3 Reasons Why You're Failing As a Photographer

3 Reasons Why You're Failing As a Photographer

If you consider yourself an artist, with the sole intent of getting hired to create beautiful imagery and hope that people are going to come knocking at your door to buy your images, congrats! You’ve failed as a photographer in 2015.

That’s the stone cold truth. If you don’t have someone to market or advertise you, your work or your business, no one is going to know who you are or what you do. Not a single person will buy what you have to offer. If you’re offended by that last sentence… That’s great. I have your attention.

As I’m writing this article, it’s around 2:00am on Sunday. The majority of my day (yesterday), I worked on miscellaneous projects ranging from  photo editing, accounting, creating content for future projects, to future marketing campaigns, and I just finished the second last chapter of my new book – Photographing Men. Why should you care? Because while I’d rather be doing anything else than that, I’m busy staying ahead of you.

I say that because I don’t see photography as solely an art form. It’s a viable business that revolves around SELLING a service or product. Don’t believe me? Go try and buy a camera without a single dollar in your checking account. Go order a new lens while your credit card is maxed out. I’ll wait.

While money isn’t everything, it does afford you the opportunity to buy the equipment that you need or want to create the art that in your mind. That’s the plain and simple truth. And before you start saying, “Well _______, went to ________ on a non profit trip to _______ and he did it for free!” That’s great! Who flipped the bill on the plane flight? Who’s flipping the bill on their food and housing accommodations? The money is coming from somewhere. Someone is paying for that assignment.

Before we begin, I want to note that I’ve been a professional photographer 3.5 years. Before making that leap, I was a regional sales manager for a company who specialized in children’s education. My job revolved around selling educational services to school districts in NYC and training 25+ employees on how to sell those same services. My sales strategies made the company an eight figure income. My point is – I’m great at SALES. If that’s not you, then listen up.

If you’re truly interested in making this a career, here are 3 things that you need to change in order to make that happen:

 

1. YOU HAVE A 9-5 MENTALITY

You don't need to work 20 hour days, but if you have to choose between going to a bar with your friends and editing your client’s photos, don’t forget that the rest of us are going to choose business over pleasure – maybe not ALWAYS, but when it counts.

Before I became a photographer, I complained a lot about working 60 hour weeks at my corporate office because I wanted to spend more time doing the thing that I loved – photography.

My office job afforded me the opportunity to go to miscellaneous workshops and classes with the hope that some day, I would be able to quit my full time job and shoot full time. For about a year, it seemed unobtainable. There was no way, I would be able to make my salary as an artist.

It wasn’t until I met a successful young woman, by the name of Lindsay Adler, who worked an ungodly number of hours as a professional photographer. There were times that she would sleep 3-4 hours per night to finish projects and assignments, while still working on writing her third book. The ONLY people I knew with her work ethic were never “creatives,” they were ALWAYS entrepreneurs.

Meeting this young woman, allowed me to meet other “creatives” who shared her work ethic: Scott Kelby, Joel Grimes, etc. Each of these creatives shared the same work ethic any entrepreneur I’d met had. They were willing to put in long hours in order to reap the rewards. By doing the thing that they loved, it didn’t feel like work and they were more inclined to spend more time doing it. 

2. YOU CANNOT CUT YOUR EXPENSES

You need to cut all unnecessary expenses you have.

Before we begin, let’s establish that I’m single (according to the IRS) and I do not have children (unless you count an Olde English Bulldog). If you do have children, the content in this section still pertains to you, but could be harder to manage.

Before I was a photographer, I LOVED cars. Not just loved – I owned 3 of them and a Harley. I had a monthly payment on two of those vehicles and they were all insured. I was 24, living in NYC. If you only knew what my insurance payments looked like. And If you read that again… I lived in NYC – You don’t NEED a car in NYC. So I sold them all… Minus the Harley.

The point is, you need to cut unnecessary expenses in your life. If you have a $100 gym monthly membership that you don’t use, an $8 Netflix account you don’t use and you’re downloading premium content to install onto the games you’ve download on your iPhone, you’re spending money needlessly. That money should be reinvested into your business.

Most SUCCESSFUL entrepreneurs will reinvest a large portion of their earnings back into their businesses. If you’re a photographer, you should be doing the same whether that’s in gear, insurance, or on education. Whatever it is, invest in yourself and don’t splurge.

I make this analogy all the time – if you had a $20 box of candy and you sold it for a $20 profit, don’t spend all $20 on yourself. Take $10, put it into your pocket and reinvest in another $10. If you’re a real risk taker and feel like it, take that extra $20 and buy two boxes. If you’re able to sell them at the exact same profit, you’re making money.

The analogy is used to represent bills. If you have to keep the $20 to pay your bills, you’re not growing your business… You need to start being wiser with your money.

The way you that you market yourself and your business will directly impact your income. I’ve met too many photographers who made a decent living in the late 90s and early 2000s, who are quick to say things like “I remember ______ used to pay me $X0,000.0 per day for the smallest of assignments.” That’s great! What did you do with it all? Don’t be THAT photographer.

