Graduation at San Diego State University. Photo ©Todd Bigelow


Graduation season is here which means that student photographers across the country are donning their well earned caps and gowns, strolling across the stage and entering a brand new phase of life as a professional photographer. Congratulations! It’s time to paaaaaarty!

My friendly, unsolicited suggestion is to party for a couple days and enjoy your accomplishment. Then, clean-up those solo cups, fold-up the ping pong table, drag the couch that’s stained with god-knows-what to the curb and get your ass ready for work. That stage you walked across represented a transformational period in life and you became a different person when you got to the other side. 

Those student loans that were on the back burner as you navigated degree requirements, class schedules, midterms, finals and parties (not necessarily in that order, either) are due in the next few months. Your lease on the beat-up rental subsidized by student loans and living with five roommates is over and everyone is likely heading in different directions, so it’s time to find a new place to live. That means credit checks, first and last month’s rent and new bills for internet, water, power and renters insurance. That’s pretty much life’s basics, assuming the graduating class of 2019 had moved on from meal plans years ago and are already accustomed to budgeting for food. Don’t worry if you feel the euphoria starting to fade a bit. Hell, that’s more common than Fireball at a frat house and should be expected. Every monumental life event is typically followed by a period of “oh shit, this shit’s for real” moment. Marriage? Yup. Child birth? For sure. First home purchase? Definitely. Why would graduation be any different? So don’t fear it, just expect it. And get your ass in gear because it’s time to face your new life head-on.

My son would be the first to tell a room full of graduates that I’m not one to sugar coat reality with comments like “oh, it will all work out, don’t worry” or “you’re going to do great!” if I truly think otherwise. I don’t see any logic in that approach as it only serves to undercut reality. And, trust me as someone who’s been a freelance photographer for 25 plus years, the reality of the profession should never be sugar coated. Unfortunately, though, far too many universities don’t provide a realistic perspective for their photography graduates to have an honest expectation of life on the other side of the stage. Simple questions like those I list below are extremely common for me to hear from recent graduates who’ve attended my talks and workshops (and these are just a few of them):

  • How much do I charge?
  • How do I get people to hire me?
  • What should I put in my portfolio to help me get regular work?
  • Do I need to worry about getting paid when exposure is a good thing?
  • Does the contract I got really matter?
  • How do I know when I’ll get paid?
  • How do you pay bills not knowing when the next job comes?


Heading to graduation. Photo ©Todd Bigelow

There are some university programs that incorporate a solid set of courses specifically designed to teach their students how to freelance, and I’m working on a list to post for all to see, but not nearly enough and that’s going to play a HUGE role in life on the other side of the stage. Photography/photojournalism graduates should have been provided real, relevant and timely instruction on topics such as client development, how to analyze & negotiate a client’s photo contract, how to create your own photo contract, how to build and maintain your archive to facilitate licensing and SEO, how to actually license your photos for revenue, how to determine what publications are currently paying for freelance jobs, understanding “Work For Hire” and why it’s relevant, understanding if you should incorporate or not, understanding tax implications and much more. Why do you need to know these things?

Because it’s a freelance world for photographers. Even if you land a staff job straight out of college, the likelihood of you engaging in freelance work on the side or entering the freelance market full-time is astronomically high. In fact, you should count on it happening. So the sooner you come to understand that freelancing is far more than knowing how to light a great portrait or shooting a worthy documentary project, the better off you’ll be. And by “better off” I specifically mean the better off you’ll be when it comes to paying those bills at the end of the month, starting with that student loan bill that will arrive shortly. As an example of how things have changed already after receiving your diploma, think about how you’ll pay the rent if you spend 3 weeks producing a nice photo story on your own time. In college you had the ability to do just that because student loans paid your tuition and living expenses but that’s no longer the case. Now it’s imperative you learn how to balance what you “want” to do and what you “need” to do to meet your financial obligations.

By now you likely heard about the incredible grant that billionaire Robert Smith announced while addressing the 2019 Morehouse graduates on May 19, 2019. He vowed to personally pay off every graduate’s student loans. That’s an amazing philanthropic act that rightfully garnered front page headlines all over the nation, but lost in the euphoria was a statement Mr Smith made that I found is 100% relevant to the life new photography/photojournalism graduates will soon face: “Greatness is born out of the grind. Embrace the grind.

Photography graduates need to take those words to heart. Leaving the life as a student photographer is a monumental event that comes with a new set of challenges. Where your professors and friends were once there at nearly every turn to offer support and guidance, you will now face a freelance career that is extremely competitive and, some will say, lonely in comparison. You’ll need to make important decisions that will impact your life and influence your career. But if you take Mr Smith’s suggestion and embrace the grind as part of your new life, you’ll be in a far better position than otherwise. That grind means significant attention must be given to freelance business matters that go far beyond shooting a great photograph.

Welcome to the other side of the stage!


Todd Bigelow Photography
2 comments on “Life On The Other Side Of The Stage
  1. Michael Der says:

    I LOL’d when you wrote “Time to paaaaarty…” That would be a nice sentiment. Always beautifully insightful and articulate Todd. Thanks again for your dedicated contributions to this industry.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks, Michael. I appreciate it. Just sharing what I know awaits these graduates so they hopefully get their careers off on the right track.

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