How to Create Your Own Opportunities as a Photographer

How to Create Your Own Opportunities as a Photographer

Exactly what does it take to be “lucky?”

I’m a firm believer that we all get opportunities in life. Now, to be clear, we don’t all get the exact same opportunities. Some get bigger opportunities than others. Some get more frequent opportunities than others. The fully unfair lottery of the circumstances of our own birth is beyond our control. We don’t control where we were born, which parents we were born to, or much of our built-in demographics. But, if you are fortunate enough to live long enough, at some point, opportunity will cross everyone’s path. Whether or not we take advantage of it, or even recognize it as an opportunity at the time, is often the difference between success and a dream deferred.

Of course, just like we can’t control the circumstances of our birth, the idea that we can generate our own opportunities can seem equally far-fetched. I can’t just decide I want to get the opportunity to be president, then just expect my inauguration to manifest itself on demand. But, even for something as grandiose as that, there are actually tangible steps within my control that I can do to help fate take a hand. Getting involved in student government to gain experience. Keeping my nose clean and free of scandal. Interning with a local politician. I have no desire to be a politician, so my knowledge of how to run a successful presidential campaign is limited. But you get the picture.

The same rules apply to us as artists. The truth about artists is that the world is absolutely full of us. Never in the history of man has the Earth lacked creativity or those wanting to use that creativity for profit. And, if you’ve made it your goal to make your living through your own creativity, there’s no getting around the fact that you have chosen a very crowded field on which to play. The “big” opportunities are going to be scarce. And it is inevitably going to feel at times like all the great opportunities are going to someone else.

So what can you do about it? To paraphrase Les Brown, all you can do is all you can do. And all you can do is enough. But you have to be willing to do it. The tools to create your own opportunities are in your hands.  But they require action to be effective.

Create Personal Work

One of the more peculiar things that tends to happen to professional photographers is that, at some point, it becomes easy to forget to create images just for ourselves. We usually begin as photographers, shooting images purely for fun. We do photography because we love it. At some point, we love it so much and we get good enough at it to consider making it our profession. Turning a hobby into a business necessitates certain shifts in how and what we shoot, with a greater emphasis on how each of our images will help further our commercial prospects. If you’re lucky, you are able to build a successful business and eventually can get paid every time you take out your camera.

But the hidden thing that very few people tell you is that, while commissioned shoots are what build your bank account, personal shoots are what build your legacy. It is when doing personal work, images without a commercial motivation that only exist because you wanted to push yourself artistically, that we find our “voice” as artists. Unbound from the demands of an art director or client, these passion projects are our opportunity to create work that is 100% our own. Depending on your genre, your commercial work may also offer a fair bit of authorship. But it’s when you self generate your own concepts that you really get to learn for yourself what lights your personal creativity on fire. And, ironically, these personal projects are usually the ones that are of most interest to your clients, anyway. They want to know what you bring to the table as an individual. They want to see the skills and vision that you personally bring that can elevate their project. Not what you can do when art is directed by someone else. They want to know what YOU bring to the project.

Doing personal work might seem like a waste of time or a waste of money. But, by doing so, you are creating an opportunity for your clients to peek behind the curtain. You are offering them a chance to see you in another way. Perhaps in a way they wouldn’t have considered if they only looked at your highly controlled commissioned work. By taking the initiative, you give them the opportunity to notice you. And, in return, you are creating an opportunity to be noticed.

Bet on Yourself

It’s cliché but true. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.  

Much to my parent’s chagrin, never in my life have I ever wanted to do anything with my life other than create art. I’ve had a million and one day jobs. But the only thing that has ever given my life any meaning is the art that I have created. Yet, despite this unbridled passion, even I can admit that pursuing a career in the arts is far from the most practical decision. If your goal is to make the most money possible, there are far easier ways to do so than to be an artist. If you like things like stability and certainty, choosing a freelance career where every day is a different adventure with the very real possibility that you’ll fall flat on your face might not be the best fit. That doesn’t mean you can’t still make art as a hobby. But choosing to commit to doing so as your main line of income takes a special level of leap of faith.

But the leap doesn’t stop just because you’ve finally admitted out loud that you want to be a professional artist. Maintaining that career means taking that leap again and again to keep ascending. This is a career where stagnation equals death. If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse.

Sometimes these daily leaps are things like choosing to invest money in a personal project, knowing there’s little likelihood of financial return. Other times, it's submitting your work to a dream client despite your internalized fear that your work might not be good enough. Or continuing to submit images to a prestigious photo competition despite the fact that you haven’t been selected for 10 years running.

In short, you have to be willing to put yourself out on a ledge. Even if other people might think you are crazy for doing so, you need to put your belief in yourself. Is this a guarantee of success? Absolutely not. But, by putting yourself out there, you are again creating an opportunity. That big brand can’t possibly hire you if they don’t know you exist. Reaching out to them might end in rejection. But not reaching out most certainly will. You have to constantly generate the potential for new opportunities by constantly putting yourself in a position for opportunities to come along.

Get Out of The House

You never know who you’re going to meet. We tend to think of networking as a dirty word. We think of it purely as a matter of brown-nosing people with impressive titles to try to get us a job. And, to be sure, this is part of it. But networking can be as simple as maintaining healthy relationships with your colleagues and fellow photographers.  

As a serious introvert, socializing is not often my favorite thing to do. But so much of the work I get is because I met someone, who knew someone, who had a friend at another place, who had worked with this one guy, whose sister’s husband was a janitor at that place, which does the banking for that agency, and the agent bumped into the janitor in the hall, and somehow my name came up, and you get the picture.

Getting new clients isn’t always as simple as A to B. Often, it’s an accumulation of touch points that ultimately build up to what seems like an opportunity coming out of the blue. But it takes a lot of hard work to get lucky. And putting yourself out into the world physically can go a long way towards putting you in the right place when opportunity arises. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that you could go to every party in town and never meet “the right person.” But what if you do?

Opportunities abound. Yes, even for you. The trick is to put in the work so that you are in the right place to receive them. Put in the hard work beforehand so that, when those opportunities do come, you are ready to take advantage of them. And keep an open mind and an open heart to allow in those moments that could change your life.

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.

Log in or register to post comments