So You Want My Job: Professional Photographer

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 27, 2010 · 14 comments

in So You Want My Job


Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Becoming a professional photographer is the dream of many a shutterbug. But going from snapping pictures of the birds in your backyard to shooting the cover of a magazine takes a lot of luck and a lot of hard work. Michael Le Brecht II knows this very well. Michael got his big break when he landed his first Sports Illustrated cover with the young high school basketball player deemed the “chosen one,” LeBron James. Since then Micheal has shot over 30 Sports Illustrated covers including another LeBron James cover, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Eli Manning, Oscar De La Hoya and more. Michael is a talented portrait photographer and took a break from his busy schedule to give us a little insight into his job.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I’m originally from Brooklyn, NY and now reside in NJ. I am 33 years old, married to Yesenia, and have two children, Samantha and Mikey the III. I went to SCCC in Loch Sheldrake, NY, and F.I.T. in NYC. I have been a professional photographer since 2000. I primarily work for Sports Illustrated as a freelance photographer shooting portraits.

2. Why did you want to become a photographer? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I always enjoyed going to pro sports games and taking pictures when I was a kid. In high school, I took a photography course and since then I knew this would be my profession, so much that my photography teacher wrote in my yearbook: “When you become famous and shoot for Sports Illustrated, give me a call.” So I did.

3. If a man wishes to become a photographer, how should he best prepare? Do you recommend majoring in photography in college or taking some other route?

Shoot, Shoot and Shoot. Majoring in photography is not necessary. Taking courses only helps. Assisting and shooting is the most important thing an aspiring photographer can do.

4. How does being a freelance photographer work? Do you only get paid if a publication accepts and publishes your pictures?

As a freelance photographer, you are at the mercy of a phone call. The good thing is that you can turn down any assignment without literally getting fired; the bad thing is that you really can’t turn down any assignments. As a freelancer, it is important to be available when called upon. Payment is per assignment, and in some cases you can get paid more for usage of images (Space over rate, whichever is greater). Ex. $1000 day rate, $2000 usage fee for a cover shot = $2000.00

5. How competitive is it to land a job as a sports photographer?

Very. As much as I want to say it is initially talent, it’s not. It’s “who you know.”  Talent keeps you in the game, but “who you know” gets you in the game.

chosenoneFamous SI LeBron James cover

6. How does a guy work his way from shooting high school football games to taking the cover of Sports Illustrated? How did you work your way up and what tips do you have for others?

Practice and timing are very important, but being in the right place at the right time is everything. Luck is a big factor in sports. You can prep and anticipate every play, but what makes sports so great is the unknown. I think it’s possible for anyone thinking of being a pro photographer right now; with the latest technology, if you have the money for the expensive equipment, shoot a lot of high school and college games, and put together a nice portfolio, you can work your way up. But it does take luck. I started out working as an intern at ABC television in NY. There I met James Drake, an editor for ABC at the time, who used to be a Sports Illustrated staff photographer. He introduced me to Manny Millan, one of the greatest basketball photographers of all time. Manny was a SI photographer who later took me on as an assistant. I worked with Manny for five years. He was a mentor to me, a man for whom I will always be grateful. In 2000, I started shooting more and more, and SI took notice and hired me for my first job, The Little League World Series. It turned out that the team from NY had a ringer named Danny Almonte, so it turned into a national story and my portraits of him ran in the magazine. Early the next year, I shot my first cover (currently over 30 covers) for SI, and it was LeBron James, “The Chosen One.”

7. What is the best part of your job?

Having the opportunity to capture history, by freezing time in a creative way.

8. What is the worst part of your job?

Traveling delays and being away from the family.

9. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

This is the hardest part, balance. But as I am figuring out, you have to schedule everything in order to not let one entity of your life suffer your absence. Managing all this is not easy but is doable.

Personal01_The_Hill_Holiday_CardPersonal holiday card taken for Grant Hill and family

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

That you have it easy, that when you’re not shooting you’re doing nothing. Shooting is the easy part; its everything else that’s hard. I believe when you are a professional photographer who freelances you have a 24/7 job. I constantly have to promote myself, and I spend countless hours archiving and retouching images. It is very misunderstood.

11. In this changing media landscape, what are your thoughts on the future of the photography profession?

The future of photography is video. It is only a matter of time where most jobs will be shot in video, and grabs will be made to create stills. So there will always be need of a photographer, but the photographer must continuously evolve.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Professional photography is definitely not suitable to all photographers, as the uncertainties of your next job is stressful enough to cause hair loss (happened to me), heart attacks (not yet), and very high rates of divorce (hopefully not me). But despite those associated fears, I wouldn’t trade it for a 9 to 5, I guess I was made for 24/7. One’s life can be enjoyed to the fullest every and any minute of each and every day.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard | January 28, 2010 at 4:20 am

The LeBron cover looks amazing. To be honest I think it’d be great to be a photographer. It looks so much fun and you’d get a chance to be creative. Good post.

2 IrishTony January 28, 2010 at 6:19 am

Thanks for this article.
Photography has long been a hobby of mine and I have dabbled with the idea of attempting to make a career of it.
I love these “So you want my job?” posts, It’s nice to see the nuts and bolts of how these jobs actually pan out.
It does seem like a dream job on the surface, but I think (for me) it may suck a lot of the fun from it.

Thanks for the insight Michael, Hope the ticker keeps pumping and the marriage stays happy.


