If You Love Photography Don’t Become A Professional

If You Love Photography Don’t Become A Professional

The dream of becoming a professional photographer is extremely common. It looks like a glamorous gig, but it’s not as simple as getting paid to take photos. Becoming a pro photographer also means becoming an entrepreneur, and that’s way harder than learning how to shoot on M.

Photography is an incredible thing. It can be a therapeutic outlet to help deal with trauma. It can be an escape from the mundane, or a way to re-assess the mundane and gain a greater appreciation for the everyday things around you. Photography can be a medium for the technically inclined who enjoy poring over white papers and debating optical characteristics, qualities of light, and printing techniques. Its accessibility can be equally valuable for those without a technical bone in their body whose exceptionally creative minds produce stunning and imaginative works of art.

The beauty of photography is that exactly none of the above benefits require becoming a professional. The ability to realize your photographic potential, create meaningful images you love, and glean every bit of energy and enjoyment from doing so can be done more easily with pursuing photography as a passion than using it as a means for putting food on the table. The fantasy is that as a pro you’ll be able to take images you love all the time. While the business of photography will most likely consume every waking moment (and some sleepless nights), the work you do as a pro is often not in alignment with the work you’re truly interested in.

The melding of passion and income is a bit of a unicorn. You might love “photography", but you might not have any interest at all in the kinds of photography that generate consistent income (or be naturally good at them). Not all projects are fun to work on. Not every image that sells is a good image. Not all clients are in alignment with your final vision, and you may be distressed to find out that few are.

Not only do pro photographers have to situate themselves into a realistic genre and place themselves in a niche which hopefully they have decent interest in, they also have to work to find those paying clients. In reality, the actual act of taking images, (the thing people love that makes them think being a pro photographer would be great,) ends up being only a small percentage of the responsibilities a pro photographer has. The rest is bookkeeping, marketing, contracts, paperwork, e-mails, taxes, editing, errands, and the never-ending hustle of small business upkeep that frankly isn’t that fun unless you’re a highly organized business oriented person. For every 1 day of shooting there is usually 10+ days of non-photographic responsibilities just to stay afloat. Enjoy taking photos on the weekends? You probably won’t have weekends as a new pro.

Like photography because it allows you to work alone? If you want to be a pro you can go ahead and pour water on that right now. You need excellent people skills in order to get new clients, as well as maintain good relationships with the clients you already have. And it’s not just clients you need to have good relationships with. It’s important to make connections in your niche and develop relationships with stylists, producers, designers, and anyone else that plays an integral role in helping a commercial shoot come together.

You may also find that once you’re a professional you start to view photography differently. Something that was once a joy and a release is now welded to pressure, work, stress, anxiety, and wondering when that next paycheck will come. You may second guess yourself into wondering whether you’re in the right genre, whether your should re-brand yourself, or whether or not you’re working for the right clients to further your career.

As a pro photographer you’ll also be met with fierce competition. As mentioned above, photography is an extremely common profession. Chances are there aren’t just a few pro photographers in your area you’ll have to compete with. You’ll have to deal with pricing challenges, learning how to place yourself and your product, people low-balling you, and maybe doing some work for free to help build a relationship or get work for your portfolio. You’ll also deal with rejection on a nearly constant basis. Be prepared to put in hours and hours and hours and hours of time researching, sending e-mails, pitching potential clients ideas, introducing yourself, staying in touch, and carving your elevator pitch. Oh, and making new work to stay relevant.  

Many people want to be pros because they think their work will improve because of a sink or swim mentality. The idea that professionals are guaranteed to have better work than amateurs is simply false. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and so can you by perusing many of the photos on this very site posted by passionate non-professional photographers. The technical mastery and creative ability to consistently create top quality work has nothing to do with how much money it is able to generate or whether or not it was created for a paying client. In fact, I would go so far as to say being a professional photographer is frequently a hindrance to the fulfillment that comes from pursuing a project you’re emotionally connected to. If you’re a pro you’re shooting for someone else. If you’re an amateur, you’re shooting for yourself (and taking whatever risks at whatever budget you want). It’s ok if the end goal of a photograph is not to generate income.

If you love photography and are thinking of becoming a pro, please consider these points. You may think that quitting your job and diving into photography as a fully fledged career will only increase the satisfaction of creating new images and give you more time to do so, but the reality is more likely that it will do the opposite. Photography and business are separate things that don’t always have to join together. Someone who shoots for pleasure is no less a photographer than someone that shoots for money.

Give yourself the gift of doing what you love because you love it.

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32 Comments

giorgos karampotakis's picture

very nice article to think

Peter House's picture

Personally I don't think these things are mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to love photography AND do it as a career. People who pursue their passion as a career are generally less motivated by money and more motivated by a desire to "live their work". The very work becomes a lifestyle. These people ENJOY the challenges of being a photographer and entrepreneur all the while enjoying the creative aspects of photography.

