Advice for Student Photographers

I often receive emails from student photographers seeking advice about pursuing a career in photography.  I decided to compile the answers to the most frequently asked questions in a blog post.

Advice for Student Photographers - Find your voice as a photographer

FIND YOUR VOICE

The most important advice I have for student photographers is to find your own unique point of view. This is the key to differentiating yourself from the thousands of other people trying to make a career in photography.  Your voice is what you’re looking to convey with your work.  It’s not something you sit and try to define in words. It’s primarily driven by the work you create.

The best way to find your voice as a photographer is to get out and shoot as much as possible.   Think, “What am I interested in photographing?”  It doesn’t need to be limited to a narrow category (sports, music, fashion, news, etc.).  Try anything and everything that sounds compelling.  As you shoot more, devote more time to the subjects you find most interesting.  Here’s a good example of something I went out to shoot just because I found it interesting.

SHOOT YOUR INTERESTS

Don’t fall into the trap of chasing images you think other people might like or find impactful.  Shooting what you find interesting will make more compelling images than shooting on trend or trying to convey what you perceive to be an important statement.

As a student photographer, you have access to a wealth of subjects to photograph.  At any university there are many different departments and areas of study and any one of them would be thrilled to have someone taking their photo and highlighting the work they’re doing.  Plus, being a student photographer or working for a student publication can get you access to all types of different events or people outside of school that you might want to photograph.

Studying other topics you’re interested in will greatly inform your photography.  Learning about anything from sociology to dance can affect the direction you take with your work.  Like I said, follow what interests you and that will help you find your voice, which is key to being a great photographer.

BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY

School is also a great place for creating relationships.  Good professors can be life-long mentors.  Friendships will lead to all sorts of personal and professional opportunities you couldn’t even guess at this point.  A network of alumni will be thrilled to meet with you, advise you, and hire you from here on out.

START A DATABASE

I recommend starting to collect your contacts & grow a database now.  Use Apple or Google contacts and compile a list of everyone you know:  friends, family, acquaintances.  Get all of their email addresses and phone numbers in there at a minimum.

Go to events through your school and in the community that sound interesting to you.  When you meet someone, get their business card and put them in your database.  Ask people if you can add them to your email list.   Send out a monthly or bi-weekly email with 1 or 2 images and say something like, “To see my latest work, be sure to follow me on Instagram/Twitter/Blog (include links).”  Don’t ask people for work in these emails.  They should just be casual: “Hey, I wanted to share this with you.” You can use a service like MailChimp for free.

Advice for Student Photographers - Learn from others.

LEARN HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS

If  you want your passion for photography to be more than just a hobby, you’ll want to study business and marketing.  This will not only help you run your own company, it’ll help you know how to best serve your clients.  Even if you’re considering doing photography as art, and not commercially as I do, you still need at least basic business skills to know how to make a living at it.

I’ve been a full-time photographer for more than a decade and I can tell you that actually shooting and editing photos comprises less than half of my time.  A lot of my time is spent marketing and doing the actual work of running a business.  Here’s a partial list of my other regular tasks…

building & maintaining a database of contacts
networking opportunities (i.e. community events)
calling current & prospective clients
writing current & prospective clients
meeting with current & prospective clients
bidding/estimating for new jobs
writing contracts & licensing agreements
registering copyrights
budgeting/tracking expenses
creating email & print pieces to market my business
blogging
posting to social media
managing & maintaining equipment
reading & studying (continuing education classes, publications, blogs, etc.)
managing digital files (organizing, exporting, uploading, archiving)
hiring & managing contractors (assistants, stylists, etc.)

I could list more, but I think you get the idea.  I mention all of these things because I think it’s good to know what you’re getting into.  As your business grows, you can hire people to handle a lot of the tasks you might not care to do, but you’ll always oversee everything, and in the beginning it’s a one-man show.  That’s why I always tell students to take business classes.  I’ve seen many talented photographers struggle and fail because they can’t run a business and many average photographers succeed because they can run a business.  This is why taking business classes is important advice for student photographers.

AVOID DEBT!

It’s very tempting as a broke student photographer to borrow money in order to buy a nice camera and lenses and tell yourself that you need them. Debt severely limits your options in the future.  Buy what you can afford right now.  If you have $500, buy some used gear.  Then after you’ve had time to save up more, sell your old gear and put that money together with your savings to upgrade.

When you’re a young photographer and your shooting style is developing, the type of gear you want can change pretty quickly, so don’t put much money into it.  Borrow gear available at your school.  You can also rent specialty gear when you need it from places like BorrowLenses.

If you use the affiliate link below, it helps me keep doing what I do and connects you with a great service I use all the time…

Check out BorrowLenses!
Advice for Student Photographers - Get started now

START TODAY

So what can you do as a student photographer to get started now?

Shoot, shoot, shoot.  Then edit and see what you like and what you don’t like.  It can be good to get feedback from a trained eye, but don’t put much stock in likes and retweets.  Most photographers who receive thousands of likes on their Instagram photos are NOT making a living as a photographer.  I also know some professionals who generate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and only have a few followers or aren’t on social media at all.

The style that plays well on Instagram often doesn’t translate to images that work on most other media.  I find that my most complex and layered images don’t play as well on social media as my simple and “pretty” images.­  But those complex photos work much better for print and full-page website images.  They’re also the preferred images of my clients.

When people start seeing your work and following you, they’ll start asking you to shoot things for them.  It will take a few years before you’re able to do it full time, but the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there.

GET INVOLVED

Getting involved in your local community of photographers.  Professional organizations like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) have gatherings where student photographers can meet pros with a lot of experience, hear them speak and ask them questions.  

