Eight Things They Don’t Tell You About Being a Professional Photographer

Eight Things They Don’t Tell You About Being a Professional Photographer

As a professional photographer, I can quickly become disenfranchised by my working life while watching Internet photographers living the Casey Neistat life. Here are eight things I didn't expect.

I have no doubt that a lot of high-end photographers lead a pretty amazing life. Why wouldn’t they? But most of us are not at that level. Until you are being booked for your name, chances are that your professional world is more like mine. Half way through last year while on a shoot abroad I suddenly felt a bit low. I wasn’t shooting a cool video for everyone to see on YouTube and enjoying being in a new country. I was alone, stressed beyond belief, and location scouting at the crack of dawn while throwing up in cafe toilets from the stomach bug I had picked up on the flight over. This is not the dream I was sold.

After a bit of a personal debrief and a few breath mints, I decided to look at the positive and I managed to pull myself through it, but this was just one in a long list of not overly pleasant things that I had endured recently in my photographic career.

Clients

Clients are great, but they are also the only thing that can ruin your day. Doing photography on your own terms is really good fun, but unless you can re-frame the task in your mind, doing what is in the creative director's mind is a very different kettle of fish to doing what ever pleases your eyes. One of the biggest reasons (in my opinion, another unfounded statement here) why pros lose their love for photography is from the misconception that being self-employed means being your own boss. This isn’t true at all, and in fact you end up with a different boss every day, each with their own expectations and requirements. They also do not care what else you have on or who else you are working with. This can be a lot to get use to at first, so understanding that you are servicing your clients and that your aim is to please them is a great mindset shift to make. For a lot of clients, shoot day is a big jolly out of the office for the team, fo us it's Thursday. Understanding everyone's expectations and making sure everyone is happy and catered for will make your life happier and easier. 

Money

Money is a tricky subject, especially for Brits like myself. Money is always on my mind, from how much I spend on kitchen roll to how much gear I have purchased this year. There are so many outgoings as a photographer that it is vital to keep on top of everything. The bigger the jobs get, the more complicated this becomes, and it is easy to overspend by several hundred or thousand when the budget is huge. You need to have a real grip on your numbers job to job. I worked out that I can save around £1,000 a year if I buy my coffee only when it is on special offer and in bulk. Knowing when to invest in gear and to let it devalue in your hands versus renting gear and allowing another party to suffer the devaluation is another constant math problem that my little brain is trying to constantly cope with.

Debt and Overdrafts

If like me, you come from modest beginnings, the bank of Mummy and Daddy probably wont be helping you out all that much. I had to take out a small business loan when I first began to buy some lights and a computer. A rather stressful fact of my move into professional photography was that without a buffer in the early days and with jobs quickly ramping up in production value, I was regally stretching the limits of my finances and available equipment. For the first four years I was constantly borrowing lights, cameras, lenses, and tripods from anyone who would let me (thanks!) with the constant fear of not being able to service a clients needs without the generosity of others. There were many sleepless nights in the early days when I wasn’t sure if I could afford to take on more jobs or if a client would pay me before I had to pay everyone else. Thankfully over the years you get a better idea about cash flow and forecasting, as well as knowing when jobs are too big to take on without financial backing. For a long time, this was a major concern. The next time I need a cash injection to progress it is likely to be rather substantial, which in itself is daunting. Growth can be very dangerous commercially if it happens too fast and I have nearly been caught out by this on several occasions.

Stress

I had a full head of black hair when I started out in this game, and I now have a receding hairline and prominent gray patches. Being self-employed is very isolating and stressful. If I am not shooting, I will spend 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. completely alone working in my office. It is very easy to end up going down dark paths in your mind or to become distracted from the big picture. It is really important to manage your stress levels. If you have only worked in 9-to-5 type jobs in the past, this can be a real shock to the system and was certainly something I wasn’t prepared for. I expected an Instagram life, instead I got a receding hairline. I now make sure that I have a strict plan of action for each day to keep me present and on task. This keeps me ahead of my deadlines and helps ease the stress, especially the stress of having no work coming in while on an admin and retouching week. 

