Tyson V. Rininger's Blog

TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!

So, You Want to be a Photographer?

There’s no doubting I have one of the best jobs in the world. I’ve met and worked with people most will only get to know through history books. I’ve traveled the country experiencing more than what most people will in a lifetime. I’ve seen sights and participated in things most people never will. So who wouldn’t want to do what I do?

Here comes the hardcore reality: Everyone is a photographer.

There used to be a time when photographers were easily distinguished and their talents soared above those with a Kodak InstaMatic or a pocket size Disc camera. They spent many years learning the intricacies of their craft and how to get the most out of a roll of film. They knew the reciprocity characteristics of Kodachrome 64 and the saturation qualities of the emerging Ektachrome and Fujichrome transparency film. Tri-X and Plus-X were the only black and white films of choice.

But in those days, photography was still a science and photographers were relied upon to have mastered that science. Camera manufacturers even tried to pump up the popularity and ease of photography with the APS (Advanced Photographic System) series of cameras and film. While the concept of cartridge film seemed appealing, it was the advent and eventual mainstream availability of digital photography that put cameras in the hands of nearly every human being.

When APS was launched, cell phones were just beginning to evolve from their brick-form into something more portable. With digital, there’s a camera in every phone. Anyone can capture an image.

So what about the argument of “quality”? In today’s fast-paced disposable world, quality comes second to cost. The reality of publications today is that, in most cases, quality is not nearly as important as saving a few bucks. If a magazine can avoid paying a professional photographer for a photo when they can get one for free from someone who captured an incident with their cell phone, they will. Next time you browse through a magazine, count how many images are pixelated, slightly fuzzy, overly cropped, etc. We’ve become a disposable society where just capturing an image is good enough; quality is secondary.

For example, even though film was far superior to the emerging digital technology, people were willing to spend small fortunes on the “I gotta have it now!” digital cameras. And where they had once protected and cherished negatives, images were being deleted, and sometimes inadvertently erased, by the push of a button.

Ironically, as historic as digital imaging technology is, it’s also become the demise of recording our history. Next time you’re at a special event, be it a concert, parade, awards presentation, whatever, count the number of people holding a cell phone at arms length as compared to a camera. I bet the phones will outnumber cameras four-to-one. And that begs the question, what are the chances those cell phone images will ever see the light of day?

It’s because of this mentality that being a professional photographer in this day an age will prove to be a non-stop uphill battle. Not only will you compete against your peers for a piece of a diminishing budget, but you will also compete against anyone who has a camera and is willing to hand over their images for free.

Of course it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a way to climb above the masses and become successful with your vocation. The key is to simply have a plan. If you intend on college, don’t major in photography. Instead, plan on getting a four-year degree in business. Most photographers insist on learning everything possible about their trade, but neglect the business aspect. As artists, we tend to be very “right brained” where as analytical individuals are very “left brained”. If you are very strong in the arts, chances are the business side of things may need a bit of work. And the best part is, if photography doesn’t work out, having a business degree to fall back on might actually make you more money in the long run.

Suppose you don’t have a plan, what then will you do? Artists are a determined bunch and can be quite passionate in their beliefs. I for one believe that a levelheaded amount of passion can get you closer to your goals. I’d like to think I’m an example of this, but as I’m learning, it will only get you so far. And from that, no matter how much passion I have, I’m still going to need a plan. Without that plan, an artist is destined to plateau until the next step can be enacted.

A final means to becoming a successful photographer is to work from the ground up. This may mean working at a camera store to better learn your craft or assisting for an already established photographer sweeping floors or archiving digital files. If you’re really passionate about being successful, you can do both…and work on your business degree.

Unfortunately, working your way toward becoming a professional photographer means choosing vocations that will result in fairly low pay, but if photography is something you really want to do, low pay is something you’re just going to have to get used to.

Depending on your subject of choice, photography may involve more than just taking photos. Fine Art and Still Life photographers have the option of setting their own pace and attitude. They have the pleasure of solitude and the ability to make their own decisions with very little input from others. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the commercial and high-profile portrait photographers, like those who deal with celebrities or Fortune 500 CEO’s need to balance hundreds of tasks at the same time. They need to be actors themselves in that no matter how bad their day, they still need to make their subject look good. So, besides being up on technology, techniques and business skills, many aspects of photography require good people skills, expert task management and the ability to deal with the inevitable stress that almost every photoshoot brings.

The point of this entire piece is that although photography is an incredible career choice, it must be one of desire, not necessity. Very few photographers will ever experience wealth of the monetary kind, but if they are able to live within their means, they will experience a wealth far greater than any millionaire.

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11 responses to “So, You Want to be a Photographer?

