Part 3 of “The Complete Photographer’s Guide on Turning Pro” by Scott Robert Lim
International and master photographer Scott Robert Lim (Photog. Cr, AOPA) has taught thousands of photographers and has a passion to help others achieve phenomenal success with their photography. Throughout his two decades of being an entrepreneurial artist and a decade of being an elite photographer, he has gathered some profound insights on starting a career with photography.
This article discusses finding the highest quality education for the professional photographer. If you are a photographer looking to take it to the next level by creating your own unique signature style and desire to create images at a world class level… READ ON
The reality is that an aspiring photographer has an almost impossible chance of making it because most photographers never consider investing and sacrificing the amount of time, dedication and cost of quality education it takes to become a full-time professional. Not only does the photographer need to consistently produce work at a world class level, they need to create a successful business too! Think of all the full time professional photographers you know- which is probably less than a handful. Many photographers do not respect the industry realizing how hard it is to “make it” in photography. A photography career is like any other career. The average cost of college and time it takes to earn a degree can be roughly $100,000 ($20,000 a year including tuition and living expenses) and five years to earn $46,000/yr. If establishing a photography career is much harder, why would the process be easier than any other career path?
The first step to turning pro is to respect the industry and we can’t be afraid to invest in the highest forms of education. We can’t be surprised by the seemingly endless websites with average photography on display because photographers haven’t respected our industry and are NOT willing to make the correct sacrifices to have a career in photography. I find that most photographers invest more in their equipment than in their photography education when the reverse would produce better results if investing in the right education.
Highest Quality Education
Individuals who want to achieve at the highest levels hire highly successful coaches/consultants/experts to propel them to the next level. Take the average golfer who for years is stuck at the same level and wants to significantly lower their handicap, the musician who wants to be a concert violinist, the ice skater who wants a gold medal, the athlete who wants to earn a black belt in martial arts, etc. They all take private lessons from the best possible teachers. In fact ALL professional sports teams want to be the world’s best, hire the best coaches in the world. Mentors and coaches create shortcuts to success. Experienced coaches have learned successful techniques over decades of exploring, experimenting and discovering. They pass down streamlined formulas of success, saving years of time and effort to whom they coach. Experience is key, a great mentor who has helped a wide variety of individuals has encountered and problem solved many more difficult situations an inexperienced coach may not have encountered. A mentor passes down a legacy of success, an “inheritance” given to those he coaches. Furthermore, the very best mentors help artists develop their own Signature Style which enhances BRAND RECOGNITION.
The Time Factor
It is possible for a photographer to make it on their own without being mentored but it is very rare. I’m surprised how many people believe in the fairy tale story. They see one photographer make it big overnight and they think that will happen to them. Creating a full time career within two years is tough, even with a mentor. The book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes at least 10,000 hours to be an expert at something which is 5 years working at your craft 40 hours a week. Let’s assume one can invest only 20 hours a week into photography, that means to reach 10,000 hours it will take 10 years. Most people don’t have 10 years to develop a business that is why it is usually imperative to find a great mentor, someone who has blazed the path already, it will dramatically increase your learning process, usually exponentially.
Fundamental skills with NO STYLE = frumpy = average = NO BUSINESS = out of business
A photographer can have great technical skills BUT if their style is “frumpy” or “old school”, staying in business will be a struggle. Photographers need education that teaches the fundamentals but these skills MUST REFLECT CURRENT POPULAR STYLES. The imagery must be relevant to today’s customers. Learning fundamentals from teachers who create frumpy images will not create a solid formula for success. Fundamental photography skills can be taught through books but style is constantly evolving and changing like the clothes we wear. Therefore a photographer must learn fundamental skills but they must translate them into producing current styles.
Upscale brides fall in love with style and the biggest mistake with many photographers is not understanding how to create a Signature Branding Style that is contemporary and attractive to young brides. Most likely if a photographer is struggling, their work and or business has NO SIGNATURE STYLE. In other words, their work has no personality, pop or MOJO- sadly it is average.
Fundamental skills can be easily learned, style on the other hand is not so easy. For example, there are numerous bands that can play and imitate Beatles songs but not many bands can create a signature sound that makes them popular.
The Style Meter
A small test to see if someone has some natural style ability is to analyze the way a person dresses, styles their hair or presents themselves in public. Style is the ability to group a bunch of elements together, add their own creative twist to it and make it functional. It also shows that a person likes to express themselves in a creative way and wants to be different, stand out, look good and represent themselves well. Style is the confidence to be different. This is exactly the personality trait a person needs to be a successful photographer- not afraid to show the world who they are!
If you look at some of the most successful photographers breaking into the industry today, many are women- they are naturally more style conscious. Just use my style meter to prove my point- most women dress better than most men. Although most men are great at the technical aspects- they can set up 7 off camera flashes in a heartbeat with all the proper light ratios but as technology gets better and better, the technical aspects of photography will get easier so those with STYLE and VISION will be more successful as technology gets better.
