Obsession: The Divide Between Making Hundreds to Thousands as a Professional Photographer

Obsession: The Divide Between Making Hundreds to Thousands as a Professional Photographer

I’ve learned a lot over the past 15 years as a professional artist. I’ve learned a lot about fear, failure, and success. I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor and educate thousands of photographers all over the world. Even as a young four-year photographer who many would still consider “green,” I’ve taught photographers from all walks of life, all levels of advancement, and even some who had reached a level of comfortable success.

With that said, I’d like to preface this editorial piece by stating the obvious: it’s arguable. While I may have coached thousands of photographers, every individual is different. Everyone has their own pace, mentality, and approach when it comes to creating revenue. However, based on my experience and the experience of others, if I was to pinpoint the one facet of business that divides a hobbyist making hundreds, to a career artist who are making thousands, it’s simply obsession.

Obsession is described as the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, or desire. I’d like to think of it as a ruthless drive to accomplish a goal. When I first picked up a camera in 2011, I shot everything in sight. I saw the world in a new way. I began to notice light and lines that I would have never seen before. With every strong picture came a release of adrenaline which made my body and spirit feel an entirely new way. Within days, I became utterly captivated with that reaction. 

Some might call it a relentless passion, but I call it an obsession. I did anything required to make a living from art and when I finally did, I only had to work harder to make it a healthy career. In order to define the bridge between $200 to $20,000, I have to separate the foundational initiatives that led to the success.

Obsession With Your Reputation and Value

In the music business, no matter what the circumstance, I never wanted to miss a show or opportunity to get our music in the right hands or in front of potential followers. Looking back, we made some poor decisions, but made progress in a short amount of time due to our infectious live show and approachable attitude towards our friends and fans. We backed that reputation up with 11 original songs that we put everything we owned into. We emptied our savings, took out loans, and sold our cars just for one album.

When I transitioned to the photography business, I quickly learned that reputation was more powerful than talent. Attitude, creativity, drive, and personality all play into how people view your brand and perceived value. In other words, your character directly affects how much money people are willing to pay you.

It’s incredibly important to remain focused and build loyalty around your business. Pull favors for people even if they don’t ask for a favor. Invest personal time into client projects, especially if they don’t have the budget to pay for your time. Go above and beyond for every client, beyond the job description, beyond the bottom line. They will remember it. I have received more opportunities because the help I provide, not because of the work I produce.

Obsession With Business

Business is ingrained into my family. My father owned a successful wholesale flooring distributor which sold hardwood, carpet, and ceramic to the entire eastern United States. When I decided to pursue my creative career in the music business, I formed my first LLC at the age of 16. I had no clue what I was doing. Fortunately, I had a knowledgeable group of mentors, including my dad, that I could lean on to guide me through the complex world of business. I learned about a budget, profit and loss, taxes, and negotiation. But, more importantly, I learned about relationships.

Making money has always been a roller coaster for me. I’ve overdrawn my account dozens of times and have been indebted to others most of my life. As a young freelance photographer, one moment I had thousands in my bank account, and the next just a few dollars. Despite all odds, I remained focused and pursued a healthy career with a fierce passion. I never gave up and I have never settled.

I didn’t go to college or have any formal education, I learned through failure. The world of photography is constantly evolving. When it comes to making money it’s important to be ahead of the curve and adapt. With social media and its massive influence, monetizing content is a smart way to play the game of business. It requires a merciless amount of time to build content, which will leave those with a lackadaisical approach in the dust.

I could dive into content, portfolios, and the marketing details, but all of that is just collateral to the core. We are not in the photography business, we are in the relationship business. Be obsessed with shaking hands and everything else will fall into place.

Obsession With Light

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few of my photography idols, and on occasion share the stage. The one piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout the years has been this: “Know light and be obsessed with light.”

I have to constantly wake myself up from a half-dream stare when analyzing the sun. Light is fascinating to me; It’s ability to cut through muddy water or cast colorful shades of violet on mountain rock. The better you understand the sun, the better you will understand the art of lighting a photograph. Wake up and start to pay attention to light and shadows and how life modifies it. The best photographers I know tend to speak of light as a paint brush. It can change the entire mood with one quick turn or a subtle stroke.

