Should You Become a Professional Photographer?

Should You Become a Professional Photographer?

It’s a question that everyone who picks up a camera asks at some point. But how do you know if a career in photography is right for you?

At the risk of burying the lede, I will tell you upfront that I can’t definitively answer for you whether or not you should become a professional photographer. You and I have never met. I don’t know your work. And I don’t know your personality. Even if I did, ultimately, the decision of what is right for you can only be made by you and you alone. Having been a professional photographer for some time, however, there are a handful of questions you can ask of yourself to make a better decision.

Are You Self-Motivated?

I wasn’t always a photographer. Like most, I ran the gauntlet of day jobs for years, decades even, on end before being in a position to turn my passion into a profession. One of my many past jobs was working at a major motion picture studio here in Los Angeles. Despite the fame of the studio, my actual job at the studio was about as glamorous as rolling around in a dumpster. And, somehow, it was even less enjoyable.

The only real joy I took out of each day was my unusually long lunch breaks where I would go to the gym to work out. Likely partially motivated by the complete and utter lack of fulfillment provided by my occupation, I put an inordinate amount of effort into my fitness routine and workouts. My workouts had become so legendary, in fact, that I began to attract a small following. People had seen me transform my body from depressingly obese to fit, at least fit for a middle-aged office worker, and wanted to know how I did it. So, in addition to my own workouts, each day, I would usually have at least two or three fellow day-jobbers tagging along to try out my workout and be on the receiving end of my motivational jousting meant to inspire them to work harder.

I don’t mean to suggest I was Arnold Schwarzenegger, by the way. This is all very relative. I did excel compared to my peers, but I was never going to qualify for the Mr. Universe competition. Still, my work colleagues would keep coming back day after day for more punishment.

One day, a colleague stopped in the middle of the workout and asked, “so who motivates you?” I was thrown by the question, and he further explained that as it was clearly my job to help my friends get motivated during the workout, it seemed strange that there was no one pushing me. The question stuck with me because it wasn’t something I had ever considered. Truth be told, I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf, so the idea that I would turn to anyone other than myself for motivation never even occurred to me. I have many shortcomings, but an inability to motivate myself to work harder has never been one of them.

I bring this up because this is one of the attributes of my personality that has helped me in my career as a professional photographer. A career as an artist is unlike any other. It’s not a profession where you wake up, pack a lunch, head off to work, then spend the day bemoaning the barrage of tasks assigned to you by your boss while trying to fit within the rules laid out in the corporate procedure manual. Being an artist is a marathon of continually getting yourself up, devising new plans to succeed on a daily basis, then spending nearly every waking hour putting those plans into motion. If you fall short, there’s no one there to yell at you. You’re never going to get fired. No one is going to dock your pay for showing up to work late.

You have to be the type of person who gets themselves out of bed, works hard out of sheer principle, and can apply self-discipline to their daily actions. No one will be there to push you but yourself. So, it’s worth considering whether you are the type of person who needs to be pushed or whether you are a self-starter who does the pushing himself or herself.

Do You Love Business as Much as You Love Photography?

You’ve probably heard this enough for it to have become cliche. But if you want to be a professional photographer, you have to remember that you are not only an artist but also a small business owner. Even if you deem yourself to be very successful, it is highly likely that the vast majority of your life will not be spent actually taking photos. It’s far more likely that the bulk of your job will be spent marketing, networking, securing clients, managing production costs, billing, invoicing, and everything else that it takes to run a successful business whether it be a photo studio or a delicatessen.  

You have to love that part as much as the photography part in order to sustain yourself and continue to do what you love. Have no doubt, the joy of creating images is the “why” in the equation. But consistent business practices are the “how” you will be able to go from photographing for fun to photographing for a living.

But while almost everyone who falls in love with photography can dream about what it would be like to fly off to amazing locations and take unbelievable photos of beautiful people and get paid amazing well, it can be a lot harder sometimes to envision what it’s like to wake up at the crack of dawn filling out paperwork, sending emails, cold calling, doing a cost-benefit analysis, and trying to decide whether to take on a less than ideal assignment in order to meet a specific business objective and hit the fiscal goal set forth in your well-considered business plan.  

If you love doing the business side as much as you love taking photographs, the career might be right for you. If you’d rather photography just be about the images, you might want to consider either partnering with someone else who is good at the business side or perhaps leaving the photography to be a hobby.

Are You Okay With Creativity by Committee?

Part of being a professional photographer is going on the long and arduous internal journey of defining your creative voice. Learning the exposure triangle and how to use strobes are the nuts and bolts. But doing the deep psychological work to understand yourself and how it affects your work is what sets you apart from the competition. Eventually, you get to a point where you know exactly what a (insert your name here) photograph means. The world can tell your images apart from others without even needing to look at the caption.