When you get to know veteran photographers, you can ask them about assisting or shadowing them on a shoot, which is an excellent way to gain knowledge. 

Many cities also have vibrant Instagram communities, where photographers meet up to shoot different events together, or have some friendly competition photographing a theme.  In my area, two good examples would be Igers Indy and Igers Bloomington.

To sum it up, my advice for student photographers who would like to pursue a career in photography is to shoot all the time, share your images and build your network.  If you develop an audience online throughout your time in college, that will be a HUGE help by the time your graduate.

I hope this advice for student photographers helps a bit!  If you have any questions or feedback to give, please leave a comment below so everyone can benefit from the dialog.

Advice for Student Photographers - GO SHOOT!

Visit Bloomington

I love Bloomington!  As a student at Indiana University, Bloomington became the first home that I chose myself.  And even (nearly) 15 years since I last lived there, it’s still one of my favorite towns anywhere.

I was thrilled in 2016 to collaborate with Visit Bloomington on a cover story about the renovations at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for their visitors guide.  Last fall we took on a broader look at Bloomington in two parts. For Part One, I scoured the streets of Bloomington checking out everything from restaurants and bars to trails and public art.

Part Two is top secret and will be released in early May.  Follow Visit Bloomington on Twitter (@VisitBtown) and Instagram (@visitbtown) to see the news first hand.

Personal Legend Project: Malkah Bird, Indianapolis Cooperative Kindergarten Teacher

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

PERSONAL LEGEND PROJECT

Malkah Bird, Cooperative kindergarten teacher

Entering this project, I knew that Malkah would have to be a part of it.  Malkah Bird teaches in a Cooperative Kindergarten in Indianapolis. Her progressive approach to education earns her much respect and adoration around the city.  She subscribes to an emergent curriculum philosophy and it produces some pretty amazing results. It seems like everyone I meet who is involved in elementary education in Indy knows her.

One especially exciting aspect of Malkah’s cooperative kindergarten class is the outdoor classroom. Once a week, Malkah and her students head into the woods for forest kindergarten; a half day spent outdoors rain, snow, or shine.  Even in the winter, kids are excited to go outside, bundling up and having hot chocolate or warm bread they just baked to help stave off the cold.

The day I followed Malkah, I did my best to keep up with the kids as they scampered through the woods in search of clues on a scavenger hunt.  It was fun and more challenging than I expected!  Click here to learn more about Meridian Hills Coop. (Full disclosure: our kids attend MH. It’s an AMAZING SCHOOL.)

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

The following set of six questions will be answered by each of the subjects.

1)  Some people call it a “true calling” or their “life’s work.”  In the book The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho calls it your Personal Legend. What do you consider to be your true calling, or Personal Legend?

I have been a teacher for almost 13 years. I love so many things about teaching, but have recently realized that the aspect that brings me the most joy is having the opportunity to make connections and build relationships with young children and their families. I am incredibly fortunate to get to teach at a school that values child-directed play, wonder, curiosity, creativity, and the natural world above all else. I get to spend my days alongside children as they discover what inspires them, where their passions lie and all of the ways that they want to be in the world and interact with their friends and communities.

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

2)  When did you first realize that this was your calling?

I have always loved spending time with and playing alongside young children. This year, though, for the first time, we are using the outdoors and the forest as an extension of our classroom and as a centerpiece of our curriculum. Our Forest Kindergarten time has been transformative for me as a teacher and a learner. Personally, I have always loved being outside in nature, but it has been so eye opening to realize that this can be a powerful aspect of a school and a dynamic and inspiring facet of my teaching.  

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

3)  People often become completely engrossed, losing track of time or outside concerns while performing tasks related to their calling.  This might be referred to as being “in the zone” or “flow.”  When do you experience this most often?

The school days fly by for me. When the kids are deep into their play, we lose all track of time. Everyday we have at least one uninterrupted hour of free play, often more. Some days this happens indoors and many days it happens in the forest.  During this free play time, the kids are deeply engaged and the ‘magic’ that is the childhood imagination takes over.  I could observe this for endless stretches of time.  I love watching as problems are created, discussed, solved, unsolved, and resolved right up until the next problem arises and the cycle begins again.

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

4)  What is the greatest challenge or obstacle you’ve faced in pursuit of your life’s work?

Although I have no doubt that this approach to school and learning is right, these days, it is not necessarily the mainstream belief about early childhood education. It is not always easy to turn away from what is popular to do what feels right. Even when it feels really, really right.  

I do think that the winds are shifting and parents, educators and researchers are starting to embrace play as a critical aspect of any early childhood program, but we still have a long road ahead as we learn to trust our kids as our guides to how and what they need to be learning during these earliest years.

As much as I love what I am doing and see profound benefits for my students, I am always aware of the many, many kids who, for a variety of reasons, do not get to have these rich, nature-filled childhood experiences. I would love to find ways to take what we are doing and bring it to a much, much larger population.

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

5)  What has pursuing your Personal Legend taught you?

I have taught in so many different schools and settings to a wide variety of kids. At every step of the way, I have been able to find joy by connecting with my kids, their families and the school communities. There is no end game here. For me teaching is a journey, an introspective process of observing, growing and learning alongside my students. The real prize for me is in being a present and active participant in that process.

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

6)  What piece of advice can you offer to others seeking their true calling?

A personal legend doesn’t have to be a grand sweeping thing. There is so much joy and meaning in small moments and connections.

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

Malkah Bird, Forest kindergarten, Indianapolis cooperative kindergarten

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(This post was originally published in April 2016 & was updated in May 2018.) 


Are you following your Personal Legend? Please share your journey in the comments below!

For background on this project, check out our first post in the series.