Books for the working photographer

Books for the working photographer

So I’m sort of a bookworm. I read a ton. Before bed, while waiting around, while driving (only semi-joking…) and wherever else there’s downtime. I’ve read a lot of books that are directly or indirectly related to making a living in a place that isn’t a cubicle. Here are my four favorites.

Preface: I know that some of these titles may be photography specific, however, I wanted to discuss in detail and share with people who do this freelance thing (or are trying to do this) for a living certain books that have helped me get repeat clients, find new clients, make enough money, and continue the cycle, and quit my day job. I got my first paid assignment a little over a year and a half ago and I’m now working full time at this, and things have only been going up and up since then. I attribute a lot of my technical knowledge to the internet, with a few mentors that I met along the way, but I have learned so, so much from reading, in terms of business knowledge, artistic knowledge, etc, from books that it would be wrong to discount that entire knowledge base.

There are a TON of crappy photography books out there. Like any subject with a huge user base, there is going to be a lot of material and not all of it will get filtered. Some of these choices will be obvious but others less so.

#1: Ignore Everybody, by Hugh MacLeod

This book is probably the greatest piece of literature to ever happen to me. It’s not so much a book about taking photos, but more of general self-help book for starving artists. I’ve read it cover to cover probably five times (and that’s not even a joke). There are some key points in this book that really need to be understood if you want to make it as a freelancer. For example:

“Good ideas alter the power balance of relationships.”

“The best ideas always have the loneliest childhoods.”

“Power is never given, power is always taken.”

“Nobody Cares. Do it for yourself.”

These are the four major points that this book makes – and in the context of freelance-dom, as ridiculous as they sound, they need to be taken very seriously. I can’t even tell you how many times I was told “you’re crazy,” “there’s no way that you’ll make it,” “this won’t last” etc.., by people who didn’t think I would last a month before obscene debt ruined my life, or I’d meet some other crazy demise. If I had listened to every  internet keyboard-jockey telling me to quit before I started, I’d be working some miserable minimum wage job, shuffling paper in a cubicle, or similar. My naivety told me to actually trust in this book – and it has let me come this far without doing any major self-harm. In fact, I’d say I’m doing quite alright so far.

Enough incoherent rambling. Buy this book. It’s long enough to flesh out details, but not too long to bore you to tears. It’s clear and concise, and full of witty humor in bite-size servings.

#2 (this should be the most obvious)
Best Business Practices for Photographers: Second edition by John Harrington

At $23.00, a total steal. This book has paid for itself hundreds of times over (seriously) in what it taught me. I learned none of this in school. I think going to art/photography/anything but business school grossly under-prepares you for the reality outside of school. It is said a lot but I’ll say it again. I spend easily 50% (probably some weeks closer to 80%) of my working time negotiating business deals, sending invoices, following up, emailing clients, meeting clients, etc. And about 20% in any given week actually out on a job shooting. This is a business book, not a photography book, but we’re doing this as a business right? It covers everything you need to know (and is eye-opening). I am still learning new things from this book almost a year months after purchasing it and reading it cover to cover multiple times. I reference it multiple times a week and use it for nearly every negotiation I take part in. He breaks down every possible scenario you could see yourself in while you’re running a business.

If you’re doing this for a job (part time, full time, anything) and don’t own this book, there is really no reason not to. Put off buying your next lens, accessory, whatever, and buy this. Your revenue will increase, you will learn a ton, and you will have formed many solid goals for your business. He runs an awesome business and it is really something to aspire to.

#3: VisionMongers by David DuChemin

This is a sort of less technical, but just as valuable to me, book for anyone interested in doing this full time. It is a collection of tips and hints from David, who has also interviewed about 15 fairly-well-known pros about how they got started (Karl Grobl, Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally, Dave Delnea, Zack Arias, DuChemin himself, etc). This isn’t so much a technical manual as much as it is a more biographical look at all of these working pros. It shows that there are a lot of different ways to get into the business, how to find and explore new markets, how to market yourself, why each pro is successful (hint: niches) etc. It is also a harsh reality check for anyone looking into getting into this – a lot of the stories contained in it show just how hard it can really be to make a living doing this. One of the pieces of advice on becoming a full time photographer is: “Don’t.” Certainly sobering, and all in all a great read with more of a personal feel than ‘Best Business Practices,’ while still giving some priceless business insight in this outrageously competitive career choice.

#4: Lurzer’s 200 Best Ad Photographers Archive

This is different than the other books, as it’s more of a picture book- Nothing but images here. Absolutely nothing but high-end photos. If you ever want to feel inadequate, pick up one of these books. I paid $30.00 at Barnes And Noble for the latest edition, I’ve forgotten what I paid for older ones but they do sell out and after that prices go through the roof. The reasons I insist on these books are:

-Nothing but the best images in photography. Whether you shoot people, landscapes, architecture, whatever, there is a section in this book for it. You’ll recognize a few of the photos from national and international ad campaigns. However, most of them are from personal collections or obscure campaigns and the concepts and ideas are just not to be believed in some of the photos. Things you’ve never thought of. If I ever need inspiration for a job, I will flip through here and try to pull some ideas out for clients. Not only are there far-flung surreal works, but the usual ‘clean’ wedding shots, portraits, and so on are all included. Even if you don’t shoot for commercial and corporate clients these books are an amazing source of inspiration.

-No text. Just images. Big images. I like this because a. I can reverse-engineer the photos in my head without being told exactly what happened in the photo which flexes my creative muscles a bit and I might even have a happy accident and come up with something cooler and b. the images speak for themselves. If I’m feeling bored I will look through, get some ideas and go take some shots to see if I can figure out ‘how they did that’ or ‘how they lit that’ or ‘how they photoshopped that,’ whatever it is.

So to sum it up, just a library of the best imagery on offer. If you do any type of photography, these (as I’ve reiterated) are just awesome sources of inspiration.

I hope this helps anyone who’s interested in breaking free from the grind. These are all books that have helped me enormously – inspirationally, technically, and in business terms. They’re all at least worth a flip at the local Borders, if you get the chance.

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Comment ( 1 )

  • Branden

    Just so you know, I've bought books #2 and #4 because of this blog post (and got the free Kindle samples for the other two). I live down in San Jose, so I kinda sorta know the Tahoe area, and as someone who opted for the boring office job route but never stopped loving cameras, follow with interest the trials and tribulations of your freelancing journey.

    Thanks for blogging about it, and keep up the good work

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