3 Jim Hart January 28, 2010 at 6:35 am

I think this is a great series. I am often asked about my insight into the Personal training field. It has long been considered a hot career, with lots of benefits. but there is much more to it as with most of the careers covered in this series, it has a dark side.
I would love to do an interview and share my 15 years of stories about personal training.

4 Mark Quintanilla January 28, 2010 at 7:32 am

Nice post. The cool thing about Michael is that he remembers and is appreciative of how and who helped him improve in his career.

5 Curtis Copeland January 28, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Great article. Thanks for expounding on the realities of professional photography. Often, people think the only time we work is during the actual shoot. They are unaware of th time to upload images, process them in Lightroom and photoshop, back up, meet with other clients, marketing, etc. etc. When people tell me they want to start a career as a photographer, they are shocked when I tell them it will take a minmum of $2,000.00 investment and one year of weekly practice before they are ready and can generate consitent income. There is a disconnect between their talent and their desire. Even worse are the individuals who think photography is a excellent part time job to “make good money” because it is so easy. There are the individuals who undermine our profession.
Thanks for sharing!


Starting A Photography Business

6 Joe January 28, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Just FYI, not everyone uses Photoshop or Windows/Mac. Some of us hairy-chesters use The Gimp on Linux. Even something like Digikam or Krita work well.

Photoshop is for pansies (i.e. Those who can afford 700-1000 for software). ;-)


7 Tyler Logan January 29, 2010 at 6:38 am

A photographer wouldn’t be my cup of tea but it’s interesting to see how their world is.

8 Lee January 29, 2010 at 10:17 am

My wife started a photography business about two years ago. She does children, families and portraits. I agree that you need to shoot often and not worry so much about classes. It has taken my wife a few years to build a client base and get busy enough to start contributing to the income of our household. But she really enjoys her profession.

9 Chris Solomon January 30, 2010 at 6:31 am

My wife is a photographer & some of the stuff she gets is amazing! I dig the Hill Christmas card! Being a sports photog, getting to rub elbows with some of the best athletes in the world has to be a perk. Have you ever become close friends with any of your subjects, or is it strictly professional?

10 James Roberts January 30, 2010 at 11:01 am

This guy’s work is amazing, I just google him and saw his site .

Thanks for this post!


11 Michael Uphues January 30, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Interview me for “So You Want My Job”. I am a Emergency/Family Medicine Physician working on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. My shifts are 168 hours at a time around the clock! How is that for manly! And you can imagine the type of things I see in the ER on the weekend on a reservation. The difference up here is that the hospital is only 14 beds and staffing is limited. If a couple of cars end up getting into a rollover motor vehicle accident at 3:00am I am it,no specialists,no trauma center. We are the trauma center. It is a manly situation indeed and I am loving it. I am also a part-time professional magician. Check it out at Take care. -Mike

12 Mark March 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm

With the convenience of digital, everyone is a photographer these days. I can’t think of a worse time go into photography as a profession. But, after all, the world belongs to those who hustle. In the portrait and wedding business just be prepared be undercut by the guys that will hand over a disk and be done with it.

13 Darryl Henick October 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm

He is right on a lot of fronts. I was a contributing photographer for an Oakland Raiders publication for eight years. Even though it was great getting paid to be on the sidelines at NFL games, people didn’t see me after a night game up until four in the morning retouching images on my Macbook and then finally burning a DVD to fedex to the magazine.
I guess a nice perk is I showed pics to a couple of the players and it lets you know they are people like everyone else. I’m trying to break back into the pro market and it’s extremely difficult. In the meantime, shooting high school sports is fun because the parents and the players themselves are so appreciative.

14 joe July 20, 2013 at 10:09 am

I must weigh in here…

First of all kudos to Michael Le Brecht II for working his way up and becoming a success in a very difficult and misunderstood field!

I am a professional photographer who has been in the business for almost 30 years now. I have a degree in professional photography from a respected school / program. I also assisted several great photographers in a major city.

Some pros are high profile such as Michael, but most professional photographers are not high profile shooters. Many of us that shoot as commercial photographers in our local markets and beyond that are competing with incompetent “photographers.”

I find it sad that people are being discouraged from becoming formally educated in photography which is still a skilled profession (for the time being anyway). The way Michael did it is only one way of doing it. Becoming an assistant or apprentice is a great way of learning many principles of photography, but you are still just learning a certain size chunk of what your mentor knows.

I do not understand not wanting to know the principles of your craft. Just watching how to “tube” videos is not an education.
I cannot image having anyone but a master electrician wire my house, or a formally trained mechanic work on my car.
As pro photographers, we have no union and no state requires a skill test in order to get a license to become a “pro.”
Talent is talent, sure, but you owe it to yourself, your clients and your craft to not just go and buy a camera, put up a web site and pollute the market with junk and devalue the profession. Many do not know how to use an on camera flash or professional strobes!

Sure, I have seen some educated and “pro” photographers that could not shoot their way out of a paper sack, but not most of those whom I attended photography school with. They were seriously talented…and are still working professionals to this day.

I have also seen a few naturally talented amateurs that shoot as well as pros, but this is rare. So instead we have a bunch of greedy folks grabbing cameras, undercutting the established pros and producing crap. This drives down photography budgets for the following year. We, the established pros are left to deal with the damage that has been done.
Some of these people we refer to as “dudes with cameras” and “moms with cameras.”

So photography appears to be a glamorous high paying profession, but the truth is that it is a lot of hard work and a fair amount of rejection as well.

BTW, I seen a few other folks who have written similar posts completely attacked for telling the truth, but I do not care. You wanted to know what it is like and I have told you.

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