Photographers: How to Keep Going When You're Ready to Give Up

Photographers: How to Keep Going When You're Ready to Give Up

If you’ve made the transition, or are planning on making the transition from photography as a hobby to photography as a job, you’ll invariably come to a point where you’ll just want to throw your hands in the air and give up. These bouts of self-doubt and frustration will likely occur many times and seem to appear not only during your lows but even at the highs. These feelings are normal, and it is those that rise above them time and again that end up successful. I recently hit one of these rough patches myself and strangely enough it came at a time where everything was seemingly going well. I was riding a wave of success and had tons of photography and retouching work coming in. Simultaneously I felt like maybe I chose the wrong path and became overwhelmed with it all. Here are some pieces of advice that helped get me back on my feet and will hopefully serve you well when those periods of self doubt creep along.

You’re a business owner, not a photographer

Remember, it was your decision to start making money from your craft, and the day you did was the day you went from being a photographer to a business owner. Every business owner runs into rough patches, which is why the success rate for small businesses is so low. Until the day when you can afford to outsource a good chunk of your administrative tasks, you’ll have to play the role of bookkeeper, marketer, secretary, social media manager and your own personal psychologist. Unless you want to go back to the confines of a 9-5 job, these problems won’t go away. Every business takes time and there are few overnight success stories. Just remember that all your hard work is merely a facilitator for doing what you love. Without it your photography will remain a part time hobby and nothing more. As you struggle with day to day marketing and admin work, remember that you’re doing it for yourself and nobody else. It’s your brand your building and all your efforts will have a lasting and residual benefit down the road.

Embrace Uncertainty

Most of us shy away from uncertainty and cling to the familiar. There’s little doubt that we all appreciate a steady pay check and comfort in knowing that we’ll be able to pay the bills, but with this also comes monotony and predictability. Think back to your 9-5 job. You were probably comfortable but were you happy? If the job had fulfilled you, pushed you and excited you, would you be doing what you are now? Uncertainty is what you signed up for when you went out on your own, and uncertainty is what will ensure that every day is different from the last. Uncertainty brings risk but it also brings reward. Sadly we rarely get the latter without the former.


Savour the Small Victories

The path of a photographer is riddled with challenges and victories. The problem we face is that we observe young rising stars like Joey L, Miller Mobley, Lara Jade, etc., and think that their success and notoriety came over night through that “big break” moment. We in turn begin our own pursuit of that defining moment and stop appreciating the milestones along the way. Those victories that once made us happy seem like little more than small steps in a long road ahead. What I’ve learned though is that success is the culmination of all those small steps. A lot of us never get that big break, we simply take each victory and use that as a springboard to the next one. If that big break does occur then all the better, but until then, savour the small wins and use them as fuel to drive you forward.

Book Yourself

The joy of owning your own business is that you answer to no one, maintain your own schedule and can do what you please, when you please. So we all initially think anyway. Before you know it you feel overwhelmed by 12 hour days and 7 hour work weeks. This is the problem we face when we don’t have someone breathing over our necks or restricting access to social media sites. We pop on to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. to do our daily “marketing” a few times a day, and before we know it, we’ve worked for hours and accomplished nothing. My suggestion is to use a scheduler to break up your day into the daily chores you have to complete. Blogging, social media, email marketing, photo editing, everything should have a time slot in your calendar. During that time, close all unnecessary tabs in your browser, set the phone aside and focus on the task at hand. This sort of self discipline isn’t easy, but it’s critical for maintaining your sanity and leaving you with time to relax and recharge.

Talk About Things Openly and Honestly

As I’ve said, these challenges aren’t unique to you, we all go through them. Surely in your circle you know a fellow photographer or business owner, so take advantage of that friendship and have a frank discussion. One of the things that got me back on my feet was a random conversation I had with a fellow photographer. He messaged me out of the blue and congratulated me for a recent workshop that I was running. This sparked a longer conversation about the fact that I was feeling frustrated, and lo and behold, he immediately understood my position. He told me about some of the challenges he himself faces and they were identical to mine. This conversation alone was enough to get me back on my feet and begin to re-evaluate things and carry on. Sometimes all we need is someone that understands, sympathizes and can offer up some works of advice. This may seem like a logical thing, but too many of us are afraid to talk about our challenges out of fear that it makes us look weak. I myself wouldn’t have asked for the advice if it hadn’t come out of the blue, and had I not, perhaps I’d be in a different place today.

Look Back and Step Back

It’s too easy to get lost in the daily chaos of tasks that have nothing to do with what you were initially so passionate about. Photography and the love you had for it becomes but a fraction of your workload and stops feeling fun. Sometimes we just need to step back from it all and reflect on why we started in photography in the first place. Think back to what you were doing before it? Were you really happier or were things just easier and more convenient? Turn off your computer and step outside with just your camera and one lens, walk around the city and just shoot something for the fun of it. Don't worry about having to capture something great, or whether it will be popular on social media, or how you'll retouch it. Just shoot for the sake of shooting. It will help clear your mind and bring back the joy of photography.

