If you are thinking of taking a full-time photography position, you should read this first.
For many photographers, the dream is to take their passion and turn it into their full-time job. If this is your goal, you have two options: work for yourself, or work for someone else. Working for yourself can be risky. The fear of going without work is very much rooted in reality. Even the most experienced photographers have slow months, even years! So if freelancing is too risky for you, then maybe you look for a full-time position. Maybe it’s at a catalogue studio, maybe it’s a portrait studio. It sounds perfect! After all, you get to be a “professional photographer” right?
The truth is, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are some real benefits to working as a staff photographer, but there are some very real drawbacks. Before I get too deep into the cons let's talk about the pros.
1) Paid Practice
First on the list of pros is that you get to practice your craft almost every day. Now you might do this for yourself anyway, but the reality is most commercial shooters really don’t shoot that much. They are lucky if they get just a handful of shoots a month. The act of going into work, setting up your gear, and making images is just great practice (up to a point, but more on that later). My long-term freelance clients have all noticed that I’m just faster at everything. Everything is muscle memory now.
2) Consistent Performance
Second, it teaches you to create quality work even when you are having a bad day. It’s something that not a lot of hobbyists think about. If you work in a fast paced commercial studio, there is no option to have an off day. The work needs to happen whether you show up mentally or not. After a while, the process falls to the back of your mind and you can hit the mark almost all the time. The trouble here is that the target you are hitting is the target set by the company you are working for. When you are freelancing, the target is moving all the time.
3) A Thousand Ways to Skin a Cat
Third, shooting every day can accelerate your learning. I was lucky enough to work in a studio where there was some measure of creative freedom and a wide variety of subject matter. No one cared how exactly I did what I did, as long as the images came out usable. Because of that, I got to learn a million ways to accomplish the same look/looks. This has really been the most invaluable lesson I’ve learned. Knowing how to get the job done regardless of your resources is really the true mark of a professional and attaining that knowledge had been vastly accelerated by working full time.
4.) Employer-Based Healthcare
This is a really tough one because every employer is different. But if you are working full-time for a company, you likely have access to some form of healthcare coverage that won’t leave you completely destitute. There’s a huge gray area here, but I’m willing to bet that anyone who owns a small business will agree healthcare is one of the most fickle and stressful parts of their lifestyle.
And now, for the cons…. Not all practice is good practice. One of the problems that have faced me over the years is how easily one builds bad habits. Keeping yourself sharp and versatile after years of working in the same place is a challenge for anyone, but for creatives, we are especially vulnerable to the harshness of working 9-5.
1) Good Enough
The mentality of “good enough” so easily seeps into your brain as you go through the drudgery of shooting day in and day out. You learn precisely what you can and cannot get away with. If you aren't careful and constantly pushing for self-improvement, you will find yourself carrying this trait out into the rest of your work. Additionally, if all you strive for is “good enough” you will likely find yourself being incredibly unfulfilled in your work and maybe even depressed. Pushing past that idea of good enough is a daily struggle I believe most people struggle with, but in my experience, “creatives” tend to suffer most from the crushing banality of working in the same place day in and day out.
Most of my repeat clients have come from word of mouth recommendations. People I’ve worked with before casually mention my name to their colleagues and suddenly I have a new client who already trusts that I will deliver. When you are working in the same place for a length of time, you really have to go out of your way to network outside of your immediate peers. If you are freelancing full-time, your network is always expanding even if you aren’t marketing (which you should still be doing), just by virtue of working with more and more new clients and doing good work.
3) Personal Vision
Lastly, you can lose yourself. In my mind this the single worst thing that has come out of working full time. As freelancers, we work with a variety of brands/people in a given year. You work hard to cultivate a sensibility that your clients hire you for. When you are a working under someone else's umbrella, there is very little room for personal vision. Working as a staffer, you have to succumb to the whims of the business regardless of whether it fits your taste level or not. Don’t get me wrong, you are always compromising to fit the wishes of your client. But more than likely, they hired you not just for your killer button pushing, but for your vision and experience. If you aren't continuing to cultivate that on your own when you finally go out into the world you’ll find you don’t know who you are as an artist and will have a difficult time differentiating yourself in the market.
I’m certain that there are a million other pros and cons, and these may just be specific to my case. Really, all these can be associated with being a freelancer or a staffer and there is no right answer for all people. Hopefully, if you are considering turning your passion into your career, this gives a tiny bit of insight to help you make your next move.