  1. Joe Fernandez October 23, 2010 at 2:52 PM

    Photography died with the death of Kodachrome (and film in general). Today, there are way too many aviation photographers and air to air photographers because all you need is someone to cooperate with you, a little money, give you a plane that goes the same speed as you, and have some aerobatic planes fly next to you which is not a difficult shot as most think yet looks dramatic. Years ago, under Kodachrome, many people would fail. Only back then a few did the job properly…Bob Shane and George Hall for example. Today, there are so many air to air shots that I cannot get a contract anymore. We did air to air in the past with Kodachrome and had little competition ….. even Bob dit them from L-39s! Digital manipulation has killed the skill. Digital is dummy proof. It is a professional photographer in a cracker jack box. Suddenly, everyone has discovered this. The skill of the film generation has gone away. I have remote lighting……I have all lenses…….Ive done a2a and night…..I have available lifts……we all have over 300000 aggregate slides in collections…..I look at things you need to check on….glare, towbars, background, covers, angles, ground distractions, time of day, etc. Yet, I don’t get chances anymore because 25 others come knocking on the door. It’s like airshows, if you do not do an exclusive shoot where no one else is, you get the same thing everyone else gets. Of course, there is one positive factor….most newbies will mess up on something because they do not know proper skill or watch for things that distract …… and most still shoot props at 1/2000 speed which is a very critical error since they do not know. Slide shooters had to shoot them slow due to vignetting.

    Yes, there are still people with skill -like you who shoots like it should be done- who knows proper settings, but even with your great shots, others, especially with money or own planes, will catch on and we will just be a pin in a haystack. Clay Lacy must now have a line a mile long of wannabes trying to take over the late George Hall’s job! But Clay is no dummy!

    • Jurgen Radier October 24, 2010 at 8:57 AM

      Joe, while I see your point, I don’t agree with you. I think that digital revived photography! What it did do is change the game completely, especially for the ones that have to make their living from it.

      Am I a extremely skilled photographer? I’m certainly not. Am I a professional photographer or do I have the intention to be one? I am not. For me photography is a hobby, and I have no intention of going pro.

      For me the digital age (and especially the Canon 300D) made me enjoy photography more, and made me a better photographer. I started off with film, but the costs really limited my options to improve my photography and to improve myself. Getting my 300D made that possible for virtually 0 costs, as things that didn’t work out didn’t cost any film. Over the years I can say I shoot pretty good photos, and yes, I have shot A2A. The shots I made gave those people pretty good photo’s of them and their aircraft, but they never would have had those if digital didn’t come around. Those are the people that could or would not hire a professional photographer. In that light, digital made a valuable addition to photography.

      I will not deny that digital didn’t make it harder for professional photographers. As with any business, you have to add value to the customer. It is true that cost has become a major issue for the general customer, but this is not limited to photography. I work in aviation, and if my company doesn’t have the cheapest tickets we are loosing a lot of potential customers. This means that we have to innovate to either get our costs down, or show people that we are worth the extra money. In other words, we have to work on the added value of our product. I see it the same way with photography, if you don’t innovate you are going to get left behind. The shots and business sense (as Tyson put it) from an x number of years ago isn’t good enough anymore. The requirements to the work have changed (both in quality and price), and a professional photographer will have to change it’s proposition in order to remain competitive.

  2. Mike McKinney October 23, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    Excellent post and I echo your words emphatically. I worked as an assistant over twenty years ago now while in college. My boss and mentor was an amazing photographer, with an MFA and exhibits in the Ringling Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. He was an “okay” businessman however, but at least he recognized his weakness. I learned a ton from his successes and failures in the business side of photography.

    Luckily, I had already dedicated my life to becoming an Air Force pilot instead of a photographer. Through my career I dabbled with my craft, in a purely “semi-professional” sense, even had a business or two through the years but never intended to try and compete with true professionals, those who make a living at it. In my opinion it wasn’t fair nor ethical to do so as I respected immensely those who had to put food on the table through photography.

    As the digital age came around I made the switch grudgingly also. I had become so comfortable with my Velvia that I just didn’t want to go through a new learning curve. But, as the technology caught up, I embraced it and now shoot love shooting digital. But, what I don’t like is sitting behind a computer for hours manipulating images. That, to me, is NOT photography.

    So, there is my point. Too many people today claim to be photographers yet are actually “digital manipulators”. They know very little about the craft of photography but can discuss the virtues of Photoshop layers till they’re blue in the face. Usually these are also the same people who place ads in local papers and websites with comments like, “Why pay for high price photographers? I’ll save you money and give you a CD of your images”. I say again, these are neither photographers or professionals, they are screwing those who truly are professionals.

    A loose definition of “profession” states that it requires some kind of test, or internship, or proof of level of competence before being labeled a “professional” Doctors, lawyers, etc. all are “professions”. Unfortunately, anyone can hang out a shingle stating, “professional photographer” and go to work. While it’s always been that way, in the past those without the skills or competence failed because they simply could not compete with those who did and thereby failed to get clients. Today however, shoot everything in RAW and for the most part you can fix it in the computer and call yourself a photographer.

    That’s my rant. I still seek out and admire those who are true professionals and masters of the craft of photography. Joe McNally, Moose Peterson, Karen Kuehn, David Allio, Dave Black, and yes……Tyson Rininger, all outstanding Professional Photographers who I admire immensely.