Don’t rely on passion alone

I often hear that photographers are driven by passion. I say forget about being “driven by passion” and just be driven. Passion is what helps us become great photographers and create beautiful images, but remember, you’re not just a photographer any more. It’s drive and determination that will propel you forward as a business owner and carry you over the hurdles ahead. Put ‘passion' into your images and marketing, and ‘drive' into your daily pursuit.

Remember that what you're doing is difficult. It's not for everyone and it's probably more work than you thought. Beneath it all though is the joy of creating beautiful images, and with a little reflection you'll likely realize that you can't imagine yourself doing anything else.

Connect with me here: Michael Woloszynowicz | Facebook | YouTube | Twitter

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Chip Kalback's picture

Great article Mike. I'm also a fan of just working through the rough patches. Shooting new personal work keeps me feeling motivated and more times than not leads to client work in some form or another, too.

EderNovacki's picture

Awesome article Michael! Thanks once again.

Stephen Vosloo's picture

such important reminder to all of us. Blood, sweat and tears is what will keep you in the game. Embrace the hustle! Thank you for your candor Michael!

Peter Pumpkineeter's picture

Or better yet, just give up. I realize the advice above is well intentioned but, you may not have any idea how much the craze of "turn your passion into a job in photography" has devastated the industry since digital made it possible for mediocre enthusiasts to swoop in and undercut the entire lower and middle end of commercial photography (head shots, annual reports etc) and crowdsourcing (scammy sites that source stock images on spec and run contests to see who submits the best) have destroyed the higher end stuff in advertising. I have countless friends and peers who have closed their studio doors and dramatically downsized operation over the past 10 years that very few really good photographers I know are even able to make a lower middle class income anymore.

The level of misconception about this business is pretty staggering. Microstock photographers claiming they make millions from stock sites and the on spec companies celebrating photographers that made some outrageous amount of money are all doing the same thing that lottery companies do, essentially, one person beat tremendous odds and so they hold them up as an example of what is possible while skimming the profits from thousands of others who slowly go broke.

Because a photographers success is perceived to be tied to their skill at making images, their ego is wholly tied up in the amount of work they have and therefor, almost every photographer will lie about how much money they make or how much work they have just to preserve their sense of self worth and ensure that they are not perceived as someone not worthy of being hired for the next job.

Your thesis is that photography should be treated as a business however, no business person would enter the field of photography for two simple reasons, the barriers to entry (competitors entering) is much too low, and the complete lack of structure in determining prices makes it very difficult to justify to clients why you charge what you do. This of course means that "lower price" sales strategies from competitors is the inevitable default strategy you're competing against. Not good.

So, if you really want to act like a business person, this is not the right field to invest in. Sometimes, giving up is the much better option and if more people would stop listening to bad advice like this, the business of photography might survive.

Jaron Schneider's picture

So you're saying that in order to save an industry, people need to stop entering into it?

Peter Pumpkineeter's picture

Pretty much, it's been a gold rush over the last 10 years that has resulted in day rates lower than they were 10 years ago and a stock photo industry that has transferred all of the potential revenue into the hands of a very few select supply chain owners (i.e.. Getty). If you're going to take advice and "treat it like a business" then, the end result would be that you'd decide not to invest in this business for a lot of reasons but, the bottom line is it's not a viable business anymore. Sure, there are a few that are doing "alright" but, most are just bragging about how busy they are and many are happy to make $5K a year doing the odd job on the side, the lower end and middle jobs that once made up the bulk of the income for the average commercial photographer is now gone. It's being done by the hordes of hobbyists who dream about "turning their hobby into a career" and don't realize that it's almost impossible. They're being fed a line created by the people who sell workshops or make money off their stock efforts or sell gear etc. etc. An illusion has been created that you can become a photographer and make a decent living when the reality is that it's like becoming the next A list movie star thanks to the fact that everyone else is now doing it and visual imagery has, for the most part become a raw commodity in the eyes of buyers. A great example is Getty recently announcing that millions of their images are available free if you link to them. The data that generates is more valuable to Getty to sell to advertisers than the value of the imagery. They are now a big data company. Same as Facebook, Instagram etc, you give them free content and they sell that content to the people who want access to both the content and the date.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Great article by Michael, and valid points by Peter. I do agree that overall our industry would be a more professional field if it wasn't soooooo damn easy to enter. But I guess that's what Michael's article is about in a way - those who jump in and can't handle it, will give up sooner or later. Those who are talented and business-oriented enough will get through the troubles and stay, and prosper.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I would have to disagree that this is not the right field to invest in. The fact is, anyone who becomes a business owner now is subject to having to deal with trying to justify your charges. The economy has turned any field into amateurs swooping in to work for just about anything as long as they have an income. I decided not to persue photography as a profession when the economy collapsed for smart business reasons applicable to me, where I lived at the time, and the growth of digital (many reasons that are complicated but it was the right decision). I have spent nearly 10 years in accounting and business development. I see job ads all the time looking for CPAs with 10 years experience and pay is $9/hr. No, that wasn't a typo. They will not compromise because there is someone out there desperate enough to do it.

