Five Rumors About Being a Pro Photographer That Are Actually True

Five Rumors About Being a Pro Photographer That Are Actually True

There are always an abundance of lists explaining misconceptions and lies about being a professional photographer, but there are almost none telling you which rumors are true.

Like any given profession, it's easy to idolize the concept of that career without the facts. In my experience, photographers blindly and naively plummeting in to a photography career overflowing with optimism is rarer than the majority believe. What I see as more common is instead — rather sadly — the converse of this: the over-inflated industry is going to crush them and they'll make no money and die in a penniless puddle. I may have got carried away there, but nevertheless, the propensity for negativity towards a career in photography appears to outweigh the optimism.

As is often the case with dichotomies, the truth lies somewhere in between. The fundamental problem for photographers out of the loop but trying to get in to it, is that it's difficult to tell the wood from the trees. That is, identifying what is true and what is false from the ceaseless barrage of information is nigh on impossible. One established voice in the industry will tell you that social media is your gateway to success, YouTube wil autoplay a related video, which will be an equally established voice insisting that careers are built independently of socials. I remember how frustrating I found this some years back (when it was arguably less confusing than now) as I stepped in to the full-time photography arena, and I've written many times on areas that might demystify the leap for some.

Well, recently I've noticed an uptick in pieces about the lies and myths of becoming a professional photographer. While they're helpful, they merely take away information you might have had, and leave you to infer the antithetical position which is not always the case. So in this article, I will present five rumors about being a professional photographer that are — at least in my experience and the experience some of my colleagues — true.

1. There Are a Lot of People Trying to Make It as a Photographer

There's no getting away from it, there are more photographers than ever before. Photography is simply more accessible, it's a quicker process, and there are fewer steps involved. There is no qualification entry point, there is nothing to stop anyone listing themselves as a professional photographer and looking for work, and it's an attractive profession to be successful in. That said, there's a lot of work out there and most people don't try particularly hard to consistently get better and build a proper, fully functioning business. So, yes it's true that you'll be battling away against lots of other photographers (at least to begin with), but that shouldn't put you off.

2. You Do Spend a Lot Less Time Taking Pictures

I oscillate between thinking this is depressing and a good thing. When you're a hobbyist, taking and editing photos is everything you need to do. When you're a professional photographer, it's not even the bulk of your work load for almost everyone. You are running a business and that means there is a lot you need to do to keep it ticking over. There's emails, networking, admin, accounts, invoicing, expenses, canvassing, social media, blogging, and the list really does go on.

On the one hand, it's disappointing that you're not spending all of your time taking pictures like you used to. But on the other, time with your camera now feels more like an event and thus more enjoyable. In addition, there are rewards other than the images themselves. Finally, you can still shoot in your spare time!

3. You Can't Have G.A.S

When you're working full-time, Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a bad habit, but generally fun. When your photography is your business and your livelihood, G.A.S can be terminal. Every penny has to be accounted for, but moreover, it must be justifiable. Buying lenses, cameras, and accessories on a whim is a dicey game to play and one that invariably will not be rewarded, in fact it will probably be punished. You'll often hear "you can't just buy shiny new stuff if photography is your job" and that is wholly true; it can damage your profit margins and the viability of a long and healthy career in photography.

Had I been able to be more loose with my Benjamins, this Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 review unit would have stayed with me.

4. Mobile Phone Photography Is Hurting Professional Photographers

This one is contentious and has multifarious caveats, but is true. Now, mobile photography doesn't affect vast swathes of photography niches and sub-genres, but it does hurt a number of areas. The worst affected is most likely to be stock photography in which mobile images are usurping more and more of the landscape. With the impressive quality phone cameras can put out now, many start-ups and small businesses opt to photograph their products themselves. In a similar vein, family photography is arguably less popular now, although this is a very recent change and the evidence is anecdotal. So this sentiment, while usually more aggressively and exaggeratedly expressed, has a fair amount of truth to it.

