May 21st, 2014

Advice From the Trenches for Graduating Photography Students

Classes in photography can be a leg up to landing a job as an assistant or getting started in the photography business, but real-world experience often teaches practical lessons not taught in photo schools. What are the important lessons photographers didn’t learn in school, that photographers found themselves scrambling to make up after college?  We recently rounded up some advice for recent graduates (published on PDNOnline). We also asked photographers David Brandon Geeting, Cody Cloud and Andrew Burkle for their perspectives.

Geeting, a Brooklyn-based editorial photographer, graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2011, and worked as a photo assistant and did other jobs before going into business for himself in 2012. Burkle, a food photographer shooting advertising for national brands, graduated from Ohio University in 2009, and worked as a photo assistant in Chicago before opening a studio last year in Cleveland with photographer David Hagen. Cody Cloud shoots fashion in Los Angeles with his partner, Julia Galdo. He earned his MFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 2005.

Here’s what they told us about the things they wished they’d learned in school, and their advice for new graduates.

What skills do you wish you’d learned while you were in school–but didn’t– that would have helped you most when you got out?

David Brandon Geeting: I wish I would have taken more studio classes and learned more lighting techniques. I shoot a lot of work in the studio now, and everything I do is totally self-taught. When I was in school, I just walked around with a 35mm point-and-shoot camera and made C-prints of off-kilter moments and funny trash on the street. I had no plans of shooting commercially – I thought I would make a living as an artist. I thought I’d be having solo exhibitions and publishing weird books. That is still the goal, but in the meantime I am doing the best I can to survive with self-taught techniques that I could have learned before graduating.

Andrew Burkle: I really wish I had gotten more input on how to price myself and bid on jobs. The problem was that we learned invoicing but not bidding, [which] is a hard skill to teach and standardize. In the beginning I was probably under bidding and getting work, but vastly under valuing myself as well as inadvertently lowering the standard cost for other bidding photographers.  I think that is a common young photographers mistake though. It is an important step to start pricing yourself correctly.  Even if that means losing out on some work.  If you know your work has value, you have to stick to your price.

Cody Cloud: I wish we would have learned more technical lighting and more Photoshop. Where I went to school they didn’t emphasize the technical side, and coming out of school, my [Photoshop] skills weren’t up to par for jumping into the real world. I assisted a long time. That’s how I learned to light. Julia [Galdo] does the Photoshop so the partnership works out good.

What advice do you wish you had gotten (or heeded) before you graduated?

Geeting: The best piece of advice I got in school was from Joseph Maida, my junior seminar teacher. The thing he said that stuck with me was, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” which is actually a Robert Frost quote, but it applies so well to photography. I didn’t pay much attention to these words at that time – I was too busy being a self-righteous college kid – but they were always in the back of my mind. Today, I might have a pre-conceived idea before I start shooting, and even if that idea is illustrated exactly as I had imagined in my mind, there’s a good chance that it won’t be very interesting to look at. If you are not surprised by what you are shooting as you are shooting it, no one else will be. Being able to adapt is so important. Leaving room for change and happy accidents is something I have built my practice on.

Burkle: I learned this eventually on my own: Very few [people], if any, will appreciate you. You have to work hard, work often and keep your head up. You will most likely be poor for a while. However, once you’ve proven to people that you are hard working, persistent, talented and easy to work with, the world will start to take notice.  This process can take a few months or even a few years.  Unfortunately, your degree in photography is for your own peace of mind.  The photo world estimates your worth in real-world experience.

What professional advice do you have for students who are just graduating?

Geeting: GET A BLOG. And update it every day. Make something every day. If you really love what you’re doing, it shouldn’t be a chore. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money on a leather portfolio or promo cards or whatever people think will get them noticed. Just make the work. And then get up the next day and make it again. If you are putting in the work, good things will happen to you. That’s just how the world works – the energy you exert will come back to return the favor. I really believe that.

Burkle: Keep on top of your technology–cameras, capture software, photoshop, new equipment and techniques, archiving software, etc.–and shoot as much as possible for yourself.  The latter seems obvious, but I fell victim to this early after graduating. When you start working 60 hour weeks for someone else and you don’t have much access to studio time, shooting for yourself becomes a struggle  very quickly.  FInd the time.  Work on weekends.  No one will hire you for the portfolio you “want” to create.  Clients hire photographers, not assistant with potential.

Cloud: I would tell students to work on talking about their work. In every meeting, you have to pitch your ideas. Clients need to hear exactly what you’re going to do and the reason for it. You have to articulate it so they can get it. That’s going to help you get jobs.

Related stories:
So You’ve Just Graduated With a Photography Degree. Now What?
What I  Didn’t Learn in Art School: Life Lessons from 10 Photographers (for PDN subscribers)
Creative Pitches That Land Advertising Clients
The Money Issue: Estimating 2.0: Bidding on an All-Media Library Shoot (for PDN subscribers)