Tough Love for Aspiring Professional Photographers

Tough Love for Aspiring Professional Photographers

Strap in people, because this is a tough love lesson for anyone whose goal is to “make it” as a professional in the photography industry.

It’s easy to start out as a photographer with stars in your eyes thinking that if you just create good work, clients will be waiting for you. You ask for advice about starting your business and people tell you:

Build it and they will come. 

Be so good they can’t ignore you. 

Make good work, and you’ll get hired. 

This is super common advice in creative fields, but it’s a trap, guys. Oh, the advice is true but only in part, and that’s where the danger lies.

Yes, your work needs to be good. That's a prerequisite, but that's not all there is to the equation. The first problem is, technically proficient work — good work — doesn’t guarantee sales, because most clients don’t see photographs the way a photographer sees them. The second problem is that if you want to run a business, the quality of how you run your business is more important than the quality of your photography. The final problem is that there are a lot (and I mean a really, really lot) of photographers out there making fantastic work, and the chance that you’ll be the photographic genius who stands above the crowd on pure talent is slim, to say the least.

This all sounds like a huge bummer, I know, but I’m offering you a choice. Do you want to stay in fantasyland and never get anywhere, or do you want to know the truth so you can actually do something about it? Truth? Then read on and let’s tackle each problem, one at a time. Then, we’ll look at possible answers.

Models Ari Williams and Lakota Leffler for Spear and Arrow Apparel

Good Work Doesn’t Guarantee Sales

We naturally want to make beautiful photographs, but because we spend a lot of time training our eyes to recognize what makes good work, we forget that very few clients have done the same. We expect untrained people to see the technical quality of our work, recognize it, and pay accordingly, but most of them won’t. They’ll buy photographs they connect with, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with whether a photograph is technically well taken. Where we see light that isn’t ideal and a pose that isn’t flattering or that interesting, they see a genuine smile or an expression that mirrors one their father used to make. They invest in work they like, and despite what we photographers would prefer, quality and taste are able to be mutually exclusive.

This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the way a client chooses who to work with or what to buy, but it does mean that you’d better recognize this emotional truth, photographer. Otherwise you’ll be fighting the wrong battles, like working endlessly toward technical perfection, and wondering why you keep losing the war to emotion.

Stellar Business Practice Trumps Stellar Work

This is the thorn in my side, but it’s a truth we creatives desperately need. I want the maxim “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” to be true, but it’s not. It’s not true because doing what I love doesn’t put food on my table if I can’t get people to buy it. And if I want people to buy my work, I need to sell it. And if I’m going to sell it, I need to understand how business works and behave accordingly. I need to have a storefront of some kind where people can find my work and purchase it. I need to let people know my store exists. I need to understand how to do my taxes. I need fantastic customer service. I need to keep up with industry standards and customer behavior. I need to do research. I need to make contacts, send invoices, make customer service calls, and give the best service I possibly can.

In short, I need to be a stellar business owner. Because my brain, like many other creatives, isn’t naturally inclined toward systems and numbers, running a business is hard for me. It takes hours of hard work I would rather spend creating things. But properly running a business is a necessity if you want to last as a any kind of professional, and no matter how much I wish success was purely based on merit, it’s not. Great business practice + mediocre work > mediocre business practice + great work.

This Is Not a Meritocracy, It’s a Marketocracy

As much as I want professional photographic success to be based purely on the quality, creativity, and ingenuity of the work, it’s not. Success in any field has always been a mixture of hard work, good product, networking, luck, and a hell of a lot of good marketing. There are photographers out there with creative, unique, inspiring work who are languishing in the shadows, unable to pay their bills. There are photographers with a technically sound, if uninspiring portfolio, who put in the effort to meet people, build a solid business, and market their work, who have fans and enough jobs to put food on their table. There are even some inexperienced photographers who get opportunities the rest of us would kill for because of who they know, while others of us work two jobs on top of photography and still struggle. It doesn’t seem fair, but it was never about fair. 