5. If You Love What You Do You'll Never Work a Day in Your Life

Let's end on a high. This is a bit of a call back to my recent article "Dispelling One of the Biggest Myths About Becoming a Professional Photographer" in which I vehemently rebuke the notion that becoming a professional photographer causes you to fall out of love with photography. The quote attributed to Marc Anthony is a poetic absolute which if explored, would come apart at the seams simply because it's absolute, but the sentiment is correct to my eye. That is, if you love what you do, it won't feel like you're "working" constantly, even when you are. I still have days where I work 18 hours, carrying heavy gear, on my feet 90% of the time, concentrating intensely, missing meals, and so on. Those days are seldom enjoyable, but they're a means to an end, which is having a career I love and find fulfillment in. The result is that most of my time, I don't feel as if I'm working, even though I work more hours per week than almost anyone I know.

Professional photographers, what did you hear about being a full-time 'tog that turned out to be true? Those of you aiming to make the jump, is there anything you want to check the veracity of? Share them in the comments below.

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14 Comments

Bill Wells's picture

Once again my friend, great article. We do weddings and we are not busy every weekend nor do I want to be booked every weekend. Our prices keep us out of lower end weddings and that is fine.

My goal now is to have fun and get better every time I shoot. My business partner Jessica does a lot of different stuff. She is young and I"m retired.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Another great read. However I think number 2 depends on the person. Even as a hobbyist I only get out 3-4 days a month, because I spend so much time working my real job and helping with my daughter. It’s harder to justify going out any more than 3-4 times a month without bringing in a profit of some kind. That’s not even getting into justifying the financials of photography trips.

I do, however, know that I would spend less time shooting for myself and more time shooting for others and doing behind the scenes work, which sounds like less fun.

Robert K Baggs's picture

You're right, that's not something I'd considered. I guess if your life is incredibly hectic, switching to full-time photographer might be a way of spending more time with your camera and shooting. Great point.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Yep, pretty much bang on really. Nice read.

Not too much interference from smartphones here as I'm B2B, they still need something and somebody with a 'camera'. That said, I even use a smartphone myself for some jobs. Heck, I shot a TV ad a couple of weeks go with 2 GoPro cameras.

GAS, Guilty of that, at both ends.

I never get that Monday morning feeling which does infuriate some traditionally employed people.
I take more time for me, for my family and usually that's Wednesday afternoons off (when my daughter only has half day school)
I work harder when I can, and more often than not, evening hours for admin. That helps free up me time.
Sometimes I get the inner guilt of thinking I should do more, I have to fight that though. I'm not getting younger, so life goes first.

All the general relaxed aura around my working day with the apparent flexibility also winds people up.
Oh, you're always relaxing, you must be rich, must be great to be able to do things when others are working.
Of course, they forget they get a company car, company pension, 20-40 paid holidays, sick pay, etc, etc, etc. Downside is, locked in a cage from 9-5.

I'll take my lifestyle, any day.

gabe s's picture

Wednesdays seem like the "self employed" day off around here, that or Mondays. Most restaurants are closed then (here at least) so seems like nobody does anything on Mondays either.

Then- "Sometimes I get the inner guilt of thinking I should do more, I have to fight that though. I'm not getting younger, so life goes first."

So much this. I feel like I need to be doing something all the time, and feel guilty sitting watching a movie with the family, because I could be trying for that next gig.

A decade ago i had the opportunity to become a "payed photographer". Money for every image plus budget to buy the gear i needed. Did this for 7 months. Hated every minute. Just was not fun anymore and too much pressure on the deadline (from the clients) and on the quality (from myself). After the first project ended i was offered to take a new one and to "rescue" the project made from another photographer. The frist run takes me 16 hours per day 7 days a week plus 8 hours per day of an assistant. The second work would have needed at least 24 hours per day of work. I declined, got back to my "normal" work and took a 2 year pause from my hobby. Then i restart the hobby by throwing away the old system and start over with a new one. The only regrets i have today is when i look to the pictures i've take for the project and i imagine how better i could have done that job with my today knowledge.

