10 Things I've Learned in 10 Years as a Professional Photographer

10 Things I've Learned in 10 Years as a Professional Photographer

This past weekend marked ten years of me being a full-time professional photographer. There have been ups and downs since 2010, to be sure, but I’ve learned a few things along the way.

This time ten years ago, I was going down to our county courthouse to file the paperwork and pay the $25 required to file a DBA to become a sole proprietor in Arkansas. I was just about to graduate from college with a B.S. in Biology, with an additional major in Anthropology and a minor in Spanish. I had been practicing photography since high school, shooting for the newspaper and yearbook throughout college, the occasional portrait session, wedding, nature photos, etc. Though I had never taken an art class or even a business class, I thought it was a great idea to become a photographer. After all, I had been teaching myself the trade for over four years, had almost won a trip to Antarctica through an international National Geographic photo contest (ninth place — I’m only a little sore about it still), and everyone had been telling me that my photos were “really good.” My dream was (and still is) to shoot for something like National Geographic — a dream shared by most, I’d wager — and by golly, I was going to get there. My university didn’t offer a photography degree, there were only a couple of photography classes I could have taken, and they required a prerequisite of a drawing class, which I definitely would have failed. Instead, I studied what I wanted to shoot: nature and people. I figured that if I knew more about my subjects, I’d be able to create better images of them. I even applied to various MFA programs but didn’t get into any of them. It turns out I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what I needed to do to be able to do it.

Sunrise at Lac Abbe, Djibouti, 2016. One of the strangest and most beautiful landscapes I've ever found myself in.

Sunrise at Lac Abbe, Djibouti, 2016. One of the strangest and most beautiful landscapes I've ever found myself in.

Fast-forward ten years to now, and I’ve been working as a professional commercial, portrait, and (I think?) travel photographer since I graduated. It took me a couple of years to figure out what I was doing, but my business has grown ever since. My love for and career in photography has taken me to at least 17 different countries on four continents, paid all of my bills without ever going into debt, and made me lifelong friends across the globe. I’ve both created images for the largest company in the world and the smallest local non-profits. I definitely don’t think I’m the best photographer around, nor am I the best businessman. But, I’ve learned some things over the years. Here are 10 of them.

Freelancing Can Be Stressful and Lonely

I’d say I’ve been my own boss for ten years, but in a way, each client is a boss. Each client is someone to be constantly pleasing, to be constantly not offending, to be constantly proving your worth to. That can get stressful sometimes. Not knowing when my next paycheck is coming, when the next gig will be booked, or if I’m going to make up the cost of that new multi-thousand dollar camera I just bought all wear on me sometimes. There’s hardly any certainty in this business; a client can drop you for any time for any reason, and it’s usually just because they know someone else who does photography and want to send business to a friend or your contact moves to another job and the connection dries up. And not having any coworkers to share the load or even just to commiserate with doesn’t help. I try my best to keep other photographer friends around because the freelancing community needs to stick together, but still, when all of your other friends are at work during the day and then you have to go shoot an event in the evening, social interactions can be few and far between during busy seasons. It’s been important to me to maintain relationships with other photographers to have someone to bounce ideas off of, to be able to ask favors of in case of an emergency, and to feel like I’m not in this alone.

At home in Arkansas, waiting out a thunderstorm while on assignment for Chaco footwear.

At home in Arkansas, waiting out a thunderstorm while on assignment for Chaco footwear.

Self-Editing Is the Hardest Thing...

I’ve tried to become more ruthless with my editing over the years, but it’s just hard sometimes. Taking a step back and trying to view images from an outsider’s perspective — one without an emotional attachment to the places, the people, the situations in which the photo was taken — is really, really difficult. It’s one thing to deliver a few extra images to a client for an event or a portrait session. Usually, they’re happy to have a larger selection. But when it comes to my website, portfolio, even Instagram (which I’m terrible at), it’s hard to narrow it down and only show the best of the best of my images. I get attached to them for one reason or another or thought they were really good at the time I took them. Going back and cutting things out is important, and I need to do it more often.

