5 Warning Signs That You Are Failing at Photography

5 Warning Signs That You Are Failing at Photography

Are you struggling to make it as a professional photographer? Here are the top five warning signs that your career is headed for failure, and how to overcome your own self-defeating habits.

Over the past 15 years that I've been in the photography industry, I've met hundreds of photographers around the world, from highly successful professionals to struggling artists trying to make it as a pro. One thing I've learned from contact with such a range of photographers is that there are common traits among those who thrive in this industry and those who quit.

Here are some of the top warning signs that you might be losing your struggle to become a professional photographer.

You're Letting Your Gear Control You

Whether your gear is a low-budget starter set or your have an advanced kit with all the best bodies and lenses, it's easy to get trapped in the gear wars and lose sight of what's most important.

My first DSLR was a cheap Canon EOS Rebel series kit. I had just one lens, the standard 18-55 f/3.5-5.6, and eventually bought a 50mm f/1.8 to achieve background blur for basic portraits. This is pretty much the least expensive gear you can own, and I made it work for nearly ten years. I invested in travel rather than gear, and was forced to be creative to compensate for the limitations of my gear. It was a great way to grow as a photographer.

Today I shoot with a Canon 6D and have a full kit ranging from 16-24 f/2.8, 24-105 f/4, 70-200 f/2.8, and most recently a lovely Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Lens. Ironically, I find myself limited in other ways now. Now I get hung up on which lens to use, and find myself swapping out quite often rather than focusing on capturing the moment. 

The lesson is this: don't get so hung up on your gear that you're ashamed to shoot with what you've got. Don't be so obsessed with upgrading that you put off shoots you could otherwise handle just fine with your current kit. Learn to work around your limitations. Control your gear, don't let your gear control you.

You're Not Sure If You Can Run a Business

The business of photography actually has very little to do with photography, and a whole heck of a lot to do with business skills. Once you've mastered your photography skills, being successful is all about being able to sell yourself.

If you find business management and marketing cringe-worthy, if you feel guilty asking to be paid for your work, or if you have trouble organizing a shoot schedule, you may want to reconsider how you approach your photography career.

I've seen too many photographers struggle with this. Many love the idea of being a photographer, but have zero skills or interest in actually starting a business. Whether you're running a service photography business shooting portraits and weddings for a fee, or you're working commercial jobs shooting campaigns, you still need to know how to sell yourself and stay organized or your business will stagnate. 

If you realize your not really interested in running your own business, that's okay, it doesn't mean you can't be a successful photographer. You just need to work with an agent or partner with a business manager. The key is to discover the right path for yourself as soon as possible to avoid wasting time and wrecking your confidence.

You're Not Advancing Your Skills

No matter who you are and how advanced your talent, you can always learn more. Especially when photography software and tools are constantly improving. This means doing things like joining a photography community to learn from others, attending photography workshops to improve your techniques, or even just browsing YouTube for photography tutorials.

When I think back over the course of my photography career, my least impressive work was produced back when I wasn't focused on professional development. Back in the beginning, I never really analyzed my own shoots or considered how to improve them. In order to grow, you have to learn, practice, critique, and repeat. Whether you prefer the self-taught route or formal instruction, keep moving forward, keep learning, and keep improving always.

You're Not Networking

Knowing other photographers will help you grow as a photographer. It will also help you find opportunities in your field. From photography groups here on Fstoppers, to sharing on Instagram and posting to groups on Facebook, to real-life photography meetups and photowalks, getting to know other photographers is a great way to share skills, swap gear, and partner up on shoots and photographic endeavors.

All of my big travel photography gigs have come from hard work and hitting the pavement. Networking itself, especially on social media, can nearly be a full-time job. But it always pays off, and it's both inspiring and enriching to discover the work of fellow photographers. Share your work regularly and connect with like minds to encourage your own growth.

You're Not Being Proactive

When you're just starting out, it's all too easy for the days and weeks to slip by and before you know it, there's a fine layer of dust on your camera bag. The only way to grow as a photographer is to shoot, and the only time shoots happen are when you make them happen.

This is the number one reason I see most photographers fail. They stop planning shoots, they stop picking up their camera, and their career simply fades out before it ever really takes off. 