I think the key isn't to tell people not to pursue a career in photography if you love it. You just have to love more than just the photography part.

I am a full time photographer. I absolutely LOVE my job. To this day it is my PASSION. On my time off, i still take photos, even after a long day in the studio taking photos for work. I love the lifestyle of being a photographer. I absolutely adore the pace of work, and what I occupy my mind with while I am awake. On top of that I make a very good living. My craft fully supports my life. I personally wouldn't have it any other way, and couldn't imagine a better life for myself.

So I would say, if you truly love photography and are passionate about owning a business, you can most certainly marry the two.

Dan Howell's picture

Agreed. I hear the argument of realizing that not every photo opportunity will be a transformative portfolio image is a big yawn. If that is a hurdle it is unlikely that photographer will ever grow. I have approached entirely different genres of photography as a path towards growth and overall improvement. I really have never used a single photo or single assignment as a means test for my growth as a photographer.

While the article contains accurate information, I don't feel it is a meaningful yardstick. It might just be one of those things that you can't understand until you are doing it. For me it has been an immersive and encompassing pursuit that I find has engaged me fully. Not the news that amateurs want to understand and accept.

Deleted Account's picture

"Not the news that amateurs want to understand and accept." Do you know how patronizing that sounds?

Dan Howell's picture

Well, I have been asked the same or similar question numerous times for about 20 years.

When I try to explain that I started preparing for life as a professional photographer in high school, was freelancing fashion photography for local stores through college, interning and photo studios, relocating to east coast to work in magazine. Insisting that I would only assist for 4 days a week so that I would have one day for shooting for myself. Predicating every real estate decision I have ever made (rentals and sales) on utility to photography. Taking creative and financial risks for decades to pursue photography. I don't find too many amateurs that understand or are willing to go to these lengths or depths for photography. Do you?

Deleted Account's picture

No but then, I have no desire to do that OR to be a professional photographer, for the reasons in the article and others.

Spy Black's picture

I think if you love anything, don't take it up as a carreer.

Nitin Chandra's picture

Exactly why I am not a pro :P

Deleted Account's picture

I guess it matters how much you love it (I originally was going to explain this with reference to music, but there are some weird lines I'd have to cross and won't do so in public).

At this point, for me, it's easy to tell when things are going too far -- if the stress overshadows the meaning of the work, there's a problem. If I think significantly less of the craft or even lose interest because I'm monetizing it, then I'll stop at that point (assuming the need or want of money hasn't eclipsed it at that time).

I may be a bit too rational and possibly even heartless by now. But doesn't life make most people cold and pragmatic?

jay holovacs's picture

I have argued this same point. For photography, as well as music, art, woodworking and so many other things, nothing takes the joy out of something as when you HAVE to perform when others want something done. The amateur can create when and if the mood strikes. The creator gets to choose what to create and when, instead of executing someone else's orders.

Rashad Hurani's picture

The view of professional photographers rushing in a press conference room at the signal of some office boy makes me feel sad for photographers and photography

Justin Sharp's picture

I am a professional musician and I never listen to music for fun or to relax. I can’t listen to music to unwind from my day because my day has previously been consumed by music. I listen to podcasts or audiobooks. However, when I do listen to music, I get a unique experience. I feel like a chef eating at a fine restaurant; I know the recipe and the work and discipline required.
I refuse to photograph for money or sell a print. If I were to devote the time and energy to be a successful professional, I fear that it would turn into my relationship with music. While I might get a deeper experience with photography, I would lack the freedom and spontaneity of photography as a hobby.

Dan Howell's picture

I have no idea what it would be like to be a professional musician. That being said, I find that your suggestion that a professional pursuit necessarily ruins the appreciation for that genre or pursuit to be your failure, not a universal.

Your position is not a unique one, but really, the suggestion that an accomplished professional can't or doesn't take the opportunity to create images with 'freedom and spontaneity' is laughable.

No idea how much you understand your work as a professional musician, but I'll guarantee that you don't understand my experience as a professional photographer.

Deleted Account's picture

You take pictures of nude/semi-nude girls, young enough to be your daughter. I'm not sure how many people want to understand your experience as a professional photographer.

Dan Howell's picture

You might want to learn your audience better. While nude/glamour/whatever photography (which you seem to have a problem with) is only a lesser portion of the range of photography that I do, it is singularly the largest part of inquiry I get from photographers who want to know more, hire me to coach and do workshops. Guess one of us has a more realistic grasp of the interest and experience of working as a photographer.

Deleted Account's picture

While I have no problem with nude photography, in general, I don't like people taking nude photography of girls (well, from my point of view). I have no interest in working as a photographer. I've done that (part time) and didn't like it for the reasons laid out in the article.

