so you want to be a photographer...

13 min read

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cweeks's avatar
i know that a lot of people asked me to tell them more about the business.  how i got into it.  my background.  etc.

well ... i explained how my background.  i think next -- probably a good topic for the last journal entry of 2004 -- i'll talk about what it takes to break in.  nay, i think i'll write about what it takes to break in having first decided that one "has what it takes."

first off, this is a tough-ass business.  there are a ton of great shooters.  there is always someone better than you.  and richer.  and more pious.  better endowed.  whatever.

by talking about what it takes to break in i'm going to assume that one knows EVERYTHING there is to know about the correlation of iso, f/stop and shutter speed for WHATEVER situation is thrown in front of them.  no matter what.  

having said that ... i also believe that unless you "really" have "it" ... meaning ... a photographic eye ... you're fucked.

okay ... you're not fucked but you better be a GREAT bullshit artist and/or blow your way to commissions (applying to both males and females).  i know a a select number of people.  i'm not going to call them shooters because they're fucking hacks.    almost no talent.  but ... there are those that "love who they are" and give them assignments, commissions, access, whatever.  my "core group of shooter friends" and i have our little list of who we make fun of.  mean.  yes.  but, honestly, i don't really care.  the guy that posted photos on his personal website of a three/quarter length of a lion. it's horrible. another that describes his work "... his work has been compared to DaVinci."   da-fucking-vinci ... one may go to hell for that.  others that truthfully put the friggin' camera on a "auto" or "program" and forget about it.  they get published.  big time.  you'd be surprised.  

haveing "been around" ... i'm not going to name names ... but the stories i've heard about "the biggies" make me laugh.  an "as big as it gets photographer" hears from the client "it's shit, the talent hates it."  had to do it again.  no matter who you are ... a reshoot sucks.  because i'm primarily a photojournalist ... an entertainment-oriented photojournalist ... i don't get that luxury.  how about another ... as big as it fucking gets ... he's an icon kinda guy (i deleted the hyphens ... too much work) ... refusing to hand over his film unless he had a check in his trailer.  for $640,000.  then the mo-fo turns over 3 rolls of exposed tri-x and says, "you'll love them."  this was after holding up the entire shoot -- which included an entire hotel and closure of a street -- because he wanted to see his favourite dentist.

a lot of different people make it.  i very much like the level i've gotten to.  i'm not an icon and not even sure i deign to be that.  i'm happy that i know i do my best and know that a pretty good number of weeklies, monthlies, foundations, wire services, syndication agents and others like my work enough to either hire me or license my stuff.  i find it very important to shoot for one's self.  if you don't, you're loosing out.  although some months i am absolutely crazed, i totally appreciate going out with one body and a roll of film.

no matter if you know lighting situations better than you know your family (sarcasm intended) you better have some people skills.  this -- above and beyond being able to make a photo --
is tantamount.  if you're not a people person, you're not going to get hired right out of the gate.  if you're timid, work on it.

you will hear NO many fucking times.  trust me.  

the "quiet people" i know who've quote-unquote "made it" shoot architectural, table top, some automotive, landscape, etc., etc.  those are totally cool genres ... but more for the engineering-type (especially table top).

i don't know any "quiet-shy types" that do "people work."

trust me ... getting caught taking a sneaky photo ... you better be able to talk.

i'm going to assume that the person reading this and with a desire to "break in" can make a photo in the way i would think a certain photo should have been made.  i'll also assume that this person LOVES what they do almost above and beyond anything else.  i'll possibly assume that this person has above-average self-esteem and will understand that some people will not like them or their work no matter what.  it's a numbers game.  what else ... i'll also assume that one would not be willing to blow-their-way-to-the-top and possibly survive on a rather genial personality and talent.

if you're the person who thinks their shit is good and is willing to bullshit or blow your way up ... hmm ... i'm not going to encourage you.  there are plenty of those types to deal with now.

honestly, find what you love to shoot the most.  specialize.  work very hard on a personal book of just that kind of work.  most assignment editors or art directors don't want to see the gamut.  maybe later but not just starting out.

if you can find photographers that do the kind of work that you love and assist.  yeah, there are plenty of people that go to long beach for photojournalism or art center and they immediately get huge assignments.  but i know more people ... who may have been in pdn's 30-under-30 and still can't get work.  also, i've met more 10-year assistants with a degree from brooks than i care to talk about.

