Being a photographer is fun. Or is it? The good news is that it can be fun. But you have to know some hard truth that photographers sometimes don’t tell.
It is not a secret that I run private coaching and will soon expand to running free webinars and paid workshops for photographers. The studio I use is also sometimes rented out to other photographers. This is all to say that I meet a lot of different creatives at different stages in their careers. More often than not, I see beginner photographers getting into the industry thinking it's all sunshine and rainbows. As much as it breaks my heart to tell some harsh realities to beginners, I do it because I wish someone did this to me when I picked up a camera. Here are some harsh truths my coachees have heard from me in the past.
It Is Not a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme
It is a common stereotype that photographers have an amazing lifestyle of pleasure. I mean, just look at what they have to do? Take one picture, be praised for it, and get paid a ridiculous amount of money.
So, you may think that the moment you become a photographer, you automatically get given unlimited access to money. The truth is the exact opposite: photography can be a drain on your resources.
There are a million better ways to get rich quickly or at least faster than with photography. You can pick a more conventional career or perhaps even a lucrative one: just think of the prospects of being a lawyer. The career path towards becoming one is a lot clearer, in my opinion, and you will make a lot more than an average photographer.
Just to be clear, a get-rich-quick scheme is usually a scam. So, don’t fall for something that is too good to be true, because chances are, it will be a scam.
You Won’t Be Shooting Most of the Time
So, as photographers, we must shoot all the time? Well, not really. Just like with most middle-class jobs in the 21st century, we spend our days in front of the screen. For most working professionals, photography is a daily job like any other. Freelancing is not a “work two hours a week to get money” thing, it requires a lot more structure and work than a conventional job because you are your own boss.
Most of the time, you are in the office. This includes stuff like marketing, accounting, managing productions, editing, and drinking coffee. Lastly, if you are planning to be a professional photographer, you need to have a coffee addiction (I’m kidding, of course).
I would rather shoot, but ironically, I can’t do that for more than three full days. I need a break after. Luckily, editing and other business stuff make sure I get a break.
The Technique Is Only a Small Fraction of What You Need to Know
Knowing how to take a technically correct picture is good. It is the first step to being a photographer. So, once you learn technique, the actual art begins. It’s like being a writer: you need to learn the letters and how to use MS Word first.
With art, you really need to know your subject. Let’s go through a few genres and see what knowledge you may need in order to create relevant imagery that is viable (commercially).
Before going further, I would like to stress, that you need to know stuff beyond technique in order to be a commercial photographer. Most hobbyists won’t need this knowledge.
Working photographers in the fashion industry must know fashion. This means understanding the aesthetics of brands, magazines, countries, and more. Did you notice that US Vogue is more geared toward sexy commercial images, while Italian is more towards art? Or perhaps the difference between L’Officiel and Tatler aesthetics? A working photographer must be able to know the industry inside-out. Why? Well because if you send your client the wrong treatment or reference images, you won’t get the job.
Some People Will Do All They Can to Destroy Your Career
There are a lot of people who think too much of themselves. They will find every opportunity to show off their connections and then will attempt to destroy your career in any way they can. The first time it happened to me, I was scared. I mean, at that point, I thought I met someone with a great network that I can tap into. Sadly, after a few disagreements, the person said that they will do everything to destroy my career and reputation. Guess what? They didn’t. No one can destroy it, only you yourself. There isn’t a single person who decides whether you can be a photographer or not. Luckily, the industry is big enough to offer opportunities to everyone who’s good enough.
I know for a fact that people made calls and asked clients to not work with me. I also know a lot of other photographers who had that happen to them. Almost in all cases, most clients won’t listen if they like working with you. Producers, agents, and other folk think they can destroy your career. They can’t. The industry is not blind, and people will work with you, but not with the person who tried to “ruin” your career. Focus on your work, and stop caring about petty folks trying to hurt you. I promise you, there will be a lot of them.
You Are Criticized a Lot
It is easy to say and admit, but it’s a lot harder to experience. Despite my biggest efforts to not give too much attention to all the criticism, I get from all over the place, starting with my family and finishing with people I don’t know. As much as I don’t take it too seriously and consider it an interesting point of view, it still can be somewhat painful. It’s hard to fully detach yourself from your work, as there is a big part of you in it. That may not be so in the commercials, but definitely in the test shoots that you do. An article on criticism and how to deal with it is coming soon, as this is a topic worth discussing.
