Discussions: On going pro

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Something different for the first post with Robin: a transcribed discussion between us about the realities of ‘going pro’ in the current market environment. I think it’s pretty clear that the last ten years have been rather turbulent times for the industry, both for service providers/ creatives and the hardware manufacturers; consolidation has been the underlying theme but also a drop in barriers to entry and a real extension of possibilities at the high end – but only in very rarefied air. It’s become harder than ever, I think, and I’d definitely have liked to have the benefit of experience of somebody who managed to make the shift stick in recent times and who understood the climate; Robin and I have decided to publish this conversation in the hopes that others in the audience might find it useful too. Think of it as sitting in on a conversation rather than a traditional article in the in the usual style of the site.

Advance warning: this may be a lengthy post. MT&RW

MT: Okay, I’ll start with an intro – going solo is probably one of the biggest jumps anybody can make in a professional photography career; if done properly there’s no turning back. The safety net of employment is gone but the freedom to do what you want is enormous – and perhaps daunting. There are all sorts of things beyond shooting to figure out from marketing to how much to charge to client management and how to handle scope creep or random equipment failures. There are days of absolute masochism when you wonder why on earth you put yourself through the torture of hauling 50kg of gear up a muddy hill in the dark at 2.30am, days when you despair at the empty pipeline, but also days where you can’t imagine how life could get any better because you’re being paid to hang out of a helicopter. So: over to you. What concerns/ questions/ curiosities do you have that I can hopefully help you with?

RW: The biggest concern moving away from a stable employment is not having the security of knowing that steady flow of cash is definitely coming in at the end of every month. Turning professional photographer means having the challenge to constantly seeking assignment and finding new opportunities to make money. There is always that uncertainty of clients backing out, or deals not coming through. I guess I am not exactly starting with completely zero ground, I was involved quite deeply in the industry during my time with Olympus. I think the biggest hurdle is to effectively strategize and work out a sustainable plan.

MT: That’s completely understandable. The reality is I personally didn’t make the jump until I had a few jobs lined up; whilst that at least made the first couple of months non-zero, I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t good. The reality is that most material work tends to be planned anywhere from one to six months in advance, and some clients may not pay for a month or two after that – which means your cashflow cycle should really be six months to a year once everything is stable. It’s worth taking smaller filler jobs in the meantime to keep yourself afloat, but if there are bigger jobs possible then you may still want to leave yourself some breathing room. And don’t forget the first rule of any business: cashflow is king, not paper profits. I only have one rule: so long as there’s more at the end of the month than the beginning – $1 or $10,000 – that’s fine.

RW: That was a very important rule that you have shared and I will always remember, having more money at the end of the month than the beginning, which really makes sense, to make sure that things keep going.
So looking at my strengths and skills, I can do public presentations, speaking about photography and also conduct workshops/photowalks/photo-sharing sessions. The first, and possibly quickest way for me to make the transition to professional photographer (while building up client base) is to conduct workshops/classes for end consumers. Now that I am not with Olympus, I can do so for other brands as well, broadening possibilities. Small filler jobs, are not difficult to come by. I have been shooting graduation portraits, family photographs, birthday parties, and even weddings, typical photography jobs that are not too challenging just to get the cash flowing in. It takes time to build a brand, and I seriously need to look into that now that I am going full time, and the next priority (actually I am working on this concurrently) would be personal branding. So my next question, obviously – is how much time, effort and what can you share about your branding as “Ming Thein”? It worked so well, and the whole online community knows it!

MT: It’s a good question, and good that you’ve got a transitional strategy to give you some base income to cover the dailies. (Hint: for those of you in the region, Robin will of course be giving more workshops soon, which will of course be advertised here…) I can understand also the slight ‘fear’ that you *must* take all the jobs that come your way because you don’t know what’s next; this fear is something that will honestly never go away, regardless of how established you are. I still have the same concerns every month, and inevitably I land up exhausted because I have trouble saying no. When it rains it only pours, and all that.

Linking what you do to your brand makes a lot of sense, because in essence it’s what people – both audience and potential customers – see first. I would hardly claim to be an expert at brand building – many people say I’m too diverse to be an expert at anything – but this is also deliberate; what I show to clients in my *professional* portfolio isn’t necessarily the same as what I present on the site. The site gives me a bit more latitude to present the work I *want* to do, not the work I *have* done. There’s a subtle but critical difference here: you will probably get hired to do the kind of work you have visible; you therefore need to make sure that work is representative of what you want to do, and how you see as a photographer.

It of course helps if you have a distinctive style and limited subject matter (though this is really not practical in the current market; diversity is survival). It helps if you’ve got visibility, but in a good way – when you’re trying to build a reputation, it may be necessary to trade off visibility and profile of work against absolute pay. This is not to say you work for free, of course – if you don’t value your own work, then nobody else will; which leads to this: always charge what you would like to get.

