9 Tips on Starting Your Photography Career
My humble and not-so-professional tips on starting your automotive photography career.
Quick story, I started taking up photography around nine years ago in high school, my sister was the one who wanted to buy a DSLR – because DSLRs were all the rage back then – but then I ended up using it more than she did, and before I knew it I was hooked on photography, and I used it to channel one of my other passion: cars.
My first DSLR, the very humble, but capable Nikon D3100.
After just a few months I started taking more and more photos of cars, whether it was my own, at a car event, or occasionally a friend’s car, I was always excited to photograph cars. I started my own thing called Speed Hooked with my high school friends, which then led to my employment at Speed Creed and I’ve been photographing cars ever since.
Fast forward to 2020, and it pains me to say that my photography career has been pretty much stagnant over the past couple of years. One thing led to another, plans didn’t go according to, well, plans, and here I am. If I’m being honest, I get jealous when I see other guys succeeding so much in their automotive photography career, but I’m happy as well that my friends are doing so well. *Insert Jeremy Clarkson smug face that also looks like a fake happy smile*.
That being said, let’s not be all doom and gloom, I decided to take a look back at the last nine years, and here are some things that I’ve learnt and some tips for the aspiring automotive photographers:
1. Pick a field. Any field.
So, you like automotive photography, but what exactly? Motorsport? Commercial? Journalism? There are a number of photography fields that you can pick, and while there aren’t really any official categories, automotive photography can be broken down to a number of fields.
For example, I would define commercial as the photography that brands use on their marketing materials, some people would refer to it as beauty shoot or stills. Anyway, my favorite commercial photographer would be GFWilliams, he takes photos for the likes of Maserati, BMW, and Rolls Royce amongst others. His photos are crisp, clean, and exciting, I definitely recommend following him for inspiration.
An Indonesian local that does this kind of photography is @27thvisual, he does work for 3Steps auto detailing and his photos are also clean, simple, but still exciting to look at. Definitely give him a follow if you like his style. Another tip on commercial photography, don’t be afraid to learn Photoshop and digital imagery, as commercial photos often require a lot of photoshopping.
Motorsport is also another field a lot of automotive photographers like to pick despite being harsh and physically challenging, but who could blame them? The sound of race cars, the smell of petrol and rubber all day long, and exciting on-track action is always a lot of fun to watch and makes up for the sunburn and sweaty socks you end with up when you're done. Larry Chen is probably one of the most well-known motorsport photographers out there, but I want to give a shout out to @ardianpradana and @fauzanpasha, two Indonesian locals that have made a name for themselves in the Indonesian motorsport world and I’m sure you’ll find their photos rather extraordinary.
Another type of photography that comes to my mind is journalism, or you can also call it documentation. You see, over the last few years Indonesian car culture has grown exponentially; there are more and more car clubs, dealerships are making more events to connect better with these car clubs. When they do have an event – whether it’s by the club or the dealership – often they’re going to want someone professional to document it, sometimes for the public, sometimes for their personal uses, or maybe even marketing use. Whatever it is, they need photographers, just like Speed Creed did in the past.
There are a bunch more photography fields for you to take, and my advice is to pick a field that excites you the most. Some might like motorsport photography better than commercial, or maybe it’s the other way around for you. Give them a try, and once you’ve found the one you like, stick with it and hone your skills there.
2. Pick a style. Any style.
Now that you’ve picked the field that you like, comes the tricky part: what’s your “look”? Some photographers like their photos to be bright, clear, with high details on the cars. Others prefer it to be a bit darker and have more of a chill vibe to it. Do you prefer stills or rolling shots? So on and so forth.
Having a certain “style” could be the key to get exposure, while this doesn’t mean that you should always to stick with that style, it does help people to differentiate you from other photographers. Kind of like BMW with their kidney grilles, you know it’s a BMW when the car has those double kidney grilles.
I find that it’s best to have your own style, at least for Instagram. That way the public and potential clients can look at a photo and almost instantly recognize that it’s your photo, and if you’re lucky, that potential client might like your style and want to work with you.
The key to finding your own style is to emulate, whose photos do you like the most? GFWilliams? Larry Chen? Alex Penfold? Whoever you like, try to emulate their photos. “Steal” their style, if you will, as it is part of the process to finding your own preferred style. Just don’t steal their work and claim them as your own. Don’t be a prick.
Once you’ve found your style, try to keep it consistent. Use a gray card to produce consistent image exposure and color during each photoshoot, this then will help in you in post processing so that you won’t have to fiddle around too much with the color balance and more often than not you’ll find it easier to have a consistent style. Of course, colors are just the start to finding your style, angles and perspective are also something you need to think about as well. Just don’t be afraid to explore the next time you go out to shoot cars, remember: an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.
