Monday, July 27, 2015

Getting Started as a Professional Photographer

Dennis Davis Photography
Glamour, excitement, fame, fortune, hanging around sexy models and famous actors – this is why you want to become a photographer, right? Reality and the public perception of what a photographer’s life is like are not necessarily in alignment, but yes, I have seen some of the above. It is the fortune part that most photographers seem to miss out on. There are huge amounts of money to be made, however there are also huge expenses in keeping up with the latest digital cameras, computers, lights, etc, as well the monthly expense of a studio.

The most common route to becoming a photographer today is to go to college and study photography, then work for someone in the field you want until you go out on your own. You will need a photography degree if you want to get a job working for most newspapers or companies, and a 4 year degree is better than a 2 year degree; however you can still get good jobs with a 2 year degree.

Some photographers who work for themselves are self-taught. They read books, practice, shoot for friends, and eventually hire their services out. Other photographers work first as a photographer’s assistant, and later launch their business.

There are several routes you can take in working as a photographer. You can work for a company, such as a newspaper, magazine, portrait / wedding studio or catalog company as a full-time staff photographer. Working for someone else seems safe, secure, and dependable – until you get laid off or fired. Then you will be scrambling for a new position, and let me assure you there are very few staff photography jobs out there, and there are 10 or 15 photographers for every one job. However, being a staff photographer is an excellent training for working on your own, and many great photographers worked first in someone else’s studio or in editorial photography before they went out on their own.

Portrait / wedding studios work directly with the public, and make their money selling prints and CDs. There are studios that specialize in children’s portraits, families, glamour, high school seniors, weddings, parties so forth. You could get a job working for a studio such as this, and then later launch your own similar studio. Some of these studio are run be someone really good at marketing, and they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Most of them are run by a “creative type” person not very good at business and marketing, and the photographer makes a lower middle class wage. The difference between the successful studio and the not so successful has more to do with marketing then photographic skill.
Dennis Davis Photography

There are photographers that make some or all of their money shooting stock photography. Stock photography is images that are used for advertisements, brochures, websites and other published works that was not shot specifically shot for that company. Regular selling images might be couples having fun on the beach, families interacting, people working on computers and so forth. Most stock photographers have to invest their own time and money in coming up with ideas, models, locations, costumes, etc, and hope that the stock-buying public likes their images. Stock is a rapidly changing and many believe shrinking market, so investigate well before you go that direction.

Editorial photographers are not paid that well, but often get perks and benefits that make up for the lower pay. Travel photographers for magazines can be sent on all expenses paid trips to exotic locations, and given a budget to hire local models, guides, hotels, cars, etc. However, they have a very short time, usually 2-4 days, to come up with a full article’s 6-10 images and a cover photograph, so these are not vacations. Photographers for magazines that focus on celebrities, fashion models, musicians or politicians mainly travel domestically, but still get to meet the rich and famous and photograph them.  Most of these photographers are freelance; very few magazines still have a staff. However the good freelance photographers work very regularly.

Regardless of what kind of photographer you become, you will need a great portfolio. Do not think that the images that you shot in school or while working for a client will do. You have to decide what kind of photography you want to do, then shoot images that will land those types of jobs or clients. For example, if you want to become a product photographer, you need to go to department, shoe, gift or cosmetic stores, and buy the products. Then you need to buy or pick out props and backgrounds to go with the products you are shooting. Don’t bother shooting catalog style photographs – products with flat, shadow-less lighting on a plan white background. Shoot beauty shots - dramatic images with amazing, mysterious lighting and exotic props and backgrounds.
Dennis Davis Photography

If you are not working for a company full time, but rather working freelance for yourself, your portfolio is the only thing that matters. No one will ask what school you went to, or what your GPA was. Plan to shoot just for your portfolio at least 4 times a year if you are established, or 8-12 times a year if you are just starting out. This may mean planning a day with models, hair and makeup artists, scouting locations for your shoot, finding great costumes, etc. You can do this on the cheap by using models trying to break into the field, and makeup artists that need to expand their portfolio and will work for free – but it is still lots of work.

