Life As A Workaholic Commercial Photographer

Life As A Workaholic Commercial Photographer

I’m driving a beautiful triple-black Aston Martin DB9 V12 down a florida highway. Its nose so long that the sun striking it practically blinds me. AC/DC is blasting on the radio and the car’s 12 cylinders roar at the slightest touch to the throttle. One client has loaned me his beautiful British exotic so I could drive 90 minutes away to briefly meet another private client about photographing his multi-million dollar Bugatti supercar collection. Surreal, right? This sort of experience has become sort of commonplace for me recently, but it never becomes any less mind-blowing. Sometimes I just sit and wonder: how did I even get here? This is just crazy.

My home base is the Washington DC area, but I was flown to central Florida for a last minute newborn baby portrait job. What the heck? I don’t even DO baby portraits. Although, when a regular corporate client calls you 8am on a Friday morning and wants you to fly to Florida immediately, you do it. It’s the nature of this career… no… lifestyle.

There is no job security. I feel like no matter how far I advance in my career, I will ALWAYS worry that the jobs will one day dry up. It’s that thought process alone that drives me to work 7 days a week, and at least 50 hours a week spent at my computer, over 100k miles a year on a plane, and 40k+ miles spent behind the wheel.

Being a commercial photographer can be incredibly rewarding and thrilling. Every day can be a new adventure. The effort you put in to your work can be directly proportional to the money/success you make. There’s the amazing reward of working for yourself and seeing your hard creative work come together in print (or computer screen or tv or billboard). You also find yourself in surreal places with equally if not more surreal individuals. Some examples: onetwothreefourfive.

I’ve met some of my favorite heroes, partied in amazing places, driven extremely rare and awesome vehicles, fired [probably illegal] weapons, hung out of helicopters while buzzing the Mexican military, played with white tigers, been flown around in private jets, and get the deep pleasure of seeing my work get published and [hopefully] appreciated. At times my life borders on the line between absurd and ridiculous. This is what photography has given me.

Although, with the excitement and personal rewards also comes the hardship. To succeed in this business you need to give your 150%. Sometimes that means compromising a normal personal life. When my friends want to socialize, I often duck out to go back to work on a Friday night or holiday to meet deadlines. How about that financial risk? Oh yeah, that’s a big one. There’s the cameras, the computers, the lenses, software, and constant upgrading every few years. On top of that most photographers make poverty-like income because of the high expenses, but continue for the love of what they do. It takes constant hard work to keep on top of yourself and your career. Did I mention the hard decision to sell my prized 1966 red Mustang convertible with a V8 289 2 barrel carb and bench seat to pay for my early career? Sigh…

Sometimes my friends don’t understand why I can’t quit and meet for drinks after work hours. I value that they still try and hang out with me because I am always so busy or rarely home! For us commercial photographers, there are no “work hours.” Your mind is always turning… thinking of projects or cool shoots/concepts… its nearly impossible to turn it off. I remember in my early 20′s I was dating this great girl that had a 9-5ish corporate job. I think it literally drove her insane because I always wanted to talk about photography or the shoot I just did or was about to do. I started to think something was WRONG with me, despite being an otherwise fairly normal dude. Let me preface that she was an awesome girl, but it takes a LOT of patience to deal with the likes of a shooters like us with our wacky ideas and our long hours and busy travel schedule.

I feel like there was one day when I had to decide that my life would not be a traditional one. I would not be married by 30. I would not be home at least 60% of the year. I would throw all personal plans out the window and go wherever my career and adventure would lead me. Scary at first, I found it quite liberating. I was always the one to sweat the small stuff… to worry that my life wasn’t going the path I had set, but when I submitted to it all, everything became more easy.

The bottom line? I love what I do. The prospect of failing at it terrifies me. I love the perks… the cars, the parties, the amazing people, (maybe the pretty girls too), etc, but the work I create has become the most important thing to me. I still get a huge charge when I walk off a set knowing I “got the shot.” You can’t be in this career for the perks. It was a great photographer, Kwaku Alston, that warned me not to get caught up in the glamour of the business because if you do, you’ll find yourself lost way off-track. He was right. It took me awhile to see it, but after doing this for nearly 10 years, I do. When you take your eyes off from where you are going with your work and your career, you will careen into a ditch. Focus on the things that are most important to you like the work you want to create and your loved ones, and well, the rest is just cake…. or frosting… or whatever the analogy is.

