There may not be any firm answers. But, there are a few things to consider when considering a career in photography.
I’ll start this article by repeating myself. I realize it’s not a good habit to get into, always repeating myself. But this one is important. There is no one single path to follow to become a professional photographer. Oh, how nice it would be if it was as simple as majoring in photography in college, getting an internship, then working your way up in a steady blue-chip Fortune 500 company until one day, they gave you the corner office with your name stenciled on the door along with the title “Professional Photographer.” Oh, how sweet it would be to have a guaranteed employer-based 401K, a set vacation schedule, and clients easily filtered into you by an entire sales and marketing department that constitutes much of the floor below you in a snazzy downtown highrise. But, lo and behold, pursuing a career in the arts is unlike any other career path. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not impossible. But, even for the most established professionals, it’s almost never going to be a guaranteed outcome. It’s a field for entrepreneurs. So, what you get out of it will directly relate to what you put into it. And it’s 100% possible that you can put everything into it, yet still get nothing in return.
If the American dream is a house in the suburbs with two and a half kids, a white picket fence, and a dog named Rusty, life as a photographer is more like the Wild West. Without set wage structures or working conditions, the job itself is a constant negotiation between you and the clients you serve. Even more difficult to manage, it’s a constant negotiation with yourself to figure out what you want to do as an artist, how much value do you have as an artist, and, at times, wondering if all the hoops you are made to jump through are even worth the effort at all.
Those first two paragraphs, though dour, are not designed to dissuade you from entering the field. Rather, it is a quick reality check, which is best to get out of the way up front. The truth is, even in the face of a shrinking and transforming photography market, it is possible to make a living doing what you love. But, before figuring out your grand scheme to make that a reality, you first have to take a moment to ignore the external forces you might face in favor of a deeper analysis of what lies within.
Because photography can be the Wild West, making it out alive is going to be one of the biggest tests of personal fortitude that you’ll likely ever undertake. Like most long journeys, you will learn a lot about yourself along the way. But, also like most long journeys, you’d be best served to figure out your destination before starting the ignition. You’d also be best served to figure out what you need as a traveler. If you’re afraid to fly, for example, you might still make the trip from Oakland to Tallahassee. You might just opt for the bus depot instead of the airport. Likewise, if your dream vacation is sipping Mai Tai’s on the beach, it might not make a world of sense to spend too much time researching hotel accommodations in Omaha.
Part one of any successful journey is knowing yourself. Since you and I have never met, I can’t be much help in telling you exactly what you may or may not enjoy. But I can share some basic questions that all artists should ask themselves prior to starting down a long and uncertain path.
Why Are You Doing It?
Okay, I’ll just start with the biggest and hardest to answer question right off the bat. Why do you want to become a photographer? Is it because you love the magic behind freezing a single moment in time? Or do you love the engineering and technique that goes into lighting and draw enjoyment from being able to solve complex problems? Or maybe you just think it’s a glamorous profession. Having done this for nearly two decades, I can promise you that it most certainly is not that. Well, at least not all the time. It does have its moments. But if glamour is your thing, that may very well suggest that one type of photography may be a better fit for you than another.
People have 101 different reasons for having the dreams that they have. And, assuming your reason isn’t just to have a chance to stand next to tall pretty girls, your own personal reason for wanting to be a photographer is totally legitimate. You don’t have to justify to me or anyone else why you want to be a photographer. But, you do need to be honest with yourself. Because knowing why you want to do something is going to help you both pick the right path to follow and give you that added strength necessary to keep going on that path when times get tough.
How Many People Is Too Many People?
I am an introvert. Despite the fact that my particular niche in the market requires large amounts of cast and crew to produce, as a human being, I like nothing more than being alone. In fact, a large reason why I fell in love with photography was because of the solitude. I’m a screenwriter, director, and cinematographer as well. In fact, this is where I started long before ever holding a still camera. Photography only came along later as a hobby that turned into a career.
If you’ve ever sat through the end credits of a movie, you’ll know that it takes nothing short of a full army to produce a motion picture. A film can take years to come together and countless millions of dollars to form into reality. As a screenwriter, it might take me 3-6 months to write the script. Then, it goes out to producers and could take another year to 15 years to actually get bought. Then, those producers have to secure funding. Then, there’s production, which could take 3-6 more months. Then, months of post-production. Then, if you’re lucky, a theatrical release. A lot has to go on between when you have your initial idea to when you actually see the finished product.
Photographers, on the other hand, can simply walk outside at any moment and create art in 1/8,000th of a second. True, as you get into more complex assignments, the production can be almost as complicated as a film set. But, at its very core, photography is something you can do on your own.
So the question you need to ask yourself is: “do you want to do it on your own?” If you like the solitude of getting lost in the world and taking a photograph, maybe you’d be better suited towards work in landscape photography or creating a home studio to make still lifes. Or, maybe you like commercial photography because you enjoy being on set with an entire team of collaborators and want the communal experience that comes along with more cooks in the kitchen.
Whichever is right for you, try to think not only about the type of work you want to produce but also the type of people you want to work with everyday. Those relationships might not affect your love for a particular genre of photography, but they will affect your basic happiness as a human being. Art aside, surrounding yourself with people that add value to your life (or avoiding people who don’t), is a key ingredient to happiness in the long term.