i didn't go to brooks.  i didn't go to art center.

personally, i don't feel "that kind of education" guarantees anything in this business.

i assisted.  i find i give more respect to others that have assisted in their past as well.  in fact, i'll still assist for anyone i assisted for in the past and for other shooters i'm friends with.

don't go after the clients of who you've assisted for.

don't show them your book.

i shot a lot of personal work -- wholly unrelated to the genre i assisted with.    waking up at the break of dawn to set up an "early magic light shot" only to spend the rest of the day scouting for the "late magic light shot" is not my idea of fun.  i did, however, learn how to light about anything.

since i'd shot the equestrian community in my teens and rode a lot, i knew horses and the people around them very well.  i found out what the market was for those types of photos.  i found out who published what.  within a year i had dozens of tear sheets including two-page spreads and covers which lead to some of the advertisers either buying my existing work or commissioning me for other work.

it honestly depends on what genre you want to shoot but i'm sure that some of the examples i'll give should translate to just about anything.

i don't get to see even a quarter of what i'm published in now.  but ... no matter what ... seeing your work and credit published is cool.  

having both a personal book and a selected number of tears i approached bigger and better magazines.  yes, some totally gave me assignments.  others did not.

i firmly believe that you have to show tightly edited specific material ... tailored to whoever is looking at your stuff.

don't go into a newspaper editors office with landscape.  don't go into a general interest weekly editor with tabletop.

work for free.  yes.  definately.  when you're starting out ask a magazine for their editorial calendar.  find out what's coming up and do some self-assigned stuff to show them.  they'll be interested in seeing stuff concentric to what they have an interest in.  

don't call and whine to these people.  they'll hate you.  don't call all the time.  don't email.

just be cordial and cool.  

everybody likes a fedex, though.

i do.

For me it was going from an international polo (horses) magazine to another to another and then to magazines like the Robb Report and lifestyle-type magazines on both an international and regional level.

i knew this world and applied my eye to this world.  

because one of the magazines issued me a press identification card i pushed it as far as it would go.

i got a taste of spot news during the el nino time of 1994.  that and the earthquake.  i mean ... i could shoot just about anything and those two events gave me both enough clout to bullshit my way through police lines and get some good stuff of the '94 earthquake.  it exposed me to a pretty good market of search and rescue oriented stuff.  

again, i just approached content-specific publishers.  i got assignments.

there's this guy.  i'll digress.  walked into my friend's house the other night.  they have more christmas cards than any family i know.  ALL ... i mean ... friggin' all of them had pictures of the family.  this may be just a suburban thing.  perhaps a mormon thing.  dunno.  but i stood there for about a half hour.  most of the photos were horrible.  now ... the people sending these photos on their cards are all pretty damn wealthy.  a few were well-done.  a shot of two daughters.  beautiful.  then there was this typical shot done on the beach.  white clothes.  sand.  surf.  yada-fucking-yada-fucking-yada.  the wife looked horrible.  she approved that is all i thought.  i said, "who did Robert have shoot this?"

you remember so-and-so.  you know danielle's brother.  it came flashing back.  this is this guy that really fancies himself a "fashion photographer."  i mean ... really.  he's the true makes you sick kinda "arteeeeeste."  my friend laughs and says, "Robert said this guy ... it was this whole production ... he really expected something huge because he showed all these fashion photographs to me."  in essence the guy was a giant pain in the ass.

i doubt our mutual friend would ever hire this guy.  yes, i could make a ton of money making family portraits.


but the guy who made ... sorry ... took this picture ... has on his website, "... his work has been compared to that of the French artist Degas ... the work of Da Vinci."

above and beyond how untrue this is ... don't ever use "has been" in any personal promotion.  you sound like a "has been."

the puntuating point to this is that just for the fuck of it i googled this guy's name and found some forums and then looked for his posts.

my favourite, ".... i've never been published before and i really don't know what to do."

hmm... i wonder if he ever told robert that when he took a shit photo of a very attractive family.

just so you know ... you are not going to be shooting "art" all the fucking time.  won't happen.  you have to sell yourself out a bit to make it commercially.

