Photography, like many creative careers, rarely has a path to success that is straight and without unexpected twists. If you want to find success in the field, it is crucial that you stay flexible to the possibility of the shape of your career evolving or even changing shape drastically.
Photographers get into the field because they have a passion for it — a passion whose strength outweighs the uncertainties of life as a self-employed creative. And that sort of passion often means they have very specific dreams that they adhere to the pursuit of with vigor and without compromise. And while that is an admirable quality, it can be detrimental to your eventual success in the field.
The Winding Road
I wanted to be a rock star since at least 1999, when I was 12 and heard the album "Californication" for the first time. You might not know this, but most people who aspire to be rock stars do not actually end up becoming rock stars. Alas. So, I tabled those dreams eventually.
That did not stop me from staying involved in music (read: mostly pretending to be a rock star in my bedroom). A few years into college, a choreographer who knew I played guitar decently asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her on a piece for her MFA concert. I had spent my teens and early 20s looking and hoping for roads into writing and performing music, so I said yes, and after about a month, she randomly complained in rehearsal that she could not find the right classical piece to suit what she was looking for for another piece on her program. I had no real experience in classical music aside from a couple years of goofing off in the percussion section of high school band, but I was enjoying our collaboration, so I asked her if she would let me try writing an original piece for her, and if she did not like it, my feelings would not be hurt.
She ended up liking it a lot, and I ended up liking the process a lot too. That led to more collaborations with choreographers and a burgeoning desire to dive deeper into classical music on my own. Eventually, I realized I loved it enough that I wanted to completely upend my life plan despite being deep into other academic training. After a lot of work on my part, I was eventually accepted to a great music school. After many years of training, they invited me back to join the faculty, and I honestly could not be happier right now. I even get to combine my previous academic training with music to produce some very interesting work.
Ok, so what is the point of this story? If you had asked me when I was 15, 18, or even 21 if I thought that my desire to be a rock star would lead to me teaching classical music and loving it, I would have thought you were crazy. But I look back at those formative years and can point to five or six moments where had I not been flexible and open to unusual pathways leading to that dream of a life in music, I would not be making a living in music. These moments and decisions took me down paths that diverged (often wildly) from my preconceived notion of what that dream was, but had I stubbornly stuck to the original plan, I would have missed a fantastic career. And most creatives will tell you of similar moments in their lives where seemingly insignificant things changed their lives.
Growing as a Photographer
The same idea applies to photography. Photography, like music, is a creative pursuit, and it is not easy to make a living in it, nor is the path to success as clear-cut as many more traditional fields. While we would all love to shoot exactly the things we like and make a living from that, numerous factors outside our control don't always make that path viable. And stubbornly sticking to that very specific dream we have can often make us completely oblivious to other opportunities. After all, isn't it better to do something that's 95% what you love 100% of the time than burn out being an idealist? Passionate creatives don't always tend toward that sort of pragmatic approach, but the most successful ones often have that very quality in their ways of thinking.
I have a lot of photography friends who are highly successful in their individual genres, but who had no inclination toward their specialization when they first started. For a lot of them, it started out as a random side gig: a headshot photographer who was asked to do a family session and discovered they had a knack for it and enjoyed it more than the studio or someone who discovered a love for product photography by playing around with lighting at home. That is not to say they dropped everything they had worked for and immediately dove headlong into those other genres after a single shoot. However, they saw the opportunities and allowed themselves to explore them alongside maintaining the work they had already established. Eventually, when that new work grew to be both more enjoyable and profitable than the old work, they switched.
Work Hard and Go Where Opportunity Takes You
No matter what, successful photographers work hard — very hard. But don't confuse working hard with working single-mindedly. Any creative field is difficult to find success in, and because of that, overlooking potential opportunities because they are tangential to your work can be detrimental to your future success. That is not to say you should take it to the other extreme by shooting anything and everything constantly either. However, if a good paying opportunity presents itself outside your normal specialty and you feel you have the skills and equipment to tackle it competently, why not take it?
At the very worst, you will have a one-time job that brings in some income and builds a connection. However, there is often a lot more opportunity in those sorts of jobs, even if it's less quantifiable. They are the sort of moments that successful photographers often look back on as turning points in their careers. Work hard, but keep your eyes open as you progress in your journey.