It’s important to note that you have to stay flexible. If you prefer cold and darker looking photos but a client wants brighter photos with clearer details, then give them what they want, since they’re paying you anyway. It’s important to be flexible and make compromises when taking up a job. One photographer that I think does this quite well is @amirulwithtustel, you can see that he has different tones from one shoot to another, from this neo-noir 360 Modena look, to this crisp and clear photo of a tow truck, but you can tell the photo quality is consistent throughout his shots. Every time his photos comes through my feed, I immediately know it’s his.
3. Don’t be afraid to shake hands.
Well, not literally, not in this day and age anyway. But one mistake that I’ve made in the past was being too afraid to introduce myself, whether it was to other photographers, car club members, or dealership sales representatives. As an introvert with social anxiety, I was always too afraid to introduce myself to new people, even when it’s in a group setting with a bunch of my close friends, I was still too anxious to introduce myself and make a good first impression in front of new people.
DO NOT REPEAT MY MISTAKE, I REPEAT, DO NOT REPEAT MY MISTAKE.
Meeting new people and making a good first impression can be the door to many more opportunities in the future, a fellow photographer might ask you to help in a project, a car owner might be interested in your services, and a sales representative from a dealership might reference you should the dealership needs a photographer.
I feel for the fellow introverts out there, meeting new people can make you feel uncomfortable and anxious, sometimes so much that it frustrates you and you just want to go home, but trust me, you want to fight that feeling. Otherwisem too many opportunities will go by, I mean look at me now; I was too afraid to meet new people when I had the chance back then when I worked with Speed Creed and look at my stagnant career now. You’ll want to fight that feeling, you have to, if you’re serious about taking up photography. This advice goes out for almost any career, to be honest.
Introduce yourself, tell them who you are and what you do, show them your portfolio if you get the chance, and with a little bit of luck, you’ll find new opportunities knocking on your door. Don’t be afraid to shake hands. Just don’t forget to sanitize after that, haven’t you heard that there’s some crazy infectious virus going around?
4. Personal branding.
Speaking of introducing yourself, personal branding is just as important. What’s your Instagram handle? What’s your logo like? Where can we see your portfolio? And again, what’s your photo style? Personal branding is also more than just your photos, this is about YOU as a whole. The way you dress, the way you talk, your punctuality, and so on.
If you’re going to work with dealerships and brands, you might want to dress well and be punctual. After all, they are corporate people, and in my experience corporate people likes to be punctual. If you’re working with fellow creatives, usually it’s a alright to be more casual. Just, please, be punctual. I’m begging you all please be punctual. Yes, this is a personal rant.
Anyway, come up with a catchy name for your Instagram if you can, and a good logo that is recognizable but functional, meaning that you can use it across any of your photos and it’ll look good. To be honest that last part is something I need to work on as well, I haven’t gotten any inspiration for my logo.
A face helps to humanize your profile page and people can recognize you in public Photo by @amirulwithtustel
It’s also important to have a “face”, it’s fine to have only car photos on your Instagram feed, but occasionally you’ll want to have your face in your feed or at least in your profile picture or your website, this will help people and potential clients to recognize you should you meet in public. Having a human face associated with your page helps connect to people.
If you want to stay “mysterious” though, it’s fine as well, but you need a bit of a theme to it, so you just don’t seem like a weirdo. MotoMobiTV (an Indonesian car reviewer) for example has made good use for a mask, or maybe you ride bikes and you have a unique helmet that you wear everywhere you ride, this can be turned into your personal branding as well. Just take it off when you actually meet people in public. But don’t take off your face masks, again, that crazy virus is still around.
5. Team Up.
Having a team can also provide you with warmth and cuddles during a photoshoot.
If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together. Sounds like a cliché Pinterest quote but it makes perfect sense; teaming up with your friends on a project can often take you further than you initially thought. Having a team means more minds can work together on an idea, with more connections to the team that can help with growth, and work can be distributed as well so you don’t work on everything yourself.
Photo by @itslegarcons. I apologize for my helmet face.
Being in Speed Creed brought me more exposure than I could ever do by myself, and I often find it’s more comforting to be in a team that helps each other grow as creatives. Sure, conflicts are unavoidable, and some people might work slower or faster than you do and you might not be quite in the same rhythm, but once you’ve found the right partners that can work in the same rhythm as you do, you’ll find that you’ll be able to walk further than before. It doesn’t hurt to have a friend or two.
You can also apply for jobs at a creative agency to help you grow. Just in case you didn’t know, brands and dealerships often outsource their creative and marketing needs to creative agencies. Whether it’s photos, videos, or other marketing activities, they sometimes hire an agency to do the work. You can try to apply to these agencies to be part of their team, I was once part of Higher Purpose Agency and worked on their Porsche Indonesia’s Digital Activation Project. This is not only an opportunity for you to make a name for yourself, but also to learn from professionals.
