For a lot of us, being a professional photographer is a dream job that isn't realized. Even for those of us who do make a living from it, it probably isn’t exactly as we had planned.
Following on from Andy Days article , I thought I would add a few of my opinions to the mix. Starting with a full disclosure. I wanted to be a music photographer when I set out. My dream job was going on tour with bands and being part of that lifestyle. And I did this for a while, but I didn’t understand the commitment needed to be successful in this field. Life moved on, I grew up, and my interests changed. By the time I found my current career as a commercial food photographer, I had made a lot of the big mistakes already, so it only took a couple of years to get going. This combined with mentoring other photographers one on one and the fact I also run a lot of workshops focusing on turning professional in photography (and the ones who do not make it share a lot of the same traits and also suffer the same faults as one another) means I reckon I have a good insight into what might be going wrong for you.
You Are Not Self Aware
This is perhaps the biggest reason why you can’t make this work. Self awareness is perhaps the biggest skill that you need to hone. When I was working as a music photographer (and I use the word "working" very loosely) I thought the sun was shining out of my bottom. I was angry that I wasn’t getting booked to shoot the big magazine covers and that I was stuck shooting little regional magazines. Looking back at that time now, I can see how my work was the wrong style and generally just not good enough, but at the time I didn’t have the self awareness to realize this.
You Want the World to Change for You
This kind of drags on from my previous point. I wanted musicians to have more money and to spend it with me. Unsigned bands were never going to have $1000 for a photoshoot, wanting them to change to suit my narrative was complete madness. The bands in my area had about $200 to spare perhaps twice a year for photographs and the bands who did have a budget also had the sense to get a good photographer. That photographer wasn’t me.
You Think Photography Is About Technique and Gear
If you are sat around reading gear reviews and looking for cool techniques, you have already lost the battle. I spent years trying to work out what the best lighting technique was and how to best spend my money in order to get the best optical performance for my few dollars. That is not to say that this is not important, it is, but it comes way down the line. You firstly need to fully understand your niche and subject matter. I teach a lot of want-to-be fashion photographers who do not know the first thing about fashion. If you truly want to be a fashion photographer, you need to know fashion inside out. Not want to photographer pretty girls in nice clothes. For me, I didn’t know music inside out, I knew how to recreate other successful photographers work. It wasn’t until I found food photographer which can be technically straight forward for 90% of the work, that I managed to really get to know my subject and truly respect what I was trying to portray in my images, rather than trying to show off my latest lighting skills and monster cameras.
People Don’t Like You
I say this to people all the time, if you are not likeable, people will not book you. People buy people. No one wants to work with a photographer that they do not trust or one who is a nightmare on set. None of us are perfect and I am certainly a stress head when jobs are headed south and I lose control of the shoot, but I was far worse when I started out. I failed to set client expectations, I was always changing quotes and generally being a nightmare to work with. You need to work on yourself to make sure that you are fun to be around and that the client has a good experience on set. This is as important as your photography skills. Once you get to a certain level, the only thing separating you from the competition is if people enjoy being around you.
Your Work Is Not Commercially Viable
You work might be amazing, beautiful and get 10,000 likes each time you post it on instagram, but if there isn't a commercial application to it (excluding genres like family portraits and weddings etc) then no one is going to commission you. I see this time and time again where photographers painstakingly produce beautiful images and wonder why no one is paying them. Your work has got to be commercially viable in order to get paid. If the work you love producing isn’t, then you have two options. One is to change what you do to get paid and the other is to stick with it, but find another way to make money on the side to help fund it. The world isn't going to change and if your work doesn't sell, it’s down to you to do something to change that.
You Think Cheap Photographers Are Undercutting You
Cheap photographers are not stealing your work. The more energy you waste on this fallacy the longer it will take you to turn pro. I recently attended a dinner where all of the photographers were paranoid about people price cutting them. This is obscenely incorrect. If you want to be a professional and last the distance then the price of your work is pretty much set by the industry that you are in. Anyone too cheap won’t get booked as the perception is that they are too much of a risk for the project, anyone too expensive won’t fit within the budget. When quoting on jobs that you fail to get, ask for feedback so you can work out if you are too high or low price wise and adjust accordingly.
You Are Trying to be an "Everything" Photographer
Being a photographer is a very broad term. Unless you have a niche, it is hard to make it. These cheap and price cutting photographers are usually people who are a jack of all trades. In order to make any real traction in the industry you need to have a specialty. For me, that is food photography and even within food photography I have a small niche that I work in. The more specialist you are the better. When someone phones to book me, there isn't a sales pitch or any long discussions as the client has a set requirement and my portfolio answers that exactly. This adds value to my work and value to my clients, as they know they’re getting the best person for the job. I have no qualms in saying no to work I feel isn’t right for me, and indeed recommending another photographer who is right. If you have 3-4 things that you do, you need to narrow it down to 1 or 2. It is impossible to be good at multiple things. That is not to say that I can’t take a nice portrait or a good photograph of a watch, I am just a lot better at food photography so that is what I sell myself as.
What would you add to the list?