Aim. Shoot. A newly married couple happily shoves wedding cake into each other's mouths.
Point. Click. A soldier crouches in the ruins of a wall, watching a tank inch up the street.
Wind. Press. A well-dressed baby sitting with a teddy bear in front of a backdrop grins widely.
Scroll. Select. A misty cityscape takes on a bizarre soap-bubble iridescence.
Modern photography is as diverse as the selection of pictures in a large album, and though it seems terribly easy in these days of disposable cameras and emailed image attachments, trying to pursue it as a serious hobby or career is more complex than meets the eye...if you'll pardon the pun. The pictures you take with your cell phone might look really good on a two-inch screen, but you can't use a cell phone to take fine-art photos that look good when they're blown up to the size of a poster or an entire wall. And if you're in rural Bolivia on vacation, or on assignment for a news agency, and you want to get your pictures done as soon as possible, you can't take your film to a one-hour developing service. Maybe you can use software to fix "red eye" in your pictures, but unless you can use it to erase that annoying strand of hair that fell on your subject's cheek, or import a company logo so that it looks like she's wearing it on her shirt or earrings, or make it appear as though she's standing on the surface of Mars, you're probably not ready for that advertising job. Getting an education in photography is your gateway to the knowledge, skills, and experience you need to make photography a career.
While you're still in high school or pursuing your GED, there are many things you can do to prepare for an education in photography. You should certainly be taking pictures and experimenting with different cameras and photo software if possible -- and being involved with a school or community photography club couldn't hurt either.
Eugene Mopsik, Executive Director of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), starts to weigh in on this subject with: "There are two facets to photography: The creative side and the business side." Before you choose a photography school, he says, you need to learn what you can about the day-to-day procedures and cost of doing business, including budgeting and insurance. "You can be a great photographer, but if you have poor business acumen, you might be in business for a while, but you'll be losing money." Mopsik suggests that working as a photographer's assistant "is a great way to break into the business, so seek out professional photographers in your area." He goes on to point out that many local and regional professional photography organizations have monthly meetings where you can meet such people and network with them (he pauses here to pitch student memberships in ASMP as "reasonable" and recommend ASMP's Professional Business Practices in Photography as the "industry bible").
Another thing you should do before choosing a school, according to Jean Ferro, Photo Artist and President of Women in Photography International (WIPI), is to "assess what type of photography you're interested in," and decide, at least tentatively, what type of photographic career you want to get into. As mentioned in the introduction, photography is a diverse field; more diverse than many others. (In fact, an anonymous staffer of another professional photography association that shall remain nameless told me, "You say you're doing an introductory article about photography that aims to present options for all students across the entire industry? We thought about doing that once. It can't be done. There's too much ground to cover." Maybe so, but I'll give it my best shot.) Ferro suggests that going to short-term seminars and workshops about different photographic fields and techniques is one way to discover what types of photography you enjoy, and if there are any evening photography programs available in your area, "night school can help students decide what they want to do."
Here is a small sampling of the photographic occupations you can aim for (there are many others):
In Jean Ferro's opinion, "photography tends to be much easier at one level" -- advertising and editorial photography, for example -- "than it is at the high end" -- say, fine-art photography. She says that editorial photography doesn't require the same breadth of skills or swath of equipment that fine-art photography does; you can do well in editorial photography "if you have the eye" and can capture the "decisive moment" (a phrase coined by legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson). So you'll probably want to make very different educational choices depending on the career avenue you're aiming for. Ferro characterizes some schools, such as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, as being geared toward the fine-arts end of the spectrum, while others, such as the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA, are slanted toward the practice of photography as a business. It's clear which side of the fence Eugene Mopsik comes down on: "To the extent that the school concentrates on craft rather than business, you'll have a steep learning curve after you graduate."
Fortunately, photography is a field of study with many schools from which to choose:
How can one best afford school? Ferro cautions that many photography schools are expensive and some require that you own or purchase expensive photo equipment. Fortunately scholarships are available, from schools, photography associations, and other organizations.
You might also be able to earn money, and gain valuable experience, by interning with an established photographer, studio, company, or organization. Mopsik points out that many local ASMP chapters work closely with colleges in their area and have established co-ops, apprenticeships, and other internship opportunities for students. He suggests investigating the local chapters of any professional associations you are interested in to find work with established pros.
