Three Valuable Lessons I've Learned on My Journey to Becoming a Professional Photographer

Three Valuable Lessons I've Learned on My Journey to Becoming a Professional Photographer

Today, I’ll share a few words of wisdom. Or, more accurately, I’ll let you learn from, and possibly laugh at, a few mistakes I’ve made along the way.

If you are still of an age to be objectively referred to as “young,” it is highly likely that you will have been dispatched a bit of advice by someone with an increasing number of gray hairs on their chin quickly followed by the coda: “you’ll understand when you get older.” If you’re a normal person, and why would I assume you not to be, you’ll likely take in whatever advice has been given. You’ll nod your head in understanding. That nod might be a trained response, less out of actual understanding, and more out of an urge to end the conversation as quickly as possible. Or that nod might be heartfelt, indicating that you really are taking those words for their full value. But, even with your best intentions, there are certain things that even if you understand on an intellectual level, you really can’t truly understand until they happen to you. Well today, I will share three bits of advice that I used to understand on a conceptual level as a young photographer, but have only been driven home as I’ve gone from hobbyist to professional.

Buy Lights, Rent Megapixels

In a previous article, I mentioned how more megapixels in a camera aren’t necessarily better. Yes, objectively speaking, more megapixels allows you to print larger with higher quality. More megapixels allows you to crop more while still retaining output options. And, yes, if you are shooting for a certain level of client, more megapixels may be less of an option and more of a necessity.

From a business investment standpoint, more megapixels will also require a greater upfront investment. It will require greater investment in storage on the backend. And, if you do not have clients that can benefit from larger files, then spending the extra money to upgrade from the basic 24 MP range may or may not be a good investment. I’m not suggesting it wouldn’t make sense for you personally. I only suggest that it is worth your time to take a look at your business model and take a look at what percentage of your output is being printed large versus being used digitally or in smaller prints, then do the math on whether or not you need to own a high-megapixel camera or if it makes more sense to invest less upfront and rent higher megapixels when the job demands.

Again, I’m not saying more megapixels are bad as a blanket rule. I am a well-known megapixel hoarder myself. But, I know that having done the math on my end has made me far less inclined to spend big upfront on cameras if rentals are a realistic option. I specifically point out cameras, because at the current rate of innovation, it seems as though whatever buying decision you make, your camera is destined to be outdated within three months of your purchase. So, if you get into the habit of constantly chasing the next new thing, you may have a nice camera, but you may also find yourself in a financial ditch.

On the contrary, I have never regretted the investments I’ve made in lights. Whether you're shooting with a Hasselblad or with an iPhone, you can make your images really sing if you know how to light. Your lighting approach can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you want it to be. I remember years ago, when I spent a year saving up to invest in a Profoto lighting kit, a very large part of me thought I was crazy for spending so much on a piece of equipment. But, over a decade later, that kit still travels with me to almost every shoot, and it has more than justified the original investment.  

Cameras, on the other hand, many costing just as much if not more than my lighting package, have come and gone. With lights, you are looking at a potential lifetime investment. With cameras, you are basically buying a car that is going to lose half of its value as soon as you leave the lot. Depending on how often you use it, investing a lot in your camera may very well pay off. But, you have to judge that investment as being able to pay off within about two to three years, depending on your upgrade frequency. Lights, however, are the gift that keeps on giving.

You Have to Leap to Fly

There used to be a commercial a few years back from a technology company. If I remember correctly, it was for internet services. A guy walks into the living room, looking frazzled and exhausted. “What is it,” his wife asks out of concern, to which the husband replies flatly: “I finished it.” “You finished what?” “The internet.”

The joke is obviously that this particular search engine was so fast that one could actually finish all the content online in one sitting. Even then, in the early days of the internet, this was preposterous. 

Yet, during the days when I would sit in my drab gray cubicle clinging to a dead-end day job, working just hard enough not to get fired, I spent many an afternoon trying to finish the internet. On one of those many afternoons when I was surfing the web instead of actually working, I came across a sketch. I wish I knew the artist, but have never been able to find out. The sketch was of a bird climbing a ladder. The bird stands atop the ladder with a balloon in its hand. At the base of the ladder stands the baby bird’s mother, looking up at the frightened child peering over the edge of the ladder at the ground below. Looking back at its mother, the baby bird complains: “I’m not flying,” to which its mother responds: “you have to jump first.”

Starting a career in the arts is not like other professions. You don’t get to just go to photography school, graduate with honors, then get hired at a big salary by a Fortune 100 photography firm. It’s not that simple. A career in photography is an independent journey, full of pitfalls, and in the face of increasingly precarious odds against success. You are entering a marketplace with far more supply than demand with an endless list of competitors willing to undercut you on price and selling to clients who may or may not value your services. There is reason to be afraid to jump off that ledge.