  3. Bernie Conaway October 23, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    Although I can’t say that I am anywhere near an even “semi-professional” photographer I totally agree with Mike and Joe. I’ve learned to shoot on my own through trial and error mostly for my own enjoyment. I shoot film with a Nikon and love to challenge myself with different situations and subjects. I just don’t think that manipulating an image on the computer is “right.” I had to laugh at the Dayton air show this year – I was taking maybe one or two shots of each pass. At the fence near where I was standing there were folks who I’m sure consider themselves at least semi-pros. Everytime an aircraft came by you could hear five or six cameras just clicking away shooting frames a second. I had to laugh – how could you not get a decent shot when you’re taking so many! I’m clinging to my film Nikon but know that at some point I’ll have to make the switch. Just not the same in my opinion. Tyson – thanks for the post and the advice – you “do it right!”

  4. Attila Papp October 25, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    Probably the best piece I’ve ever seen written on the perils of photography, excellent read Tyson.

    When it comes to photography, I have a camera, I take ok pictures (in my opinion), I have a website to share the photos that I take along with a blog to chronicle my adventures, but I don’t sell the photos. I can’t afford what would be classed as “pro” gear (I currently use a Canon 300D and a 75-300mm w/ 18-55mm kit lens) but one day hope to have enough money saved for a full frame body and a faster lens.

    I’ve shyed away from taking aerial photos only because I’ve seen them all about 100 times before, so I’m sticking with static shots from different angles and under interesting lighting. It’s working nicely, and when interspersed with some flying shots of interesting, never before seen shots (C-17 landing at Alert), I can get a decent mix of shots together.

    In my own opinion, I don’t think that one can only focus on one specific topic – and those who can deserve all the accolades they get, Tyson included. For me, a love of nature compliments my aviation, and it keeps me busy year round.

    I love the way your wrote this Tyson, and believe that people and more importantly businesses need to recognize that there is a separate class of photographer out there – the true pro, worthy of their time and their money to set their product apart.

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  8. Matt December 7, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    Interesting post, but especially with the comments, why all the bitterness? Photography is a technical art and requires skill to take spectacular pictures, even with digital. I understand as a buisiness, it can be frustrating when the world and status quo changes, but that is the nature of everything. Adapt or go out of buisiness, wether you are corner store or multinational conglomerate the rules are similar. Use the skills and contacts that an amatear doesnt have access to to rebrand your buisiness. The Pred C shots were amazing, they wouldnt have let any old photographer take those shots. So saying the profession is dead or mortally wounded seems flawed. I assume everyone started taking pictues because they enjoyed it, so why be snide about amateurs who do it for fun?
    I am not a pro photographer so you can say I dont know what I’m talking about if that makes you feel better. But i design and build airplanes for a living and the engineering world is constantly adapting, changing, and morphing to allow for advances in technologies or paradigm shifts. Learn and adapt, and you excel. Otherwise……

    • tvrphoto December 8, 2010 at 9:24 PM

      Matt,

      I appreciate any and all feedback. If you found bitterness in the article, perhaps you were reading a bit much into it. I write based on facts, not the fantastical land people think the world of photography may be. I’m sorry if you find the truth to be a tad bit harsh, but the article is intended for those looking to venture into the business of photography. Far too many people feel that giving images away for free is the only way to build a business when in fact they are not only hurting themselves, but other photographers in the industry. The point of the article was to illustrate both sides of the coin…the professional’s challenges as well as the amateur’s.

      By no means is photography dead, just more challenging than in times past. I also understand your desire to use adaptation in engineering as an analogy, but unlike going to Target and buying an SLR, you can’t go to the local Walmart and get an engineering degree. With that being said, I understand the need to be versatile, but photography and engineering are far too different to compare.

      Learn and adapt, and you excel…I couldn’t agree more. But those interested in pursuing a career in photography need to understand it’s not the la la land most people think it is. If those interested in photography learn something from this piece, great. If they instead think the piece is bitter, welcome to the cut-throat world of photography.

      • Matt December 15, 2010 at 12:11 PM

        Tyson,
        Thanks for the response. For bitterness it was mostly Joe’s reply that struck me in that regard. Have no thoughts that I am delusional about the world of photography, I know many professional photographers and most of them are either shooting weddings / senior portraits for a living or trying to do fine art but needing to run workshops on the side to make ends meet. I know stock photography has also been hit hard because of the micro stock sites. The majority of my family is “starving artists” doing what they love for minimal pay so I have a pretty good view into the art world. I will definitely keep my day job and stay an amateur.

        The only image I have given away was to GE to use in one of their magazines. And that was because I worked for a supplier at the time and accepting money from them would have been a conflict of interest. The rest of my work is in various galleries or exhibits, definitely for sale.

        I just see bitterness (in Joe’s post) and it bothers me because it just makes professionals seem like elitists, who think amateurs shouldn’t be able to produce good photographs. But I know photography is a passion for most, people do it because they love it and they shouldn’t be scoffed at for trying to enjoy their hobby.
        Thanks,
        Matt

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