Photography: Master Sgt. Rob Wieland, USAF
It’s hard enough figuring out the photography. Professional quality cameras might be affordable these days but they’re still complex tools stuffed with strange features we’re sure we should be using, accessories that come with their own manuals and of course, editing software that demands a whole set of professional skills of its own.
And those are just the tools.
Understanding what makes a great picture and how to create it is a lifetime’s education.
Nor do the demands of photography stop there. Although becoming a skilled and talented image-maker is difficult, the popularity of taking pictures means that there are plenty of people prepared to invest the time, effort and yes, money too, in picking up those abilities.
“It’s a nice way to combine the hobbies.”
One way to stand out from the crowd then – and to win paid work – is to bring some unique, additional knowledge to the market.
Andres Reinhold, for example, has been taking pictures since 2005. Although he works full-time as an engineer, his images appear regularly in magazines which often commission him to conduct shoots. The reason he can make those sales isn’t just that he knows how to take pictures. It’s that even before Andreas picked up a camera, he was keen on cars.
“[I] started to shoot cars on the shows that I visit,” he explained. “I am an aircooled Volkswagen and Cal Look enthusiast, driving a tuned Beetle myself. It’s a nice way to combine the hobbies.”
In fact, it was at one of those auto shows that he met an editor of a car magazine. When the editor’s boss saw him looking at Andreas’ Flickr stream in the office, instead of telling him to get back to work, he told the editor to call Andreas and set up a sample shoot. For the car-loving engineer and part-time photographer, it’s been regular additional work ever since.
But shooting cars is simple enough. Although the subject has its own demands (the body has to be kept completely clean, emphasizes Andreas, reflections are tricky and it helps to have someone to move the car so you can focus on the shooting) the goal is simply to make the vehicle appear as beautiful as possible.
For Greg Epperson, a rock climber who took up photography almost 25 years ago, the challenge is a little different. Clearly, he has to know how to make his way up mountains – even with pockets full of camera equipment – and he needs to know which positions are likely to yield the best shots (and be able to get into them without falling off). But documenting what happens when a group of people clamber up a cliff face isn’t enough, he found. The market, he says, wants images with plenty of action.
“The real thing sells poorly because the clients don’t get it,” Greg says. “The dramatized versions sell because the client can understand it.”
The more you sell, the more you learn.
That’s market knowledge and it comes with experience – and as an addition to the climbing skills that Greg needs to capture his niche. Keep good records of what you’re selling, and the more images you sell, the more you’ll understand what sort of images the market wants to buy. The result should be that you begin naturally building a more commercial portfolio. (Or in the case of Greg Epperson, two portfolios: one full of the sort of dramatic images his stock buyers want; and the other filled with realistic photos that show what rock-climbing is really all about.)
Both of these two types of skills are relatively simple to obtain. Knowledge about your niche should be there at its beginning because you have an interest in it. Knowledge about the market comes with time.
But there’s another type of knowledge that requires special study. Alexander Jason is a law enforcement expert who is often called upon to take pictures of crime scenes. His clients tend to be district attorneys, police departments, defense attorneys and federal authorities, and his subjects tend to be bullet fragments, blood spatter, wounds and bullet holes, as well as the victims themselves. Although Alexander stresses that the most important skill necessary for this sort of work – which only forms part of his job as a forensic analyst – is the ability to take focused, well-lit images even in tight spaces and without disturbing anything, it’s also necessary to understand the legal requirements.
“It is important to understand how photos may be used by lawyers and in court,” he explains. “A simple thing is to keep images ‘clean’ — free from extraneous objects or people that will distract and which may create questions. Forensic photography should be about answering and preventing questions, not creating them.”
In practice, that knowledge too might be relatively straightforward… for anyone willing to invest the time in learning them. Alexander says that getting the photography right is a much tougher challenge, especially when time and access are limited. The best training he says comes by joining the Air Force as a photographer. But just as those basic skills have to be there, for anyone looking for an easier way to generate income from their images than competing with the crowd, other more esoteric skills should be there too.