Read as Sean Armenta talks about his career as a Commercial Photographer. Find him at www.seanarmenta.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am a professional freelance photographer, so I basically get paid to take photographs.
How would you describe what you do?
I am a beauty, fashion, and lifestyle photographer that specializes in advertising, commercial and editorial photography.
What does your work entail?
My work entails shooting various photography assignments such as clothing catalogs, advertising campaigns, editorial features in magazines, and anything else that comes my way. One day I could be shooting an environmental portrait for a local magazine, the next day I could be shooting a cosmetics campaign, and then I could be shooting a celebrity you would see on TV or listen to on the radio.
What’s a typical work week like?
There is no such thing as a typical week. One week could be spent just shooting, another week could be just retouching, another week could be focused on marketing my work, and any combination of those things.
How did you get started?
I learned photography from my mom when I was around 6 or 7. She taught me how to operate a manual 35mm camera and photography has been a part of my life ever since. The ironic part of it was my mom didn’t want me to pursue a career in the arts, so I was actually steered towards a career in medicine. I eventually switched gears and began assisting other photographers to learn more about what it was like to be a professional in the industry. After a few years of assisting, I ventured out on my own by building a portfolio of work that I could market to clients.
What do you like about what you do?
I am fortunate enough to make a living doing something I absolutely love. No two days are ever the same, and I get to work with some of the most talented and beautiful people around. It is a constant learning experience and it never ever feels like work.
What do you dislike?
It’s definitely a challenge not being able to count on a steady paycheck. There are some months where I’m swamped with work while other months are slower.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
It actually varies quite a bit. There are a few different models I follow depending on the client. Ideally, I charge a creative fee plus expenses for the shoot itself, and then I license the use of the images to the client. The expenses consist of standard costs incurred from things like studio and equipment rentals, hiring crew, talent and assistants, any expendables used for the shoot, location permits, mileage, etc… My creative fee is based on my cost of doing business plus the value of my creative work, in other words, what makes my photography unique from anyone else. Usage licensing fees are determined by how the client is using the photographs. This is typically based on how long they will be using the images as well as how broad their audience is. For example, a photograph used for a worldwide campaign would have a higher licensing fee than a photograph used for a campaign within the West Coast of the US.
For smaller clients, I sometimes charge them a flat rate based on their specific needs or I charge them based on half and full day rates.
For editorial clients such as magazines, they will have a set editorial budget that they work with every month.
For all clients, it is normal to expect payment within 30 to 60 days of shooting the job, with 90 days being the norm for larger advertising jobs.
How much money do commercial photographers make?
I don’t think there is a more varied salary range than a freelance artist because we are basing our rates on the value of our creativity, which is a very personal thing. In addition, there are several levels of success you can try to attain, from shooting smaller companies all the way to the top echelon of photographers who shoot multi-million dollar campaigns which you see in the pages of Vogue and on billboards around town. It really depends on the clients you work with and how much work you do. It can literally be anywhere from minimum wage to making $40k a day.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a commercial photographer?
I honestly did not make any money during the first two years of my photography career. During that period, I spent a lot of time building my portfolio and gaining credibility within the industry. A lot of the work I did was done in exchange for exposure and networking possibilities. Once I got a foothold in the industry, my income doubled each year. I now make between $80-100K a year.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
I am completely self-taught, meaning I had no formal training or education in photography. If you are intent on making this your career, I do suggest you look into attending a photography school such as Brooks Institute, Academy of Art, or Art Institute. It takes talent, hard work, perseverance, and the ability to take the technical aspects of photography and make art.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Any number of unexpected things can occur during a shoot that you will need to deal with. As the photographer, you are the director; the person in charge that day. Everyone, including the client is looking to you to deliver exactly what they need within a very limited time frame. You have to deal with many different personalities on set and be able to manage anywhere from 5 to 20 people, sometimes even more. What people don’t realize is 90% of commercial photography is troubleshooting. You need to come up with solutions for so many things throughout the course of the day and constantly be on your toes.
What is most rewarding?
I think validation of your work from clients and the people you work with is most rewarding because the work you produce is very personal. Knowing that I was able to provide an enjoyable working environment to those people for the day is a great feeling.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Keep your overhead as low as possible; get used to saving as much money as possible because you have to prepare for slow months.
How much time off do you get/take?
Again, it really depends. You pretty much hold your own schedule so it’s up to you how much you want to work or take time off.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
I think the most common misconception is that we indulge in a very glamorous life. Yes, there are some pretty glamorous moments, but most of our time is spent doing a lot of legwork, reaching out to potential clients, spending whole days in front of the computer, and other tedious and mundane tasks.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I just hope to be able to keep doing what I’m doing and to continue to book as much work as possible. Eventually I would love to shoot huge ad campaigns for clothing and cosmetic companies. This is something I have no desire of retiring from.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
This is definitely not a career you want to jump into if you are looking to make a lot of money, or if becoming rich is your end goal. If you love photography for the sake of photography, and this is something you would do for free anyhow, then the money will follow. It all depends on how you measure success. I found something that I would love to do for the rest of my life and I wanted to make a living doing it. That’s where I am today and I couldn’t be happier.