How Often Do You Want To Work?
All the time, of course. That was an easy question to answer. Well, maybe, maybe not.
Once more, I’ll use myself as an example. I shoot commercial advertising campaigns. These campaigns are large, expensive, require a lot of moving parts, and typically take a lot of planning and production. Every decision is filtered through multiple layers of executives and multiple stakeholders. It’s rarely as simple as just going out with a camera and seeing what you can get. It’s a long and involved process with high stakes.
The upside to this is that, if you can book this kind of work, there is money to be made. The downside is that major campaigns don’t come along every week. You’ll have a clump of them here, and a clump of them there during different parts of the year. In between, you’ll have long stretches of marketing and unanswered cold calls as you try to make the next project happen. You’ll have a lot of dream projects present themselves, only to fall apart completely at the last second due to factors beyond your control. All of which means that, even when you are successful, for every day you spend actually shooting, you will spend far more not shooting. Most of your life will consist of marketing yourself, planning in pre-production, fixing things in post-production, or simply trying to keep yourself sane while waiting (hoping) for the next gig.
On the flip side of that, let’s take the example of someone who shoots headshots for actors and actresses. If you live in Los Angeles like I do, there is absolutely no shortage of actors and actresses in need of headshots. These are generally not super complex shoots. The basics of what your subjects need as headshots doesn’t vary a great deal. Production logistics are generally pretty straightforward. Once your rates are well established, there’s far less negotiation involved with every prospective client, a much smoother process than commercial advertising photography.
Of course, the rates you charge are also not going to be the same. Quite simply, IBM can afford to pay more for an ad campaign than James Dean Junior can spare from his part-time job waiting tables to pay for professional headshots. But, the upside to entering a market like headshots is that, while the individual commissions are lower, there are a greater number of potential customers. Therefore, it’s not at all unlikely that you could be working multiple times a week if not multiple times a day. If it’s pilot season, there might not be enough hours in the day to meet the demand.
Knowing which business model is right for you depends heavily on your personality. Are you someone who wants to be constantly working, cranking out image after image? Or, are you someone who can stomach the uncertainty and long periods of downtime that come with larger campaigns spread out throughout the year? Over the course of a career, you may naturally find yourself doing both at different phases of your development. But it’s worth asking yourself the question early so that you have a better idea of what pace of work might make you feel the most fulfilled.
Does Photography Need To Be Your Main Source of Income?
This is one of those questions that never goes away. We all fall in love with photography at some point leading us to dream about the day where we can ditch our 9 to 5 and spend all our days creating art. But, becoming a professional photographer is more than just taking pretty pictures. It’s running a business. And the art you fell in love with creating, for better or for worse, is a tangible product.
Do you want your art to be a product? Or do you want to create simply to create? Product sales are driven by market forces. There’s a reason they keep adding features to cameras. The market demands them. The product itself is as much driven by market forces as the whims of the Nikon engineers. Are you okay having some portion of your art being determined by market forces?
Similarly, even if you achieve great success, photography will never be, relatively speaking, a stable career. There will always be ups and downs. Highs and lows. For some, like myself, the tradeoffs are totally worth it. But, for others, the endless merry-go-round is enough to drive them mad.
I worked for a long time in a steady corporate job prior to going out on my own full time as a professional photographer. For me personally, I felt I needed to prove to myself that I could make my living 100% through my art. So, for me, making the leap was something I needed to do as a person, if not professionally. I was already booking big gigs on the side while at my day job. I could easily have kept using up vacation time to do those photography jobs while maintaining my steady income. But something deeper in me needed to prove that I could make my living as an artist. This worked out for me, because it was based on a deeper understanding of myself as opposed to necessarily being driven purely by an artistic goal. I needed to feel I had the courage to take that risk more than I needed the steady paycheck.
But, on the flip side, having the responsibility to create your own work day in and day out comes with its own stressors. I really, and I mean really, hated my day job. But there is something to be said for having an established basic income level and security to know that, if you have a slow month photography-wise, your bills are still going to get paid. Having that steady income also allowed me to turn down work that didn’t interest me. What you say no to is just as important as what you say yes to as an artist. And, having the freedom to not have to do something for a paycheck is ultimately healthier to your soul. Even though I no longer have a day job, I’m still the type who says no to a lot of projects if they don’t speak to me as an artist or as a person. This is a risky thing as you never know when the money will run out. But I feel it’s important to say no to preserve my artistry long term.
Of course, the only reason I can make those decisions is because I understand myself and the tolerance I have personally for uncertainty. Were my tolerance levels to land elsewhere on that scale, it might make more sense for me to stay with a steady day job to relieve some of the pressure. Neither approach would be right or wrong, per se. There’s only the right approach for you.
These are just three basic questions among hundreds you might want to consider when charting your course as an artist. As promised, I’ve provided you no answers. Only more questions. It’s up to you to know yourself and find the right response.
Great article. I loved the honesty and truthfulness stated. Encourages me to continue on my path to becoming a professional photographer.