Even if you have a day job, or you're remodeling your house, or have six little kids at home, it doesn't matter. You need to shoot every single week. No excuses. This is the minimum amount I've settled on to keep your skills in check and keep on pace for business growth. It doesn't matter if you're shooting an elaborate series or you're shooting a fly on the wall. Be creative. Just keep shooting, take it seriously, and aim to improve week after week.

I have to give props to my friend Jason Keomany of Visual Soul Photography. He's a model photographer in this regard: a great husband and father with a full-time day job, and yet he manages to produce work constantly. Follow him if you want inspiration from a great Detroit photographer who makes it happen.

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Becoming a professional photographer isn't easy, but it's very rewarding and very possible if you continue to improve and don't give up.

Are you struggling with your photography career? What's holding you back? Let us know your biggest challenge in the comments below.

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18 Comments

Crystal Provencher's picture

I've definitely fallen victim to some of these in the past and present. At the beginning of 2015 I told myself I have to do what I love, and that's photography. Regardless if I have a day job, other commitments and a very active pup who is very much like a child, I need to make time for what I love. It hasn't been easy and after not shooting for almost three years, I feel like I'm starting over. But the more I shoot, the better I get and the happier I feel.

I think this is a great article for those of us trying to achieve a full time professional status, but it's also a great reminder for everyone to always strive for more, to push yourself.

Hillary Fox's picture

Thanks, Crystal! I've been there, too. My photography pursuits were layered over a web development career, and for the first 5 years or so I didn't take it seriously at all. It sure makes a difference once you do :) Keep it up!!

Anonymous's picture

I can empathize with your statement about getting hung up on which lens to use and after "collecting" much gear over the years, I sold over half of it and that made a huge difference in my shooting. While I still have a good number of lenses, there is almost no overlap, so each one has a purpose. That's not to say I won't try other lenses and angles after getting an initial shot, but it makes packing for a shoot so much easier. It's also freed up my mind to be more creative and to do more with less.

Chris Adval's picture

Love the article! I've been slowing down on shooting and focusing on the business side. For some reason both take my entire free time I so little have while doing another full time day job. So for me its either shoots or business, especially now when I am in the middle of restructuring my non-commercial portrait business side. But I try to get at least one shoot a month, but nothing complex where it costs a ton of cash and time to prep and shoot. It's very difficult getting the more complex fashion shoots I want to do for personal projects and developing my own skills/portfolio, especially with nearly $0 budget other than 2 lenses and a body, which is all I need for more simple fashion which I am okay with but with building more of a sustainable business then I'd have more budget for more complex personal projects.

Another reason is both family and friends all tell me and I know is just to ignore is to stop shooting "for free" even though its a barter/trade to develop my skills, portfolio and ad. material to better promote myself, even though my friends/family believe I am producing superior quality in my markets.

What's holding me back honestly is the love for photography (personal projects) is holding me back from focusing on the business, which will always help develop my craft even further with more funds. I did a lot in 5 years with my craft development with minimal gear, assistants, models, other creatives, and of course funds. With the so little time and resources I have I make the best of it, as I already mentioned I am trying to slow down on my shooting to shoot more for a full time pursuit in business as a photographer.

David Moore's picture

My lack of social skills (ok I lean towards hermit) has hampered me SO bad through out my time as a photographer. I chip away at it, but it is still a big thing I need to get past.

Also, as far as being proactive, sometimes I will spend time thinking about or trying to come up with a shoot, then never stopping and just shooting. "I'm still trying to find the right model" or "well maybe I need to work on this part of the idea..." instead of just shooting the idea.

i think deep deep down under all other things that hold me back is the fear that i'll not be as good as others that I like and follow.

That fear breeds numerous excuses. I find myself constantly 'preparing' or 'improving' other things. One positive side effect? I am learning Lightroom and Photoshop quite well :)
One reason that I still manage to take small steps forward is that I do get a job now and then and working on those photos/videos forces me to step up my editing skills.

Nomad Photographers's picture

Hi Hillary ! You are so right. First about the Sigma 35mm1.4 art which is a stunning lens ! I also have the 50mm1.4 art and I should have kept my money for something else because it is exactly as you say. With many choices and lenses sometimes you just wonder what you're going to take out with you and end up not having the right lens mounted on the right body at the right time and you think it sucks when in fact, you suck because this should force you to get more creative ! Anyways, photography and artistic businesses is a tough one nowadays but one can still make it ! We are a family of photographers (which means that even our 3 kids take our expensive gear out very often) and we are nomad to top that ! Right now in Costa Rica and next month in Florida, feel free to check our photography adventures on our blog : http://www.thenomadphotographers.com
Have a wonderful day !

Daniel Vuong's picture

I think the last point is the strongest point you've listed. Because it's applicable to many or even all types of work space. If you don't work hard and hustle then you wont succeed.
For myself I'm a engineer student and I always struggle to plan my time correctly and even worse with keeping a good and consistent workethic. Therefore I dont have enough time for my photography stuff.
But great article Hillary!

Great article!
These are points that I often make to those who are having difficulties with their photography business. Many adopt the position that photography is not a viable career but I disagree. The real challenge is separating one's romantic ideas from the reality of the field.It can still feed your passion, you just have to attend to all the other stuff too.
A good partner (like a spouse) can make all the difference. You need a champion and often, an extra set of hands (and brains).

In the end it is a business and one really has to focus on the 90% that is not photography so that the 10% can succeed.

Luiz Carlos Junior's picture

Great Hillary! Good to see I'm following the right way. It's inspiring to see your history (and an article) that reinforces this track. :)

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for this info. My biggest holdback that I an others in my area is you have people that know nothing of lighting or even white balance getting all the business. Their images are so dark, wrong white balance, they look terrible and yet all their clients "love them" and go to them for everything, amazing that people these days put no value on quality and that hurts our business. A good friend is closing his studio because of all these. I mean photographing a wedding for $300 and offering a cd of photoshop edited images is killing us.

stanley seguy's picture

Good article and so true in each points ! Thank Hillary :)

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Ernesto Aharon Rivera's picture

Great eye opener article. We all need a reality check once in a while to help us get out this vicious cycle.

LaChell Myles's picture

I have fallen victim in the business aspect. I find myself not knowing how to price for shoots. I need to build up my confidence and set up a price sheet. I plan on taking a business class in the future, to help market myself better.

Why have I stopped taking photos?

I've lost inspiration. I've outgrown local locations and grey light and I can't afford to travel

I don't have a mentor. I don't know if it's skill or conditions holding me back.

I've got no projects. I've advertised and cold called but the phone doesn't ring.

And I feel like a bit of a failure. I compare my work to the shots on here and 500px and weep.

Owain Shaw's picture

Hello,

I'm back at this article this morning because another writer posted a similar one and in both cases the word 'failure' and 'failing' bothers me. I'm sensitive to these terms because whilst they're probably good for generating web hits, I don't think they're good words to be throwing at people who are striving to create on a personal and professional level, so to those reading this comment, feel free to down-vote this comment for that reason - that I'm a big softy. There's no bigger lie than "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me".

Your comment struck me as different in tone to most of the others, you seem really down-trodden and I'm sorry if that's the case.

I'm not a successful professional photographer but I don't see myself as "Failing at Photography". I'm not looking for work at the moment, I'm looking to produce photographs that I like, that make me happy ... there's no point in doing photography, none at all, if it doesn't make you happy on some level. It would be like owning a workshop and spending hours down in the garage if you hate woodwork.

Something I've learned is that it's hard to be happy with your work if you're not producing any. I think that's the first thing you can address ... it's difficult to go out and pick up the camera when you're not inspired, I know; and one can't make oneself inspired any more than one can make oneself fall in love (I'm not sure which of these has caused me more personal strife over the past twelve months) but they say "inspiration exists, but it has to find you working" ... and my own experience is that you'll be surprised what you can see; what you can find among the familiar.

There can also be other sources of inspiration beyond photography ... for me it seems to be words, either through books, poems or song lyrics. Try reading, watching films, or listening to music. As I said, you can't make yourself be inspired by anything that you read, watch or hear ... or make yourself find it inspiring ... it will inspire you or it won't ... but by reading, watching or listening to things we open ourselves up to things which might inspire us.

Grey light is a bugger. Recently I've been enjoying shooting with bright low sun and dark, long shadows. This past week the weather has turned grey. It's definitely affected my shooting so I can sympathise.

Where do you live, Chris? What do you like to shoot? You may not be able to shoot what you like, but there's always something to be shot ...

I'd like to help you if I can, even if it's just as someone else working with some of the same stuff.

All the best,

Owain.