...Besides Pricing

If I’ve learned anything in ten years, it’s that pricing photography is one of the most fluid and mind-boggling things I’ve ever had to do. Every client is so different. Everyone has a different budget, though 9 out of 10 won’t tell you what that budget is. Some understand photo licensing, the way it used to be done, but most just want to use the images however they want for as long as they want. Some want an hourly rate, and some want a project rate. They all value photography differently, and while some know they can negotiate, most don’t. If I give an estimate for $1,500, would I take $1,300? Probably, sure. That’s better than zero dollars any day of the week. But you have to ask, and you have to be nice about it. Would I take $800 if you’re a company with over 1,000 employees, and you should have an actual marketing budget for photography? Probably not. Most people, though, just either stop responding if the quote is too high or say they want go a different direction without telling me why. It’s so hard to figure out how to price things, at least in my market in Arkansas, with both giant corporations and small businesses and very few, if any, specialist photographers. I’m still learning. Maybe someday I’ll have an agent who will negotiate for me.

Light-painted rowboats on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, 2014. After shooting a wedding just after the new year, I spent four weeks traveling, my first intentionally solo trip.

Light-painted rowboats on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, 2014. After shooting a wedding just after the new year, I spent four weeks traveling, my first intentionally solo trip.

Do It for the Love, Not for the Money

Sometimes, I miss being an amateur photographer. After all, the word “amateur,” with its Latin roots meaning “to love,” has come to describe someone who does something for the love of it, not for the money. Sometimes, when I’m shooting a boring event or a silly product in my studio, I really wish I were out shooting something I want to be shooting instead of doing it to pay the bills. But, at the same time, even on the most tedious or monotonous days, I know that I’m incredibly fortunate to be doing photography professionally and to be doing OK at it. So, to all those amateurs considering going full-time: be careful what you wish for. It’s not the same once it becomes a job. I hope this changes and I can eventually start only shooting what I want to shoot.

I Spend Most of My Time Not Taking Photographs

If I had known that it might have been more useful for me to get a marketing degree, or an accounting degree, or a business degree, or a communications degree, I might have done that (though, for the record, I wouldn’t trade my biology/anthropology education for anything). There are so many different hats I have to wear to run a business on my own and keep it afloat that most of the time, I’m not actually taking photos. Either I’m at home editing them, which can sometimes take longer than the shoot itself, or I’m doing one of a thousand other things to run and promote my business. Those who think professional photographers just take pictures all day are sorely mistaken.

I’m Really Bad at Personal Work

Maybe not bad at it, but bad at making myself do it. I’ve come to realize over the years that personal work is extremely important to a photographer, but that it is, for me, difficult to do. Unless I’m on a trip or out in the Ozarks backpacking, organizing personal photography projects at home always seems like a monumental task. There are so many other things to do! If I’m not busy with other business work, it’s hard to get away from other aspects of life — family, friends, the garden, etc. — to do a project that “won’t make me any money.” But in reality, taking that time to create something for yourself, where there’s no art director breathing down your neck and no pressure to perform for anyone but yourself is worth its weight in gold. I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to do it more often.

I have a new, now three-month old reason for personal work.

I have a new, now three-month old reason for personal work.

Be Nice

Being easy to work with is sometimes more valuable than being the best photographer around. Relationships are everything in this game, and if you are pleasant to be around while still performing your task well, you’ll get hired again and again. I try my best to stay low-key, not show stress (even if I’m freaking out about something), and treat everyone with respect. So far, I think it’s treated me well. Don’t be a diva, don’t get too full of yourself, and smile.

Light Really Is Everything

When I first started out, I was obsessed with getting the best camera I could afford. I gradually shifted to trying to have the best glass. And really, all along, what I was missing was light. Lighting is both one of the most important and one of the most challenging things to get right in photography, whether it’s learning how to use natural light or, especially, using artificial light to create something beautiful. I’m sure they would have stressed this in the photo school I didn’t go to, but as someone who is self-taught, it took me a while to realize it on my own. You can have a boring subject, but if it’s in incredible light, people will stop and look at it. I’m still learning about light and will probably never stop. 

I created some images of firefighters for a local non-profit that organizes a half marathon that benefits local firefighter groups. It was smoky, and hot, and challenging. One beauty dish and one red-gelled speedlight and about a minute or two to make an

I created some images of firefighters for a local non-profit that organizes a half-marathon that benefits local firefighter groups. It was smoky, hot, and challenging. One beauty dish and one red-gelled speedlight and about a minute or two to make an image before we got smoked out of the room.