Therefore creating style has a great deal to do with having confidence, not just the technical aspects of photography. If you ask any great boudoir photographer what makes a woman “sexy”, they are not going to say, red stilettos, fishnet stockings and a pole to dance around (however men might- we’re so shallow!), but most likely they will say, confidence, attitude, feeling beautiful, etc.
Your imagery is a mirror to your soul and if there are barriers like lack of self confidence because of some deep baggage we carry with us, etc. a photographer will never produce world class imagery at a consistent level because many times a photographer will have to cultivate confidence in their subjects because they may be unable to create it themselves. Or, we have to have confidence to try something new and unique and withstand the possibility of failure. Risk averse people are never great artists, if we can’t risk, we can’t create a signature style.
I sincerely believe, half the time my clients love my images not because I take amazing pictures all the time but in the way I made them feel WHEN they took the picture. You have to have confidence to cultivate it.
I hope this example gives you a sense about what a great mentor with good life skill techniques can do for a person. Achieving success is more than just technical things, it is the aggregate sum of a person’s positive abilities. The great mentor understands this and tries to improve all areas of a person’s life to get them to achieve at the highest levels, i.e. having confidence, taking risks. It is hard to psycho analyze ourselves, that’s we we need someone to honestly tell us and encourage us because confronting our demons is a scary en devour.
Not All Mentors Created Equal
First of all why would anyone want to give away their trade secrets? Only a teacher who is completely dedicated to the education process AS A CAREER would be the most likely candidate to give away their ENTIRE success strategies. Do you think the first string quarterback wants to share everything with the second string quarterback competing for the same job? There is a difference between helping and giving away your competitive advantage. We can find many people who want to help but fewer would give away their competitive advantage. So anyone who is still “in the business” and relatively new to the industry is most likely not going to give away ALL that they know because it will hurt their livelihood, especially when economic times are tough.
As a personal example, when I decided to pursue a teaching career, I had to be honest with myself… could I be a great teacher if I held back information that could help those I teach? In the beginning of my teaching career, I was conflicted because on one hand I wanted to help others but not to the point where I would give away my signature style and jeopardize my income and family’s well being. At this point I had to choose, did I want to be a great educator or a great working photographer. I had come to the conclusion I could only be one or the other and if I wanted to become the BEST educator possible, my integrity told myself I COULD NOT HOLD BACK ANY HELPFUL INFORMATION and I had to risk losing business- which did happen because I trained other photographers and told them all my trade secrets. However, I’m proud of these mentorees because some are doing really well and it proved I had a formula for success despite the incredible odds of failure.
“The mark of a great teacher is in the accomplishments of those he teaches and not of himself” Scott Robert Lim
Many people wonder how can they find the right teaching program or right mentor. Here are some questions to ask yourself that may help your decision…
Does the teacher constantly talk about themselves or do they ask questions about YOUR business/goals? Do you sense the mentor has a humility and desire to truly help others? A mentor who has a chip on their shoulder may have issues that affect his teaching ability, the constant need for affirmation and recognition is a bad sign for a mentor. All great mentors leave their pride at the door and are completely vested in those they teach.
Do I like the style of photography of this mentor or images his mentorees create? For a mentor to be a good fit for you, it is imperative that you like the imagery of the mentor or his mentorees, the images must speak to your heart. If not, the mentor is probably NOT a good fit for the highest levels of learning for you.
Does this mentor not only show you the HOW to do things but more importantly the WHY? I’ve been to many workshops and I always felt many photographers showed HOW they did things but never broke down WHY they did them. Answering the WHY is much more important than the HOW. Ask your potential mentor a bunch of WHY questions and see how they answer them.
Has the mentor been successful at the highest levels and do they have influence in the industry? Learn from the best possible, those who have a national or international influence and presence. If a person has developed only local popularity, how can this person teach creating an international presence or branding a business with very wide appeal?
What kind of experience does this mentor have with coaching? We can’t put a price tag on experience, the more the better especially when it comes to coaching. Think of it this way, let’s assume you have a severe tooth ache, do you want to go to the dentist who has only been in business 6 months or the one who has been practicing for 10+ years?
Does the mentor have any successful experience being an entrepreneur? Working for someone uses a completely different skill set than being an entrepreneur. Not having a steady pay check makes life much harder and we need to learn from people who are in our own shoes.
Is the mentor certified or have any accolades from other influential professional organizations, is the mentor considered a master photographer? Certification is not completely necessary BUT it does say something when a mentor is recognized by prestigious organizations in the industry. In many cases, certification requires a photographer to speak and teach numerous times. This is like a filtering process because if a photographer performs poorly, they will not be asked again and thus will not qualify for certification.