Model Tyese Hernandez for Dacy Luneberg Designs

It can be painful to have our illusions shattered when likes and hearts and followers don’t translate into a steady paycheck. We have good work, so why aren’t we getting jobs? Why do our competitors seem to be flourishing while we struggle? Depressed, yet? Don’t worry. The medicine tastes bitter, but it’s necessary to the cure. Now that we know the truth, let’s see if we can’t find some answers for how to put it work.

  1. Technical proficiency doesn’t mean much in and of itself if it’s not used in the service of a vision. There are lots of great photographers out there, so what makes your work different? What do you have to say to the world? Why should someone hire you over any other photographer who can take a well exposed, decently composed photo? The vision you serve will help cut through the slough of “good enough” photos and make your work something more. Remember, most clients can’t tell the difference between a good and a great photo, but they can tell how a photograph makes them feel. It doesn’t matter how perfectly exposed and composed your photo is if it’s dead. It’s your vision, it’s how and why you put those technical skills to use that makes your photograph something special.  

  2. Run the best damn business you can. Set up systems, keep your books, make phone calls, stay on top of invoices, show up early, stay late, over deliver, and have the best customer service in the freaking industry. Of course clients want the photographs they’ve paid for, but as far as they’re concerned, they can get those from many photographers. Treat them well on top of delivering solid work, though, and they’ll always remember it. They’ll recommend you to other people. They’ll work with you again because you can be trusted. And you’ll keep food on the table because your paperwork is straight.

  3. Success is a mixture of hard work, good product, networking, luck, and marketing. You have control over 4 out of 5 of those ingredients, and even some control over luck, if you think about it. 

    1. Hard work requires resilience and determination. Work smarter, and be willing to stick it out for the long haul so you’ll still be chugging along when your competitors give up. 

    2. Create the best work you can so no one can ever call you out on a lack of quality. Be true to your vision because while not every client can tell the difference between the quality of technical differences in photographs, they can tell the difference in how a photo makes them feel, and it’s your voice that will resonate with them. 

    3. Get out of your dang house, or studio, or wherever you’ve closeted yourself and go meet people. Talk passionately about your work. Put yourself in front of potential clients. Network, for the love of all things holy. Network.

    4. Marketing happens all the time, everywhere. Networking can be part of marketing, as is your social media presence and website. But you need to target your advertisements, understand who your audience is and get your work in front of them over, and over, and over again. Never stop shoving your work in people’s faces. Be as polite about it as possible, but don’t stop.

    5. Luck. Oh, luck is fickle because it can strike anywhere, but you can give yourself the best possible chance of being lucky by putting yourself in the circumstances most likely to introduce you to the people who can provide opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise had. You can show up, over and over, in the places most likely to provide work. 

This is not to say you shouldn't create the best photographs you can, employing all the techniques you know and mastering the requisite skills. You should. But you should put those skills to work in service of a vision, with a purpose, and never at the expense of the business side of the equation. A professional is someone who makes a living from their work, and if you want to make a living, you have to treat photography like the business it must be, and not simply an artistic pursuit.

Tough love sucks, but sometimes it’s the best way to break down the mental barriers and illusions we cling to to protect our fragile egos. Yes, I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else. We want our work to be enough. We want our hard won skills to prove our worth. But being a successful professional photographer is about more than that, it’s much more complex and requires fights and struggles no one tells us about when we first get started. The sooner we both realize it, the sooner we can get to work. And yes, it’s still worth it.

Lead Image models: Tessa Hooper, Bradley Garcia, Ari Williams and Lakota Leffler for Spear and Arrow Apparel.

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30 Comments

Jeff Walsh's picture

great article

Kevin Bein's picture

Wonderful, well written article. This hits really close to home because for a while there I seriously considered trying to start a photography business, but the deeper I got into it, the more I realized that I am just not up to the challenge of actually running a business.

I honestly just love photography, and I have wanted to be a photographer ever since I got my first camera in middle school (like 25 years ago). But, I never thought it could be truly a viable career and I ended up going down a completely separate path. Now many years later I have only recently been able to start investing in actual decent gear, and my passion for photography has just exploded again. So earlier this year I flirted with the idea of starting a business, but long before I even attempted to start charging clients the reality of how much work running a business would actually be started to sink in.