Put the Camera Down

All too often, I’ve found myself guilty of one thing: not putting my camera down when I should. Obviously, as a photographer, almost anything interesting I see, I start to think: “wow, I should take a photo of that!” But sometimes, you just need to take a pause from the camera and enjoy a moment in life through your eyes, not through a lens. There’s something to be said about slowing down and being present. The same goes for enjoying beautiful moments when you don’t have a camera with you; I find myself wishing I had a camera to shoot something fairly often instead of just taking a moment to appreciate what I’m seeing and creating that memory for myself.

There’s Always Someone Better Than You (and Me)

And that’s OK. There are a lot of photographers in my market. Some of them are not very good, but some of them are really, really good. Comparing myself to them only does one thing: it brings me down. I’ve learned that thinking “man, I wish I had done it like that!” or “I wish I had had that idea,” or “I wish I knew how to light like that” only makes me more self-critical and wonder why I’m even in this game. Learning to look up to people instead of looking down on yourself is of paramount importance as an artist. Befriend those who are better than you and try to learn from them; don’t become envious of their talent or success. And at the same time, don’t be afraid to help people who are just starting out. Everyone needs a mentor.

Conclusion

I hope this hasn’t been too preachy, but I felt like sharing some things I’ve come to realize over the years I’ve been doing photography professionally. Ten years ago, I’d never have expected to be where I am today, and I’m eager to see whatever the next ten have in store for me. I have a lot to learn — about photography, about business, and about myself — and as long as I have something to learn, I have something to look forward to.

If you’ve been in the photography business for a while, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments about what you’ve learned along the way. 

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8 Comments

John Ellingson's picture

In my years as a professional and since, I think the most important thing you can develop as a professional is a look and style that is recognizable as yours. Your customers will hire you for that look. Once you have a style or look that sells, no one else can easily deliver on that. The Art Director of Creative Director will envision the art with your style in it. It is also probably the hardest thing to accomplish because it has nothing to do with the camera and is all in your head and your creative talent. It requires being your own toughest critic. I remember years ago being told that when looking at art (I don't want to get into the "is a photograph a piece of art?" discussion here) the observer should ask several questions: What is the artist trying to tell me? How well did they tell me? Was it worth telling me? These are the questions that must be answered with every delivery by the professional photographer. Having that vision and style and executing well on it is what distinguishes the professional in my mind.

I liked your piece and wish you well.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Very true, John. I'm still trying to develop a "style." I've had a few people tell me over the years that I have one, but its hard for me to see it... something to keep working on, for sure.

John Ellingson's picture

For me it was recognizing that artists and photographers had a style I could recognize and it was what I liked. Understanding that is the first step. The harder second step is developing your own vision -- Ansel Adams' revisualization. What is the vision you want to share? It is learning how to "see" the image in your mind. When you are a professional observer -- that is what a photographer is -- what is it you are observing. When I walk with others I see things they miss completely. I have found that my vision is at the two ends of the spectrum -- I like the very wide and the very long or tight viewpoint. When I go to places I've been many times -- like the Grand Canyon -- I don't want to repeat the cliche shot we've all seen many times. I plan my shots weeks or even months in advance. I know what I want to see. There are wonderful details in these places that others walk right by. The creative process for a shoot or series of shots may take me many hours or days to see before I set out to capture that vision.

Jasper Stone's picture

Wonderful response. The important part I got out of it was "develop your style". I have been in the arts for over 30 years as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. My style in all those areas took time to form and cement. Picking up photography about 10 years, I was took eager to find a style. I am just now figuring out what I want to do and how I want to present my photography. Style takes time and sometimes .... it finds you..

Julian Ray's picture

Great article Stephen. And spot on, thanks.

Mark Harris's picture

I'm also 10 years in, and agree with everything you say. Though personally I manage to do personal projects, which are not only satisfying, but generally more interesting subjects than my paid work, so good for the portfolio.
And I would really emphasise the 'be nice' part, adding 'be helpful and flexible'. I'm amazed at how often I see colleagues missing that part, and know that it has cost them jobs.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Yep. There's just so much going on for clients and family that it's hard for me to make time for it. Most of my "personal work" involves travel, which I try to do as much as I can. Clearing my head, seeing new things and new people and places. The firefighter shot above was semi-personal work, offered pro-bono for the organization, so I had complete control (though not unlimited time).

Something to keep working on and making time for, for sure.

Your tips inspire me, tell me are you making black and white photo? It seems to me interesting this direction of professional photography.
https://fixthephoto.com/online-photoshop-editor.html