if there were a magazine that paid huge rates for street photography ... i'd be all over their asses and sending their a.d.'s and editors and the janitors ipod's for christmas.

being that as it is ... i know what i prefer to shoot and what i like to show during an exhibition.  it is not hollywood.  it's not landscapes.  it's not backstage photos of fashion week.

i prefer showing moments.  every day moments.  every day people.  rich people.  homeless.  strange shit that you see whilst walking around.

basically, i use my professional photography to be the cash vehicle that allows me to shoot whatever i want wherever i want.

people or us weekly or voici or paris match ... they don't buy "art."  i know that.  i know what they want and i shoot specifically what i know they'll buy.  then i'll make more interesting stuff.  and personal stuff.

i can't tell you how many people (i hasten to call them photographers) with cameras that give me shit for shooting my leicas saying, "you can't make art out here."

they wouldn't know a photograph if it bit them in the ass.

summing up "breaking in" i'd say you should show very specific material to people that want to see that exact genre.  be persistent without being an asshole.

have some self-esteem.  no one likes a fucking whining piece of shit.  not everyone will say yes or even return telephone calls for that matter.

i think some genres are probably easier to get into than others.

ad agencies will not take your phone call.  just so you know.

you HAVE to be represented by an agent.

don't try and do everything.  pick a genre you feel you have the best chance of making it in.  you know what that is.

if only your friends and mom thinks your stuff is good -- unless your friends are art buyers or your mom's an editor -- get other opinions.  perhaps from people you're assisting for.

look at magazines.  can you do that?  if not, don't apply unless you're full of shit or are willing to blow your way to commissions.

sure, you can go shoot school portraits.  make photos of parts for catalogues.  there are people that make tens of thousands of dollars doing that.  but ... you're not a "photographer."

it's alright to "staff shoot" for a while and give up your copyright.  i know many people that started off that way.

just so you know i don't profess to know everything about how to make it or not make it; i only know what worked for me.

i'm not doing brain surgery.  i'm not designing life support systems for nasa.

i make photographs.

i make photographs for my clients.  for my agent.  for my stock agent.

for myself.

once you have decided that you "have a photographic eye," once you've decided that you would rather make photographs than anything else you could do for a living, once you're willing to sell out just a bit ... once someone other than your mother or friends tell you, "you're good" ... then ... maybe you'll make it.

but ... having the talent ... that's only part.  you need determination as there are a lot of others with the dream of making their living with a camera.

most ... not matter their education ... no matter their talent ... will not make it.

again, i know that this will piss off some.  oh well.  honestly, cry to someone that cares.  i hope, however, and i know this sounds trite ... but ... i hope one person reads it and it moves them to really "do it."

they know who they are.

well ... time for dinner.

still haven't decided which parties i'm going to.  i know for sure they will be celeb-free.  if it's raining like it did tuesday night ... there's no way i'm going to be on the freeway with a bunch of drunk freaks.  no way.

a quiet weekend.

a few days with my family and then off to europe for a while.

i would like to wish EVERYONE a happy and successful 2005.  YOu can't have 5 drinks in 2 hours and drive.  well ... unless you're 6'1"-300 ...

let's all put some positive thoughts out for those poor souls in indonesia, india, sri lanka and thailand.  whilst typing this some of the saddest images flashed on cnn.  damn.

i hope this finds you all well!

© 2004 - 2022 cweeks
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martinroger's avatar
wow, this is pretty helpful. And killing some predicates on the photographers.

I thank you out loud.

cweeks's avatar
what predicates?

and ... no worries!
martinroger's avatar
woops sorry Lapsus, I wanted to say prejudice ( ok, I must admit I'm tired ). Prejudices which already sounded wrong, like the fact of being a photographer doesn't involve that you ( the photographer, not you especially ) will not be able to make art all the time, not to say you'll be more likely taking non-artistic pictures.

Your journal, even if the structure is quite ... "unstructured" ( :giggle: ) is full of more-than-useful informations about the life of a photographer, his ( or her, :) ) interests, the slaps in the face, the disappointements, the joys... the awards of being published, etc...

But it also shows some interesting sides of the photographers life, such as the "friendly core of photographers", the atmosphere to share, the slight but friendly competition existing in this "core"... All those things ( quite recalling the atmosphere existing between underwater photographers in New Caledonia ) which make the job of photographer so... likeable !

