There is that spark in all of us. For some it's the first press of the shutter. For others it's that first dollar we make for creating art while doing something we love. It's that spark in our mind, in our very souls, that sprinkles us with those day dreaming thoughts about persuing photography full time. Everyone who has ever picked up a camera has had the "I could make a living doing this" moment.
For some it only lasts for a moment before the chains of practicality slam them back into reality. For others the thought of a loved hobby becoming a full-time job only to become a mundane cycle of work forces them to stay on the logical path they are currently on. Every so often, however, there are those of us who dare to take that leap into the unknown, the leap into full-time photography. This is my journey:
So, there we were about a month away from the BIG day. I had been working full time as a videographer for a multi-million dollar rug manufacturer for about two and a half years. It was a great job with good pay, benefits, a creative outlet, and most of all security. I had met my fiancée Whitney, who is now my wife, before landing this job. When she and I first started dating I was working as a security guard making next to nothing, working third shift, and barely making ends meet. Whitney had been through it all with me. She had seen my career go from non-existent to actually having a great position at a thriving and growing company, but we both knew that I wasn't where I ultimately wanted to be. I knew deep down in my soul that I wanted to eventually be my own boss. I wanted to set my own hours, set the rules, and be the deciding factor in whether I failed or succeeded. With only four weeks until our wedding day I told Whitney that I thought it was time for me to give this self-employed thing a shot. She responded with encouragement and told me she had been praying about it and also felt it was time. The next week I put in my two week notice. To this day, and probably forever, one of the things I love most about my wife is her belief in me. From the moment I met her she became my muse, my number one fan, and my constant source of consistent encouragement - which brings me to my first point, finding a muse.
Finding a Muse
Throughout history some of the greatest works of art have been inspired by a muse. You can often see a dramatic shift in an artist work when they fall in love. I'm not saying that finding love, or finding a "muse" is essential in being successful at all, but I'm speaking from my own personal experience. Whitney has always seen something in me that I very well may have never seen in myself. She has always been someone who I could go to and bounce ideas off of. She is usually very supportive, but she also knows how to bring me back down to reality when I'm floating a little too high in the clouds. Even if you stripped away the romantic factor, she is also a "creative" so have a consistent extra set of eyes and ideas has been irreplaceable in my growth as a photographer and an artist. Even if it's not a "muse" per se, finding one person who can be a constant source of encouragement and advice is definitely a great benefit for any artist. If nothing else, be your own dadgum muse!
Setting a Goal
Though I did quit my job two weeks before my wedding, it wasn't an impulse decision. The entire reason I took the job in the first place was so that I could save money and build my business until I was ready to work for myself full-time. I don't think jumping into any business blindly is a good idea. I'm sure there are success stories where someone puts everything on the line for a dream and it works out. Unfortunately, those stories more often play out on the big screen rather than in real life.
Taking on a fulltime job while knowing you eventually want to be self-employed is a scary thing. When I was offered the position at the rug company, the salary was almost triple what I was currently making. My fear was I would get so comfortable with the salary, benefits, and security that I would end up abandoning my dreams all together. Had it not been for the amazing lady mentioned previously, I very well may have turned the job down. She convinced me that it was a great opportunity. In hind sitght she was absolutely right (which proves my first point yet again). Upon excepting the position, I knew I had to have a plan, and I had to stick to it.
I decided to use my new position as a tool. I would continue to do photography on the side just as I had already been doing. The fact that I was making a comfortable salary allowed me to become choosier with my clientele and the direction I wanted to take my photography business. Having the full time job gave me the flexibility to refine my portfolio and the clientele I preferred.
I made a goal of becoming self-employed within 3-4 years or until I was making more money on the side than I was making at my job at the rug company. At the time, the goal seemed farfetched, but I was determined to reach it. Having the goal of self-employment in the back of my mind kept me focused and never allowed me to become complacent. It was that constant flame that kept me chasing "the dream."