6. Focus. Dedicate.
Another mistake that I’ve made in the past was not focusing on my passion as an automotive photographer and not dedicating my time. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a photographer; I’ve always had doubts in my skill, not to mention I come from a “corporate family” and that “stable” corporate job was always a temptation for me.
My distracted mind and doubts in my own skill was a recipe for a disaster, and this is something you really need to think about. Do you love automotive photography? Do you want to make a living out of this? If you do, then you'd have to focus on it. If you still have doubts in your skill, then decide on what you need to work on; practice, attend courses, talk to experts when possible and hone your skills.
Do not doubt yourself, if you truly love the job, focus and dedicate your time to learn and improve. Nothing good ever comes out from half-assery, trust me.
7. Explore other possibilities.
Don’t be afraid to explore other creative work related to cars, such as writing and videography. Here’s the thing, automotive photography is a very saturated market, by definition it means that the product has become diffused within a market, this is often because there are too many supply and not enough demands.
In simpler terms, the automotive photography market in Indonesia is filled with a lot of photographers, but not a lot of people are actually demanding their services. Or, more accurately according to my observation, not enough people are willing to pay the right price for these services. More often than not, car owners and car clubs prefer to ask an amateur photographer to take photos of their cars for free instead of paying a professional to do so. Nothing wrong with that, the beauty of a free market is that the consumer has the freedom to choose what they product/services they want, but it does mean that your photography service is often un-needed. Is that a word? I’m counting un-needed as a word.
Seems bad, doesn’t it? Well, this means you have to stand out somehow. Maybe you can provide videography services as well along with photos, not a lot of people can do high-quality videography, yet. Or maybe learn to write, this way brands have more reasons to hire you as both their photographer and copywriter, be it for their digital or printed content. Why hire two people if you can hire one to do both? Of course, don’t forget to charge for two different jobs, but it’s likely the HR department is going to prefer to hire one person that they like that can do two jobs rather than having to interview another candidate, unless the position and work load really requires a dedicated personnel.
Other skills that you can learn include social media management and mastering SEO for digital content, but that’s a discussion for another day, in any case, having more than one service in offer means that you can stand out from your competitors, giving more reasons for employers and clients to hire you.
Also, in the subject of paid work, don’t be afraid to charge your clients with the proper amount of money. If you feel like your work is worth the price, then charge it. This way, clients will learn that they have to pay for good results, this not only benefits you with actual paid work, but the market as a whole, as not a lot of people can appreciate good photo work, just yet anyway.
Bonus tip: a general rule is that if you ask to do a photoshoot with a car owner, then it’s free. But if they’re asking YOU, then you should charge them.
8. Never Stop Never Stopping.
That subtitle was a reference to the movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, starring Andy Samberg. Yeah, anyway, it’s simple enough: don’t give up. Whatever you choose to do in life, you’re going to find challenges, trust me, life is a bitch. But you can either sit and mope around about it or do you want to rise up and fight that bitch instead?
You’re bound to hit a wall; maybe you’re not getting the exposure you expected, maybe a potential client picks someone else instead of you, maybe your team had a fight and now you’re alone, but do not give up. Know when to quit, but if your surroundings and your condition still allows you to follow your dreams of becoming a photographer, then keep going.
9. And finally, have fun!
Whether you take up photography as a career or just a hobby, remember to have fun!
Photo by @itslegarcons
Becoming an automotive photographer is just like any other career, you’re going to have to learn, work hard, and dedicate your time to truly make it. It’s not going to be easy, I can tell you that much, but in a career like this – or in fact any career – you should have fun! You will be tired, you will face burn outs, but remember why you started, remember why you love this job, and have fun!
It’s also okay to not take up automotive photography as a career, maybe there’s a more lucrative career option or business opportunity that you want to take up instead. It’s fine, sometimes your hobbies don’t have to be your career, that way it can just be something that you do in your spare time to have fun with, and that’s okay. Not everything you do has to be productive or profitable, sometimes it’s good to have an activity you enjoy on the side without any pressure.
I hope this helps you to decide and prepare on your photography career, should you wish to take it up. Whatever your choice, remember to have fun, I wish all the aspiring automotive photographers out there the very best of luck!
If you're a car photographer, or aspiring to be one, let me know what challenges you've faced in the comments, and maybe we can help each other. Also, who knows? Maybe your next client will be reading the comment section!
P.S. I started with 5 points for this article but ended up with 9 and couldn’t think of a 10th point to round it up. I know, as we Indonesians call it, “nanggung”. But I can’t think of a 10th one. This bothers me more than it bothers you, trust me.
All photos are taken by me unless stated otherwise. Please contact me should you want to use my photos for commercial purposes, or credit me for personal uses.