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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Behind the lens: A snapshot on success

By Jack Kazmierski
Special to The Toronto Sun

A picture may be worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, but how does that translate into dollars and cents if you're planning to make a living as a photographer? Truth be known, whether or not you'll survive depends on how much of an entrepreneur you are.
Gale Devers jumps into the arms of her coach, Bob Kersey, after winning the 100m dash at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Ga. Toronto Sun photographer Stan Behal earned several awards for this photo, including a silver Golden Eye award from the World Press Photo Foundation.

As romantic as the notion of shooting photographs for a living might be, the common denominator all successful photographers share is their ability to market themselves. This is not a career where a degree or impressive credentials on a resume open doors to a high-paying job and a company car. On the contrary, most photographers freelance, going from job to job as they build up a clientele, a reputation, and a portfolio that gives them a better shot at future projects.

Ironically, where you go to school and what grades you receive almost never enter the equation. "You can get a BA in photography," says Nadia Molinari, a freelancer specializing in commercial and editorial photography. "But it doesn't really mean much because you're never going to get hired based on where you went to school. Your portfolio is your resume. You get hired based on your eye and your style."

Award-winning photojournalist Stan Behal, senior staff photographer at The Toronto Sun agrees. "A number of schools in the GTA offer Photo Arts programs, but completing one of these, although a great idea, is probably not an absolute necessity. Some of the photographers we have here have no practical education in photography. I, for example, have a degree in political science and economics.

"When looking for work [as a staff photographer], could an education in photography help your resume rise to the top?


But you'll be judged on the basis of what you produce as opposed to what credits you may have to your name."

Degree or not, all up-and-coming photographers have to pay their dues in the form of freelance work -- hitting the pavement, looking for customers, selling themselves. Even if your goal is to work as a staff photographer for a paper or for a large corporation, you must first find work on your own as an independent contractor.
"Squash court 3" is one in a series of photos taken by photography teacher and freelancer Adrian Fish of the Bathurst Jewish Centre in Toronto. The series demonstrates the archaelogical and architectural evolution of the centre as the demographic of the local community changes, with squash court 3 having turned into a kids' rock-climbing room.

"You have to freelance because it's the only way you can develop a portfolio that would be good enough to show a prospective employer," Behal says.

Unfortunately, many eager shutterbugs finish school, but never progress to the point where they can make a decent living wielding a camera.

"Of the people who graduated with me, very few actually ended up working professionally as photographers," says Adrian Fish, a freelance photographer and photography teacher at York University. "Part of it has to do with business skills and people skills that simply aren't taught as part of a photography program."

Fish began teaching to supplemen his income. "As a freelance photographer you never really know what's going to happen. You can go through dry periods, and that can be scary."

Molinari, who does a lot of work for advertising agencies, knows how cutthroat freelance work can be.

"The process for getting work from an ad agency is long and complicated," she says. "For any job, they can call in 50 different photographers. Then after looking at our portfolios, they whittle it down to about three, and then we have to quote a price for the job. Sometimes they already know who they want to use, but they just need to show their client that they got three quotes."

None of the people she went to school with ended up working as professional photographers.

"It's a really difficult career and people give up after a while," she says. "Not only do you have to be a good photographer, but also a thick-skinned businessperson. You get rejected all the time. You think you're sure to get a certain job but they go with someone else and don't tell you why."
Making $70,000 annually sounds enticing, but keep in mind that as a freelance photographer, all expenses come out of your own pocket. Equipment costs can also skyrocket depending on the type of photography you do. The basics include a good camera, light meter and lighting equipment. Because a high-quality professional camera can cost upwards of $10,000, many photographers buy used equipment. "Some of my cameras are from the late '70s," Fish says. "It's really expensive to be a photographer," Molinari remarks. "You have to spend a certain amount of money on equipment, although you can rent some of it. Portfolios are also expensive, and you need a number of them to show off to clients. Then there's the self-promotion and marketing, so it takes a lot of money." Staff photographers "own their own gear but get an allowance," Behal says. And since the entire industry is moving in a digital direction, "learn how to use a digital camera, a computer and photo editing applications now, because these are going to be essential skills in the near future," Fish says.

Those who persevere and endure this trial by fire can make as little or as much as their talent, business acumen and drive permit -- anywhere from a few thousand dollars a year, to more than half a million.

A staff photojournalist working at a newspaper might start at $60,000 a year. Someone making a living shooting weddings could make between $1,000 and $10,000 a wedding.

"One commercial freelance photographer I know bills in the neighbourhood of half-a-million-dollars a year," admits Behal. "His day rate would be between $2,500 to $3,500 a day."

But the number of photographers driving around in Ferraris is limited. Most, according to government of Canada figures, make about $70,000 a year.

Unfortunately, the future of professional photography is a bit out of focus at present.

"Because of royalty-free and other stock photography, there's less work, and there are more people who want to get into photography because they see it as a cool profession," Molinari says.

"The market is saturated and every year schools keep churning out graduates looking for work," says Behal. "There are already more photographers than there are jobs. This is diluting the market and some of these photographers are ending up at the local camera shop selling cameras and film."

Nonetheless, if you have the talent, the drive and the wherewithal to persevere through the tough years, a future in photography can be yours.

"I think if someone has a good eye, they're probably better off getting an MBA in business first," Behal says, "and then getting into photography because then they'll know how to market themselves."

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