Over the years many have said they envy my career after seeing the kind of jobs I do or the trips I go on, but I felt it necessary to paint a realistic picture of what this career is all about. It certainly can be a blast, but it’s not all fun and games. It can bite you hard if you are not paying attention. I will say that I wake up practically every day (the days I do get a full night of sleep) thanking my lucky stars to be getting paid to do what I love to do. For that reason alone, I am willing to pay the price.

My particular experiences may not necessarily reflect that of other commercial photographers, but I hope my 2 cents gives you a better idea of what it’s like when you choose to commit your life to a photography career.

My personal motto: Work 1000x times harder than your competition, don’t be afraid to constantly grow, try your best to be good to your fellow man (and woman)…and the rest sort of irons itself out. Oh, and keep your personal work fresh!

Thank you to my friends, family, and loved ones for being patient with me and my crazy schedule over the years.

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Some words of wisdom from a few of my photographer friends:

"Rule #1. Time and Money, they are not yours anymore but they are your business. This means instead of buying that sweet high end bike or watch you've been lusting after you have to buy a light modifier (cause your assistant ruined the last one) and equipment insurance instead! When all your buddies take a random road trip on the weekend you stay home because you have a deadline on a project that needs editing. You may not be able to wine and dine that pretty young thing you've been talking to because things have been slow.

It's easy to resent your business. Especially when all your friends have a steady paycheck, 401k and health insurance and all you seem to have is a client that wants everything for free. To quote Jeff Bridges, 'This ain't a place for the weary kind'. But when you're meeting somebody amazing, seeing a prototype car, or given restricted access to a cool location all because you are valued for your crafted visual is all worth it my friends. Be well!" - Brian Braun


"I started photography a little less than three years ago. What began as an artisitic outlet, quickly became my passion in life. Photography makes me feel whole, like I have a purpose. For the first 40 years of my life I was changing careers every couple of years. Nothing inspired me, hell every job I had actually depressed me. 

My drive is quite simple. I want to create beautiful imagery for the world to see. My work is a reflection of my soul and I refuse to not give 110% of my ALL every time I pick up my camera. Being mostly self taught, the learning curve was unforgiving. I made horrible mistakes in my editing, and my overall lack of knowledge would have sent most people over the edge (or off to college) but after 2 years of staying up until 4-5am and constantly practicing my editing, I am finally at a place where my work is getting published (for pay) globally. I'm also the proud papa of 4 magazine covers. I wil be a photographer until the day I die." - Drew Xeron

"It is a given trade off that we need to make sacrifices to achieve success in any field that we want to truly excel at. But I firmly believe that our mindset and how we approach those sacrifices has a lot to do with how we perceive our situations. My work is part of my life, I integrate it into so much of what I do that often it does not feel like work, but rather something I am excited to do. For a long time I found it hard to maintain friendships and relationships outside of the photo industry because very often people did not understand the requirements and dedication needed to run a successful freelance business. But over time I did learn that my true friends wanted nothing but success for me, and they don't resent the fact that it may be weeks or months between times we hang out because of my travel and work schedule, but when when we do meet up they are excited for me, and it is often like no time has passed - and I am quite content with that.

Similarly - I am in a relationship with someone who also understands the requirements of what I do and the ambition that I have for it - another freelancer (albeit in the legal rather than creative industry). Not only does she support me, but often pushes me further when my resolve is tested. By all rights the sacrifices we both make for our careers should put an undue amount of stress on our relationship - but instead, through both of us being very honest about our dedication to what we do respectively, we manage to thrive (even when I am writing this piece while I am supposed to be on a holiday getaway.)