So now I have pretty much accepted that, at least for the immediate future, photography will just continue to be a hobby. I may take small jobs here and there for friends and family, as favors and such, but I am not anywhere near ready to jump into this as a career.

Nicole York's picture

And there is nothing wrong with that! You don't have to run a business to be a photographer, or create beautiful work ;)
Sometimes, hobbies we love are better left as hobbies, and if you ever do jump into a full time career, at least you know what you'll have to do!

Aaron Verleysen's picture

A lot of people try to become professional photographers because they like taking photo's or are pretty good at it. It takes a lot of self knowledge admit that you're not up for the challenge (at the moment). And there is no harm in admitting, it doesn't mean your photo's are bad.
I'm struggling with the same thoughts. That's why instead of investing in more professional gear or an fstoppers tutorial, I'm following a course on how to run a (any) business, just to see if I enjoy the business part as much (or almost as much) as the photography part.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Thank you, Nicole! Concise in-depth to the point bittersweet remedy from self inflation. One of the best advises you could hope for. ❤️

Nicole York's picture

I appreciate that, and I'm glad it helped!

Alex Yakimov's picture

You are welcome 🙏 Hope to see more of your articles. 😀

I read many articles without logging in to my account but this was worth logging in to say; excellent article. Thank you.

Nicole York's picture

I appreciate that, thank you for taking the time!

Dan Crowther's picture

What an excellent, clear and succinct article. Btw, for the introverts (like myself) that are cringing at #3 section C; networking doesn't have to mean parties or events where you generically engage in self-promotion to anyone who breathes. Introverts dislike shallow talk, so "talk[ing] passionately about your work." is the key to pull from that section for introverts.

Nicole York's picture

Fantastic point, Dan. I've noticed even introverts can get chatty when talking about something they love!

Christian Santiago's picture

All of this is true and echoes the thoughts I repeat to my photography buddies. But I definitely don’t do nearly enough of this as I should. I hate networking, and really just talking to people in general. I am more of a “brooding at home with a scotch type”. Somehow, I get enough high quality work to make a good living. And now I find myself imagining how much better I could be if I actually embraced networking.

Yes good business people makes good money, most photographers don't. Someone business minded would not turn to photography because it's a job, not a good business plan. Selling your own services is a bad business plan. Still if we want to make a living of photography, we need to think a little as a business owner. :)

Boris Schipper's picture

Great article, and like Douglas I actually logged in to respond. What people still don’t seem to understand is the sum of everything you said: you are a product, and will be judged as a product.
How you treat your clients, how you come across, how your pictures will help them make money (!!!) even the way you look in their Instagram behind the scenes shots and the people you hang out with it all adds up.

Andrew Feller's picture

Great article, one of the best I’ve seen on here in awhile.

I’ve won jobs over photographers that I thought were “better” than me due to something that happened on a set one time and I’ve lost jobs to photographers that simply had a better relationship with the client.... the hardest thing for anyone trying to make this into a career is the realization that so often it’s not about our skill, price, or the images in our portfolio.

True, true, true.
Bust your butt and make as few mistakes and enemies as possible. And make as many friends as possible.

Work hard. Work real hard. Work some more and market, market, market and you can be an overnight success in as short as ten years.

Great article. What you say is true and I know there are many photographers in my area but what I find funny is that if I were not involved in photography I wouldn't know any of them or how to find them in my area. Which just re-enforces the fact that most photographers are poor business people. I never see marketing in the mail. I never see Facebook or Google Ads and I don't see studios when driving around. If I were needing photography I would definitely need to go out and search for one.

Mark Harris's picture

Spot on. Expanding on a couple of points :

"Putting yourself in front of potential clients" : I've literally gotten jobs from people I pass in the street - by shooting their dog and sending them small jpegs. Years later they got married and called me because they loved the dog pics. And then guests at the wedding generated more work. It cost me 5 minutes to spread that seed, and continues to generate income. Sure, most of those 5 minutes lead nowhere except for a pleasant conversation, but enough pan out that in the long run they pay off. Two of my biggest clients resulted from shooting for free local running races that my wife competes in. Since I was there for her, I thought I might as well be shooting the others too.

"Treat clients well" : Solve problems, don't generate them. If you need a ladder on site, don't bug the client about it, find out who the janitor is and go directly to them. I've seen colleagues constantly bugging their contact for small bits of information that they could have found out for themselves. Once you have the brief settled, just get on with your job and be resourceful​.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Great supplement to an already awesome advice, Mark.

Ryan Cooper's picture

This is so "on the money" it is painful. ;) Good stuff. Personally, the whole reason I decided to move away from shooting professionally and send photography back to the realm of a hobby was that I didn't want to spend 80-90% of my time marketing, selling, administrating, retouching, etc and only 10% shooting. We all enter the field with this idea that being a pro photographer means spending your days with a camera in hand but the reality for the vast majority of photographers who find business success this couldn't be farther from the truth. You are a salesperson that gets to take photos once in a while. I didn't want to be a salesperson. (If I did I'd have got a job at a dealership or something and made 10x more money selling. ;) )

Nicole York's picture

Haha ;)
Yep. It hurts. But sometimes the best way to go is just to let photography be the hobby that makes you happy. Being a business person is a whole different animal.

Dwight Smalls's picture

Thanks Nicole!

John Koster's picture

The old adage, "do what you love and it will all work out" (or something like that) fails to grasp the big picture. Which is that doing what you love may require a series of skills you may not possess or tasks that you seriously hate. Many creatives are shitty business people (me included). That's why doing what you love may mean that you have to learn self-disciple and be brutally honest about what's not in your wheelhouse. Best article I've read here in quite awhile.

Nicole York's picture

I appreciate it, John, thanks!

Well because I am an over achiever I actually created an account to post a comment!

I have worked in service industries my entire work life which is coming up to 40 years in 2020. Customer service is THE most important thing in my opinion if you have a business which deals with the general public, and lets be honest just about every business has an element of dealing with the public in one way or another.

I have spent the last 12-18 months running through the idea of setting up a photography business, thinking it through, appreciating that the business side weighs heavier on the scales at times than actually taking photos, upskilling, learning anything and everything I see as relevant, investigating all avenues for marketing, insurance and what seems to be a never ending list of things I see as necessary. I am in a number of Facebook groups from beginners to experienced but the one thing which continually stands out to me is these photographers complaining about their clients.

Even tonight I read a comment from a family photographer who said what a difficult session she had because the parents didnt want to be in any shots and the kids weren’t cooperative and that the lighting in the house was awful. . My brain immediately thought “ but didn’t you discuss with the clients PRIOR to the session what they could expect, what type of shots you would be aiming for, was there anything they specifically wanted to have shots of, were there any special family props they wanted to include, is there a best time in the day for their kids and could they tell you whether the room(s) they wanted to shoot in had windows or not.” It is never a clients responsibility to know what they want or what we need. Isn’t that why they are hiring a professional?

I bet this photographer takes fantastic photos but to me she totally missed the mark in terms of the clients being entitled to expect some level of service from her that went above her just taking the photos. I guess that is pretty harsh but that is the reality we live in.

And dont start me on the post I just read somewhere else where this person asked if she needs to have insurance for her business!

Great article, I really enjoyed reading it.

Nicole York's picture

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I couldn't agree with you more.

Its saturated and its creative. So many variables have to come together. It was reported that Stock Photographer was the beginning to the end of Pro shooters, then Digital, then Photoshop, then the Cell Phone camera. I dont believe any of that is true, its just narrowed the field even more. Everyone that has been rewarded by likes from Family and Friends (people that know little about photography usually) help to fuel the delusion that they are good enough. The advent to SM has compounded this delusion. The old school trip of studying, getting a degree, interning and shooting and building a body of work cannot be under estimated. Of course that dosnt guarantee you anything. VARIABLES>like in Poker you dont always win with AA in hand. Just use Erik Almas story as an example. Read his anecdote on when he was just getting ready to give up on Commercial work and move back to his homeland. Today he is thriving and considered one of the best Commercial shooters in the world today. I could go on with this, but Im tired already.

Nicole York's picture

Erik is one of my favorite photographers, and has a great story. Yes, there are 100% variables in any career.