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11 things they don’t (always) teach you at photography school

For many of today’s photographers, graduating from school isn’t an end but a beginning to a lifelong learning process. They’re taught on the job, picking up tips from mentors and honing their skills while they’re in the field.

We asked nine professional photographers across an array of disciplines, from commercial to documentary, about the things they wish they’d learned in school. From negotiating with clients and editors to working with large teams, they shared the most valuable lessons they’ve gathered throughout their years of experience.

Shot by Julia Chesky for On the Rhox fine jewelry by Rhoxanne Villaseñor

1. Contracts matter

“Have a contract in place,” the New York-based photographer Julia Chesky urges. “It will save you a lot of time. It can be simple and just be like, ‘I owe you X, Y, Z. I (or you) own the copyright to my work. Payment is due in X days, and I will have the images to you in X days.’

“We never discussed contracts like this in school. We spent an entire semester discussing copyright, which is so necessary, but contracts should have been in that space as well. Get a lawyer to make a simple one. There are resources like TheLawTog that sell them at a reasonable rate if you can’t afford a lawyer. Just make sure you protect yourself and try to get half payment upfront when you do so.”

2. You should charge for your time, not just your photos

“As an emerging photographer, your initial reaction is to price either really low or overshoot your shot,” Julia says. “Pricing will never be easy, and we’re currently in a recession of sorts, but don’t sell yourself short. You didn’t become an artist to earn minimum wage, so take into account the hours you spend researching, emailing, and hopping on a Zoom call (or five). You have to take account of your time editing afterwards and price according to that as well. One photo should not be three dollars, ever.”

“This is a portrait of Aarron Ricks. He’s an incredible performer who tested this shoot with me at my Brooklyn apartment.” Image © Jazzmine Beaulieu.

3. Negotiating is an essential skill

“When initially approached by a client, you’ll be told a small blurb about the project, and they will ask if you’re available and interested,” the Brooklyn-based photographer Jazzmine Beaulieu tells us. “The response is always ‘yes!’ And then you ask for a creative call to get a rounded idea of what they’re looking to create. Knowing production helps you ask more targeted questions that will then shape your budget and approach.

“Then, you use this information to budget the project. Once that budget is approved, there’s no going back for more money, so it’s crucial you know what you’re delivering. In this same vein, it’s also crucial to have a negotiated terms agreement that the client will sign with the budget, so everything is clearly laid out financially. I suggest roping in a producer to do this with you.”

4. Clients expect top-notch treatments and production skills

“You will likely need to present a treatment as well,” Jazzmine adds. “A treatment is a curated document laying out how you’d approach this project using images from your portfolio that most directly relate to the brief. I never learned any of this in photo school. I only learned how to capture, print, retouch, etc.

“You can take a great photo, but if you don’t know the best productive approach from beginning to end, projects can get overwhelming fast. Photographers and Directors work with Art Producers directly. It’s our job to make their jobs easy. Knowing the full run of production does that, especially for the higher paying advertising projects.

“If you aren’t strong in certain elements of production, it’s so important to try and learn more as well as to surround yourself with people who are stronger in those areas than you are. I wish my school had targeted this in addition to creative execution.”

Image © Andrew Kung

5. You’re an artist, but you’re also an entrepreneur

“I went to business school at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, so I started off from a fairly unconventional background,” the Brooklyn-based photographer Andrew Kung reflects. “A big lesson that helped me accelerate my photography career was looking at my photography career like that of a creative entrepreneur.

“My product just happens to be images, but I treat my business like any other tech company, with structure, business pillars (business development, commercial projects, personal projects, etc.), and metrics to track progress each week and month.

“While this is a very systematic and rigorous way to track growth, the journey of an artist resembles more of a marathon than a sprint. Things may not happen in the next few months or the next year or two, but what’s important is that we practice patience and trust in the process.”

Helena, Arkansas artist starts a new pastel, from “Finding Helena” series. Image © Abigail Bobo

6. You’re your own PR person

“The business of photography, especially marketing, is essential to continuing to do the work that you love,” the Nashville-based photographer Abigail Bobo says. “In 2012, after graduating with my BA in photography, I started my business… and made $50 for my first-ever editorial shoot. It was a beautiful shoot, but I didn’t understand the business and often got taken advantage of when working.