Everything I’ve done up to this point has that question at the heart of it: is it core to what I want to shoot and what I want to be as a photographer? If no, unless I really, really need the money, I don’t do the job – and even then, I don’t tell anybody about it. So the answer is – let’s call it ‘identity building’ – must happen directly or indirectly, all the time. In practical terms, this means 3-4 hours a day answering email, making content for the site, maintaining the other social media channels (FB, IG, Twitter) etc. And that’s of course on top of the actual shooting and admin and logistics and my job at Hasselblad.

RW: You are on point about showing the work with the distinctive style that I want my clients to look for in me, and also having a site that experiments and have flexibility to explore more possibilities beyond that. I think writing about photography is a powerful part of branding itself, and a strong sense of curation helps to lead and sway the opinion of the readers into seeing you in what you are capable of. And yes, I remember you lamenting me about dozens of emails you receive and the crazy amount of time replying them! I tyically spend about an hour a day replying comments and emails (surely not as heavy as yours). I think I need to work on “showing the work that is representative of what I want to do” because my current portfolio is just a mixture of all my work that I have done with no clear sense of purpose and direction of where I want to go. Portfolio plays a vital role in branding and that should set my work apart from what is being shown in the main photography site.

[Editor’s note: Only an hour? Pah! Be sure to leave plenty of comments on Robin’s posts ? ]

MT: You definitely need to shoot and experiment a lot to know what that distinctive style is, though – and I think that changes quite a lot depending on where you are in your career, what, how and who you’re shooting for. For instance, I never thought I’d land up doing as much industrial documentary as I do, but I found I enjoyed it and what I think of as a very ‘natural’ style developed from there.

RW: Speaking about spending time to shoot, writing on your site, replying comments, emails, maintaining multiple social media platforms, working officially for Hasselblad, and you are a family man! You must have had some mad time management skills! I am afraid my time management itself needs a lot of work (being honest here). How do you achieve work-life balance? I understand that doing what we love doing (photography) full time is probably less daunting than a general 8 to 5 desk job, but still how do you juggle them all, so perfectly?

MT: The reality is that from day one it was much harder work than any desk job I’ve had, and 8-5s were considered a luxury in private equity or consulting – 8-midnight is more the norm. Though I spend less continuous hours ‘in the office’ these days, it’s probably more as you’re always working and thinking and strategising from the moment you get up to the moment you go to sleep. And there’s not much sleep and lots of coffee involved…at some point, I’m sure I’ll be forced to make more choices; I already have been. I’ve cut teaching entirely this year to spend more time physically at home. Even if the total number of hours worked remains the same because of my role at Hasselblad, at least most of the time I can physically be here and stepping out of the study for five or ten minutes through the day to spend with my daughter is quite possible.

It’s still far from perfect: there are things I do have to put off or land up forgetting to do, and I’m sure my family still thinks I’m too absent. But I also believe that if you really want to do something, you’ll make or find the time.

RW: That was one of my fears as well, that now I am self-employed, I will be rolling out of control when I have so much to take care of. however, I think you are sending a very important message here, getting priorities right, which is often not easy to accomplish. This will be something that I will have to figure out on the go, and make necessasary adjustments, and sacrifices if needed.

Getting into practical stuff now: one of the things, which I am in need of learning is relationship management. This would be an area that I believe is extremely important for photographers, managing relationship with clients, suppliers, and different parties. Coming from a company, it was pretty much straightforward: we provide the products and we expect people to do things for us. now things are different so would be nice to know how it is from the side of a professional photographer.

MT: It’s a very fine line between anticipating your client’s needs and just appearing desperate. I find that the best approach is to explain that photography is about communication (if they don’t know it already) – and then try to understand what it is they want to communicate, and to whom. We are visual problem solvers. Our role then becomes the translation of idea to something that uses universal human visual language to express this so that the intended audience sees it, too – e.g. in a simplistic way, grading color warm for a more welcoming feel, or cool for something scientific and sterile. Of course the explanation of this process needs to be moderated depending on the audience.

During the shoot, i.e. preferably before it’s too late, you also need to confirm that the client’s expectations are being met – getting sign off as things happen is important because then there are no surprises at the end. It’s possible that what you thought was an incredible set of images doesn’t work aesthetically for your client. So long as they’re kept informed and involved in the process, you’re usually in good shape. If they’re very happy, referrals inevitably follow. Also, it sounds basic but little follow up notes after the shoot or season’s greeting etc. are always useful to keep you in their minds should they be looking for repeat work.
RW: Managing expectations is the key, during the planing stage, during shoot, and following up whenever possible. So far I have been sharing most of my fears, concerns and perhaps parts of me that are lacking. One of the scariest things that can happen, I am sure you can agree, is equipment failure. I know you carry loads of backups! Can you share your personal rules that you follow when you bring backups, and do you buy any insurance? I acknowledge that using Hasselblad for shoots may be different from using Micro Four Thirds, but typically for a full evening event coverage for a company party, I have with me about RM20,000 worth of equipment, which by itself is no small amount.