Dan Howell's picture

I don't give a damn about your views on the genre or your views of the quality of my photography, but I resent the implication that I have ever taken or displayed nude photography of a minor. I have only created nude images with adults and I have full documentation to prove it. I expect a retraction of your post immediately.

Deleted Account's picture

You can wait as long as you like. I didn't say they were minors: "...girls (well, from my point of view)."

Justin Sharp's picture

I sincerely apologize. I had no intention of implying my experience is universal. On my faculty, I have colleagues who constantly listen to music for enjoyment and there are others like me. I was just giving my perspective. Again, if my intent is unclear, I apologize.

Jan Holler's picture

I know several professional musicians (my brother included) who listen to music. What you tell has not much to do with other people but just you. Why wouldn't a professional photographer want to take pictures outside of his profession? My advise to you is: Just give it a try and come down from the high horse.

Justin Sharp's picture

I sincerely apologize. I had no idea my comment could be taken as arrogant or conceded. I will hop, jump, or whatever it takes to get down from any horse I happen to be. I was just giving my perspective with no intention of implying that it is universal. On my faculty, I have colleagues who constantly listen to music for enjoyment and there are others like me. If you are a professional photographer and find enjoyment in taking photos outside of your professional obligation, I support you and admire what you do. Again, I had no intention of making any judgement out side of my perspective and my personal story. If my intent was not clear, I apologize.

Jan Holler's picture

Many thanks and accepted as a matter of course. This is not about me. I'm not a real professional in photography, but I occasionally work on a professional level. My profession is a different one. I can understand your position. It happens to me in my profession too, just not in general. It started about 40 years ago as a dedicated hobby, later I studied it, and I've been doing it ever since. There are times when I have more than enough of it, and I would not engage in it at all in my spare time. But there are times when I find the old passion again and I enjoy it very much.
Written like this, it can be combined with any profession. Either you do it just to earn a living, or you started with passion and could (can) later have both, income and passion. Why not? I, for my part, would rather change my profession to keep the passion if things go badly in the long run. At the latest when you start to avoid it or even despise it - if you can afford to do so.
Thanks again, cheers!

Jonathon Vines's picture

Please Justin, stop apologising. There's really no need, and you didn't come over as arrogant or conceited either. It is not your 'failure' and neither is it 'laughable'. Jeez, so-called professional people can be so uncouth can't they? I am a professional photographer, not a musician, but a lot of what you originally talked about resonated with me and I just wanted to throw that in. It's very sad that forums such as this degenerate so quickly into schoolyard mud-slinging and insults. Be well.

Justin Sharp's picture

Thank you. I still haven’t gotten the hang of this internet comments thing.

David Love's picture

Yes you will have tons of competition if you are doing the same thing as everyone else. When I got into cosplay photography in 2012, not many were doing composites and even less were doing it well. I've always been a fan of movies and film art. I wanted to work in films but when they told me I would have to move back to California I said nope. Still having a lot of fun.

Now if I was photographing the same landmarks, stock pics, baby or wedding pics I would've quit a long time ago. I haven't lost a day because I shoot tons and then can spend months editing here at my home studio. For those that depend on travel this has been a disaster.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Interesting article & interesting things to think about. There is a saying, it goes something like this- If you turn your hobby into your job, you won't have to work anymore. In fact, if you turn your hobby into your job, you will have no hobby and a job you tired of. I've noticed that there are MANY things that bring me pleasure, like fitness or photography and I do have a certificate that allows me to work as a fitness couch and I do payed photo shoots, but I probably won't be a full-time couch or a full-time photographer, because I already know that once I try to turn some hobby into something professional, I'm getting sick of it. I want to have pleasure from the things I enjoy doing: i.e. doing cardio or testing new equipment without being responsible for the clients' success and health, and I want to have long walks with my camera and spend time trying to fix underexposed pics in Photoworks without worrying if my works will be good enough to get me a job and whether I'm able to cope with some tasks. I'm just not that type of person who likes contests and comparisons, so I'm probably better off. Your hobby should be a hobby after all.

Dave McDermott's picture

I'm not sure if I'd like photography as a full time job, but then again, I don't think I'd dislike it anymore than my previous job, so its much of a muchness.

sam dasso's picture

I would never try to get into photography business. It is very hard to convince potential client that you can push shutter button better than the next guy. If I was going into business that depends on me be able to sell myself, I would go into real estate, stock market or financial adviser business. Yes, unlike photography these businesses require a license but at least you have some credentials to call yourself a professional.

John Pyle's picture

Imagine a world where no one did what they loved professionally. Sports, art, music, medicine,design.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Depends I guess, warren buffet loves stocks so much that he made it his career.

It works for some people and not for others

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