Four out of five people rate their photography skills between “good” and “excellent”, according to the latest consumer research from Canon.
If 80% of all camera wielders are so accomplished, why aren’t there six billion professional photographers?
Like driving, understanding politics, or handling a barbecue, photography is one of those things for which everyone believes they’re uniquely qualified—until it comes down to actually doing it for a living. There’s more to the craft than a steady hand and a keen eye for detail. Faced with demanding shoots, unpredictable hours, temperamental clients, and formidable competition, few newbie photographers stay in business for longer than a few months.
Ask any professional who’s made it longer than that, and they’ll tell you that their longevity has little to do with talent or artistic intent. The best working photographers understand how to form connections with others, build their brands, sell their visions, and take care of themselves behind and in front of the camera. They’re networkers, hustlers, and entrepreneurs. They’re willing to embrace monumental financial risk in pursuit of their passion. And they’re always looking for ways to improve.
If that lifestyle sounds intimidating, a career as a photographer may not be right for you. But if you’re feeling energized by the challenge—if you can look at a professional portrait, glamor spread, or landscape print, and think, “I could do better”—you may already have what it takes. There’s always room for creative, motivated photographers. The world needs you.
But first, here’s what you need to know.
There’s no such thing as “normal working hours.”
As a professional photographer, be prepared to work when you have to—not necessarily when you would like to. Depending on your areas of concentration, as well as the requirements of a particular shoot, you may need to arrive on location and have your equipment set up before dawn or the middle of the night.
If you aren’t bound by natural light or the rigors of nature photography, you’ll need to work around your clients’ schedules. Consider portraiture: When are most people free to have their pictures taken? Evenings and weekends. When do most weddings take place? Saturdays and Sundays.
Even if you’re fortunate enough to secure an advertising or editorial gig, it’s still unlikely you’ll work a typical 9-to-5 or 8-to-6. Your day ends when you get the material you need. Factor in the time it takes to edit, process, and package the photos—not to mention answering calls and emails, running your online marketing presence, and taking care of all the administrative tasks associated with managing a business—and, in fact, your day never truly ends. With discipline, patience, and self-care, you’ll get into a regular rhythm, but it doesn’t happen automatically.
People will be difficult.
Not all of them—but some.
There’s a reason photographers have egos: to make it professionally, you’ll need to become a staunch advocate for your work. As the Canon survey demonstrates, virtually everyone thinks they can do what you do for a living. Consequently, you’ll come across people who won’t value your time or won’t hesitate to find faults in your work using harsher terms than you could imagine.
These people could be your clients, colleagues—or even your friends and family members. Some won’t know what they’re talking about; others may have a point. Criticism could come from any direction at any time. No matter how wrong or right you think they are—no matter who they are—don’t take it personally. Develop a thick skin and try to see every interaction as a learning experience.
At the same time, you’ll need to recognize the boundaries of your own point of view. If you want your business to endure, keep an open mind: your clients’ opinions count as much as, if not more than, your own evaluation of your work. Similarly, feedback you perceive as rude or unreasonable could be a sign that you haven’t adequately fostered your relationships. People are nicer to you when they know you care about them and have their best interests in mind.
You will spend as much time as you do on photography, if not more, on the “business” side.
There’s a lot to learn about being a photographer: composition, lighting, exposure, perspective, depth of field, the ins and outs of your equipment, color correction, editing, post-processing, and so on.
There’s much more, however, to learn about running a business. For one, consider how people will find and get in contact with you. How do you intend to market your business? What kinds of projects do you want to get involved in, and how many will you be able to take on at once? How much should you charge?
Then there are the what-ifs: What if you drop and break your camera or your lighting rig falls into a creek? What if someone steals your laptop, or uses your work on a t-shirt and makes thousands of dollars without your permission? What if a former client threatens to sue? What if you owe a lot more in taxes than what you budgeted for?
Managing your business may cause you a great deal of stress and uncertainty. On the other hand, you may find that you enjoy the business side of things even more than photography. Some of us are natural-born salespeople and client relationship managers. Either way, acquaint yourself with the administrative responsibilities you’ll need to think about on a regular basis.
You may not love photography the same way you do now.
In theory, professional photography seems like fun. How could a career spent taking pictures every day not be fun?
That mindset, however admirable, doesn’t account for competition, the limitations of time, and the difficulties posed by your competitors.
The clichéd piece of advice that you should “do what you love” doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. You may find that you love your former hobby a little less after a grueling month shooting and editing photos for 12 hours a day. When you’re working under others’ conditions and schedules, you’ll have to constrain your creativity and compromise your vision. You could end up doing something that has nothing to do with your area of interest and hardly resembles the work that got you hooked on photography in the first place. Regardless, what you love about photography may change over time.
Unless you make a ton of money at the outset, you may also need to get another job or you may need stay at your day job. If you do still have spare time—as well as an urge to take photographs—you’ll almost certainly have less energy than you did when you were only shooting for fun. Creative professionals suffer occasional burnout, and if you’re not careful, a bad day could have a lingering and toxic effect on your outlook. Don’t assume you’ve lost your touch, but stay mindful of shifts in your attitude. Periodic frustration is normal; cynicism is malignant. Sometimes, to preserve your passion, the best thing to do is walk away.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that photography is all doom and gloom—that wouldn’t do the job justice. Every career has both ups and downs, and there are some amazing elements involved in being a professional photographer that can make it all worthwhile. I asked Tez Mercer what he thought an aspiring professional photographer should know and this is what he had to say:
As a photographer, you’re in an uncommon position: you get to go out and chat to people in all walks of life for a couple of hours, hear their stories, then extract yourself and get on to the next gig. You’ll meet some amazing people. Give them the time to teach you what they know and be grateful you’re in the presence of someone who can teach you something.
So, what should you expect? Your life will change—if you let it. If all you want is a million dollars and a stable income, there are easier ways to earn it. But if you want to get out into the world and immerse yourself in the unfamiliar, while approaching it with respect and humility, you’ll be enriched.
Becoming a professional photographer can be hard, and it might not be glamorous photo shoots and free-flowing creative expression every day but it can change your life if you let it. Now that you’ve glimpsed the harsher realities of professional photography, let’s focus on this positive, more proactive advice. In what’s to come in this seven-part series, we’ll take an in-depth look at what it takes to start your business and find success as an aspiring photographer.