When I began my career as a photographer, twenty two years ago, I dreamt that someday there would be a career event that would tip the balance from being a struggling photographer to a superstar. This “big break” would send me into the halls of photographic fame with the legends I admired.
The first of many “big breaks” came when I was twenty four years old. The prominent photography journal Lenswork, featured my portfolio. While at the same time, a leading gallery in the Monterey Bay area gave me a solo exhibit.
Immediately, my prints sales rocketed and I thought, “This is it, I am now big time!“
I purchased new equipment and threw money around like crazy. Six months later I was broke and back to trying to make ends meet. Since then my work has been featured in countless magazines and books. I have won numerous awards, received prestigious grants and I am respected within the professional outdoor photography community. Yet, those halls of photographic fame seem farther away than ever.
I have seen many young aspiring professional photographers make the same mistakes I have made, putting everything on the line because of an important career event or two. I was lucky and didn’t risk it all in those early days and have slowly learned not to change my long term goals because of such occurrences. Let’s have quick look at some of the common “big breaks” that many photographers see as an opportunity to do something crazy like purchase tons of new gear or even worse, quit their day job and “turn pro”!
Winning a Photography Contest
There was a time when winning one of the big photography contest was a pretty big deal. These days, most contests are fundraisers for galleries, organizations or are a marketing tool for magazines. Think about it, you pay them to enter and they get great images to print for free. Sure you might get some gear (which was donated to them by their sponsors) but winning a contest will do very little for your career outside of some initial exposure.
There are a few photography awards that actually give the photographer a large junk of cash or even a book deal, these are worth entering. However if you win, spend the money wisely (like invest it) and don’t assume that your career will be made by it.
Magazine Portfolio or Cover
There are few things more rewarding then seeing your photos on the cover of a popular magazine or featured in a portfolio inside. You should take pride in this but don’t jump to conclusions that from now on that magazine, or any other, will be knocking at your door, sending you on assignments.
The fine art print sales market is barely alive. The only people surviving on print sales are those who have their own, well established gallery in a recession proof city or those in the elite art world, which if you’re reading this; you are not a part of.
A solo gallery exhibit, which was once an important career event, is now, more often than not, a financial nightmare. A solo exhibit in a large gallery can cost between two-ten thousand dollars. That includes prints, matting, framing and promotional cost. Your chance of making that money back is almost nil.
Prominent Museum’s often have programs that help artist with exhibit cost and really nice museums will also publish a catalog of your work. If you can secure a solo exhibit at such a museum, then it’s worth the investment.
A solo book of one’s photography, published by a real publisher (not self-published) is a highlight of one’s career. There is very little money in photography book publishing. When my first book was published, the publisher said “Don’t worry about making money from the book sales, you will have assignments and print sales galore!” That did not happen. The only thing it did was build up my reputation, confidence and allow me to secure more book projects.
Keep On Pushing
If you are not an aspiring professional then any one of these events is something to be proud of and you should sit back and enjoy your accomplishment. Trying to make a career and survive as a professional outdoor photographer means constantly pushing, finding new venues. It is an arduous undertaking.
Just remember, there are no “big breaks’ in photography, only opened doors that close quickly.
Carl Battreall is a professional outdoor photographer based out of Anchorage, Alaska. His website is www.photographalaska.com
If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment.