Five Things They Never Told You About Becoming a Photographer

Five Things They Never Told You About Becoming a Photographer

I don’t know about you, but I never planned to become a photographer. It kind of happened by accident. I have always considered myself more of an explorer, traveling the world in search of adventure. Shooting photographs was just my way of telling the story of the places I visited. But pretty soon, people started calling me a photographer, and that was that. Shortly after, I quit my day job and found myself trying to make my way as a full-time travel and portrait photographer. That was six years ago, and although I have learned so much over those years, these are the five things they never told me about becoming a photographer.

1. You Will Never Find the Perfect Camera Bag

The Billingham Hadley Pro. Not the perfect camera bag, but close enough for me.

If you are new to photography, you may well still be under the misguided impression that photography is the constant pursuit of perfect light. But, as I soon came to realize as a newbie photographer, photography actually seems to be the constant pursuit of the perfect camera bag. I’ve tried them all. Big ones. Small ones. Backpack ones. Messenger bag ones. I’ve even tried camera bags that weren’t camera bags at all. And yet, despite many bags coming close, I have never found the perfect bag that met all my needs, allowing me to carry my day-to-day gear in a way I can actually get to easily, but that isn’t the size of a tank or doesn't have so many pockets and straps that I get mistaken for a base-jumper every time I pick it up. 

Of course, in truth there is no single perfect bag, because there is no single situation in which it will be used. So far, for everyday walking around purposes, the Billingham Hadley Pro is the closest I have found that meets my personal needs. It isn’t cheap, but it seems to get the job done, and right now is probably my most used bag. But despite the quality of the Hadley Pro, it is just good enough. The search for the perfect bag still goes on.  

2. No Matter How Good You Think You Are, You Will Still Make Stupid Mistakes

If there is anything I have learned since becoming a photographer, it is this: never underestimate your ability to make stupid mistakes. From dead batteries and dead spares to missing the “decisive moment” in the middle of a photoshoot because I still had the lens cap on, I’ve made just about every silly mistake there is. Of course, any professional worth their salt will take steps to avoid these situations. But, even if you get it right 99 times out of 100, that one time you do make a mistake will be exactly the moment your so-called professionalism is most on show. It’ll be in front of clients or when you are under pressure to meet a deadline. 

I used to obsess about making mistakes. Now, I accept that the creative process is not an exact science, and sometimes, things will mess up. The trick is to learn how to adapt to the situation, allowing you to continue even if you have messed up.

3. You Will Hate Almost Every Photograph You Ever Take

OK, perhaps you won’t hate every photograph you take. But, as with any artistic pursuit, a photographer's style and creative personality will change over time. And their latest style will probably be their current favorite. As a result, when new photographers look back at previous photographs they have taken, the temptation to start messing with them can be overwhelming. The quality of their photographs will not have changed, but their perception of what constitutes quality will. 

For the longest time, I suffered from this. I would find myself going through my portfolio, re-editing and re-processing photographs that had previously been “finished” to bring them in line with whatever my current style was at that time. Of course, over time, this too would change, and the vicious cycle of re-editng would begin again. It took a concerted effort to learn not to fall into this trap. That is not to say I never go back and re-edit photographs, but now I do this sparingly and only with good reason. The artistic process should be allowed to grow and change over time. Part of that process is learning how to accept each photograph's place within the timeline of your creativity. 

4. People Are Going to Ask You to Photograph Their Children/Wedding/Pets

It doesn’t matter what style of photography you specialize in, to most of the general public, a photographer is a photographer. If you are able to pick up a camera, they will assume you have the automatic ability to photograph just about any style at whim. As a result, you are going to find yourself routinely asked to photograph family portraits, corporate events, and all manner of other assignments. Of course, that’s fine if those are the styles of photography you lean towards. But what if you are more at home shooting landscapes in the middle of the desert than photographing your neighbors' children in the middle of the local park? 

Twice I made the mistake of agreeing to such requests: once shooting a friend's wedding and another time, a series of family portraits. Although I just about managed a passable effort at both, in neither case did I produce work of the standard I would normally aspire to, because I had very little experience in those kinds of environments. Having experience with a camera doesn’t mean having experience in every situation it can be used. Every photographer will have their individual specialty and area of experience.

Today, I still receive almost daily requests for these types of shoots, but now I am very clear that this is not where my skill lies and politely point them in the direction of other photographers I know will ultimately produce a much better result.  

5. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) Is a Real Thing

The Leica Q, a perfect G.A.S. temptation.