Working With Cool People

It sounds obvious in hindsight, but you suddenly find your own tribe and get to work around like minded people. My studio is always a creative environment and I have tried to keep it in a suitable state of disrepair so I can get messy and make whatever I want without worrying about the consequences. I also get to work with my girlfriend who often styled my shots. It is really nice having a work life that follows the same ethos as your personal life. I don't have to pretend to be someone I am not in my studio; when I worked in someone else's office I had to be who they expected me to be. The downside to this is that you end up living in some odd bubble with no real grasp on what is going on around you. 

Self-Doubt

When I started out as a photographer running around taking snaps for fun, I thought I was great. The longer I have been a photographer the worse I think I am. With almost every booking I get the dreaded, “Can I do this? Am I good enough?” Whereas when I was shooting for a hobby I always assumed (incorrectly) that I had completely got it and I would be fine. I assumed that once people started paying me that I would feel even more confident, but as the day rates got bigger my self-doubt got greater.

Rubbernecking

Rubbernecking can be career suicided. It is so easy to be worried about what everyone is doing around you that you miss what is right in front of you. I would waste at least an hour a day seeing what my competition was up to rather than working on my craft. When I was previously in 9-to-5 world, I just plodded along with little care for these things. All of a sudden I had become very aware of other photographers who I was in direct competition with. Thankfully, with time this rubbernecking stopped and I am pretty much only focused on what I am doing, bar checking trends.

Compromise

I thought going self-employed meant only doing what I wanted. I was very wrong. Mopping floors, emptying bins, DIY, accountancy, and a heap of emails. All things that I didn’t think about. And that doesn’t even cover the photography side of things. Covering events was certainly not something I expected to be doing when I wanted to become a commercial photographer. But some times, you just need to pay the rent. I have learned that when I need to do something predominantly for the paycheck, that it is enabling me to have free time further down the line to work on my passion projects.

What did you find to be completely different when moving from a 9-to-5 job to photography? And more importantly, which one do you enjoy more?

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34 Comments

Wise words. Universal truths.

'in fact you end up with a different boss every day, each with their own expectations and requirements': that's got me thinking!

Scott Choucino's picture

It's a bit like a new day job every day, while also running your own being a boss thing around them I suppose

Boris Schipper's picture

I think that’s what I find most difficult as well, having to deal with different opinions every time

Mislav Žabarović's picture

But every freelance job has this in common...it's a characteristic of being a freelancer. If you as a photographer get a 9-5 job for a newspaper, you wont feel like this anymore ;)

Wise words indeed.
I have a small buildingcompany, and all your worries i've had too, so very universal.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes, I think most companies have the same issues from what I have heard from friends.

After all that do you still like what you do or do you feel trapped because leaving would mean starting all over? Asking because I'm contemplating changing careers to something that has "aspects" of photography in it. Aka I have no idea what I want to do next.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes I love it, but I also haven't ever had a problem working for other people. I think a lot of people make the choice because they struggle with taking orders or working for someone. This career path just magnifies that for most and failure is pretty much inevitable.

That about covers it, and then some. However, it's useful to remember the "highs" of seeing your work out there, or at least creating work that you're proud of. Sadly, clients often just wrap with barely an acknowledgement of your effort. But back in studio/office/desk, in the deep dark nights of editing, I'm sure everyone feels that sense of joy of seeing images that worked out, when you weren't sure they would. It's like chasing a high...

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes, the highs are certainly worth it.

