3 Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Career in Film or Photography

3 Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Career in Film or Photography

If you’re thinking of making your love for photography into the thing that pays the bills, here are a few pitfalls which you might want to avoid.

Like many people reading this article, I fell in love with film and photography long before I was able to make a career out of it. At first, it was an innocent hobby to help me through the vagaries of life. Then, it was the undeniable passion that consumed all my thoughts night and day. Eventually, and I do mean that in the longest sense of the word, I was finally able to strike out on my own full-time and stop splitting time between my passion and my day job. But while, for some of you, the idea of telling your boss where he can shove that day job might seem like a romantic ideal, the reality is that, even once you’ve escaped the cubicle life, you’re rarely more than one misstep from being right back behind the desk.

Nobody bats 1.000. Regardless of your particular brand of genius, you will undoubtedly make some mistakes along the way. I’ve made more than my fair share. Far more than I have enough ink for today. But, I thought I’d share three of the biggest mistakes that I, and others, have made that can derail an otherwise promising career.

Thinking You Can Buy Success

Regardless of what YouTubers might tell you, success in your photographic career is not tied to how much money you can spend on new gear. Once you’ve already built a career, you will know exactly what the basic minimum equipment threshold is required for you to compete in your particular niche. But if you are thinking that upgrading your gear equates to upgrading your career, you’ve got a rude awakening coming.

Spend less time on reading gear reviews and more time on developing your craft and your unique artistic voice. These are the things that will get you noticed and keep clients coming back for more. Never once in over twenty years have I had a client hire me because I owned a particular piece of equipment. They hire you because there is something about your unique artistic voice that you have developed over time that they simply can’t get from another artist. They will not hire you just because you were first in the preorder line and can come to set with the latest release from Brand A or Brand B. That might be fun for the comment sections or to impress your photographer friends. But, when it comes to actually getting work (and doing so in a profitable way), put down your credit card and pick up the camera you already own. There is simply no way to get better other than putting in the hard work. Period. End. You have to do the hard work in the shadows before you ever see the light. And what will shine through is not how much you can spend, but how you see the world (photographically speaking).

Treating a For-profit Business Like a Nonprofit

We all get it. Photography is fun. Everyone, whether they actually have artistic talent or not, fancies the idea of running around the world, hanging out with cool people, and snapping little pictures for a living. By the way, that is an entirely insulting oversimplification of what a photographer does. But many of the “clients” who reach out to do business with you will treat you as if your career, the thing you use to feed your family, is little more than a frivolous hobby that you should be honored to do for free. And they will seek to pay you or not pay you accordingly.

Worse yet, as artists, we are a group, by and large, that appreciates approval. It feels good to have someone stroke our egos. There is a certain amount of self-validation that comes with a big company picking us out of the blue and telling us how much they enjoy our work —s o much enjoyment that many photographers really would be willing to do this for free.

But not understanding your value to the market and/or the value of your knowledge, experience, and craft is a one-way ticket to being taken advantage of. Unless you’re building a career as an influencer, which is not the same thing as being a professional photographer, exposure and social media likes aren’t going to pay the bills. Cash pays bills. You don’t get cash by giving your work away for free.

And, as tempting as it is to run a business at a loss as some sort of tax reduction strategy, at the end of the day, you are, or at least should be, in business to make a profit. This means adequately valuing your time and your product. This means understanding your market value and sticking to it. Sure, maybe you give a discount every now and then to actual nonprofit organizations that may be customers. But if some cool hip up-and-coming brand is reaching out to you asking for a discount because they claim not to have the budget or they act like they are doing you a favor by letting you shoot their campaign for half your rate, it might be time to step back and remember that you, like your client, is in this to make a profit. Recognition is nice, but cash is what keeps you in business.

Following the Leader

Facebook, Google, iPhones. What do those things have in common? While today, all three of those things are household names, when they first hit the market, they were all major disruptions to the status quo. Okay, technically, they all had predecessors. Google didn’t invent search engines. But they were early enough and different enough to disrupt entire industries and the way we live and work. They weren’t trying to be like every other company. They were different. And, because of that uniqueness, they had value in the market.

Being successful in business is rarely about building a better mousetrap. It’s about building an entirely new asset that buyers never even knew they wanted. But, once they get a taste, they can’t get enough of it. As artists, we are no doubt introduced to our particular art forms through the work of more established senior artists who have honed their craft and are setting the standards for the market. It’s tempting to think that if we can just be like Artist A or Artist B, that we too will achieve the same level of success. Customers seem to think it’s good when they do it. So, why don’t I just do the same thing?

Simple. Because you are not them. Sure, if you study hard, you may at some point be able to mimic their technical approach. But, try as you might, you will never have their artistic voice. Because our artistic voice is more than just a lighting style. It’s more than just what gear you use. It is most certainly more than any specific color treatment or, heaven forbid, Lightroom preset that is popular at any given moment. Our artistic voice is the sum total of our talents, our training, and our life experience that begins long before we ever picked up a camera. In short, your artistic voice is you. And there will only ever be one you.

So, rather than looking at other people’s work and trying to mimic it, you instead must focus your attention on continually developing and getting the most out of your unique gift. Don’t be the next Annie Leibovitz. She’s already got that lane covered. Be the first you.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great advice as always, Chris. Finding a unique artistic voice is extremely difficult, but imitation of others can be an important part of the process, as long as the goal is not to simply copy someone. Most of the successful photographers and musicians I admire spent a lot of time studying and even copying the greats as a way to flesh out their own unique voice. I would be interested in your opinion on this topic.

Definitely. I think we all start there. With the question of "how do I do something that looks like THAT." Then, as we develop, hopefully, we start to veer away and understand what we uniquely bring to the process aside from what already exists in the marketplace. It sounds simple. But defining who you are as an artist is the hardest part.

Fascinating read. You are right, about upgrading gear. I think that too many people just get absorbed in acquiring more kit and fail to heed the best advice, like this here. Thanks for sharing it.

Thanks Ivor!

Great post Christopher.
I think there's also a common mistake in mixing between following and getting inspired by someone you admire and trying to mimic that artist's voice and style.
In fact most of the well known artists have been inspired by someone as well.
Kind regards.


And this is why I never became a professional photographer. I have loved taking photos since I was a teen and have thought about going to a school that taught photography. But being an enthusiast as it is called nowadays is perfect. I buy what gear I like, nothing has to make a buck etc. The only downside is of course no one will remember the artistic genius that made all those wonderful photos in my hallway when I'm gone.