We’ve all been there. The camera we have happily been using for only a couple of years has just been updated. The revised model is almost identical to its predecessor, but it has just enough new bells and whistles to allow us to justify to ourselves (although maybe not to our partners) that the expense of this shiny new toy is worth it. And so we buy it. The photographs we took before were perfectly fine. The photographs we took after were perfectly fine. But with our shiny new toy, we were able to shave five seconds off our workflow in order to achieve that perfectly fine photograph. And that is Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) in action. 

When I first started out in photography, it was certainly a syndrome I suffered from. Heck, I still suffer from it today. I have no idea why I bough the 28mm fixed lens Leica Q when I shoot 35-50mm 90 percent of the time. I would find myself obsessing about how the latest and greatest would help develop my craft, blaming my lack of success in building a body of work I could be proud of on the equipment I was using rather than the way I was using it. 

But, cliché as it might sound, the more I grew as a photographer, the more I came to appreciate that it is never the camera that creates a photograph, good or bad, but rather the person behind the camera. A camera has no soul, no emotion, no sense of personal style. It is the responsibility of the photographer to bring those attributes to a photograph. 

With the rate of technical advancement we are currently seeing in photography, there are many genuine reasons for upgrading our equipment. But we should never delude ourselves into succumbing to G.A.S. At best, this equipment will simply make us more efficient photographers. The quality of our images will still be down to us. 

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, becoming a photographer is a process and hindsight is a wonderful thing. But these are five of the things that stand out when I look back at my early days as a photographer. What about you? What do you wish they had told you when you first picked up a camera? 

Paul Choy's picture

Paul Choy is an international documentary photographer, writer, and official Fujifilm X-Photographer. He specialises in telling stories of the people he meets and the places he visits through the photographs he capture. His work has taken him across six continents, documenting beautifully unscripted moments of everyday life all over the world.

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Haha! I relate to every single point! :S

Hilarious! I wish I was told that it would turn into some sort of addiction. And nobody told me I'd meet so many cool people (but that's a good thing)...

You're totally right David, that should be at the top of the list. Meeting so many cool people is the very best thing about becoming a photographer.

Well, that and trying out new camera bags!

I agree on all counts! For me, my go-to bag is a Backpack, Tamrac or Lowe Pro, they also hold a 15" laptop. I've also searched for the ideal strap. After many, I've settled on the Peak Design Slide, with a Custom SLR C-Loop mount.

One of the best articles I've read on here in a while. Number 4 is a particular annoyance for me, or at least it used to be. I think people eventually got fed up asking me to photograph their children and weddings. :)

To each their own, of course, but i do have the perfect camera bag (LowePro Flipside), i love every photo i take, i don't make mistakes- i make, "happy accidents", as i like to call them, thanks Bob Ross, and i do have GAS (though it comes in handy down the road when i need a part or piece of equipment and i already have it sitting on a shelf or drawer... which happens all the time when i least expect it and need it the most). I get asked to shoot weddings (which i do), which is a good thing, bc weddings=$$$. :)

You see, you are one of the lucky ones ($$$). I should have expanded point 4 to friends are going to ask you to photograph their children .. for free!

The hard part is that you can't really say no, because they're your friends. And you can't exactly charge them without looking like a jerk. However, i found that telling them that though you won't charge them, tips will be very much appreciated. That encourages them to fair compensation to the photographer- not the full rate, perhaps, but enough where everybody wins, more or less. :)

The best part about becoming a professional is G.A.S. starts to pay for itself - assets are the foundation of running a business. The new model has higher dynamic range and other useful features? Great, pays for itself, add it to the bag.

The latest example was a tripod that reaches to 9 feet from Really Right Stuff. Is $1500+ worth it for tripod legs? Yes, when on three consecutive shoots the new tripod enables shots that weren't possible on 6 foot legs (shooting over parked cars, getting above fences, etc. for architectural photography).

True enough, G.A.S. does start paying for itself, but let's be honest, we still would have bought it anyway. Now we just have a reasonable excuse :-)

1. You Will Never Find the Perfect Camera Bag
Yea, for the most part. I've realized that I need to get a smaller bag for when I don't need to take all that gear. I've had my LowePro Magnum 35 (try finding that at since the 1980's. However, I would like a smaller bag for when I don't need to take my Canon A-1, FD lenses, film, handle mount flash, filters (Cokin), and batteries for the flash and motor drive. The battery in the A-1 can go a year without recharging.
With the purchase of a used New F-1, I'd like to get a bag that I can carry the A-1 and F-1 with that gear. The A-1 and F-1 have film motor drives.
But when I go with minimal gear, I use a SubZero lunch bag; it holds my A-1 or F-1 with one lens, film, and filters; plus, it doesn't scream camera bag.

