Struggling Photographers: Don't Give Up

Struggling Photographers: Don't Give Up

This is a rallying cry for photographers balancing on the edge of failure: don’t give up.

Everyone struggles. Sometimes the struggles outnumber the successes and the goal of a sustainable, profitable career in photography seems unreachable. Responsibilities start to pile up, progress seems glacial, free time is a distant memory, and the sheer volume of work — scheduling, shooting, marketing, follow ups, retouching, book-keeping, website updates, etc. — becomes so overwhelming that a simple nine-to-five with reliable income starts to sound pretty good.

To make matters worse, the daily exposure to photography idols through social media leads to unfair comparisons that demolishes the confidence of photographers just trying to earn enough money not to close their doors.

I’m intimately acquainted with this struggle. I know just what it’s like to look at my work, to hustle, to create, to network, and still feel like I’m getting nowhere near my goals and getting beat to hell by my job.

Photograph shared with permission of Kate Woodman.

What should a photographer do when making photographs for a living stops being fun and starts feeling like a dead-end job?

  1. Assess your weaknesses
  2. Change your mindset
  3. Stop comparing yourself to other photographers
  4. Carefully define success
  5. Invest the time and pay your dues
  6. Enjoy the journey

Asses Your Weaknesses

Photographers have a lot on their plates, and I've discovered that having to tackle so much work — much of it outside my area of expertise — can leave me blinded to my own weaknesses. You might think that taking a good, long look at my weak points would be demoralizing, but I've found it to be incredibly motivating. Taking the time to seriously assess where I'm failing is like looking for cracks in a leaking pitcher. Rather than let water keep draining out and wondering why I'm always thirsty, I can be honest with myself and say that I have very poor self-discipline and plug those holes that are letting my motivation leak all over the floor. 

Weaknesses can often hide behind the work we aren't generally suited to do but are forced to tackle because of a lack of funds. If you hate retouching and post-production and you have the income or can add that to your cost of doing business, then outsource. If you have poor self-discipline, write out a schedule you can follow. If you're crap at marketing, take a course or find out if you can outsource so you can focus more on what you are motivated to do. 

Change Your Mindset

Maybe the most powerful thing that can be done, changing your mindset alters the way you see the world. Rather than saying, "Ugh, now I have to do some crap social media post to keep my visibility up," or "Great, it's time to start making cold-calls again," teach yourself to say, "Now I get to reach out to my audience and let them know how hiring me can make their lives better!" 

No matter what is getting you down about your work, there is a way you can mentally frame it so you can alter your attitude toward that issue. Having a defeatist mindset is a sure recipe for failure and an open door for depression. Wrestle your mind into compliance, by main force and repetition if necessary, until you find our attitude beginning to change. Phone reminders, sticky notes on you computer, lipstick letters on a bathroom mirror, any way you can trick your mind into being more optimistic and hopeful is going to change the way you see the photography issues your struggling with and help you find the motivation you need to keep going with a smile on your face.

Stop Comparing

While having photography idols can be great motivation, comparing yourself to your hero can be a recipe for disaster. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing others’ successes and feeling small and impotent by comparison, but this is unfair for two reasons:

  1. Everyone is walking a different path
  2. You only see the summit, you don’t see the climb

Every person who picks up a camera is walking a unique path. With distinct strengths, weaknesses, life experiences, privileges, and responsibilities, no two photographers are similar enough to make asking “why are they achieving such-and-such and I’m not?” a fair question. While everyone might be climbing the same mountain, they all start in a different place.

Successful photographers are so visible because they’ve reached the summit and stand above the tree line on the naked rock of the mountain top. They’re visible, but the path they took to the top — the struggles they faced, the obstacles they overcame, and the length of time they climbed — can’t be so easily seen.

Image by Nina Uhlíková.

Carefully Define Success

A destination can’t be reached if no one knows where it is. Everyone should have their own definition of success, whether that’s making $100,000 a year, shooting 20 weddings, selling 10 prints, or just making enough money for a vacation or a new lens. Whatever the goal is, it needs to be both achievable and clear enough to be measured. Without a destination and a way to track success, the path becomes monotonous and unfulfilling.  

Invest the Time and Pay Your Dues

This is an important reminder because it’s the one part of building a photography business everyone feels they should be able to skip. The truth is that overnight successes don’t exist. Every successful photographer has a career built over time on a foundation of failures, lessons, repetition, and hard work. There is no way around the necessity of effort over time. When this feels like drudgery, remember that growth requires discomfort and that struggle builds strength. Muscles must be broken down to build strength, and putting in the time and effort is the only way to become a successful photographer. Since everyone is on their own path, that time and effort are different for each individual, but the worst thing you can is expect yourself to become a photo icon over night. 

Enjoy the Journey

Enjoying the journey may sound trite until you consider that “the end” means the trip is over. Every journey will have ups and downs, victories and failures, but that is what makes it interesting. The hardship is what makes the end worthwhile. A thing becomes valuable because it is rare and difficult to acquire. It’s the journey — the hardships and the lessons — that can turn a cookie-cutter photographer into a unique voice with something powerful to say.

Photo by Josh Willink via Pexels.

When it feels like the trip is too hard, like the end goal is out of reach and your dreams were too big, remember to do these things:

  • Double check your weaknesses, and make plans to compensate for them
  • Get your mind right
  • Set small goals along the road that will keep motivation high
  • Knew the exact destination so you stay on the right road and those milestones motivate you to keep going
  • Remember that you are on your own unique adventure and stop yourself from thinking about leaving your own road to try and walk someone else’s 
  • Revel in the beauty of the path you're taking

No matter what, don’t stop short of the mountain top because you lose sight of it in the trees. The summit may be just over the next rise, but you’ll never know if you stop walking.

Lead image used with permission of Alexis Cuarezma.

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6 Comments

Color Thief's picture

"What should a photographer do when making photographs for a living stops being fun and starts feeling like a dead-end job?"

You've offered one answer, but there's another overlooked, and sometimes better, alternative: do something else.

While it's true that the summit may be just over the next rise, it's also possible (and maybe more likely given the industry) that the summit is NOT over the next ridge or the one after that. There's nothing special about being a photographer regardless of what decades of National Geographic propaganda have beat into us. You can do something else and it may be more rewarding. People that *need* to be photographers will do it regardless of what people say, others probably shouldn't be encouraged.

I totalt agree. Get a well payed job and a life, if you can. If you need a pep talk to keep at it, time to look for better options.
Still I read most Americans make less then 20 USD per hour, so not everybody can get something better. If doing photography is what put bread on the table, maybe a pep talk is not so bad:)

Mike Schrengohst's picture

Robotics engineering - Head for the Choppa

user-156929's picture

Asses are annoying but, a weakness? ;-)

Nicole York's picture

Haha, someone else caught this too! Looks like I need to self-edit a bit better, eh?

I was in the business for 40 years. Have a "professional" standing with all the major companies except Sony (don't want one but I can buy one) in all that time I had a main job, a job that allowed me to have time off, to travel as needed. I worked in the medical/hospital, worked 5 12 hour shifts with 9 days off, it was rough, taught college, worked 185 days a year. Anyway in my days off I did photography made more money at it than the other two. I could pick and choose my jobs that way photography was always fun, hasn't stopped being fun. I don't believe it's possible now days as companies are moving to video and anyone with a digital is now a "professional" they don't need pro just free or cheap images.

good luck
Roger