The rest of this article will discuss commercial photographers, as that is what I am and what I know the best. Commercial photographers mostly produce images to sell a product or service. Their clients include advertising agencies, graphic design studios, web designers and corporations. Some of the images sold might be for annual reports or events like sales meetings, and this might be called public relations, but it is still selling the idea of the company’s brand if not directly selling a product. Commercial photographers work for themselves, and their income goes up and down as the economy rises and falls. Corporations tend to cut back on advertising during a bad economy, and use last year’s pictures again instead of shooting new ones.
Dennis Davis Photography

If you are going to go to school to become any kind of photographer working for yourself, I recommend that you study the following subjects in addition to photography:

·        Marketing
·        Advertising
·        Website design
·        Search Engine Optimization
·        Sales
·        Business
·        Accounting (optional, but very useful)
·        Public Relations

Yes, I know that many photography programs offer one class in marketing, but trust me; there are thousands of would-be photographers flipping hamburgers and parking cars that didn’t study their marketing well enough. It doesn’t matter how great, how amazing, how talented you are as a photographer, if your potential clients don’t have your work in front of them, they can’t hire you. If your photography business fails, it will be from poor marketing in more cases than from poor photography.
Dennis Davis Photography

The single most important tool in marketing a commercial photography business is the photographer’s website. This is your window to the world, your opportunity to show the world your skills and how you think. How you present your portfolio online will determine how many clients you will get 9 times out of 10. This is why I recommend that you learn to build websites yourself. Do you really want to trust something this important to someone else?

Also, it doesn’t matter if you have an awesome website, if when a potential client types in the keywords “New York Commercial Photographer” and your website is listed as number 224,016 on the 84 page. If your site is not on the first page, you will miss most of your potential clients, and nobody has the time or patience to look beyond the second page of listings. This is why you need to learn about Search Engine Optimization, at least to read a book and a few articles on the topic.

There are many ways to reach your potential clients - advertising agencies, graphic design studios, web designers and corporations – but direct mail, telemarketing, magazine advertisements and email blasts are the most common. All of these methods usually invite the potential client to visit the photographer’s website. Some photographers mail out “mini portfolios” or small books of sample photographs. This gets more attention than a postcard with a single image. Many top advertising photographers have an agent who takes care of the marketing part of the business for them in exchange for a percentage of the fees.  However, for every good agent that will get the photographer lots of jobs, there are three lazy ones that will do nothing and expect to get paid for it. Beware! Note that agents usually are not willing to represent photographers’ fresh out of school without an existing client base, so you still need to know the marketing stuff just to get an agent.
Leonardo DiCaprio
Dennis Davis Photography

Commercial photographers need lots of gear, and none of it is cheap. A professional quality digital camera and three lenses will cost from $6,000 to $45,000, and most photographers have several cameras. Also note that like computers, digital cameras get outdated quickly, and the latest, higher mega pixel, better color digital camera is just a few months away. You will have to update your camera body every two or three years if the current trend continues.

Lighting gear can be just as costly. I own 5 lighting kits, two of them ProFoto kits with 4 heads each. One kit is the power pack type which I use in the studio; the other kit is made up of 4 mono lights which I travel with. I have a backup power pack, and a backup set of mono lights, and a battery powered lighting kit. All this lighting gear is worth more than $50,000, and has to be upgraded, maintained, insured, repaired and kept up. I usually spend several thousand a year just on repair of lights.

I had an assistant that graduated from one of America’s top photography schools, and paid close to $100,000 for her degree. She had a good digital camera body, but could only afford one lens, and had no lights several years after graduating, but still had to pay student loans. She is a great photographer, but needed to learn more about marketing and business – the school didn’t teach her enough on that topic even with a 3 year degree. She cannot shoot most of the jobs that come her way because she has no lights. So if you are planning to spend a bundle on photography school, maybe you should spend half that much and spend the rest of the money on photography gear.

Dennis Davis Photography
I am a self-taught photographer; I read books and experimented with lights until I learned how to shoot. Three months after getting my first camera I was shooting for brochures for a nonprofit organization. I didn’t train with another photographer; I just read books and tried what I read. However, I think the traditional route of going to school and then working in a studio is a better and faster way to learn the trade. I think the definition of success in commercial photography is to be able to be in control of your own schedule, your own career, your own life and the direction you are taking. To be able to do what you love and get paid for it is a great gift, as most people hate or tolerate their jobs, and dread going to work each day. Even if you are only able to just get by, pay your bills, and have a small home, being your own boss is worth the lower salary.

See my portfolio website at, and call 213-434-3344 for more information.

Friday, January 2, 2015

How to Buy a Digital Camera

Dennis Davis photographs models for an AmTrak brochure
 on moving train traveling from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara.
Cameras used to be long term investments before the digital age, now people change them as rapidly as they replace last year’s computer. New features, more mega pixels, better color, smaller size - there are many reasons to upgrade. Film is mostly used for fine art or disposable cameras now in the USA, most purchases today are digital. What kind of camera is right for you, and will help you take the pictures that meet your vision? We will discuss point and shoot, entry level DSLRs with interchangeable lenses, and professional DSLR cameras. At the end of this article are links to websites reviewing specific camera brands and models.  

