If The Pursuit of Photography Feels Like 'Work' Then It Shouldn't Be Your Career

I'm probably going to get a smidgen of heat for this one but I also feel it is one that many photographers need to seriously reflect on. At its core, photography is not a good business model. For the vast majority of photographers, the pursuit of photography of a career is a calling driven by passion. We can't imagine spending our lives doing anything else so we chase an industry that is vastly oversaturated with supply. If that is you, great, but if working on your photo career feels more like clocking into an exhausting day job then you are only settings yourself up to destroy your hobby by trying to transform it into a career.

Over a century ago Henry Ford revolutionized the entire manufacturing industry discovery the holy ratio to maximize productivity by ensuring a healthy work/life balance. Ford's ratio comes down to a third of the time spent at work, a third of the time spent for oneself, and a third of the time sleeping. This discovery allowed him to famously shorten the working day while doubling his employee's salaries in order to enjoy an impressive increase in productivity and profits. Before Ford's revelation business people operated under the assumption that maximum productivity was the result of maximum employee commitment for as long as possible.

How does this apply to photography? The business of photography, for the vast majority of career photographers, demands far more than a third of their time. Photography simply isn't a business that is conducive to clocking in at 9 am then clocking out at 6 pm. Thus, as photographers, we need to figure out how to break the rules Ford discovered. How can this be done? Virtually any industry that demands greater than a third of a worker's time also depends on a similar aspect among those who find deep success in those fields. 

That aspect is an unwavering love of the work. So much so that the work, itself, becomes synonymous with leisure. Photographers who achieve business greatness all have one thing in common. They live for the craft. If this doesn't sound like you, it's time to re-evaluate. Going to a shoot shouldn't feel like a chore or feel like you are simply clocking into a day job. If it does you will never be able to compete with the top photographers in the industry. Instead, you need to cultivate your love of photography so much so that you ache to continue your pursuit. Sure, there may be aspects of your business that you don't particularity enjoy, but the very core aspect and action of creating photos needs to be a feeling so strong that it feels more like play than work.

Take a look at this video by Chase Jarvis as he talks about the balance between his work and life. This needs to be you. Your work needs to tug at your soul so deeply that you would feel compelled to chase it, regardless of whether a business was even possible. 

So, take this article as a call to self-reflection. Does photography feed your soul so much so that it can simultaneously both be your work life and your leisure life? Or does it being to feel like any other draining career once you start taking it too seriously? If the answer is the latter I'd suggest working to keep it as a hobby while you enjoy a much higher earning potential in most other professional fields.

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Usman Dawood's picture

Where the heck is that "like" button.

Great article Ryan thank you.

Anonymous's picture

I didn't watch the video, but I read the article, and don't disagree! But stil tell me, why can't you work as a photographer, without having a passion for it? I am sure you can work at a assembly line without having a passion for it? I know that this is a partly hypothetical question, because of the payed jobs in the photograph industry. But still think about it.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Nothing is stopping a photographer from doing so, but said photographer would be at a massive competitive disadvantage within an industry that is vastly oversupplied and thus both extremely difficult to succeed in and notoriously low paying to the average professional outside the top 1% of shooters. Furthermore, it is the passion and love of the craft that keeps the successful pros working extremely long hours without experiencing similar productivity loss that say an assembly line worker experiences beyond the 8 hours per day threshold discovered by Ford.

Niloy Chakravarty's picture

Wow, this is so spot on. This is exactly what I'm trying to figure out about myself right now. Is photography just a hobby for me or is it something I can't resist as a career. Can't wait to read more from you!

Dan Howell's picture

While I can agree with the general sentiment of the article, it sounds more like a description limited to a fine artist. I think it would be appropriate to take heed of the MANY aspects of a photography career that are actually work and do not (and should not) necessarily feed the soul.

I feel like the sentiment, "the work, itself, becomes synonymous with leisure" does a disservice to clients who are hiring photographers, especially commercial photographers, to put the success or failure of their livelihood on the line. I think that more than a couple of them would find that sentence off-putting if they were to over hear a photography they contracted. Some of the necessary chores of photography are very much like 'work'.

I tend to take a longer or perhaps a broader view. I treat my assignments and clients with appropriate respect and diligence and put my client's needs and goals ahead of mine on a project to project basis. I consider that the depth and range of the photography I present in my portfolio to be more like the sentiment in the article, but I don't confuse the mission when I am working on assignment. Not every assignment is a portfolio opportunity.