But, like the bird on the ladder, the simple fact is that if you don’t jump, you’ll never fly. If you’re quietly creating great photographs, humbly posting them online, hoping that maybe one day, someone might stumble up your work accidentally, hire you to shoot a two-million-dollar campaign, and whip you into super stardom and financial security overnight, you might find yourself in for a rude awakening.

Of course, there are as many ways to jump off that ladder as there are ways to fall. Taking a leap without financial planning is not likely the best way to go. And keeping a day job while you build your business may be boring, but could be the right business decision in the long run. I’m not suggesting you start a business without a plan. But, having spent far too many years afraid to take a chance on myself and as a result, condemning myself to a life I never wished to live, I can say that, at some point, you are going to have to take a leap of faith.

You Can Always Get Better

Ego is a funny thing. On the one side, we are rightly dissuaded from having excess ego by society and those around you. Nobody likes an arrogant person. On the other side, the reality is that as an artist, you will be faced with an ongoing heightened level of personal criticism and scrutiny that many others won’t face. Very few accountants face online backlashes or questions of their integrity based on how they organize a spreadsheet (assuming they aren't doing so illegally). They don’t have to look at every ledger entry and evaluate whether or not they have fully captured the elusive essence of the subject's soul or adequately conveyed brand message across market segments. No matter how great a photographer you become, there will always be a segment of the public that seems determined to tear down everything you do. Oddly enough, the better you get and the more successful you become, the number of detractors will only grow, as opposed to decreasing.

So, having a well-sustained ego as an artist can actually end up being a bit of a benefit to an artist’s mental stability. It may make us simply insufferable at times, but as long as we don’t get too out of control, it will also help us to survive the endless barrage of slings and arrows heading our way.

It’s a long journey to learning to believe in yourself. It’s a trip worth taking. But believing in your abilities is one thing. Believing oneself to be infallible and not needing of growth is another thing entirely.

Brad Paisley has a song called “It Did.” It’s a love song about a life spent with a woman. Throughout the song, he highlights moments during the relationship where he took stock in his life and simply said: “it doesn’t get better than this.” The moment felt so perfect, and he had reached the point he could have only ever dreamed of in the past. Surely, life couldn’t get any better than this? Then it did. The point of the song is that, whenever you think you have reached the peak, there is always further that you can go.  

Photography is much the same way. From the point that I first picked up a camera and started snapping pictures of my dog as he ran about the house to the point where I am today, shooting for clients I never dreamed I would have in a million years, I’ve reached multiple points where I have genuinely thought that I had just had the best photoshoot I was ever going to have. I had spent years dreaming of being able to create a certain kind of image. I learned how to create that image and executed it. Time to hang up the boots.

You’ve probably had several similar moments. They feel great. They may even fool us into thinking that we’ve learned just about all there is to know about photography. But, as in other areas of life, the more you learn, the less you know. Photography, either professionally or personally, is about an endless journey. It is about constantly reinventing ourselves and building on our skill set. It is about refusing to settle and pushing ourselves to be better. Sometimes, it’s for the clients. But the constant push to improve is also what makes us better men and women. So, every time I create something I’m really proud of, I take a moment to celebrate it, then take a step back and marvel at how far I still have to go.

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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Well written Christopher. No I am not a professional photographer but I am an artist working in the construction industry. I make concrete floors look like a master piece of art as well as design and build concrete furniture and other items in my line.Yes, one must take that leap if they want to become independent and work 10 times harder to become successful in any endeavor. It is scary at first, sleepless nights and consent worries but that is what makes one stronger and become successful.Attitude is everything and will make you or break you so best always to stay positive even when the chips are not falling in your favor. It is better to fail while trying than always wondering what if. For 20 years I have dug deep, stay focused and always know that there is another person out there competing against me for customers. A positive attitude is a must and always remember you will not get every job you bid on. Doesn't matter if you are a photographer selling your services or a contractor selling his/her services, we all are competing with others and those who are successful are those who stay positive. I don't get hired for every job I bid on and I know the odds are always stacked against me but still I remain positive and focus and work that much harder to get those jobs. You give good advice in your article, all I can say to those who want and desire to be self employed is to stay focused and always have positive attitude.

Absolutely. The ups and downs will come. But, like you said, if you keep your head up and stay positive dreams come true.

Nicely said. Thanks for sharing your journey

Thank you.

Very well written! Great advice for an aspiring photographer like myself! Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for reading Gabriel.