Mauricio Flores's picture

I took the jump out of my corporate job almost 6 months ago, these are some of the lessons I've learned:
- Focus on one photography product at the time. I think i can shoot many things, however, it has proven really difficult to effectively market all of them at the same time. Start with one, figure out how to generate the leads, how to nurture those leads, get booked and deliver
-Invoicing: I'm pretty good at excel, so i never felt the need to get a CRM, was i ever wrong. I need to make sure that it is extremely easy for people to give me money. All the back and forth of sending proposals, contracts, invoices is just an unnecessary barriers for you to get paid.
- Always get clients to sign a contract and to get a Non-Refundable Deposit. No matter if they are family or friends, make sure you have the systems in place to get paid.
- Schedule your month and make sure to schedule time for yourself.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes, focusing on one thing is a much easier way to get work, no one wants an average photographer, they want someone who specialises. Its much easier to market your brand message that way to. Time for yourself is also super important. I am very guilty of ignoring that.

excellent article. Straight and right to the point. But the point is.. that you absolutely categorically immediately need a representation. Don't ever go out yourself, always ALWAYS filter with a representative (be it an Agent -best choice- or a fake one. It doesn't matter: what matters is that you never EVER talk abut anything different than vision and creativity. All the rest you pretend to don't know. Others take care of those things. Good luck. You have the "gift", no questions. get a representation.

Scott Choucino's picture

Representation has certainly helped me keep my sanity. I was very fortunate to get someone early days

Tom Lew's picture

Another great term I heard for the rubbernecking is "compare and despair"

Scott Choucino's picture

Love that, I will be stealing it haha

Steve Sanacore's picture

Excellent advice for anyone thinking about this career! Very honest, nicely worded and so true. I've succeeded for over 30 years but the struggles have been brutal. Unfortunately many will still pursue it in total ignorance of what's needed in the way of business and marketing sense....

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks, glad you enjoyed.

Great article. Oh so true.
My advice, get a job to start with. Doesn't have to be in photography (but it helps) earn some money, then you are able to buy the equipment you need, whilst possibly gaining experience in the business world? Then when you feel you are ready, go for it! Also make sure you get paid. Chasing money is one of the most difficult things about being self-employed! You are bottom of the food chain.
By the way Scott the British way to spell Grey is with an 'e''. 'a' is American. At least you didn't say 'you do the math' when it should be 'maths'!

2 nations divided by a (not so) common language, now?
Good luck with all you do.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes, I think working else where first is a good idea.

My English and American English is so confused now. I write 50-50 in both and I think it has become some odd hybrid in my head.

Although I have never lived in Britain, I am constantly confusing American and British spelling. This is partly because I read a lot of British police procedural novels, and also because I learned how to spell in French and Italian before I did in English. Americans do not enunciate clearly, and this is reflected in the spelling.

Yechiel Orgel's picture

Tue words well said.

Scott Weaver's picture

Very true. It all comes down to the attitude you have towards these various challenges. Always try to get as specific information as possible from a client as to what they want from you. Otherwise one can end up having to shoot more than expected, or deliver something the client says they are unhappy with. The goal is make get the client what they were looking for, and for you to be pleased with your work and job performance.

Scott Choucino's picture

Absolutely, SCAMPS for the win. haha. Poor briefing is always a nightmare.

Jason Lorette's picture

One I might add is family/friends and their wondering "when you will get a 'real' job"...I've actually heard that statement before "well, you know what I mean back when you had a real job"...what? ;)

Shawk Parson's picture

can perfectly understand what you say but can't blame family/friends(neighbors etc) either as to them a real job is one that starts at a certain (young) age and ends with a formal retirement at a certain (old) age and ... :-) (but if you tell them how some people in the IT actually start very young and 'retire merrily' with millions if not billions of $$$ in saving below the age of 30, then ...) ;-)

Shawk Parson's picture

dealing with 'difficult' clients is the toughest part imo ...
the rest are just of the 'business as usual' nature and one has to tackle in almost any job ...
of course 'difficult clients' are found in all jobs, but those in the artistic and creative areas are probably the worst of all based on what we hear from other photogs and graphic artists too ...
this kind of client has absolutely no idea whatsoever what 'art' or even 'technique' is but s/he thinks s/he's a know it all for various impractical reasons ... and thus makes impossible demands ... and ...

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