I challenge you to take a walk at golden hour or take a drive through a storm with the intent to analyze shadows on the ground and light in the sky. A strong grasp of lighting comes with experimentation and practice. Never stop analyzing, never stop playing with light.

Obsession With Your Craft

I think it’s extremely important to constantly question yourself, your photography, and your character. Are you doing absolutely everything in your power to accomplish every goal you’ve set in your path?

If you want to lead a fruitful career in photography, then you must be utterly obsessed with photography and creativity. People pay us for a visual impact. If you’re not constantly pushing yourself further outside your comfort zone and not constantly overcoming professional fear, you will likely grind check to check for the rest of your life. Push the barriers of your own creativity and risk everything. The amount of reward lies in the amount of risk. What are you willing to risk for your passion?

Personal Balance

I don’t think I could speak on obsession without touching on personal life. I’m not married, I have no children, and don’t even own a pet. While many of you have to juggle a family, manage a day-job, and somehow stay sane. I completely understand those facets of personal life can be a true time suck. But, it’s up to you to determine how far you want to take photography. How much of that time are you willing to sacrifice?

With the rapid success of my photography business and a complicated personal life, my health had been on a steady decline. I put everything into work, unfortunately at the cost of my mind and body. I had a staggering heart rate of 100 beats per minute, with 50 percent body fat, weighing in at 311 pounds. I was up to a 52.5-inch chest and a 48-inch waist, complimented by dangerously high blood pressure. I could barley do 10 push-ups, I couldn’t walk without sucking wind, and I could no longer look at myself in the mirror without a jab to my confidence. I changed everything. In one year, I had lowered my resting heart rate down to 40 beats per minute, shed 85 inches of body fat, and lost 100 pounds. I had cast out the old me. I felt modern, contemporary, and finally understood how crucial balancing your personal life is to maintaining a successful business.

It is possible to sustain both a healthy personal life and a successful professional life. It’s crucial to not only clearly define your goals as a professional, but pursue those goals with a relentless fervor all while recognizing when slow down and look around.

My guess is that some of you read through this entire article searching for the secret, the answer, and the path to earning serious cash in the photography industry. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no answer and there is no secret. There is only rigorous, stop-at-nothing, hard f****** work.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into my story, be sure to check out my brand new Fstoppers tutorial on "Fashion and Editorial Portrait Photography" which dives into the world of lighting, retouching, and shooting for magazines. I've spent years building instinct and now I want to share it all to you laid out into 18 lessons, 12 hours of video content, and a lifetime private mentorship. Buy the tutorial, you won't regret it.

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23 Comments

jurian kriebel's picture

Man, I couldn't agree more with everything you said. Thank you for this!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you for reading friend!

On point.

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Jim!

Maximilian Benner's picture

I really enjoyed your writing style, thanks for the article!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Maximilian, that means a lot! Cheers!

David Hynes's picture

"There is only rigorous, stop-at-nothing, hard f****** work."

Amen to that. You are truly an inspiration Clay, I love your work and your drive - keep it up.

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you so much David. Always enjoy seeing your images come across my newsfeed. Keep up the good fight, brother!

David Hynes's picture

Thanks man!!

JUSTIN SISSON's picture

This was a great read!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Justin!

Joe Goodwin's picture

Awesome advice and as always, thanks for sharing. Continued growth and success my friend!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Joe! Hope to cross paths soon, brother!

Lucas Fendley's picture

Enjoyed this read man

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Lucas!

Steve Vlahos's picture

Just bought the course. I look forward to watching it.

Clay Cook's picture

Can't thank you enough Steve! I look forward to seeing your growth! Enjoy!

Bill Larkin's picture

Great Post Clay

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Bill!

Ben Pearse's picture

Inspired words Clay...

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Ben!

Thank you. This sounds like the beginning of a possible book?