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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2008-10-03
Moving On: A Career Outside Photography
Zach Honig turns to a pen, paper, and his undying love for the latest gadgets.
By Zach Honig, PC Magazine
I graduated in May, just returned from the Olympics in Beijing, and I already have a staff job in New York City. How? Staff photographer jobs are about as difficult to land as fixed-rate mortgages these days. The answer: a pen, paper, and my undying love for the latest gadgets. I'm not going to be a photographer.
Photo by Ryan Gladstone
I shot some of my final work as a photographer at SportsShooter Academy IV in early 2007, when this photo was taken -- after my focus shifted to writing.
Sure, I'll get to play with all the latest cameras in my new position as product reviews coordinator for PC Magazine, but I won't have a chance to shoot the Super Bowl, or cover the presidential election, or even to shoot an environmental portrait of Bessie and her selection of homemade jams. I certainly won't be able to make a significant impact on the world from my Manhattan workstation, but it's a job in journalism doing something I love, and it pays -- surprisingly well.
Many friends who graduated with me in May are still on the hunt -- some feeling the pain as they try to survive in retail, some jumping from internship to internship, and others unemployed -- living at home while praying for a job behind a camera. Many of my former classmates are more talented at photography than I am, and their futures looked bright as we worked our way through the photojournalism sequence at the University of Missouri. But of the hundreds of students who have graduated over the last few years, I can count on one hand the number who landed decent-paying staff jobs right out of school, and only one photographer who saw instant success when he graduated after my freshman year. That photographer, Chris Detrick, entered the market four years ago, and there's been even more change since he began his search in 2005.
Some frown when I tell them about my decision to make a career as a tech journalist -- my former photojournalism professors certainly weren't jumping for joy. They thought I had the potential to be a somewhat successful photographer, and maybe some day I will -- but as an avid reader of this site with some well-established friends fearing for their staff jobs, I knew better than to take a chance right now.
I didn't wake up one morning and qualify for a job in tech journalism with nothing more than experience as a photographer; there was a lot of persistence, hard work, and passion involved. I'm not suggesting that a writing career is for everyone -- it's certainly not; but with far more talented photographers entering the market than there are jobs available, neither is a career as a staff photographer.
If you're late in the game or can't imagine doing anything else -- feel free to stick to photography. Start saving up now -- you'll likely be facing some very tough times ahead. Cut back on student loans, find the highest paying job you can and work your way through school, and come out prepared to fail -- or at very least, to have a very tough time finding full-time employment. I don't intend to discourage those of you as passionate about photography as I am about technology, but be prepared to do something else once you graduate, assuming you're not lucky enough to find a staff job with a starting salary in the low-20's (no, this isn't a joke).
If you're set on photography, be prepared to take a non-traditional position within the field. Even the best still photographers have been forced to diversify their skill set, learning to produce video, collect audio, and build websites. Demonstrate those skills by building your own website (using HTML and CSS -- I'm not talking iWeb here), complete with Flash graphics, well-edited videos, and audio slideshows. If you have writing experience, even better -- include links to your writing clips as well.
I can't emphasize the importance of a website enough -- start working tonight if you don't already have a home on the Web. It's quite possible that you'll have to seek outside help to hone these skills, so consider a Web or video production internship if you're unable to land one as a photographer. If you want help right away, check with your university's IT department -- some may offer free classes for faculty and students. I wrote a column on Web design about two years ago -- check it out (http://www.sportsshooter.com/news/1681) for a good place to start. Just keep in mind that a lot has changed since I wrote that piece, so skip the bit on iWeb -- employers aren't going to care as much that you can build drag and drop websites.
If you're in your first two years of school, or a high school senior looking at photojournalism programs, this is your wakeup call -- standing right in front of you, arms waving violently. Think long and hard about your decision to become a photographer. Talk to your family, reach out to current photographers and recent graduates from your prospective programs, and make an educated decision. I decided to leave my nest in New Jersey to study photojournalism at the University of Missouri with nothing more than a desire to travel the world and a passion for photography. In other words, I didn't really do as much research as I probably should have. I ended up in the right place, with a job doing something I love, but I made a decision to consider alternatives two years before graduation. Once you're done -- it's much harder to make the move.
You might ask what a column like this is doing on an online community for professional photographers. If that sounds like you, take a look at the message board, and read about the staff layoffs and the freelancers struggling to get by with the same rates they saw 15 years ago. There have been plenty of professionals "bitching" about low salaries, lousy contracts, and fresh meat taking freelance jobs that pay almost nothing. I'm not crazy here, I swear. Even while I was in school, we'd receive mass emails with offers to shoot gigs "for your portfolio." Even couples about to get married have discovered that they can get a decent student photographer to shoot their wedding for little to no pay. Not only is that student getting ripped off, but he or she is taking that job away from a professional trying to make a living shooting weddings.