The sacrifices we make are needed, but much like we manage our clients' expectations on an assignment we must also learn to be direct and honest about our priorities with our friends and loved ones. Losing someone who does not support your goals and dreams is not a sacrifice, but a lightening of the load. Keep the ones who appreciate the sacrifices you make and encourage you close, and understand that even if you can't see them every time you want they will still be there for you in the end." - Luke Copping


"Everybody think you have to be the best and the most talented guy with the best equipment to be succesfull. But the truth is that you just have to work harder and longer then other people. And the coolest thing is that you work for yourself and not for somebody other. And if you have fun - its not real work - its passion :-)" - Calvin Hollywood


"I was always told that it's action not excuses that brings success and that certainly rings true for life as a photographer. Getting up early and staying up late, shooting for clients, retouching, book keeping, travelling and more can make for pretty full days and that's not taking into account the vital activity of shooting for yourself, staying in the learning mode and blogging daily (if you choose to). 

Sure it sounds like work, a lot of work, and it is but I wouldn't want it any other way. I totally love what I do; I'm in a constant state of excitement at the thought of the next shoot and pushing myself. One thing is for sure though...despite the work load, the positives far and above outweigh the negatives; this is a fun and exciting industry to be part of and the minute it stops being so is the day I walk away...but don't hold your breath!" - Glyn Dewis
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By the way, if you're on the east coast of the United States, I've been hired by the team at Living Social to teach an Intro To DSLR Photography class at their new Washington DC live event facility 918F during the weekends in January 2013. Space is limited and it's only on sale until next Friday, January 3, 2013. You can also gift it to your favorite amateur photographer. I did this class for over 500 people last year and everybody seemed to really enjoy.
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Luke Burke's picture

Great post!  I appreciate all the feedback from your friends as well

Informative, but is there a reason you're just copy and pasting blog posts from you own blog here, as opposed to writing new pieces for the website?

Douglas Sonders's picture

One of the wonderful parts of being recruited for Fstoppers is that I can share what I do and my thoughts with a much larger audience than I would on my own social media. What I get in traffic to my blog over one month, Fstoppers gets in 1 day. I value those that have regularly followed my blog and I will continue to write fresh content on both sites. I have had a few blog posts that I did on my personal site that I thought were worthy of sharing with the rest of the photo world such as: Career Tips For New And Emerging Photographers, and Why We Photographers / Creatives Should Look Out For Each Other. Dont you think those are worth sharing? It seems that the community has enjoyed reading those posts so far, especially those that have never seem them before.

Christopher Sztybel's picture

He's got a point, fstoppers is one of my daily stops online. Makes sense to post here. Not that I don't like the Sonders site,  too!

Great post, Doug! Love all the info you're sharing!! "Work 1000x times harder than your competition..." -That is gold. Thanks for sharing!!

You don't go into photography for the money. If you want to be successful in the business it is hard work. 90% business and if you are lucky 10% photography. find your own voice and market the hell out of it!

Von Wong's picture

nice one doug, glad to see you put it out there ! Mildly bummed that it doesn't get any easier after 10 years though, hahahaha. 

No but seriously, I'm not sure if I could work less hard if I wanted to :| 

Andrew Griswold's picture

Wow, just so amazing to hear the inside story to your lifestyle and work. Just a true inspiration and its nice to see you have stayed humble with all the fancy things given to you over your career and that you still find ture passion in what you do! Keep up the great work and Ill continue to follow you and your work!


Thanks for the inspiring post. I just started my own business last year and what your wrote there sounds very familiar (not the aston martin, private jets and partys, obviously). Case in point - this new years eve I sat on my computer editing the photos I took on my last asignment - the same on christmas by the way. On the few opportunities I have to get out and have a drink with my friends I find myself thinking about new ideas for future asignments, or how I could edit this one picture differently to really get it to shine.
I quite my dayjob 6 month ago to be a photographer fulltime, and for all the worries about clients and equipment and money and bookings - It was the most freeing and overall best decision I have ever made.

Thank you thank you thank you for posting these quotes. Its nice to see others who are sucessful went through the same struggles I am currently facing. Just going to keep working as hard as possible... thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!