This brings up the fact that, both while you're still in photography school and after you're finished with classes, membership in professional associations can help you to continue learning your trade, gain valuable contacts, get jobs and assignments, and sell your images. In addition to ASMP and WIPI, you might want to look into:
Besides the core photography courses and the skills of your chosen specialty, you should try to learn several other important subjects during your photography education. Ferro recommends that the history of photography "should be number one to start," but also says that "the digital part of school is very important." She enthuses, "Digital is huge! Huge! All I can say is, 'huge'!" She contrasts the current situation with previous eras of photography: "Before, you'd learn the properties of all of the different types of film and how to work with them in the darkroom. Now, it's all Photoshop," referring to the popular and ubiquitous photo-manipulation software package by Adobe. "Before digital, photography was a male-dominated field; now women have much more opportunity." She does have two words of warning, however. The first is that, "Even when people understand digital photos, they don't always understand file systems and file transfer," so you should try to master those processes by which images are stored on computers and transmitted between them. "EPSON provides seminars," she adds helpfully. The second cautionary note is that digital technology allows photography to be "not just about what you actually saw, but what you want other people to see," and that this creates temptations to abuse your role. She cites the recent case of a photographer who was fired for combining two separate pictures from the conflict in Iraq into a single, supposedly more powerful image and passing it off as an untouched original; everyone in the field needs to study and practice "ethics in the application of photography."
Mopsik agrees that it's vital to learn digital photography and processing: "The editorial and commercial worlds are all digital." He says that now that digital technology is allowing photographers to "fulfill all the work previously done by service bureaus and prepress outfits, you need to know color management" and other facets of photo-processing and -printing. But he also insists that "You need to learn human skills, personal skills." He proposes the hypothetical experiment of charting the relative percentage that various activities would contribute to the total professional activity of the average photographer over the course of a 10-year period, and says, "If 20% is taking photographs, I'd be surprised." He continues, "Most is preparation and prospecting clients, especially in today's marketplace. There are so many photographers today that you need to find a way to distinguish yourself." You can do that, he says, with client contacts, and by providing more personalized service and human consideration than other people. "For the most part, everyone you talk to will have somebody already doing for them what you want to do. You have to convince them that there's a benefit to them for using you instead."
When it's time to leave school behind for the "real world," Jean Ferro encourages every photography student about their prospects for breaking into the field: "I believe that every door has a knob. That knob can be turned, and the door can be opened." Nevertheless, it can be tough to get work or make sales, regardless of your specialty. Mopsik warns that it "takes multiple contacts to get assignments," so don't be discouraged if you aren't picked up as a result of your first call. He adds that the "Internet is an invaluable resource for finding clients," and that you should always try to leverage any work you do get into additional opportunities. He talks about a phase in his career when he "did work for some heavy-equipment manufacturers"; he didn't try to sell images to their competitors at the same time, but he did get in touch with non-competing firms in similar fields: "While I was doing pictures of my client's forklifts, I was looking at the man-lifts on the site to see who manufactured them; while I was shooting my client's trucks, I looked at cranes and booms; and so on." He was able to parlay this information into contacts, and these contacts into agreements to buy images that he was able to take at the same sites where he was already shooting.
When asked what types of work probably will and won't be available for photography students in a few years' time, Mopsik cautions that the field of photo-illustration, in which photographers create new images specifically for books, magazine articles, and other presentations, is "dead," having been killed off by the widespread availability of royalty-free and stock photos. Instead he suggests looking for opportunities with the "kinds of products and services [that] have an ongoing need for images; for example, new car models come out every year" -- although he notes that "nobody goes out onsite with cars, you just shoot locations and [digitally] add the cars later."
As for other options, "Editorial work is very difficult to get into, and -- with few exceptions -- while it might be philosophically rewarding, it isn't financially: The New York Times now pays only $200 for an image, and Knight Ridder (purchased by The McClatchy Company in 2006) wants joint licensing rights on every image they buy. There's more money in advertising and corporate work." He continues sadly that "shooting stock is tough" as well, because the stock companies aren't exactly generous either. He's leading an effort at ASMP and elsewhere in the industry to help photographers use the Internet to license their images independently of the stock companies and other corporations; this will require a robust Net-wide image database, but he says optimistically that he's "looking toward the day when photographers have [full] control of their own images."
There's that word again: "image." It isn't everything, as some have said. But it's the stock in trade of the pro photographer, whether you're capturing the perfect shot of a fashion model, a school-board meeting, an exchange of vows, or a blackberry pie. Nevertheless, while the image is central to your business, you mustn't allow it to become more important than the living things, objects, or ideas you're portraying. In each picture, no matter how mundane, you should strive to capture a little of the essence of your subject, so that it reaches out from the frame and touches the viewer. Being able to do that consistently is what separates the good photographers from the great ones. A photography school can't teach that to you if you don't already have some grasp of it, but it can hone your instincts and help you to tease out that essence, even in different media and under difficult conditions. Learn, and someday you'll attract a powerful image and reputation of your own.