Being a Professional Photographer Is More Than Just Making Pretty Pictures

Being a Professional Photographer Is More Than Just Making Pretty Pictures

Today, I’ll share with you a brief review, not of a camera, but of the life of a professional photographer.

The idea for this brief check-in came to me over the span of a few minutes. Or, possibly, it could have been a few days. The last 10 of mine have been such a whirlwind that it’s hard to keep track. Not that I am complaining, mind you. In the type of photography that I do, commercial photography for large advertising campaigns, my level of busyness varies with the wind. The hard work is 24/7. But the payoffs come in waves, so there are as many non-shooting quiet days as there are nonstop working sleepless nights.

As I write this, I happen to be in the middle of about a three-week stretch of sleepless nights, partially because of the presence in my house of a four-month-old puppy that required emergency surgery to make it to five months to remove something from his stomach that he really never should have put in his mouth in the first place. But despite the cone of shame he is forced to wear to protect his stitches and my fruitless efforts to avoid running into it, the bulk of my sleeplessness these days is caused by me suddenly finding myself in the process of bidding and/or producing and/or shooting six different large scale campaigns simultaneously. I’m not bragging. This level of overlap is unusual most weeks. Nor am I complaining. 2020 has had more than its fair share of bad news; I’m open to a bit of good.

Just last week, one of the bids I won took me back to a subject I’d shot before. This time, I was photographing him on behalf of a Fortune 100 company that was partnering with another company in the Fortune 500. When I was talking with the subject, who is a small business owner, he and I got to laughing/crying about all the minutiae involved in running a business on a larger scale. His idea for a small local shop has blown up in profile in the last couple of years, and he suddenly finds himself swimming in waters he never planned on accessing. He was ruminating on when he was a street vendor selling odds and ends and how, at that time, he considered himself a master businessman. Yet, years later, business growth has forced him to grow as a businessman as well. He still loves his work. But he is recognizing now that it is all the behind the scenes duties that no one sees or cares about that make him able to run his business at the scale it is now.

I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his story and my own. Sure, I’ve grown as an artist since the start of my career. But the reason why I am able to do this as a living is because of my growth as a business owner. That will come as no surprise to other veteran working photographers, but it is something that burgeoning photographers can often overlook. We pay a lot of attention to gear and craft. But to be a “professional” photographer, the title has as much to do with business acumen as shutter speed.

For example, what do all of these tasks have in common? Writing a creative treatment. Researching federal and state employment law. Citing legal statutes. Negotiating copyright. Finding a lawyer to form a legal corporate tax entity. Endless discussions of the exact definition of the word “purple.” Calling all over the city for hours to not only try and find a porta-potty but also convince a stranger to drive it out into the middle of nowhere down a dirt road at 7 am. Sourcing models. Hiring crew and onboarding them. Devising an accurate and efficient payroll system. Pulling city shooting permits. Issuing insurance certs. Paying insurance bills. Jogging in place to stir up enough adrenaline and charm to make it through multiple hours of creative calls on Zoom. Shooting. Editing. Oh, and trying to figure out how to feed a dog when his cone is too small to fit around his bowl.  If you guessed the answer to what all those tasks have in common is that I’ve done all within the last 72 hours, you’d be right.

Of course, this is not to say that the shooting and creativity part isn’t important. It’s because you develop your craft that you will find yourself with work to do in the first place. But as your business progresses, you will find that you will need to grow your business acumen just as much, if not more than your skills with the camera. And just like your artistic development, your business education will be a never-ending process. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the game will throw you a curveball, and you will suddenly be forced to learn how to hit a new pitch.

Okay, back to work for me. No rest for the weary. But one of the best parts of working the job you love is that, when it comes to hard work, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

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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Wow! An article about photography worth reading. Not a product review trying to sell me on a new lens, camera, bag or other. Not a how to video that I've seen on youtube I don't remember how long ago. Or adapted from other videos because it is the trend. We need more articles like this. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing.

Thank you, Lee