MT: The Hasselblads are insured, but my Nikons aren’t. I’ve always also believed in pricing the job commensurate to the gear being used – there’s no point charging RM500 for using RM20,000 worth of gear; that’s less than rental; let alone the expertise and time of the photographer etc. There are specialised insurance companies that cover this gear overseas, but only one in Malaysia who does, and the premiums are really exorbitant – that may or may not make sense for you. If you take care of your stuff at the location and don’t do silly things like leaving open bags lying around, you should generally be fine though.

As for backups, I’ve always got two camera bodies. This means that I can shoot quickly and spontaneously without having to change lenses or with the ability to have one of the cameras set up completely differently in case an opportunity presents. I also have usually two sets of lenses to provide coverage – zooms and primes – and at least double the battery and storage requirements I anticipate needing, plus empty external hard drives, extra chargers etc (it isn’t fun to have to wake up in the middle of the night to switch batteries). In general, the rule of thumb is double overage for everything critical: you never know when you might need it. I’ll also test, charge and clean everything before and after a shoot to ensure it’s all ready to go at a moment’s notice.
That said, for non-critical stuff, and if I’m going somewhere not for paid shoot and replacements are readily available – Japan, for instance – I’ll just bring the bare minimum. That said, I own enough stuff to make up probably four complete systems at this point. Having two bodies also factors into the upgrade decision: I never buy pairs, but instead trade in the older one for the new one: that way I’ve got one latest generation and one previous generation. The reason is to keep the controls separate as to avoid confusion over which body is which and set up to do what and responds in what way.
RW: That’s very good advice, double of everything needed, I should work on that. Also great tip about pricing, that is something that I wish many of friends would listen to!
MT: By no means is that an excuse to buy more gear! Pricing shouldn’t solely be driven by gear though: it’s more complex than that. What’s your time worth? How much do you need to make every month to cover your operating overheads, taxes, gear reinvestment/ replacement etc? Then divide by the number of *actual* shooting days you have, and figure out what you must bill per shooting day – at a minimum. That’s the rough starting point you need to use for a sustainable business.
RW: Coming back to pricing, I think the inevitable reality, is the saturation of photographers undercutting way below market price. The challenge, I believe, comes back to our earlier discussion about branding, and showing the distinctive work that is able to set the photographer apart from everyone else. The clients will always compare, and sometimes, not necessarily in fair manner. I think pricing, marketing and branding (with solid, distinct portfolio) all need to come together.
MT: Definitely. And this is why what you offer has to be distinct, both at an immediately recognisable level and one that can be explained and duplicated consistently across a range of subjects. You simply cannot stand out otherwise, and if you don’t stand out, you’ll be passed over or undercut on prices. Unfortunately reality in our market is that 99% of clients compare on price; if you can get work overseas, do so. Because sadly the Malaysian market never reached sufficient maturity to have enough educated clients to support a mature ecosystem; educating them now is rather futile as inevitably decisions are made by senior management who are looking only at cost, or junior management who are afraid to take creative risks. “How cheap can you copy this?” is something I’ve sadly heard far too often. Don’t be afraid to refuse, because it’s not something you want to get a reputation for. Believe in your own value.
RW: Moving on to my final question, when you transitioned to professional photographer, what was your own biggest challenge, was it something you did not see coming, or did you anticipate it? What would you tell me and other photographers so we can brace ourselves?
MT: I tried to go pro four times. It didn’t stick until the fourth time, for various reasons – my work wasn’t mature enough, I didn’t have access to the right clients, I was too niche and picked something which was both hard to contest (photojournalism) and very poorly paid…none of which are sustainable business models. At no point during these times did I think about branding or visibility or how to get myself noticed. In fact, the hardest bit about the whole thing was the selling part: it’s not about hard sell to clients to engage your services, but about firstly understanding what *their* goals are, and how you can help them achieve those through photography. Then only does the commercial bit begin – and it goes much easier when the other party is already on your side. This is somewhat different of course between commercial/ advertising and portrait/ bridal/ event, but ultimately it’s still about a) identifying what the client wants to show – sometimes without them being able to explain it explicitly, so examples always help – and b) convincing them you can deliver. Lastly, fight on quality, consistency and professionalism, not price.
RW: Thanks for sharing your experience and all the useful tips, I think the path lying ahead is full of uncertainties, but hey, if it was easy, it was not worth doing! Photography is a passion, and will work hard to see it become a career that is sustainable. Lets hope for the best!
MT: No problem – hope this was useful. Good luck, and we’re all rooting for you to succeed! Reality is there are ups and downs, and you have to ask yourself whether you’re still enjoying it: the day that becomes no is the day you should quit, because you can’t make a picture you’re happy with without passion.
To be continued in six months…

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