That's why I thank you.


Martin R.
iamkatia's avatar
this is really bizarre, jake.
i mean, this is really really great stuff,
not the 'bitchy' post that i had a vague sense of.
see, right at the top was the line that stung me and it
must've just stuck with me so fiercely that everything else
here just disappeared from my memory. it was this:

by talking about what it takes to break in i'm going to assume that one knows EVERYTHING there is to know about the correlation of iso, f/stop and shutter speed for WHATEVER situation is thrown in front of them. no matter what.

that bit my ass because i don't know SHIT about that and i think part of me thought it was ok NOT
to know any of that. and i remember pondering it for a loooong time and even making up stupid analogies
in my mind to justify how it IS OK not to know any of that as long as you can make a good fucking photo.

and then... i realized that all my reasonings were pure shit. and why was i fighting this?
cripe. so i guess i had a bitchfest 'in my mind' with you and so the 'flavour' that was left from this was 'bitchy'.
hahaaa.. i am laughing like crazy.. i can be so retarded sometimes.
anyway, stellar stuff and all that.
this post really kicked me in the ass and i just love when that happens.
if i ever get anywhere with all this, you will def. be at the top of the list of people to thank.

so i've got to learn this stuff. this ISO, f/stop bla bla.. stuff.
any help or links or anything to assist me in that direction is much appreciated.

really. thanks.

cweeks's avatar
this jake thing. odd to me.

my exwife's dog is named jake.

then again, in italy they name their dogs chris.

when i said that about knowing the exact exposure what i meant is that to be a photographer that is HIRED at the very least one has to know technical shit. at the very least.

in fact ... i believe studio stuff is much easier than say shooting a wedding in the overhead daylight. when you're shooting ambient only and oncamera flash and remote flash ... trust me ... you better be on top of it. at the level i shoot ... you fuck up once ... and word WILL get around. whether it's a 5 minute shoot with talent, an event that the sponsor spent $250,00 producing, a brides only (that's the hope) day, etc., etc.

you are being paid to record a client's moment. no matter what that moment is you gotta nail it and nail it fucking beautifully every fucking time.

if not, there is someone that will.

clients deserve the best.

you have to not only know iso/fstop/shuttter but you have to know it automatically. rote.

not sure of links or books or anything like that. wish i did for you.

no worries.

iamkatia's avatar
well, i'm pouring over all the literature on it over at so that should help.

i need to know this stuff whether i'm being hired out or not.

i don't want 1 out of 20 good photos anymore.
i want 19 out of 20 - minimum. and that has everything
to do with being in control of the settings, i am learning.

i really could kick myself.

but better late than never.

thanks as always..

Ensan's avatar
Thank you for that long (:)) interesting journal ...

Our teachers (I'm in a fotografy program) have already mention what you just talked about and it's good to have some confirmation from someone that is active in the field. (not all your teachers work as fotografer)

Realty check is good since I am a day dreamer ... :)
Ensan's avatar
Hell-0 !

Almost two months later in a galaxie not so far away ... :D

Yes photo teachers ... :)

Some are active in the field others are just teachers with good photographic knowledge ...
They don't shoot everyday ... so they have time to share the passion ...

Some work in fashion, illustration, corporate, editorial, photo J

Here's the sites of two of my teachers



Beside the Photo J teacher, they are Montreal base teacher so the don't have to travel a lot ... but I am pretty sure that they don't spit on contracts that need to travel :)

I go to Dawson College, Montreal, Canada ...
I finish this year I will have to submit two portfolio a major (probably portraits ) and a minor (special project... I think Santa will get it this year !!) ... now I am starting to think about do I go to the University or I try to focus and move to Spain and see what happens ...

Time will tell...

Take care

cweeks's avatar
photo teachers. hmm. guess i just don't get it. if they were shooters, they'd be shooting.


where do you go to school?
Ensan's avatar
Better late than never ...

And by looking at the parent file ... well I have auto reply to myself ...
The long comment is in my original comment :)

I love being a space cadet !!
cweeks's avatar
sometimes i am as well.
Pixelcoma's avatar
That was damn insightfull, thanks a lot for sharing...