One of my biggest turn offs entering the photography business 10 years ago was the price haggling with customers and the constant undercutting my skills to try to get a lower price or free work. I felt like I was price haggling over knock off bags in NYC. But that is how people are regardless of the industry. You have to learn that some client bases are worse than others for that type of behavior. The consumer base is pretty awful to deal with because of the mentality many of these people have (if you won't give me what I want, I will threaten, sue, and drag your name through the mud). Marketing to the consumer base is something I will probably not do unless I'm teaming up with another photographer because their behavior as a whole is pretty awful.

As much as most of us would like to do nothing but be creative, photography is a business and must be treated as such. You have to be disciplined enough to deal with the less than thrilling tasks in order to succeed, as with any business. Most times, the people who run a successful business (in any field) are not the BEST in their field, but are the best at marketing themselves.

Peter Pumpkineeter's picture

Good example re the haggling over bags. The difference is, people selling knock off bags are not doing their "dream job" no one's passion is selling knock off bags on Canal St and no one is writing articles encouraging people to stick with it when sales are slow. People in these businesses give up and go away and as such, a balance exists in the supply and demand equation. The supply/demand balance is severely out of balance in the world of photography. Demand has plummeted over the past 10 years mostly thanks to micro stock and the near death of print and print advertising and supply has skyrocketed thanks mostly to digital and the proliferation of "you can do it" workshops and websites that make anyone capable of making a passable image

Jennifer Kelley's picture

Any business must grow and change with the times. 10 years ago when I photographed weddings, photographers didn't charge much in the way of fees but they made decent money on print orders. The tables have turned and photographers are charging more to take the pictures and deliver them in digital format with a license to print (or order from their website).

I guess my point is that certain demographic markets are always going to be price hagglers. It's a choice whether or not you want to chase that particular market (and this may depend greatly on your location). I had a meeting to shoot a wedding once where the bride flat out said the job was going to the lowest bidder and they came in at $250 or something crazy. I'd guess their household income was under $50k. Use that low budget market long enough to build a respectable portfolio and chase the $2000k weddings. In the same respect, I wrote a proposal to photograph cars for advertising and the guy didn't care about price - he was looking at my pictures and my knowledge of the vehicles.

The competition is ridiculous now. But the "everyone is a photographer" mentality started back with the invent of 35mm film and affordable 35mm cameras. I was so reluctant to move to digital and I'm quick to blame it too but it really started long ago. I can hardly blame the guys teaching the workshops, their market is changing and they have to evolve too.

james johnson's picture

I would not have said it the same way, but perhaps.... yeah, maybe you shouldn't be a professional photographer.

For me it has nothing to do with the industry, but with our own happiness. And nothing makes a person unhappier than trying to do something that they are ultimately not suited for.

As it says in the article, you are now a business owner and that isn't for everyone. There is nothing wrong with being a really good amateur or a semi-pro that uses a passion and skill to make a little extra on the side.

After 15 years as a pro earning decent money, I am now earning money elsewhere (in a related field) and shooting for myself again. It's liberating. It's fantastic. And, I'm happy again.

Adam Bender's picture

Michael and Peter, you both make some interesting points to consider. Thank you, it's been thought provoking.

Karin D's picture

Do you want to know something about artificial market barriers for photographers? I can tell you something about Austria.

In my country it was very difficult to become a professional photographer until recently. You had to learn for 3-4 years from another photographer and at the end you would have to do an exam. Without passing this exam you wouldn't be able to charge people for photography services of any kind. This turned many people away from being a photographer.

And did it help the photographers? I guess so. There aren't many established photographers in my city and those who are charge a lot. But I know just how horrible those "professional" photographers work. They use bad lighting techniques (direct flash at weddings is just one example), old techniques from the 90s. I know how horrible my prom pictures looked.

That whole system became rusty and stagnated. The photographers stopped developing their skills because there was no need for that. Just take a look at this photo, taken by a "licensed" professional hired by the local university:

Or this one, marvel at those Photoshop skills:

And the photographer is getting paid very well, they sell those photos to students who just finished university and one costs a lot (sorry, I have no real numbers).