2. No Matter How Good You Think You Are, You Will Still Make Stupid Mistakes
Yup. Done that. I was out shooting on a boat and my camera was loaded with ISO 100 film. When I reloaded, I loaded ISO 400 film and forgot to change the ISO. But my stupid mistakes aren't limited to film; on my 5D III, I've forgotten to change the white balance from daylight to auto for indoors, and also forgotten to change the exposure compensation. With the exposure compensation, I just have to look at the top of my A-1 or F-1 to see where it's at; with the 5D, I have to use the Quick Menu.

3. You Will Hate Almost Every Photograph You Ever Take
I am my own worst critic, but since shooting film since 1980, I don't know what I'll get until I get the film back. I've adopted that to digital; I've turned off image review on my 5D III.

4. People Are Going to Ask You to Photograph Their Children/Wedding/Pets
Hasn't happened to me, but I don't make my living from photography and if asked for what should be a "first and last time" experience, like a wedding, I would suggest hiring a professional.

5. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) Is a Real Thing
I'm fairly much set in my film gear, but if I see a unique item that offers more possibilities, I'll buy it. I've bought the Canon Auto Bellows for macro photography, a wireless remote to trigger the respective motor drives for my A-1 and F-1. I bought a rare Canon Macrophoto 20mm f3.5 from B&H (those aren't often found on eBay).
For my 5D III, I want a 70-300 and also a flash.

On point #4, I remember comedian Mitch Hedberg used to do a bit about how as a comedian he was constantly asked to write TV scripts, and he likened it to "Oh you're a chef, well can you farm?"

Off topic, but Mitch Hedberg was (and still is when I watch his stuff) hilarious... Again, I know it's off topic, but check out some of his stuff if you never got a chance to see him. :)

Something else they never tell you about becoming a photographer; how good you will become at watching online videos when you are meant to be editing photographs. I just lost an hour thanks to you and Mitch Hedberg ;-)

You didn't lose an hour, watching Mitch is always an investment.

I have to say after 40+ years as a professional photographer, this article is delightful, insightful and required reading for anybody who thinks that they want to get into this crazy business. It is all 100% true. Bravo!

I'm a beginning photographer and everything about this was reassuring and made me happy. Thanks for this.

The number one bullet point they never tell you about becoming a photographer is, EVERYBODY will expect you to shoot them or some event- for *Free*. All the time. (But think about the exposure it'll bring you, they will tell you- except more people will find you and ask you to shoot them for free as well).

I was looking for a camera bag for a long time too. I have found the Fjällräven kånken (a stylish and very durable backpack) to be the best idea. They sell a camera insertion for it so you will get a lot of padding you can customize inside it. You can fit a lot of gear and most of the time also some other stuff like a small jacket or similar. Perfect for shorter day hikes or just walking around in the city.

If I would head out on a more adventure thing or say skiing I would probably just take the insert and move it to another backback suited more for that activity. This has become my solotion for not finding a good enough camera bag.

Thanks for the tip David. I just searched for the camera insert. Looks like a great idea!

The Fstop gear is good for that too, nicely customisable.

Good to hear it isn't just me that can't find the perfect bag. I keep thinking I'll design my perfect bag and then get someone to make it for me. People won't go to a dentist for a heart problem, but they think every photographer can shoot weddings etc. I hate weddings and will only do them under very strict conditions. They must be small and outside, like on a beach.

Come on John, let's do it. Let's design the perfect camera bag, and then take it to all the weddings we get asked to shoot for free :-)

Have to add "the amount of little do-dads you carry around with you and how easy it is to misplace them." Where did my lens cap go? Where's my light meter? Where's the head for lighting stand? Where's that clothing clip (oh, on the back of my model)?

The GAS, its real! :(

Great article.
Funny but true

Loved reading this, right up my street

This is pretty much me except for the camera bag. I've had the same LowePro backpack for years now and haven't seen anything that comes close to a replacement. But, now that you mention it, GAS is kicking in. Even now, I'm on the LowePro website.

If they were 6 points then Ill add:
DONT take it as a career, work something else if you want money and do photography just for fun

Totally agree. It's probably the most important thing to remember when becoming a photographer.

Doing it for money means chasing the cash. Doing it for love means chasing the fun :-)

all valid points :)

Wow. This is so accurate!