Learn and Observe
The best way to grow is to learn, practice, then learn and practice again. I'm a prime example of what is possible if you take advantage of all the content on the internet. I never had the opportunity to intern under a photographer, experience a commercial shoot in person, or go to school to learn my craft. However, with all the educational content on websites such as YouTube and blogs like Fstoppers, I was able to learn as much as my little heart desired. If you do have those opportunities, that's awesome but if you don't, it's up to you to make it happen by any means possible.
Secondly, observe other photographers that you aspire to be like. Study how they share their content. Read their blogs. Watch their tutorials. It never hurts to reach out to them for advice. Every photographer has been where you are at one point or another. The photography community is a learning community overflowing with educators who want to share their knowledge. Absorb as much as possible and then apply it in your own plan wherever it makes sense.
Build Your Client List
It would have been extremely irresponsible to quit my job without having some sort of idea of how I was going to make money once I started working for myself. I spent as much of my free time as possible building relationships with clients. Before I quit, I already had many clients in place with long term partnerships in mind.
Building a reinvented client list is essential. Obtaining consistent clients will keep work coming in. Having a thorough understanding of your clients needs and budget will allow you to estimate your potential profit. Of course without contracts there is no guarantee, but it does give you an idea. Never get too comfortable and always be open to working with new clients. Eventually you may outgrow some of your clients. Don't be afraid to raise prices or cut ties if you get to a point where some budgets are holding you back. Always be polite, however, and try to meet there needs to the best of your ability. There are a great deal of clients that choose you because of your personality and work ethic just as much as the quality of your work.
Save, Save, and Save Some More
Of all the advice I've previously mentioned, this might just be the most important.
Imagine finally making the leap into self-employment only to have your first two major jobs fall through. When I quit my job I had two $10,000 jobs lined up. Within two weeks of becoming my own boss, both jobs fell through and I was immediately consumed by the feeling that might have made a mistake. Luckily I had spent the past two years saving as much money as I could and having that money allowed me to continue forward.
Although there is something romantic about putting all your eggs in one basket and walking into a challenge with just the clothes on your back, I wouldn't suggest it. When it comes to being a self-employed photographer, you never know exactly when you are going to make your next dollar. More often than not, the reason a business fails isn't the lack of drive, but the lack of funds to continue on. Before I made the leap in to the self-employed world I saved half a year's income. I put it aside specifically for emergency purposes. What this enabled me to do was not get too stressed when I had cancelations, or had jobs fall through or not work out. In a sense having this money in the bank gave me a sense of security. Even if I went without work for six months, I had enough funds to survive and pay my mortgage and bills. You also have to consider things like insurance and unforeseen expenses. Having a cushion to fall back on allows you take more risk and really push your new business in the direction you want to go. In my case, I didn't want to have to revert back to doing family sessions or weddings ro make ends meet, It's not that there's anything wrong with those types of photography, they're just not my cup of tea. This also gave me confidence to stick to my minimums and turn away work that I didn't see as beneficial.
Aside from just saving money, investing in as much gear as possible before you take the leap is a great strategy. This way you eliminate some of your startup cost once you become self-employed.
Take The Leap!
I'm not an expert in the field of becoming self-employed, but I do know what worked for me. My route may not work for everyone, but I hope I can inspire ideas and other avenues for other photographers to follow their dreams. In all honesty, there is no fool-proof method. There are no yellow brick roads, no fairy godmothers, or magical beans to help aid you along your journey. All you can do is prepare to the best of your ability. Eventually you truly just have to take the leap into the unknown. I can only suggest some of the steps that I've followed mixed with a great deal of prayer asking for guidance and discernment. For myself, taking the leap has been the greatest decision I have ever made and I wouldn't change it for anything! Be your own dadgum fairy godmother!!!
Many of you are still on your journey and some are just getting started. If you are own your way to becoming a full-time photographer, or have already made the leap, I'd love for you to share your experiences with everyone below.
Lead image by Amanda Lovelace and used with permission.