Since December 2013 it's possible to become a professional photographer for everyone in Austria. There was a lot of backlash but also a lot of praise. Artifical market barriers aren't a great thing in my mind. They can be useful in some situations, but I saw what became of the photography market in Austria. It cultivated a host of photographers who became lazy and charged as much as they could for as little quality as possible. I'm very glad they removed the restrictions. I sure as hell wouldn't have hired one of those photographers for my wedding anyway. I'd rather have no photos at all than contribute to a system like that.

James Nedresky's picture

I've read in these comments that this response is kind of a "downer". Well it should be. It's probably one of the most frank assessments of the field today, and yes, it's not real pretty. Unless you're quite well connected in the biz sense, it might make more sense to do something else and reserve photography for something you love doing, just for yourself.

Veldask Krofkomanov's picture

You sound bitter. Many people aren't as anal retentive about photography quality (read many, not everyone) as photographers themselves. Because of that, it's perfectly acceptable to hire an enthusiast to do headshots, annual reports, etc instead of a professional photographer. If you don't demand the absolute highest quality, why bother paying that much more.

This is no different than the large number of people who are now adequately knowledgeable about computers that you no longer need to hire a professional to install programs, or clean viruses, etc.

Stop being bitter about your industry. If you're complaining about it being hard to live in the field, then you need to channel that time away from bitching and into improving your skills.

Christian Webb's picture

Great article. Appreciated. Funny though that the premise / basis for your own frustration was based on being overwhelemed with "too much work" essentially. A legit situation which obvioulsy could prove to be a burden but, just pointing out the fact that I'm sure that's a problem plenty of the readers here would LOVE to have! lol.

Christian Webb's picture

...and as for that Pumpkin dude's comments- about a downer! lol.

Veldask Krofkomanov's picture

I know, right! He sound so bitter that photography has become so accessible to the masses and now other people are doing photography and doing it better than him.

Veldask Krofkomanov's picture

What's up with the "sunbeams" in the cover image? That's not how real sunbeams work. The sun is very far away. In order to have sunbeams like that all angling in different directions, the light source would have to be very close to the trees, no more than a couple hundred feet above them.

Article was good though!

Richard B Flores's picture

Well Said!!!

Graham Glover's picture

Oh man, the exchange over inexpensive digital photography is funny! This same thing happened in programming. A long time ago, only The Elite could program a computer. Even after Unix was born in the 1970s, unless you had access to hardware and processing time where they charged the user by CPU usage (infinite loops could be costly!), you couldn't program. Up until the early 1990s, a copy of Unix cost into 4 figures. Then, Linux happened. PCs happened. Really cheap PCs happened. Linux meant anyone with a PC could do serious programming.

An MWC, a Mom With a Computer, could be home raising her kids and spend a bit of free time developing credible websites at the staggering cost of $10 to $20 an hour. I know one Mom who was doing this while her husband was at the office doing his own work. Kids could learn programming languages at a high school age. Ha! I went to an IBM presentation at a local high school where they were talking about their recent $1billion investment in Linux for their mainframe environments. This was to the kids' programming club. These kids, high schoolers, were serious. Today, anyone can download the code to run high end map/reduce programming code on their own machine or cluster of machines, the same code used by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Adobe, and many others:

I used punch cards to program in the 1970s. I still program today, successfully and profitably, and I don't use punch cards. (Could you imagine using punch cards to program an iPhone or a 'Droid?) I program Linux rack mounted compute servers and Hadoop compute clusters. These are exciting times in programming!

I used a Pentax K1000 in the early 1980s. I still have a copy of the Kodak book, The Joy of Photography, ©1979. I remember my first roll of Kodacolor ASA 1000 film. It was amazing. Today I can do magic with my Canon ELPH 330, G16, and 5D Mark III. When you can freeze action at ISO 12,800, life changes. Photography changes. You need to be amazed, and you need to realize there are things you can do today you couldn't imagine 10 or 15 years ago. These are also exciting times in photography!

Digital has changed everything, whether it is programming, photography, music, writing, or communication. (The iPhone was announced in January 2007, released in June of '07, and the cell phone industry has forever changed.) Markets have changed inexorably. Some users of technology have adapted, some have not.

Tom Yates's picture

This is not about a Photographer how to keep going but very interesting stuff "how to keep going."

Cesar Andre's picture

This article was motivating and Peter's comment's sobering. The truth is that times are changing and only the ones that can adapt to constant change will survive in this industry. Too much is changing too fast. I guarantee anyone trying to make it as a pro photographer, IT WILL KICK YOUR BUTT AT SOME POINT, and just like when you got your butt kicked back in the 3rd grade you can cry about it or do something about it. It only gets harder, so man up and get it done! There is ALWAYS a way, you just need to find it.