3. YOU REFUSE TO LOOK AT IT LIKE A BUSINESS

As a “Professional Photographer,” your business revolves around selling photographs in SOME form, be it digital or physical print. You’re selling a product or service. It’s a business.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say - The quality of your product does matter, but it should not be the sole thing that you focus on. You need to constantly spend time evolving your business to grow with the times, in marketing, branding and your style of photography.

In my time working in the fashion industry, I’ve met my fair of photographers, stylists, hair stylists, etc. who all refuse to change with the times. Do you know what happens to those people? They become relics of the past. They don’t know how to adapt and grow with modern times and they’re forced to do another things aside from photography to earn a living.

This has been the most IMPORTANT Lesson that I've learned as a photographer.

 

The point of this article is that you need to start focusing on learning how to run a business if you want to make it as a photographer in 2015/2016. Despite what you’ve heard about “overnight successful” photographers, the probability that you’ll replicate their success is slim to none. Heck, for those of you looking for an agent, but don’t have a list of your own clients already or at least a decent social following - good luck.

Focus on running your photography business as you would any other business. That’s the way to success in 2015. It’s the photographers who are willing to work their behinds off and see it as entrepreneurs that will succeed.

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30 Comments

Jeff,

You're writing this at 2 AM on a Sunday? Do you sleep? Get some rest dude! Don't burn yourself out!

1. YOU HAVE A 9-5 MENTALITY
So there's insomnia... At home, working for one "dot bomb" that I worked for, there was one night that I kept praying "Please, let me fall asleep!" while I stared at the dark ceiling of the bedroom. Finally, I gave up and decided that I may as well head into work. I had to sign in at the guard's desk due to the early hour (4AM). I was more productive during those early hours working without interruptions. Unfortunately, coworkers started asking questions and I stayed past when I thought I would leave early; instead I left about the normal time. That week, I clocked in an 80 hour work week. I am not as young as I used to be.

I've had personal photography projects where I photogragphed the sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices, and the full moon rising and setting. During the winter months, it's easy to say "I'll sleep in."

2. YOU CANNOT CUT YOUR EXPENSES
You're 24, you're living in New York City, which is one of the most expensive places to live, and you own three cars and a motorcycle? The Tams song "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy" comes to mind. I couldn't afford two cars when I was 24. When I was 24, I had one car; after I got married, there were two cars. At one point, I had an extra car, a classic Chevy El Camino, that I was restoring.

A few years ago, I talked my wife out of buying me a DSLR for Christmas when I found her budget was a Canon T3i. I thought that would be my "last camera". As a consolation, she bought me a used Canon FD 28mm f.28, which became my favorite lens. In 2013, I found a great deal on an F-1N, which she approved the purchase of since it was a flagship model. I didn't know that she would ask me about a deal for a 5D Mk III package" in December.

3. YOU REFUSE TO LOOK AT IT LIKE A BUSINESS
I have two hobbies, developing software applications (which I get paid for), and photography, which is another creative pursuit. I created a computer application that had a limited lifespan that ended on July 21, 2011. I got interested in photography using my parents' Polaroid bellows camera and bought a Canon A-1 in 1980, which I still use.

Jeff Rojas's picture

Who needs sleep?! lol :P

I love your stories! I think that's pretty amazing that you've experienced all the things that you have. How's that A-1 treating you these days? :)

Jeff,
The A-1 is still working great. I've got a roll of B&W that I have to finish.

Pedro Pulido's picture

Everyone has a different life experience. It's not about how many cars you own and how much money you have.
If you want to do travel photography, i would say it's all about how much money you need to survive with the lifestyle you desire and then go from there. i do agree with cutting on expenses and developing your business and marketing skills. It is trully important.

I was sure it was because I had not yet purchased a Sony A7RII and a set of rocking' primes.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Some sound advice!

I'm quite happy i didn't knew what it would take to make it, as i probably never would have dared to simply walk in to work one day and tell them i quit!

This with no customer base, or any real prospects... and with a family (4kids and wife, now 5kids..) to support.

But I'm glad i did, i was miserably working for others. It's a challenge but the rewards are well worth it.

I never consider my self a creative person, nor entrepreneur but i'v learned that I'm both.

Jeff Rojas's picture

That's a lot of work! I'm really happy for you and what you've built! :)

Trevor Warr's picture

After 40+ years in the business it seems to me that having the ability to get inside your client's head to see the " shiny perfect image" that they see is something to strive for. This applies especially to product photography in my experience. Another thing to be is consistent in your approach to a client. I find that each one has a different view of who you are as a photographer and what you are capable of in regards to their particular requirements. Don't try out the latest technique you have seen on the internet unless they have asked for a different approach. If they do make sure you know what you are doing and don't seem to be trying something unfamiliar.

Hope that makes sense?