Point and Shoot

This is the type of camera that does most of the thinking and decision making for you. If you want your pictures taking to be easy, with little fuss, choose this type of camera. However, don’t be surprised if about 20% of your pictures look like crap. Some picture taking situations are complex and too difficult for the computer in the point and shoot camera to understand.  So if you want your more difficult pictures to turn out well, you will need to read books or magazines about photography, or take a class, and learn how to use a DSLR (digital single lens reflex, one that has interchangeable lenses) camera that allows you to make more decisions.
Dennis Davis Photography

Features to look for in a point and shoot camera include:

  • Small enough to take with you
  • Allows you to turn off automatic functions, and take some control. Specifically allows you to take camera off of program mode, and use shutter priority, aperture priority, and / or manual mode.
  • High quality glass optics, not plastic lens
  • Wide optical zoom range
  • Fast auto focus
  • Allows you to use flash or turn it off at will, even outdoors
  • Strong flash
  • Red eye reduction
  • Tripod mount
  • Five or more mega pixels
  • Rechargeable battery, long battery life

Many point and shoot cameras advertise wide zoom ranges, but in reality they are talking about “digital zoom”. This means that the camera just takes the center portion of the image and crops it to make it appear closer. Results?  The resolution of your image will go down, and your picture will be less sharp and more noisy and grainy. Make sure when you read about the zoom range of a point and shoot camera that they are talking about optical zoom – the actual lens – and not digital zoom.
Higher end point and shoot cameras have several shooting modes, program mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, and / or manual mode. These modes allow you to make some or all of the decisions about your picture’s exposure, and using them will help you learn how cameras work. Buying a point and shoot camera that has various shooting modes is a good way to make the transition to a more professional SLR system.  
Dennis Davis Photography

You want to be able to turn on or turn off your flash at will. Why? Let’s say you want to take a picture of fireworks over a lake at night, with your camera on a tripod. Your camera in program mode will check the light level, see that it is dark, and turn on the flash for the exposure. However, this will cause the area within 15 or 20 feet of the camera to be brightly lit, and the rest of the picture dark! With the flash on, the shutter will close before the fireworks finish their display. With the flash turned off and the camera in shutter priority or manual mode, you can set your camera on a tripod, leave the shutter open for 3-10 seconds, and capture the fireworks and their reflection in the lake.

Entry Level Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras

Entry level SLR cameras all have a smaller than “full frame” sensor. This means that the sensor that captures the image is not as large as a 35mm negative frame, so the picture is cropped. How much smaller the sensor is compared to full frame is called the “lens factor” and it is described as a number such as 1.5.  It also means that wide angle lenses are not as wide as they would be on a full frame camera. For example, a 28 mm lens that would take in a wide angle view on a film camera or a full frame digital body would act like a slightly wider than normal lens on an entry level camera. Camera manufacturers have a solution available, making lenses that are “ultra wide” and only work with cameras with a lens factor. These might be 12mm or 14mm lenses that would show darkness around the edges of the picture with a full frame camera. Be careful how much money you invest in the ultra wide lenses, because if you upgrade to a full frame DSLR these lenses will not work.

Features to Look For In an Entry Level DSLR
Dennis Davis Photography

  • Lens or sensor stabilization or vibration reduction method available (reduces blur in hand held pictures)
  • Largest, brightest LCD screen on the back of the camera
  • Highest mega pixels you can afford
  • Good sensor cleaning method
  • Widest ISO range (the sensitivity of the sensor to light)
  • Standard user modes program mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual mode, as well as Bulb (aperture stays open as long as the shutter button is depressed)
  • Timed shutter will stay open up to at least 30 seconds
  • Fastest shutter speed of at least 1/2000 of a second
  • Ability to shoot in RAW and JPEG capture or both at the same time
  • Accurate light metering system
  • Fast, wide area auto focus sensors
  • Shoots at least 3 frames per second
  • clear, bright viewfinder
  • Rugged body
Fuzzy, blurred pictures are always a disappointment, unless that is what you are trying to get! These most often are the result of using hand held telephoto lenses at slow shutter speeds, or normal lenses in low light or close up situations. No matter how hard you try to remain motionless, your body is in constant motion from your breathing, heartbeat, the wind, etc. Canon makes optical image stabilizer lenses to reduce camera shake. Nikon calls their lenses vibration reduction or VR lenses.  Other camera makers put shake reduction in the sensor or camera body. Make sure the camera system you are buying has a good method of reducing camera shake or vibration. Read the reviews in photography magazines or on the websites listed below, and find a camera system that meets your needs.
Dennis Davis Photography

The LCD screen on the back of the camera is how you know that you “got it” before you move on to a new photographic situation. If you are outdoors in bright sunlight, a small, dim LCD won’t tell you anything. Get the brightest, largest LCD screen you can find.

