jumping the gaps, or: becoming a professional


1981: first SLR, Nikon EM

You all remember your first real camera, I know you do. The way it felt in your hand and what it looked like through the viewfinder. Maybe you’re still using your first real camera. If you’re a young photographer that’s considering photography as a profession then I’d like to take you on a little trip.


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There are a few distinctive ‘gaps’ in a professional photographer’s career. In this instance I’m defining a gap as a chasm or a break, something that requires a leap to get to the other side, to continue the journey.

Photography is a path and we all choose how far we want to follow it. There are different exit ramps along the way, to editorial or commercial or wedding photography specialties. Some of us may decide to stay close to home and keep photography as just a hobby. Others choose to see just how far up the

1996: 4×5 Horseman (or was it Cambo?)

professional road we can make it. But regardless of how far we go or where photography takes us, we’re all sharing the same road. And we all started out with a camera in our hands and a sense of wonder.

Picture yourself traveling along happily as a young amateur photographer whose skills are continually progressing. If you choose to take photography more seriously, maybe even make it a profession, then you’re at a gap. It takes a leap to jump to the next level. Often this means committing time and money to a qualified photo school or program. There you’ll be exposed to the art, technique and history of photography. If you’ve worked hard and applied yourself then you’ll earn a diploma and, hopefully, some connections to the next level, to the real world. And it’s time to make another leap forward.

If your desire is to become a commercial photographer then you’ll enter a studio as an assistant. The photo equipment can be intimidating, you’re dealing with clients now and the photographer you work for is maybe a bit eccentric. The days are long and can be backbreaking. Then you become more comfortable and more trusted. At some point the photographer trusts you to do most everything but push the shutter button. Maybe you even get to push the shutter button when clients aren’t around.

You’re also doing some paid shooting on the side now and small magazine assignments or public relations jobs are coming your way. Hopefully you’ve been nice to everyone along the journey and made relationships with other young creatives; art directors and magazine editors that are coming up at the same time. At some point you reach the end of what you can accomplish as an assistant/photographer and need to make it to the next level, devoting all of your energies to shooting. It’s time to become a professional photographer, so it’s time to jump another gap.

2007: favorite? Canon 5D

Each new gap grows in distance and each one is a little harder to make. This is a big one, striking out on your own. If you’re conservative then you won’t jump into business until the planets have all aligned and you’re guaranteed success. If you jump too early, without enough potential work lined up, then you’ll need a parachute to slow the fall. It’s not unusual (and not a crime) to go back to assisting for awhile. I grew up in the hills of West Virginia where we often had to “back ‘er up to get another run at the hill”. It’s okay to back up. Remember, every self-made millionaire has made and lost their fortune an average of three times before making it stick. You won’t give up now.

Eventually, with determination, you’ll make it to the other side, making your living as a photographer, shooting and enjoying it. If you’re at the point where photography is supporting you then it is genuine cause for celebration. With the champagne uncorked and streamers flying, you’ve done what many photographers aspire to and far fewer accomplish.

And that’s as far as I want to take you on the journey today.

When I was younger I thought this would be the end of the road, that once I’d learned to make my living as a photographer then everything would be set for the rest of my life. But the road stretches alot further than that, I’ve found. So I keep pushing forward, enjoying the journey and doing my best to jump each chasm as it comes up.