Transitioning from Student to Professional-ish Photographer

By Anna Ziemniak

By definition, I am a “professional photographer” e.g.: I make the majority of my income by taking photographs. I have a stable job as a product photographer during the day. Occasionally on weekends, I get to schedule my own fashion shoots or volunteer my time/services in the Indianapolis fashion scene.

Young, Rich & Famous

After college I was very idealistic, and thought that I would freelance instead of working full time, fully oblivious to the fact that I’d be desperate for money now. What I didn’t count on was graduating during a recession, when companies cut out all spending they considered excess. As time wore on and each of my student loans crept into the “repayment” period, I began lowering my standards to get by; $25 to photograph a couple items from a bakery, free demo photos to anyone who would let me use them in my “new” family/senior pictures/wedding business. When even that failed, I was able to find work at a local senior portrait studio, then took a job where my degree didn’t even apply. Only now, 2 years after graduation am I working a job where I am using my degree. Frankly, I consider myself lucky, because steady income for photographers outside the realm of weddings/family portraits is hard to come by.


When working as a young photographer, I can absolutely guarantee that at some point, you’ll be approached to work for free. Whether you take it or leave it is completely up to you, and if you ask fellow photographers for advice, they’ll surely give a variety of opinions. Personally, I think that if you actually do “need the practice,” and the project interests you, there’s no shame in donating your services. You’re gaining hands-on experience without the pressure of potentially disappointing a paying client. Now with that being said, I don’t mean to insinuate that you can get away with doing crappy work because you’re not being paid, or that you should allow yourself to be walked on. I’m talking about being respectful of yourself and the other person. Recently, I was asked to photograph an event that I wasn’t sure I could handle due to inadequate equipment, but I really wanted the job. I discussed my concerns with the client, and suggested that I be a backup photographer just in case my fears were correct. In the end, I was able to provide photos of the event, and I showed that I took the job seriously and was being respectful of the client.

As with any profession, there will come a time that a mistake will be made; maybe even a really big mistake, but if you consistently show people respect and put your best foot forward, it’s less likely that one mistake will do much damage to your reputation.

The “N” Word

Network. Ugh. I always feel like that’s such a dirty word. I picture myself in uncomfortable heels and a black dress. Awful alcoholic drink in hand, I laugh at corny jokes and shake hands with people I’d never want to run into again; all in the name of networking.

Thank god, I’ve never had that experience! Although there has been some awkward conversations here and there, I’ve found people to be pretty friendly. Really, the beauty of it is that I didn’t realize I was networking until after it was over. I knew I wanted to be active in the Indianapolis fashion scene, and made a point to attend shows, studio openings, fashion shoots, etc. with my camera in-hand, and started talking to other photographers (baby steps!). Just making some dumb comment like “Hey, nice monopod”, can lead to “Hello, my name is Ani”. I “networked” by accident, met some new friends, and learned more about useful on-location equipment; it didn’t even hurt!

I Like You

I have a short list of photographers I look up to, and I am lucky enough to be in contact with them because I initiated it. Sure, it may seem awkward to e-mail a complete stranger, let alone compliment them. I was always afraid of being perceived as some kind of creep, but luckily have not had that response. In fact, reaching out to these people helped me improve myself as a photographer and meet new people.

This brings me to the single most important thing I’ve learned, so listen carefully: If you want something, JUST ASK! Wonderful things can happen. Indy has some really great people who are willing to band together and help, and it only takes one person to help you get things moving.

If you don’t know local photographers, do some research! It’s likely that photographers in your area don’t specialize in the field of your choice, but it’s worth it to inquire about assisting. Maybe bribe them with lunch in order to pick their brains. Keep a tough skin and an open mind. I’ve inquired several times with local photographers about assisting, and have been rejected because they already have assistants. Just keep taking your vitamins, because assistants get sick, and suddenly you’re the one they call.

I Havent “Arrived”

I am still working towards becoming an editorial/fashion photographer, and I am slowly but surely building up a portfolio. Along the way I’ve learned that more goes into being a “real” photographer than just taking photos. People matter. Asking, listening, and simply being available have greatly helped me transition from a naive, idealistic student to a more realistic, optimistic professional. Make no mistake, I don’t think I’ve “arrived”; in fact, I may never arrive. However, I’m learning to worry less about whether or not I’m doing enough and love the journey and all the people I meet along the way.

Anna Ziemniak was born and raised in northwest Indiana before moving to Indianapolis where she attended college from 2005-2009. Today she lives & works in the Indianapolis area as a photographer. You can check out her work HERE.
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