Though I had some early training as an artist and storyteller, I began my career in human services, not the creative field. For those eleven years, I rarely picked up a camera if not on vacation or put pen to paper unless I was writing a report. The urge to create professionally never left me, but I found myself on a career path that, while rewarding, held little promise of fulfilling my desire to create for a living.

Frustrated, I turned to my father for advice. Always reliable, he offered two bits of sage counsel. First, find a way to express your creativity in the work you do now. Second, identify and embrace your “transferable skills”.

When invited to start writing for Photofocus, I spent some time thinking about what I could share that would be of most value to you, the reader. Now, an established production professional, I have plenty of technical tidbits, best practices and, maybe, the occasional mini-rant to share. But, as we get to know one another, I thought the greatest value I could offer is a series of articles on transferable skills.

Why? Well, many of our readers are looking for a way to turn their passion for the camera into a profession … full-time or part-time and I suspect that like the younger version of myself, they may not know how to translate the work they do now to the work they want to do as a storyteller, with camera, pen or both.

By identifying and embracing ones transferable skills, one can see that much of what they need to be successful in a new field is already present, even if it is not yet recognizable.

So, what is a transferable skill?

Simply put, a transferable skill is one developed through practical experience in a hobby or profession that can be applied to almost any profession. Generally speaking, transferable skills break down into two categories: soft skills and hard skills.

  • Soft skills. Soft skills relate to interactions with other people and will help one work with clients, subjects and agencies, or more accurately, the people who represent those agencies. Are you a whiz at getting babies to smile for photos? If so, that is a soft skill.
  • Hard skills. Typically, hard skills relate to interactions with things, environments and technical systems. Do you understand the exposure triangle and use it to get accurate exposure in your shots? If so, that is a hard skill.

With that distinction made, lets talk about some transferable skills from both categories.

My first job in human services was as a case worker serving people with a wide range of physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Often, in serving my clients, I interacted with their friends, family, bosses, coworkers and other support systems in the community.

While most of these interactions were incredibly positive, some were not. Sometimes, parents struggled to come to terms with their need to protect their adult children and that childs need to become an independent adult. Other times, a boss might have issues with the way a wheelchair could impact the work environment. And, many times, my clients would struggle to understand why members of the community treated them differently and, at times, cruelly.

In all of these cases, it was my job to contend with these challenges on behalf of my client. Along the way, I learned a ton of skills I now use daily, but the one I use most is empathy. Empathy is the ability accept that a persons feelings are valid and understand, to the best of ones ability, what they must be feeling. It is not sympathy, which is essentially pity or sadness about someones situation.

When I began that job, I had a lot of preconceived notions about people. Though my parents raised me well, I was 21 and thought I knew everything. Soon, I learned that peoples motivations are complex and often not fully known to them. So, something that seems mean and spiteful might simply be a lack of understanding. Or, what appears to be a lack of confidence might actually be a lack of experience. By adopting a default position of empathy when interacting with difficult people, I developed a toolbox that helped me get a better grip on their needs and concerns and proactively address them.

Think a skill like that might be helpful when dealing with a “bridezilla” or otherwise demanding client?

As for hard skills, I spent a lot of time driving from appointment to appointment within the community. As a result, I got to know my hometown like the back of my hand and I picked up visual and geographic cues which I have found help me navigate in most cities, regardless of where I happen to be traveling, domestic or international.

Think a skill like that might be useful when trying to find a location when on assignment?

This concept of transferable skills is extremely powerful. I have used mine to transition careers twice, both in down job markets. And, over the last five years, I have used transferrable skills to pursue my passion for storytelling with both camera and pen. There is no reason you cannot do the same.

To get started, download and complete this worksheet from the University of Denver. As you go through it, think about how the skills you already have might apply to your photography, at a professional or hobbyist level.

Finally, if you found this useful, leave a comment to let us know you would like to see more articles covering specific transferable skills and how each can apply to your photography.