Edward Taylor's picture

I use a Sony DSC-H300 in my photography work I am an Abstract photographer ( Geometric photographer) I have an educational background in photography. I am a full time photographer. I think education in photography is important.

To #2, I'd add time spent post-processing. Many clients expect you to be a Photoshop expert, too, which means a lot of time at the computer. And when you're starting out, it's hard to hire someone to do all that for you. I guess maybe some consider that part of photography, but I don't :/

Darren Loveland's picture

Great article, spot on.

Graham Glover's picture

The first four are painfully obvious; the last one is as much garbage as "Follow your Passion!™" If you're an entrepreneur, you're working, love your life choices or not, and the work is not always fun.

Makes me wonder about the evolution of Fstoppers over the recent few years.

I like how you get to the point in your article; honest perspective and not sugar coated.

I have a different perspective on # 2. Since going pro two unexpected side-effects have happened. First of all, the amount of non work-related pictures I have taken has skyrocketed. I was afraid of the opposite however my personal library has grown significantly since going pro. The other side-effect is the quality of my personal images have improved. That's one of the reason's why I cherish photography is that there is always room to evolve and better your craft. Even after 30 years it still hasn't got old.

Dave Terry's picture

Right after high school I had two consecutive jobs at different small owner/operator sized companies. Those jobs cured me of any misconceptions or fantastical ideas about what it takes to be successful as a business regardless of what you're selling or service you are providing. I did the accounts for the second company and knew how much money we brought in every month and could make direct correlations between that and my low wages. It's hard to ask your boss for a raise when you know you technically make more per hour than they do! I worked my ass off at those jobs as did the owners.

I didn't get serious about photography until I was about 35 (just turned 44). After a few years of building a good reputation in the city's art/music scene and feeling like I had a real knack for it as I pushed my self to learn more and more, I considered what it would take to "go pro" as it were. It was easy to figure out that I was not in a financial position to take the risk necessary to compete with the photographers I knew I would be competing against (several who I got to know personally, and who gave me great advice)... at least not at that time.

I'd like to make a living off of photography at some point, but since i don't have a trust fund somewhere to draw from, I have just been using my full time job to slowly finance photography as an artistic endeavour first and foremost piece by piece. I almost never do paid gigs because I want to learn and experiment every time I pick up the camera, which is hard to do when you need everything to be something you can charge people for. I see this as my photography education (self-funded).

In the time since I began really taking my photography skills seriously, I have learned tons of information, techniques, tricks, and just hard core technical knowledge about light, sensors, processing, and a myriad of other things that all make me a better photographer (if not a rich one). This is mainly because if I ever do try and transition into doing it for money, I want to feel absolute confidence in my skills to compete against folks at their top of their game right out of the gate. And if I never try to make money at it, it still has been a wonderful experience and I have taken photos of my actual life and the people in it that have enriched all of our lives, even if it hasn't enriched my bank account... but that's what my day job is for anyway. =)

Everyone should ask themselves what they really want to get out of (or pour into) any artistic endeavour that has a potential monetary side to it. Just because people do become "professionals" for money, doesn't mean you need to make money at the art itself to do the art at a "professional" level. It's a common mistake to think you must "make money" at something in order to be legitimately good at it... in fact, being good might get in the way depending on what kind of market you are targeting. So just ask yourself why you are doing it before anything else because you will end up spending a lot of time on everything BUT the art itself once you try to make a living at it. You could just have easily been a carpenter by day and been the funding patron of your own art.

Andre Goulet's picture

I use a hybrid solution to address all of these points. my income is almost evenly split between photography and IT, which allows me to shoot only that which I'm interested in.

All photo enthusiasts should really consider GAS issues. Changing gear all the time can actually hinder your growth as a photographer. Knowing your gear so well that its like an extension of your hands and brain will get you farther than new gear will.

Craig Lonie's picture

Great article as someone who ran a large business for the last 20 years I'm having a change of direction i always wanted to do something creative and never found a way to do it until now ,I can totally identify with G.A.S I'm looking at it as a one-off​ set up cost and then I will be very frugal .....maybe! just maybe