Cheers, Cliff. :jester:
cweeks's avatar
glad you liked it and found something useful in my diatribe!

cheers mate!
metholated-spirit's avatar
wow - i take great excitment when u post new journals etc coz there always interesting exciting, inspiring..

having said that - i have one bitch moment -

im not sure y what u said angered me, but the "poor souls" line, while i no is heartfelt seemed really "pittying" and saddened me that it was there, it seemed to be saying to me that u saw some terible images on cnn. now u feel pitty and sympathy ofr them . but i fels like ur commetn lacked empathy

sorry i felt the need to say that but it was siting in my head -
anyway - ur full of awsome stories - tell us some of those, and ur encounters with famous people etc etc.
that'd be great!
spyed's avatar
solid. ;)

I grabbed a guy by the collar and threw him out of my house at the party. nearly kicked his ass on the street after one of my buddies caught him PISSING IN MY KITCHEN SINK!

you were missed!

-- A
ButterflyLady's avatar
"i believe the word amateur is basically one who does what they love."

well said! i never thought of it that way.

i am definately an amateur, i have a lot to learn! but, what i do know is that i love taking photographs. i have two huge passions....the biker lifestyle....and photography. combining the two was inevitable. making money at it would be great, i won't lie about that. but if i never do make money at it, i am ok with it. my realationship with my camera is an undconditional love :)

your journal was honest and insightful. i appreciate the input. technically i have much to learn. but i have a lot more to learn about confidence.

hope you had a safe and happy new year celebration!
cweeks's avatar
well ... that's the root of the word.

we all have alot to learn. always. constantly. we should learn something everyday.

i can say that i share the love of photography but, perhaps, not the biker lifestyle.

see ... most people they're too broad in their subjects. even if they narrow it down they don't have the passion for the subject that they should.

you should really capitalize on the biker lifestyle. photograph the hell out of it as only someone with your passion for it could and can and should.

yes very safe and happy! hope you had the same!

aap's avatar
Homes, you talk WAY too much.
fireflydigital's avatar
Awesome! I think I could be a good "Plumbing" photographer. I am the quiet-stinky type.

I really enjoy your shots, and can imagine the fast talking to get out of trouble. : )
cweeks's avatar
i hear the journal for light construction needs a shooter! ;)

glad you enjoy the stuff ... it's fun making the photographs!

ezbst's avatar
great insight, especially the brutal honesty is appreciated, and needed also. question: have you ever taken a stab at automotive photography? or know anyone that has? or have any stories relating to it? i know that the above applies to all walks of photography, so to speak, but i'm not looking for advice per se, just whatever you got...

and what exactly does "assisting" a photographer consist of?

hope your year will be great!
londn's avatar
again, i know that this will piss off some. oh well. honestly, cry to someone that cares. i hope, however, and i know this sounds trite ... but ... i hope one person reads it and it moves them to really "do it."

*a light bulb blinks into existence above my head*

enjoy the new years.. la should be off the chain.. except for the RAIN! i was up in bigbear yesterday... BLUEBIRD conditions.. absolutely gorgeous.. so glad i didnt hesitate and go up today! if you're in the silverlake area and want to hit up a post-college party down the street from beck's house.. send me a note ;)

and in the event you dont see this.. be safe.. drive smart.. drink smarter.. and take home the prom queen.

cweeks's avatar
cry to an editor and see what they say...

i think l.a. is going to be less than nyc and nyc will be less than miami this year. party-wise.

i'm not braving the rain. i'm not going to put up with drunk fucks on the freeway.

thus, i'm spending this eve with my suburban friends.

we're opening very good wine, though!

happy new year to ya' brother!

p.s., the prom queen from my school ... i think she's horribly fat with fake tits now.

p.p.s., the prom queen from this year? hmm...
londn's avatar
you said that in a literal sense.. actually cry? i dont know which is more noble.. crying or blowing.. i'd hope to dodge both though.

your journal offered crazy insight though.. i do appreciate it..

i hope this rain stops.. i get enough of it in san francisco.

did you ever check with wireimages to see what their summer internships were all about? i know you mentioned that to me earlier this year.. and i'm trying to plan out my summer travel schedule.. or if there could even be one.. so yeah, let me know..
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