Then comes the day when you are on set and the creative director tells you to change your lighting to expose an image in a way that you wouldn’t choose to photograph anything in a million years. You are horrified at the mere thought of it. The change in lighting predictably results in what you feel is an absolutely atrocious image, which leads you to wonder if there is an equivalent to the Alan Smithee credit in the photography world. For those who don’t know, Alan Smithee is the fictitious name film directors have used for decades to replace their own directing credits on films that were taken away from them by producers and skewed their creative vision to the point of embarrassment. But I digress.  

Looking at the monitor to see your creative vision being bastardized on the whim of someone who is not a photographer but does hold the checkbook leaves you with a choice. Of course, your first response is going to be to try to talk them out of the change, explaining to them politely why almost anything would be better than the course they have chosen. But, no, they really like this particular look and there’s no way to talk them off the ledge. What do you do?

Well, more than likely, you have no choice but to jump off the ledge with them. At the end of the day, photographing for yourself versus photographing for a client differs in one major way. In commercial photography, just like any other small business, the customer is always right. It might gall you to no end to have to give in to their vision. You might put up your best fight for your vision to prevail. But, at the end of the day, it is the one who writes the checks that will get the final say.  

The larger your productions get, the larger this problem becomes as the number of cooks in the kitchen increases dramatically and so does the number of opinions you are duty-bound to consider. You’ve been hired for your creative voice. So, it is not only okay but expected that you would share your opinion with the team. But, as a commercial photographer, you are part of a team. It’s not your way or the highway. And ultimately, you are in the customer service business.

There are, of course, exceptions. If you are in the fine art world, for example, where you are photographing independently and the client’s only input, in the end, is whether or not to buy the final result, then you are in a position to answer to only yourself. But if you are a photographer working on campaigns, editorial assignments, or personal commissions, then ultimately, you have to keep in mind that, as Bob Dylan once said, everybody gotta serve somebody.

How Comfortable Are You With Instability?

I once worked for a very famous photographer. I assisted him in campaigns and editorials for some of the biggest brands and publications in the world. His work was beyond good. His work was legendary. And he had the clients and tearsheets to prove it. He also worked consistently. During my time with him, hardly a week went by without at least a couple of major assignments.

One of my jobs was to archive those assignments. This led me to spend large amounts of time keywording and categorizing every image produced through his camera. One day, while in the office, I noticed a strange category in the archives. Weddings. Let me start off by saying that there is nothing at all wrong with shooting weddings. It’s just that this particular photographer was most decidedly not a wedding photographer by trade or reputation. And he was at a point in his career where it seemed to me like he didn’t have to shoot a single frame if he didn’t want to. Clearly, I hadn’t yet understood the lesson of collaboration I laid out in the previous section.

I was surprised to see not only wedding sessions in his archive but to see that he had shot a few recently. He could have, of course, just enjoyed shooting weddings. But upon closer inspection, it seemed to me that these wedding shoots always seemed to coincide with the rare periods of time when metadata seemed to indicate that his usually packed schedule was thinning out. Obviously, these occasional wedding shoots were meant to fill in the gaps.

I still remember sitting in front of the computer that day, because it reminded me of a simple lesson. No matter how well established you become, every photographer will eventually go through droughts. It doesn’t make you any less of a photographer. But the market has ebbs and flows, and even the best photographers in the world aren’t necessarily going to be working all the time.

Years later, as a professional photographer myself, I can say from firsthand experience that this business will often feel more like feast or famine. Business tends to either be so overflowing that you can’t keep track of it all, or you are sitting at home watching tumbleweeds roll by and wondering if you will ever work again. It is very little in between. And the bigger your jobs get, the more sporadic they come. You might be able to consistently knock off X number of headshot sessions a week at a few hundred dollars a pop. But it’s unlikely you will shoot multiple seven-figure ad campaigns every week. The severity of the financial roller coaster varies depending on the genre and business model of photography you have chosen. But regardless, you will face significantly more uncertainty than if you would have chosen a more traditional nine-to-five job where you know exactly where your paycheck will be coming from each week.

Given this uncertainty, even in the best of careers, you need to take into consideration whether or not you are the type of person that thrives in such an environment. Or, are you the type of person that prefers stability? You may still be able to be a professional photographer. But, perhaps your future lies more in taking a staff photographer job somewhere instead of freelancing. You would at least know how much money you’d be making each week. But, of course, you would likely have to sacrifice a bit of your creativity to fit within the brand guidelines. I’ve been offered a number of in-house jobs over the years, but have ultimately decided to stay freelance, choosing creative freedom over financial stability. You, on the other hand, may opt for the opposite. There’s no wrong choice. You have to know yourself and what level of risk you are willing to assume.

Do You Have the Financial Skills to Weather the Unknown?