Can I buy into the person, the mentor’s integrity, personality, teaching style, philosophies on success and image creation? If you don’t enjoy listening to this mentor or if one can not buy into their teaching personality, the mentor will probably be a wrong fit. I suggest you hear a mentor speak or lecture before you buy into their program, glean as much information about them on their website, blog, etc. A recommendation from a reputable source, friend or colleague is good. Contact people who’ve been through their program for good information.
Protect Our Territory and Save our Industry from Mediocrity!
Soon, the full time photographer producing average work will no longer exist, the weekend warrior with average skills will start to earn less and less as technology and photo enhancing software gets better and better. Our clients will continue to receive sub-par work. Do we really want this down trend and erosion of our industry?
In order to improve the entire industry, every photographer who wants to earn money with photography must want to be educated and produce very high quality work, I dare say at a world class level. We have to protect our territory and respect the industry. This way, if anyone dares to solicit money for photography services, they are discouraged because the level of work to even book the most basic services like a $800 wedding is so high, they wont even attempt to try. IT IS UP TO US PROFESSIONALS TO CREATE OUR OWN FILTERING SYSTEM and unite like a Union and DEMAND that every professional whatever price we charge is WORLD CLASS WORK, because we RESPECT OUR INDUSTRY and we are not going to allow even the simplest paid job be taken over by someone who just cracked open the box to their new camera! INTEGRITY, HONOR and RESPECT for what we do even for all those that dare to simply put the word “PHOTOGRAPHER” on a business card.
The glory days are gone, we must buckle down and appreciate what photography can provide us. For example, examine our $800 wedding. Some of us may laugh at that amount but I don’t and here are my reasons…. If a photographer books a “burn and shoot” wedding for $800 and works for 8 hours, perhaps add an extra hour to burn the images on a disc and send to the wedding couple, working a total of 9 hours (no editing). What if this photographer books 50 of these $800 weddings a year. That photographer has just earned $40,000 dollars a year working 9 hours a week and getting two weeks vacation time a year! There are not that many jobs in America that pay that kind of money for working 9 hours a week-it is a luxury, a dream come true for some of us.
What I find hilarious is that the same photographer who says we are giving an inferior product by providing “burn and shoot” services is the same photographer who advocates, “getting it right in camera” and is against heavy Photoshop manipulation! Is it not possible that a world class photographer creates images far superior straight out of camera- the way one sees and creates light, how one poses subjects, the way a photo is composed, how a photographer can create emotion in his subjects, etc? So how can we be providing an inferior product by just handing over files if we strive to be a world class photographer?
If the bright photographer sees that this scenario as a great opportunity- they will invest in their photography and try to be the best darn $800 wedding photographer around. He will want to protect his territory because in today’s economy, this is a wonderful JOB! What if, this photographer sought training by a world class photographer and even was mentored by one? Perhaps it cost him around $1,000-$5,000. With practice, his skill will be far above average and soon, he may even book $3,500 weddings or dare I say $10,000 weddings? Why not? this is exactly what happened to me!
If the photographer dares to think this education is too expensive, then I’m sorry but a slap in the face is required. This is a STEAL considering the average college degree costs $100,000, 5 years of their life with an average income of $46,000- only $6,000 more than what the $800 wedding photographer is making. In fact, by only working 9 hours a week, the photographer has the rest of the time to create art that speaks to his soul and pursue a fine art career at the same time or get another job. Wouldn’t this also be a great opportunity for a mother who wants to be home during the week to take care of her family yet still provide a great income on the side? Do not scoff at the $800 wedding photographer, for many, this would be the ultimate job!
What I’m trying to get at is, although photography services have drastically dropped, a photography career can still be a great career, so respect the industry, and be the best photographer you can because we MUST PROTECT OUR TERRITORY. The best athletes in the world make it a point to improve every year because young guns are coming into their industry all the time. We as world class photographers have to do the same, we all need to get better and protect this wonderful industry that has provided for ourselves and our families and has given us our DREAM JOB!
One on One Coaching and Signature Style Branding
If you are a photographer that is just starting their professional career or perhaps an experienced photographer who just can’t seem to get to the next level, please consider my signature style branding program! It is my passion and joy to see photographers create amazing careers in this industry, yet I know how difficult it can be. However, the dedication, commitment and passion of the photographer must be very high so the program may not be for everyone. If a photographer is NOT committed to creating a signature style, I believe the photographer should not even try to be a full time professional, the odds of success are nearly impossible without one. Conversely, if one is serious about turning pro and wants to infuse some style into their imagery and business, please find a program that will emphasis creating YOUR unique style. The right mentor may be your best option.
More information on Scott Robert Lim’s revolutionary Signature Style Branding
“The Complete Photographer’s Guide on Turning Pro” by Scott Robert Lim
- How to Be an Awesome Weekend Warrior – Part 1
- How to Be a Full Time Photographer- Part 2
- Finding the Right Training/Conclusion- Part 3