Industry experts agree: new photographers should have a strong understanding of current digital technologies, they should develop a photographer's eye for capturing the moment, and they should still have an understanding of darkroom skills. A willingness to tote equipment and set up lights as part of on-the-job training doesn't hurt either.
Photographer Vito Palmisano has interviewed many fresh-out-of-school aspiring assistants over the years, and warns expectations of a high-paying photography position where a magazine cover is the first assignment are not likely to be met.
Menial studio tasks like carrying cases on assignment, setting up the lights and props are part and parcel of an assistant's daily role, he notes. "With an assistant job, money shouldn't be the primary goal. It should be about getting experience from a photographer whose work you can relate to and can learn something from," Palmisano says.
The talented do get breaks. For instance, not long ago, Palmisano allowed one of his gifted assistants, a recent photography school graduate, to handle a client photo project, including the creative concept. "She brought excitement and an enthusiasm to the table," he says. "If you have a good attitude and a passion for your work, it can take you far. You have to have a hunger to take the photographs."
Getting started as a professional photographer should begin with gaining knowledge of all arts and humanities, suggests Robert Stahl, photography instructor at the Coupeville Arts Center in Coupeville, Wash. "Develop a passion," encourages Stahl. "Go out and take pictures of things you love and don't let anyone discourage you. Then, maybe your love will turn into a job."
Skills with technology -- Photoshop, image cards, digital cameras, lighting systems, camera systems digital and computer photography equipment and programs -- can open doors for recent photo school grads, the experts agree.
Advancements in digital cameras and a corresponding decrease in costs for film and development are making digital technology part of the mainstream marketplace, but career photographers are urged by Coupeville to still start with traditional film. If the cost of both film and digital camera seems prohibitive, consider cameras that take pictures digitally as well as manually. "Begin with film because it offers a sound basis," he urges.
Freelancing and Self-Employment
Photographers tend to be based in media-heavy cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. While staff positions do exist, particularly in the publishing industry, slightly more than half all photographers are self-employed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
And the work of a self-employed photographer typically entails more than setting up, shoot time, processing, editing, and client presentation. The business side of things can take up a great deal of time: creative meetings with clients, advertising, appointment scheduling, equipment purchases, and more.
For freelancers, exciting photo commissions are available (and pay well). Travel is typically part of the job for the top echelon of photographers. Palmisano, for instance, shoots on-location in various states for his clients, with both Chicago and Michigan serving as home bases (and studios). "Getting assignments, getting your foot in the door, it's all about timing, presentation - it has almost has nothing to do with photography, the creative aspect. You are a technician sometimes," Palmisano says. "To get to the really plum jobs where you can use a lot of vision takes time, a lot of time."
As a beginning photographer, Palmisano considered death-defying shots created while hanging from the side of a helicopter over the city of Chicago a way to keep "the juices flowing." But as he has established his career (and his family), assignments are more likely to lean toward magazine, corporate and travel photography.
The fundamentals that you'll learn early in your career -- about what can turn a mediocre still life into something persuasive, the work of setting up the perfect lighting environment, and how to handle clients with ease -- will benefit you in the long-term.