I have learned from my experience that some jobs/projects/shoots lead to money and others lead to images. It'd be nice if every shoot yielded both, but it would be naive to think they do. I meet young photographers/assistants who do not understand this. I think to their loss.

Kirk Darling's picture

Maybe there are too many personal definitions of "passion" floating around. I'd be bored silly photographing bottles of pickles every day, but I'd grin while photographing pickle bottles if my only alternative was roofing. As you say, not every job is going to produce an image for my portfolio, and very few of my clients want the kind of image that I drift off to sleep at night crafting in my head.

But here is the thing: I would go to sleep at night crafting the most exquisite image of a pickle bottle I could imagine...even though I knew the next day I'd do something much more boring to meet the client's desires.

And that's not a bad thing. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world don't make a living at a job they love thinking about at any level.

Michael Comeau's picture

I've met many highly successful people across many fields.

They got that way because they weren't afraid of the unpleasant aspects of their businesses. They didn't expect it to be enjoyable. But they understood the price of success, and were willing to pay it.

Call me crazy, but I'll always bet on the guy that will just sit in there and keep grinding no matter how hard things get, and how much it seems like a day in the office.

"Passionate" people actually seem more likely to quit because they expect it to be fun all the time. They think it's all about them, and not clients.

Matt Nikkel's picture

I think maybe you and I have different understandings of passionate. To me "the guy that will just sit in there and keep grinding no matter how hard things get" is passionate. That's why he sits there grinding no matter how hard it gets. Because he knows that as bad as it is, he'd still rather be doing this than anything else. That's passion to me.

Michael Comeau's picture

What I'm saying is, passion for success beats passion for photography.

Paul Seiler's picture

I love this. Especially the Chase Jarvis video. This is exactly how I feel about the topic. I breathe this stuff and don't even understand why anyone would do this if they didn't feel the same. I am not destined to start and run a restaurant. I may love food, but I'm not a chef and don't care to be one. I'll continue to just bake my frozen pizzas and grill hamburgers :)

A B's picture

Entrepreneurial gurus have stopped preaching about following your passion for a while now. Because it doesn't work out. It's such a contemporary mindset to say, "if it doesn't feel good don't do it." This is why a country built on grit is now falling behind. I sold about 40k in prints alone in the last 6 weeks. I've wanted to quit more than once. But this is my calling. If you quit something because it's hard then you will probably end up writing clickbait about something that you were too weak to see through.

Dominic Deacon's picture

Disagree with this one. I'm a pin up photographer and I consider that my job. As a job it's a good job. The pays good. The hours can be made to fit around the rest of my life. But it's still very much a job. Most days I dread it. When it comes to creating stuff I prefer writing and film making many times over.

But I'd say one of the reasons I've been able to quickly make it a profession is because that's the way I've approached it from the start. It's not about what I want to do. It's about what I see clients wanting. I tailor my work, my training and my marketing all towards that. Being able to take myself out of it because it's not something I have a passion for I would say has been a benefit on that front.

Like most forms of creativity you can approach it as an art form or as a trade and if you are a business I'm not sure one approach is definitively better than the other.

A B's picture

Whoa whoa whoa
Sorry, I just noticed this...But...
A 'cosplay photographer' from Canada is advising industry pros on career strategy?
FS, please tell me you think more of us than this.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Whoa, whoa whoa, what does genre have anything to do with it? (Though I only shot cosplay as a side thing for fun, and havent for a couple years now)

Moreover, what does being from Canada have anything to do with it either?

Finally, I'm not advising industry pros, at least not with this article. A successful industry pro will already have found success and figured out balance. This article is aimed at the many hobbyists constantly considering risking everything to jump into a career with an over 80% failure rate (stat taken from David DuChemin's book, I'm not sure how accurate it really is, but I suspect it is very close) and a very low median income. (~$31.7k per year in the US)

Chase it because you LOVE it, or don't chase it at all. Those who go into photography treating it like a day job they dread going to every morning will almost never succeed and likely would be much happier keeping it as beloved hobby while rat racing on a track with far higher earnings.

Maria Princess's picture

Very Nice Article.. Great work.. Keep posting... Thank you...