I saw the message board posts, read the mass emails, and even "burned a bridge or two" by publicly calling out the faculty or staff member forwarding on requests for free student labor. Finally, I decided that it was time to consider doing something else. Choosing to take a job on the writing side wasn't a decision to settle; I love writing, but I can always go back to shooting if I decide the time is right.
While the Missouri School of Journalism isn't perfect, the program has quite a few strengths. I have no doubt that I wouldn't be where I am today if I had studied anywhere else, or chosen a major outside journalism, and I have "The Missouri Method" to thank. The school provided endless opportunities to get hands on experience doing whatever I found interesting, even if it were far removed from my declared major in photojournalism.
During my junior year, I worked as a reporter at the Columbia Missourian, a requirement for every photojournalism major. Some "photo kids" choose to blow off the hands-on class, learning nothing more than to write cutlines in AP style. I went into the semester with an open mind, however, and as a result, found something else I enjoyed enough to make a career of.
Photo by Zach Honig
Of the 1200 photographers credentialed to shoot the Olympics, U.S.-based newspapers and magazines could afford to send fewer photographers and editors than in years past.
The following summer I took an unpaid internship at PopPhoto.com, the website for Popular Photography and American Photo magazines. I worked hard, writing product reviews, learning to test equipment in the lab, and working on a feature or two. I also learned to use a content management system to publish articles and images to the Web. I have PopPhoto.com editor and SportsShooter.com member Jack Howard (http://www.sportsshooter.com/jackhoward) to thank for taking a chance on me that summer -- I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for his help.
Unpaid internships are tough, especially when they're in Manhattan. After my internship each day, I walked to the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, where I worked until 2 a.m., almost every day of the week. All that hard work paid off, however, when I was offered a contract position to work for PopPhoto.com from Missouri during my final year of school. It really felt great to move on from my hourly job as the photo equipment manager, and Pop gave me much of the experience I needed to land the job at PC Magazine.
I also want to stress the importance of summer internships, regardless of what you end up doing for your career. My school didn't encourage students to take internships -- in fact; they only allow three internship credits to count towards your degree (I've paid for 9). Most internships, especially in journalism, are unpaid -- but you won't gain that experience anywhere else. Unpaid internships suck -- so be sure to apply for paid internships as well, especially if you'll be dealing with significant expenses. It may take quite a bit of searching, but you can find paid internships in smaller markets, especially if you're willing to work somewhere other than a magazine or newspaper.
You can also gain experience on your own, through freelance gigs and personal projects. I freelanced for a local church for three years while in school. The pay was good but the shooting conditions were awful. Through my gigs with the church, I learned to shoot in mixed light in very dark rooms. Those gigs taught patience and determination. Had I only been shooting for class assignments, I guarantee that a dark church would have been the last place I'd choose to shoot.
The position at PC Magazine had some rather obscure requirements, especially for a photographer, but my experience by the time I graduated fell right in line with most of them. My almost 18 months working for PopPhoto.com, combined with experience at the Beijing Olympics (including two months of blogging for PopPhoto.com), and even my position as photo equipment manager at the journalism school, helped land me the job only a few months after graduation.
Even though I won't be shooting full-time for a living, I'll be doing what I love when I start work in a little less than a week. I've always been extremely passionate about technology, and even assembled my own computer (picking out all the components as well) when I was 13. The position is a good fit for me, but there's likely something equally fitting for you -- it just might take a lot of searching, and some thinking outside the box. I found this position through a colleague, but Journerdism (http://tinyurl.com/jouresource) is a fantastic resource for finding jobs in journalism and communications, including quite a few in photography. The site provides links to JournalismJobs.com and Mediabistro.com, and many other great resources. Take a look at job requirements now, and even consider contacting a recruiter -- then start working hard to gain the skills you need for a successful career. It's essential to recognize that most of those won't come from a classroom.
I still love shooting and I plan to whenever possible, shooting the people I love and the places I'm in, and maybe more later on. I've been drooling over the 5D Mark II ever since I had a chance to play with one a couple weeks ago. If you haven't already -- be sure to check out Vincent Laforet's blog posts on the new Canon (http://blog.vincentlaforet.com/category/new-technology). I could always come back to a full-time job in photography if the conditions improve someday, and there's nothing stopping me or anyone else from taking assignments as a freelancer. I may have a different day job now, but that leaves nights and weekends completely free to do whatever I want, and that will likely include photography.
(Zach Honig, a recent graduate of the University of Missouri's photojournalism program, is the product reviews coordinator for PC Magazine.)
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Behind the Lens at the Beijing Olympics
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