Speaking of risk, as my previous example highlights, because the words “certainty” and “career in the arts” rarely fit into the same sentence, it is just as important for you to be able to know how to balance your finances as balancing a gimbal. Strong financial planning is a must in order to weather those predictable and unpredictable ebbs and flows in revenue.

2020 might be a prime example of all. The sudden stoppage in production across the board reminds us rather acutely the importance of having a rainy day fund. True, 2020 is more like a rainy year, and very few people will have stuffed away enough cash to be able to account for such a dramatic event. But pandemic or no pandemic, having a well-thought-out plan for how you are going to handle your revenue and expenses is the key to staying in business no matter what field you’ve chosen. This doesn’t mean that you need to be independently wealthy. But having a plan for how you will continue to fill the fridge during the lean months, especially if you are just starting out, could be the difference between a successful business or returning to your day job.

You’ll notice that in the above questions, I haven’t stopped to ask whether or not you are good enough as a photographer. That is not to suggest that your skill level doesn’t affect your ability to succeed as a photographer. But it shouldn’t be the key determining factor for whether or not you go into business as a photographer. Being extremely good behind a camera is the bare minimum expectation to succeed as a photographer. But just because you are extremely good doesn’t mean that you have to go professional to legitimize your ability. It is perfectly okay to keep a day job or another career you love and leave photography to be the creative outlet that you are passionate about. In fact, a good argument could be made that you might even be happier in such a scenario. Creating a more stable financial environment while not tainting the pure joy of creativity with commercialism. Whether that sounds appealing to you or a letdown is again wholly a function of your own personality and motivations.

But if you are truly set on turning your love of photography into a full-fledged business, take a moment to consider the above questions for yourself. And set your own plan in motion to create the career you want and the life you hope to achieve.

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.

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If you want to ruin a perfectly good hobby, become a professional photographer. LoL
And thanks Christopher for actually "writing" an article instead of doing a 7 minute video of you talking...

I went down that road briefly a long time ago and can confirm, it took something I loved doing during my free time and made it miserable. Not the actual shooting, I still loved that; it was everything else that went along with it. Knocking on doors (figuratively), taking work I didn't have a passion for (or the gear, or the experience) just to make sure I made money that week. Creating someone else's vision instead of my own. Chasing money. And on and on.
I went back to school, finished a BS in Comp Sci and love my hobby again. I think a lot of people who consider becoming a professional don't understand that shooting is a small part of it.

Excellent article written with very valid questions to ask yourself.

As a 30 year, award-winning veteran of this business, I read this article's headline and before even thinking, I blurted out to myself, "No". I love photography and I have earned a decent income doing what I love but it is a very hard way to earn a living and currently, the market is getting smaller while the challenges are only becoming harder.

Thanks for a great article posting all of the reasons to do it, but more importantly the reasons not to. I am a corporate photographer and graphic designer and love my job, but you can definitely see how things are moving towards a less is more production value. To anyone starting out, become an engineer, or financial analyst, medical professional, and enjoy your hobby and talent as a side hustle photographer. There are full time professional photographers who are killing it and making big money. But they are as numerous as musicians making money, meaning not very many.

Also as a professional in another area, you will have the money needed to splurge on fast glass and new tech. Enjoy your craft and love it as a main line hobby.

The trick used to be to marry one of those steady solid full time employed people.

Jeff - regarding production values, pre covid I saw glimmers of clients wanting something more than what can be done with an iphone (which is pretty good!) maybe adding lighting or longer or wider lenses or shallow DOF than available on a phone. Something with a different look. Post covid? Who knows.

If you have a desire to actually learn the business side and not afraid to network then take a shot. But also have a plan and no which fields there is a demand for. I would recommend having a side gig! Staying a smaller market helps alleviate high costs that you would get in major cities. Also investing in passive income-generating investments goes a loooooooong way.

I love photography, hate when it feels like work and I've come to hate dealing with people. I've worked a number of sales and customer service jobs and switched to factory work for a day job because I got sick of dealing with idiots. My attempts to become a paid professional photographer have done nothing but frustrate me and remind me why I don't like working with people.

So no, I don't want to be a professional photographer.

Excellent insight on the "dark side" of being a professional photographer! I really enjoyed it! Congrats!

PS: here's a tip for your next article: the 3 best and the 3 worst things about my profession!

Thanks for the suggestion :-)

Great read. Requires you to search your soul for answers.

I solved the instability part by having a full time job within the government. It grants me more vacation days than the private sector, which I use when I'm shooting my part time motorsport photography, about 2 times per month between April and October.
I don't know if I should call myself a professional photographer, but I do get paid for what I do. And by not shooting year round, every week, I don't feel like the business part is killing the hobby, while having a full time job grants me peace of mind.

A good strategy