On a fairly regular basis I get questions from people asking what it’s like to make a living as a photographer in Taipei. I thought it might be useful to address a few of those points here, and offer some tips and suggestions for others who are considering such a path. This is not a how-to guide by any means, more of an overview of things I’ve experienced. Other working photographers may have similar experiences, or they may be completely different. Every journey is unique but there is a lot that is common.
Photography is an always changing market, and in my time here I’ve seen the industry undergo some fairly large changes, at least in the areas that I’ve served. In the beginning the bulk of my work was rights managed travel stock. The royalty free and microstock models changed all that, with photographs that had previously attracted healthy licensing fees now available through other vendors for the price of a cup of coffee. I still earn income every month from rights managed stock but mostly by way of news residuals. As the stock licensing downturn kicked in, I began shooting assignment work for local and regional magazines throughout the Greater China area, as well as joining a news wire service as their Taiwan stringer. Not long after that, Lonely Planet Images approached me with an offer to become a contracted photographer for them.
They say the only constant is change, and sure enough, change happened again. The wire service got bought by Corbis Images, and Lonely Planet sold their imaging department to Getty Images. Over the few years that I shot for the two of them, it was interesting to see that Getty provided a lot more licensing opportunities, whereas Corbis resulted in fewer licenses but of much higher value. Along the way I continued with editorial assignment work for various publications globally and begun looking into branching out of a strictly editorial role and moving into other commercial areas. As more and more news outlets downsized or closed, it became apparent that more change was coming, and so a more concerted push into the commercial world was needed.
A quick note about terminology. Commercial photography is a business to business transaction, and so editorial work is a form of commercial. A lot of photographers (myself included) separate them out, and so when I’m talking commercial here, it’s referring to any photography commissioned by a business that is not news / magazine stories. Also worth noting that wedding, families, babies etc photography is not commercial photography as the buyers are individuals not businesses. This type of photography is generally known as consumer photography.
Ok, back to it. One essential for growth and success as a working photographer is knowledgeable critique and portfolio review, and that is especially important in the commercial world. Finding critique is relatively easy – there are a number of critique groups, or places online where photographers can post work for such purpose. For the beginning photographer or the advanced hobbyist, these are excellent avenues for improving your skills as you can learn from more experienced photographers. For working photographers, looking for something more is usually necessary. It’s important to have feedback from people who really know the industry and know what buyers want. I’ve seen it happen numerous times, and even once ran a little experiment to confirm it, but it’s often the case that photographs that art directors love are not ones that photographers love, and vice versa. I’ve been fortunate to work with a few art directors over the past few years (and continue to do so today) on my portfolios, and the resulting selection reflects that. The first one I worked with had just left a position as art director at Saatchi in their LA and Sydney offices, and that first portfolio consult was a real eye-opener as to what was a good photograph and what was a commercially viable photograph. As a working photographer, it’s important to remember that most of the people who are hiring you will not be photographers themselves, and so when you seek critique, these are the people you need to be looking to in order to get advice and guidance that’ll push you to the next level. They know what is commercially viable but you will have to work a lot harder to find them. In the major markets of the US, UK and Europe there are portfolio review events featuring industry people but here in Taipei they don’t really happen. You will have to seek the people and opportunities out yourself and approach them.
Seeking them out is good practice because you’re going to be doing the same thing when it comes to finding clients. If you think you can put up a website and an Instagram account and that’ll be it, then you may as well just buy a lottery ticket. Your chances of success will be about the same. You need to do the work, do the research and then do the work again. It’s not a 9am-5pm job, especially in the early days. More like 5am-9pm with a half day off on Sunday.
Yes, there are stories of people who get discovered through Instagram or 500px or wherever. For the other 99% of working photographers though, hard work has gotten them there. There are a lot of photographers who are unwilling or unable to do the work and their dreams of working as a photographer remain that – dreams. Most of those you will never encounter. There’ll be a small minority however who become envious of your success (however you want to measure it) or frustrated in their own lack of work, and they’ll become the critics and haters. Tune them out.
I skipped over a bit of my working backstory so to quickly summarize where things are today as the industry has continued to change I remain firmly established as a full time working photographer. The continuing decline of news and the recent sale of Corbis, have seen news drop down to about 10% of my income. I still have 2 Getty contracts (one exclusive, one not), and have recently joined Zuma Press. Magazine work accounts for a further 30% or so, with the remaining 60% of my income covered by commercial work for designers, cafes and restaurants, ad agencies, marcoms, corporations and so forth.
One thing I rarely do these days though is shoot for myself. I recently did a series spread over a few different days that was solely for myself. Sometime in the future I may share some of it online but that was never the intent, so it may remain unpublished. Prior to that, the last time I shot something solely for myself was when I was in Thailand in early 2015. Other than the odd random photo here and there, everything else has been created for some reason outside myself, whether on assignment or for a marketing piece or in some other way, destined for someone else’s eyes. That sometimes is the downside to working as a photographer – you don’t get to shoot for yourself as much as you’d like, and a lot of the time, even the personal work is being done partly for others attention.
Skimming through this, two things jump out at me as things I keep returning to. Change and work. Change is always happening in photography and it probably happens faster now than it ever has. 10 years ago, you needed a good print book and maybe a website. 5 years ago, a website was essential as was a blog. Today, we still have the website but blogs are secondary to Instagram, and iPads are increasingly replacing print books. Who knows what will happen five years from now.
Work may be the biggest factor. You just have to do it. There are no shortcuts. If you are not prepared to do it, then you may want to reconsider photography as a career. Do something else and leave photography as a hobby. If you’re prepared to do the work, you’ll have success.
Taipei is a relatively small market. It’s not a NYC or London or any of the other major photo markets. But it’s still possible to make it as a working photographer here. I came into it with no knowledge of how to be self-employed, did the work, embraced the change and have been earning my income solely from photography for a number of years now. You can do it too. Just remember the two keys themes.
I’ll leave you with a few words from Gary Vee.