part. Once you move into assisting, make sure you assist a photographer who you admire or for someone who shoots the subject you’re interested in. If you like architecture photography, assist an architectural photographer. If you like food photography, assist a food photographer. If you like travel photography, assist a travel photographer. If you like all three, you can assist me.

AT: Are you a member of any professional organizations and would you recommend joining?

LB: Definitely start by joining ASMP. The main things you get from it are tons of business materials ranging from estimates, to copyrights, to legal documents; a national network of photographers that you can reach out to for help or advice; and amazing discounts on everything from computers to business Insurance. After that, if you want to shoot editorial, I definitely recommend joining Editorial Photographers (EP). The member forum has helped me so much throughout my career as a photographer. If you want to go more commercial, APA is a good place to be as well. They have a great find an assistant listing program as well as invaluable information and discounts.

AT: What piece of equipment could you not live without for your type of photography?

LB: Besides a computer, Lightroom and Photoshop, I could not live without the Canon 24mm TS-E II and the Canon 17mm TS-E. The TS means Tilt-Shift and these lenses allow me to shoot architecture almost as well as if I had shot it with a view camera. Architecture photography is all about perspective control. These lenses allow me to keep my camera level, yet rise and shift the lens to compose the without getting keystone distortion. Not only that, but these lenses are incredibly sharp and show very little (if any) chromatic aberration.  I just hope Canon release new editions of the 45mm TS-E and the 90mm TS-E. Nice lenses, but not sharp enough with for a 20MP digital SLR.

For digital, I’d say your lenses are more important than you camera. For film, they’re both important.

AT: What are the advantages/disadvantages of working out of a larger area like Portland?

LB: Portland (and Oregon) is fortunate to have all the support you need to pull off a really big production. Everything from an international airport to professional camera and lighting rental can be found here. Plus there are some amazing rental studios and great locations all over town. There are some great stylists living here as well. There’s a strong creative vibe here and I feel lucky to be a part of it. The downside of working here is the cost of living is pretty low and there are A LOT of photographers and assistants moving here all the time. With this much competition, you really have to work hard to make yourself stand out. I would not want to start my career here. Start someplace smaller and build up your portfolio. Then move to a medium sized market like Portland.

AT: What have you found to be the most effective ways to market yourself?

LB: You just can’t do one thing and expect it to be effective. You have to market everywhere and it has to be consistent of what you shoot (your brand). You must have an easy to use and fast loading website, a carefully edited portfolio, email marketing campaign, direct mail marketing campaign, social marketing network, all of it. It’s not cheap and it takes up a lot of your time. So you have to build it into your cost of doing business. Also, word of mouth is so important, so make sure you do a good job, deliver on time, and work well with others.

AT: Any other words of wisdom you would offer a photography student nearing graduation?

Being a working professional photographer is a job. It’s not romantic, it’s not glamorous, and you’re probably not going to make a living at it for about 5 years. But it’s a fun job and it can be very rewarding personally and emotionally. So, if you don’t have any business skills, start getting some. You’re going to need it.

Also, do your cost of doing business every year. I can’t stress enough how important it is to know the real costs of running a photography business.

43 Totally Random Pro Tips Every Photographer Should Know


  1. Get it in camera whenever you can. Photoshop time is expensive and can cause a drain on your resources.
  2. Digital is way more forgiving in color balance than film. It can also screw you up if you don’t have a grey card shot to judge from.
  3. Use a sturdy tripod with a head capable of supporting twice your camera’s weight.
  4. Join ASMP
  5. When working with art directors and/or a strict layout, ask for hand-drawn comps or storyboards of what they envision the shot to be. It will save you hours of frustration in camera and on set.
  6. Draw diagrams of your shooting style. It’s great to learn where you succeeded and failed.
  7. Watch out for flair from backlit sources.
  8. Convert to DNG, work in 16bit PSD, save finals as flattened 8bit Tiff with no output sharpening applied.
  9. Add basic metadata to everything. Include at least name, website, ©year, and client name or subject name.
  10. Use a standard file naming scheme for your Digital Asset Management (DAM). Mine is INNITIALS_YYMMDD_4#SEQUENCE (i.e. LRB_070515_1234.tif)
  11. Delete everything unusable.
  12. Buy gear only when you need it for the assignment.
  13. Learn basic CSS and HTML.
  14. Mirror lock anything slower than 1/15th of a second.
  15. Watch movies for lighting inspiration. Watch commercials for stock ideas.
  16. Don’t promise anything you can’t come through on.
  17. Spend one day a week marketing.
  18. Don’t let work overtake your personal life. Make time for loved ones, friends, and exercise every day.
  19. Put 25% of every payment you receive into a savings account to pay for taxes. At the end of the year, whatever is left over after paying taxes, put into retirement or back into the business.
  20. Pay yourself a salary every week. Give yourself a bonus for beating sales goals.
  21. Set sales and marketing goals.
  22. Calculate your CODB every year.
  23. Hiring an assistant will allow you to work faster, be more creative, and less tired at the end of the day.
  24. Be yourself, unless you’re a jerk. In that case, learn to keep your mouth shut.
  25. Commercial photography is not about you. It’s a collaborative process and you are one part of a creative machine built to get results in a timely and profitable way. Don’t throw a wrench (ego, doubt, fear, miscommunication, etc.) into the gears and you’ll do well.
  26. Always meet your client’s expectations, but strive to go above and beyond that.
  27. Never settle for good enough.
  28. Always be open and upfront with your clients about costs.
  29. Estimating is an art and is something you’ll spend your life perfecting.
  30. Shoot personally and keep it personal. Free your mind of the confines of commerce once in a while.
  31. Be excited about your work and show enthusiasm for what you do. Be confident.
  32. Show interest in your client’s project and get invested with them. Stay away from the “us versus them” mentality.
  33. Build relationships with your clients, but keep a professional distance.
  34. The photography business is cyclical. Protect yourself from slow times by building a 3-month operating cushion.
  35. Keep up with your bookkeeping and make sure to use accounting software.
  36. If you do it for work, you can write it off. But you can’t write off your own labor (so when someone asks you to shoot for free as a write-off, know that you won’t be able to write it off).
  37. Your friends and family will have a big influence on you directly and indirectly. Make sure you listen carefully to the advice they give you. It may be beneficial or it may lead you off track. Weigh any opinions carefully.
  38. Negative thoughts, emotions, and actions will spread through your success like a virus. Be mindful of the company you keep and what you say to yourself.
  39. Do what you love and the money will follow.
  40. Live below your means.
  41. Don’t buy anything for your business on credit that you can’t afford to pay off within six months.
  42. Know yourself and be yourself.
  43. Enjoy and celebrate food. Especially if you’re on the road, seek out a good place to eat rather than settle for chain restaurants and fast food.