“By reading business books, paying for high-quality mentorship, and working on my marketing, I started to break into the world of commercial photography. During quarantine 2020, I started a new site for upcoming photographers: I love working with other photographers to pass along what I know in an intense, personal, and customised format.”

Amandine shot in Portugal for Blanc Magazine © Noémi Ottilia Szabo

7. Teamwork is everything

“As a fashion photographer, I always work with big teams,” the Swiss-based photographer Noémi Ottilia Szabo tells us. “It’s all about teamwork and collaboration, and it’s so important to talk with everybody and involve them in the shoot. Sometimes, they come up with great ideas you haven’t thought of. Stay open, and get inspired on set.

“When working on larger productions, I’ve learned that things rarely turn out how you might wish them to, so you have to adapt and improvise. I love to have a rough mood board for every shoot, but on set, I’m totally open to seeing what’s going to happen. Even if I feel stressed, I act confident and don’t let my team feel that insecurity. It’s my job to ensure everyone feels comfortable, even when we’re under pressure.”

Pomegranate-Ginger Spritz for Food & Wine, shot by Bagwell + Protasio

8. Not every project will be your dream job

“It’s so important to listen to your clients and to be in tune with client expectations and their vision for the project,” Victor Protasio of the Atlanta-based photography duo Bagwell + Protasio says. “Sometimes we have to balance our creative impulses to make sure you’re covering what’s expected of us.

“Shoot exactly what the client wants, and then, if you have time, shoot what you have in mind. Hold your favorite, personal version until after your initial shot is approved, and then show them what you’ve got to see if they’re interested. Sometimes you have to make images that don’t completely align with your vision for the project, but it’s worth it because you end up with a happy client and a believer in your style and approach.”

Shoot with Empanada Mama in NYC © Cayla Zahoran

9. You don’t have to box yourself into one genre

“When I first started out, my professors always told me to pick a focus and build my portfolio for that specific genre,” the food and beverage photographer Cayla Zahoran remembers. “But as my career moved forward, the business aspect got in the way, and the focus on building a strong portfolio faded.

“In the beginning, I had a burst of creativity that came from the hustle, the joy of seeing my hard work published, and the momentum of my portfolio building quickly. Then there was a plateau. I got burnt out. I was tired of working for ‘exposure’ or working with new clients just to get the exact same images. It is inevitable in the creative process. This is the part that other professionals didn’t tell me.

“My advice? Always shoot for your portfolio, even if the subject isn’t considered your niche. I go into every project asking myself what is missing from my portfolio. What do I want to try? I keep my creativity fresh by delving into other projects that are outside of food photography. And when I feel like I am burning out in my field, I seek out jobs that will help me experiment new techniques or subjects to expand my skill set.”

10. It’s okay to juggle multiple projects at once

“I’m always running different projects at the same time, so when I feel stuck in one, I can switch to another,” the Belgium-based photographer Matthieu Litt tells us. “I collect ideas, texts, and anything that interests me. It is hard to start a project from scratch, so I prefer to reflect on them and develop them over time. It is also good to know that when you have finished a project, another is already in progress, even if it has not officially started. If a project ends up being impossible for some reason, I can always switch or postpone it so I’m always working on something.”

“Father and son climb a small hill near their home witnessing the last shine of the day’s sunset. Family names carry a huge value in the Bedou’ culture. Traditions and knowledge are transferred through stories, poetry and names. My family name ‘Eldalil’ the Arabic word for guide was my only lead to discover my Bedouin ancestry 7 years ago. From my project ‘The Longing Of The Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken’ which collaborates with the Sinai Bedouin community to depict a contemporary portrayal of the Bedou’ identity.” © Rehab Eldalil

11. You have to trust your instincts

“The one lesson that I’ve learned in my career as a photographer that I didn’t learn in school was trusting my instincts,” the Cairo-based documentary photographer Rehab Eldalil stresses. “I know this could sound naive, obvious, or basic to some, but this is my number one lesson learned after years working in photography.

“When you trust your instincts, you create something that nourishes your soul and those who see your work. I learned this last year from my mentor, the great Tanya Habjouqa, when I was going through a major creative block. It released all the fears and insecurities I had.

“Trusting your instincts means you create imagery from your heart, gut, and soul and not only to please an editor. When you trust your instincts, you start to put those technical skills on auto-pilot and focus on illustrating the emotions of the scene in front of you. That’s how you create genuine imagery. It keeps you grounded and connected to your truth as a photographer.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.