Jeff Rojas's picture

I agree! I think that you need to be able to fulfill the promises you make - that's establishes you as credible and honest. :)

Allie Miller's picture

Such passion Jeffers! ;) great article love! So true!!!

I think all thee are valid points, but you might include "you work has to be amazing" because on any given day in the current photographic climate and community, there are at least 100,000 out of work photographers who are turning out incredible and stunning work and you have to be as good and better than all of them. There are shooters who do work 9-5, and who have major expenses, and who are terrible business ppl but they are shooting covers and stories for Vogue because they are brilliant artists.

Jeff Rojas's picture

And while I agree with you... I personally know some of those same people you're speaking of and they make A LOT less than you'd think. Enough to barely survive in most cases.

Meanwhile... most of the business minded photographers I know are making 6 and 7 year incomes.

You know what man? Yo're absolutely right.. well said.

I think the desire to always improve is a key factor but I have to say that being the good businessman counts for far more than artistic ability. Reliably delivering solid (not insanely wonderful) work at the right price will fill your IRA faster than the disorganized genius giving away TFD.

Anonymous's picture

I've been working as a photographer now for 7 or 8 years, but had always been on Full Time contracts, then 2 years ago I went freelance, holy smokes you arent kidding about the 9-5 aspect. Never have worked, harder, longer and sat at the computer more (not to mention stressed out more too). Got a list of about 10 things I want to do, a list of things i NEED to do and a hope and a prayer that there was more time in the day to do them..... wouldnt go back to the FT photography job though

Great article Jeff

Jeff Rojas's picture

Thanks so much! I'm glad that you are committed to this! It's not easy, but it's worth it! :)

Travis Alex's picture

This article is hitting to close to home for me today too (another article did as well)

I am still learning so much, and, as of the last year (out of the 2 short years I have taken photography seriously, late bloomer), it's less about quality of photographs anymore, and more about what you have to say. Content is king now.

I used to preach from a high horse "Quality over quantity". I noticed, that with all this quality talk, my work suffered, and my images came out...well, boring and not worth really talking about. Meanwhile, my friends are making moves with work I considered "less than quality". I realized my stubbornness has made blind to the fact of what's really important: Saying something and being humble.

I'm very excited to go into 2016. I have been following what's new in the industry for a few months now, I am hitting the books and studying business photography. I've been practicing new lighting, and looking around the globe for inspiration all over social media. I scarped ideas that I no longer see any real value in and started with new fresh ideas from ground up. I stopped going out as of the beginning of this year, stopped spending money on things I don't need. Saved Saved Saved from my full time job I'm working now.

I know I am bound for greater, and I know this full time job working at a camera store is EXACTLY where I need to be right now. It's teaching my the right lessons in getting my act together. It's fucking hard work managing a full time job and trying to work on this, but I need to do it, for my happiness and sanity. I'm excited though. I know I am ready to be a new face of photography, and I will not stop until I reach my goal.

Jeff Rojas's picture

If you are willing to put in the hours... you'll find a way to make it work. :)

'3 Reasons Why You're Failing As a Photographer'

reading articles like these?

Jeff Rojas's picture

Or in your case, it's spending too much time trolling and not enough time doing something productive with your life. ;) <3

oh, dude, relax...can't you take a joke? I just found it a bit funny that, nowadays, every other article here comes with a ballsy title like '10 things that will jumpstart your career' or '5 things you are doing wrong as a photographer' or the popular 'why is instagram going to make or break your career'...

try reading these with the movie trailer voice and I'll bet it will pull a chuckle out of you...or those 2 who voted my comment down :-)

user-5400's picture

Jeff, I took a bit of a break (almost two years) due to personal reasons, but I'm looking to get back into the swing of things.

However, I feel like I'm ruined because my original site (yvelsphotography.com) was stolen from me and turned into a pornsite. They want money and I can't afford to buy it back. I changed all links to yvelphotography.com , but I know I will have to change it to a completely new name.

Any advice on how to walk away from this embarrasment?

Jeff Rojas's picture

That's a great one! What about rebranding? If your work stands out... it'll make you look better. Think of it as a new place but "under new management" deal.

On a side note, never let a URL lapse... because that's bound to happen. :(

I love Lindsay Adler, but I don't think working ungodly hours in your profession is really a desired goal or plan to look up to. Especially if you do have a family. I loved Travis Gugleman, I wish he was still a photographer (sold his business to work full time in a nonprofit he started). He had that "do what it takes" to have a successful business (and grossed over $300K his second year) but he still put family first. His business was based on your third point...run it like a business. He was also an E-myth follower, set up repeatable processes so you can train someone to do things your way and have a life. He would take a month off every summer w/his family...shooting up to the day he left, and his team word process and sell while he was gone.

Louie Cepeda's picture

Fantastic! Great Article, Jeff. way to go!

Jeff Rojas's picture

Thanks Louie! :)

Chris Lonsberry's picture

Still reading the article 3 years after the fact. Sounds like it's all still valid. And kudos for not selling the Harley. Good call. :-)