Every time you change lenses, there is an opportunity for dust to get on your camera sensor, causing spots to appear on your images. Changing lenses at the beach, outdoors with high winds, or in industrial settings will increase the risk of dirt and dust, and you may have to clean your sensor daily if you change lenses in these environments. Older DSLRs require that you clean the sensor by removing the lens, popping the mirror up, and blowing on the sensor with an air bulb. Every third or fourth time you need to clean the sensor with a special sensor cleaning liquid and flat swabs made for the purpose. Many newer camera bodies have sensors that are self-cleaning. Some camera bodies vibrate the sensor to remove dust. Make sure your camera body has a sensor cleaning method that you are comfortable with, and that will make your pictures clean and spot-free.
Dennis Davis Photography

ISO is the measurement used to determine how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. It is the replacement term for film’s ASA rating. Usually this number ranges from 100 to 1600, with the lower number being less light sensitive. The higher ISO numbers should be used in low light situations, or with fast shutter speeds when shooting something moving at high speed, such as racing cars or humming bird wings. The higher the ISO number used, the more noisy or grainy looking your images will be, and the color will be flatter and less saturated. Some new entry level DSLRs have higher ISO numbers then 1600, such as 3200. Other camera makers brag that images from their cameras have good color and little noise at ISO settings of 400 or 800.

I once had to shoot Hewlett Packard’s annual stockholder’s meeting with no flash, because they felt that flash disturbs their stockholders. Although there were spotlights on the stage, I still was shooting at ISO ratings of 400, 800 and 1,600, depending on the lens I was using. I was shooting with a Canon 5D with a 70-200 f2.8 lens with the optical image stabilizer feature. At times I was shooting wide open at shutter speeds of 1/60 or 1/125 hand held, which would not have been possible without the optical image stabilizer in the lens and higher ISO settings. The images were sent world-wide while the meeting was still in session, and were published globally in newspapers, magazines and online. Thankfully the Canon 5D has very little noise at high ISO settings, and the pictures were not required for 2 page tabloid size magazine spreads!

Buying a Professional DSLR

The average DSLR camera body will only last a professional for 2-3 years, for the same reason that people upgrade computers every 2-3 years. The technology improves, the cameras have higher resolution, and the cost drops.

Although that is true, the technology for lenses does not change nearly as rapidly. Sure, there are developments in auto focus and things like optical image stabilizer features, but good glass is good glass. So make sure your investment in a camera brand is one that you can live with through most of your career. I was a Nikon man for the first 20 years of my film-based photography career, and of course when I bought my first digital camera I wanted to take advantage of my investment in Nikon Lenses. However, all of my camera gear was stolen just after the first Canon 1DS full frame camera came out. Nikon would not offer a full frame camera until several years later. After doing my research, I switched to Canon, as I knew that professionals would not be happy with their wide angle lenses having a 1.5 or 1.6 lens factor.
Dennis Davis Photography

Features to look for in a Professional DSLR

  • Everything listed above under “Features to Look For In an Entry Level DSLR”
  • Wide range of lenses, with a full line of wide angles, macros, telephotos, super-telephotos, zooms and specialty lenses such as tilt lenses
  • The best quality glass in the lenses
  • Durability – you will drop it from time to time on the job
  • If you shoot sports, action or fashion, you will need fast auto focus and a fast drive with a high number of frames per second available – 6 or 7 frames per second
  • You will need to shoot RAW format, make sure that it can, and that you have the software that can read the RAW files. You may need to upgrade your version of PhotoShop
  • Full frame sensors are best for most professional applications
  • The most mega pixels you can afford. Do not consider anything less than 12 mega pixels if you plan to shoot for publications or need prints 16 x 20 or larger
  • A number of on-camera flash options – including TTL options that can use more than one flash
  • Rechargeable battery, long battery life

The Canon and Nikon camera lines were built with professionals in mind, and have cameras that will meet your needs.  No other brands have the depth in lens selection that these two camera vendors do. If you are considering any other brand, look over the features list carefully to make sure you won’t be sorry five years from now.

Camera Reviews

Reviews about specific brands and models of cameras can be found at: