An overabundance of junk email this morning reminded me that turning a passion into profit sometimes means returning to one very basic concept.
I am a fan of the clean inbox. For years and years, as I sat behind a desk at one day job after another, sifting through the bottomless pit of unnecessary emails seemed determined to consume my day. I would always look forward to those brief moments when I could look at my inbox and see absolutely nothing. Just a clean white page to the right of the folder structure. A visual representation of the fact that, at that very moment, I was completely caught up.
The fact that I enjoy an empty inbox so much could be just another result of my O.C.D. Or it could be a reflection of my lifelong approach to task management, which boils down generally to “why to put off until tomorrow what you can do today?” I was the kind of kid in college who always had his homework assignments completed within an hour of them being assigned, and as far as I can recollect, I’ve never pulled a last-second all-nighter in my life. I like to get things done early so that I don’t have to worry about them later. I like a clean inbox because it denotes the fact that there aren’t any pending tasks hanging over my head and I can sit back and watch Turner Classic Movies in peace without feeling there is something I’ve forgotten.
Of course, now that I am a professional photographer whose jobs generally arrive via emails from potential clients, it’s safe to say that I don’t want to stare at a barren inbox for too long. I do look forward to spotting a sudden flash of text out of the corner of my eye and turning my head to see that a new message has arrived. Yet sadly, not every email I receive is from a client or colleague. In fact, if I could substitute in a client for every piece of stray email I get from vendors asking me to buy something, contests asking me to pay money for a slim chance to win an award I’ve never heard of, or publicists sending me press releases for products that have nothing to do with photography because they apparently found my name on a mailing list, I would find myself a very rich man. I might even go so far as to say the vast majority of pings to my inbox are emails destined to land directly in my trash bin wholly unread. Of course, this quick disposal does satisfy my yearning for having a clean inbox. But it also is a constant reminder of one of the biggest dichotomies I’ve found during the course of my photographic career. Simply put, we become professional photographers to presumably earn money and make a living. But, many aspects of the industry itself seem far more designed to have us spend money than actually make money.
There’s the big one, of course. The latest and greatest gear that most people spend more time studying and debating than they actually spend actually using on assignments. There are constant test shoots that may or may not cost you money depending on your subject and level of ambition. Then, once you’ve created your masterpiece, there are the presentation costs associated with building websites, sending promos, and printing portfolios (although that last one is somewhat less in the age of zoom meetings). Since marketing is a rather obvious and necessary part of growing a business, there are entire cottage industries built up around getting you noticed. Some are clearly transactional. You pay X amount to your rep. That may or may not be worth the money depending on your rep. You pay Y amount of money to enter such and such “prestigious” competitions for a chance to have your work seen by “the right people.” Assuming that you are specific about which contest you apply to, as opposed to simply clicking enter on every contest that hits your inbox, this can be a fruitful way to get your work seen. But, even as someone who has won several such awards through the years, I can’t help but think about the sheer number of photography contests that are in existence and wonder if the majority of the contests themselves aren’t just ways for the company holding the contest to transfer wealth from my pocket to theirs without really offering me much in return aside from a fleeting hope. Then, there are the one million and one different conventions and photo expos that you can purchase a ticket to. The how-to courses you can enroll in. The preset and LUT packages promise to make all your images amazing with the click of a mouse button by apparently substituting your own creativity with a one-size-fits-all aesthetic of cool.
Don’t get me wrong. Every item listed above has its place. And spending on any of those things or all of those things is not necessarily a waste of money. I only reference those things because I’ve spent money on all of them at one point or another over the last couple of decades of building my photography career to varying degrees of return. And with so many potential opportunities to spend your money, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that your job as a professional photographer and business owner is not to spend money, but to make it.
I remember several years ago before I was a full-time professional photographer, I was having a chat with one of my best friends. He was an aspiring graphic designer. I was an aspiring photographer. Both of us were working dead-end day jobs and spending far more money on our “hobbies” than was being returned in revenue. That particular day, he had just finished designing a book project for a client/friend only to be paid in exposure. He’d clearly put far more time into the project than he was being compensated for, and he jokingly said that he and I were in the same boat in that we were both “paying to work.” It was an offhand comment, not meant to linger, but linger it did, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right. At that moment in time, I was so focused on buying the latest gear, buying my way into every shooting situation I could afford, and spending what was left on whatever opportunity I could find that made me feel more like part of the photo community, that I had forgotten that the objective was to actually make money. Looking the part is all well and good. But, at some point, you need to put up or shut up. At some point, you need to stop being a consumer and start being a producer.
The old adage that “it takes money to make money” is sadly very true. If you are running a business, you will need to make strategic investments. But what you can’t do is substitute spending for doing the hard work of building a business. You can’t buy a career as a professional photographer. You have to earn it. Spend less time looking at gear you can buy and spend more time searching for clients who might buy your product. You have to sit down and crunch the numbers and understand concepts like costs of goods sold. While those jobs that allow you to be creative, but don’t pay enough to cover the costs, may sometimes be beneficial, if you do too many such jobs you will find yourself incredibly busy yet still somehow losing money. Spending money on gear is fun for all of us. It’s like crack for photographers. An instant boost of joy that lasts at least as long as it takes the credit card bill to arrive. But one thing that feels so much better than spending money is making money by producing work for clients that will allow your bank account to grow rather than shrink.
Is everything I’ve said above obvious? Yes. But, in an industry that seems designed to have photographers spend money rather than actually make it, is it easy to get your balance wrong and end up on the wrong side of the ledger? Yes, it is. Learning to make the mental shift from someone whose job it is to make purchases to someone whose job it is to make a profit is a simple lesson, but one that will pay dividends for years to come.