So, there you have it: things I hate telling my coachees. Of course, these are the most common ones. Sometimes, I have to tell people to change their Instagram bio or do other things like focus on the genre and not gear. The point is that being a photographer is not a glamorous job. As a matter of fact, I am writing this very sentence from a night train, not from a first-class private jet.
Agree with all of them, I'm still waiting for someone to bad mouth me to my clients, can't wait. Thank you for writing an interesting article, I appreciate it. More of this.
Thanks for reading Carlos! Glad you liked it :)
Great stuff here!
I supported myself for five years on photography. I worked really hard at fine art nature and landscape photography, but that alone didn't pay the bills. Luckily, that put me in touch with a lot of artists, and so I supplemented with artists' photographic services. I actually made more money from doing large fine art reproductions than I ever did from selling my own large prints! And by the way, I made MUCH MORE from selling small prints of my own work than I did on selling large prints — either my own, or as a service.
To think I got into this so I could do photography! WHAT A LAUGH! I spent more and more time at the computer, in Photoshop, on the phone, on email, at art festivals, babysitting drum scans and big prints, etc. than I spent on actual photography! In my last year, I estimated that I spent only 2% to 5% of my time behind the camera!
On the festival circuit, I made lots of friends (and lots of contacts for artists' services). At one festival, a photographer friend rushed over as we were setting up, and said, "Hey! I just found out there's a third-party market for my work!"
"Oh man, that's so cool!" I gushed, thinking he had landed in a museum or a big, independent gallery.
"See that print over there?" He pointed to a large, $300 print hanging prominently in his tent.
"You mean the one that you joked to me that you've hauled a hundred times this year?" I gently teased him.
"Yea! A guy just told me he picked up a copy for $20 in a garage sale! What he really wanted the frame!"
Ah, the glamorous life of the professional photographer…
Well, this story has just reinforced the points I made in the article. Glad to hear that I'm not alone in the fashion world and this happens in other genres as well haha.
"The point is that being a photographer is not a glamorous job."
But many people think it is, maybe it is not glamorous but can be creative, fun and interesting.
We get to do for a living what some people do as a hobby.
If you are at a dinner party and meet some new people, the inevitable "and what do you do?" question comes up.
If the answers are "I am a realtor, actuary, teacher, work for the city, cop/firefighter, work in HR at a big corporation, a photographer, who gets the most interest/questions? I bet it's the cop/FF and photographer.
You, as a fashion photographer will have more interesting stories than the actuary, but the cop/FF might have some good ones too. These days the RE agent may get the most questions!
Come on man, they make movies about fashion photographers...you sound a little bit like the Leica user who says equipment doesn't matter. :^)
Well, Mike, it is more about the fact that not everyone is clear on what a photographer does exactly. I'm just trying to say it's not all rainbows and unicorns haha. There are movies about teachers as well :)).
But I do get your point. Maybe I sound like someone who isn't having the time of their life doing photography. I absolutely am!!!
Whenever I am on a shoot and get a little cranky my assistant will say "hey, at least we aren't working in a coal mine... there is a great movie about working in a coal mine called "Harlan County USA".
Finally a good article on this website that most of the time focuses on clickbait
Glad you found this article helpful. Hope to see you here again for more content like this!
Good perspective and nicely presented without being bitter about some of the negatives. The great thing about this piece is that it can be transferred to lots of other creative professions as well.
Thanks for reading, Harry! Gad you liked it.
Fabulous article, Illya.
I go out of my way to praise and help my competitors, and I know that there is some nastiness aimed in my direction. But, it always says a lot more about the critic than it does the photographer.
Thanks a lot, Ivor! I don't belive in competition since we are all unique :))
I agree with that.
Good piece! May I please add my personal #1: Choose very carefully the people you will allow criticism from. Photographers aren't jealous at all. Nor are there crazy, angry anonymous attention needing cretins with keyboards who feed on the adrenaline rush to talk down to you. SO, find only amazingly talented people whom you vet who you can trust for feedback. Clients and their spouses and their expert next-door neighbors will have plenty of things to say about your images that you have to deal with in due course. But you don't need additional anonymous basement warriors pointing you in the wrong direction with their comments. Choose carefully and learn from the right, selected people.
At age 76, I retreated from Professional title. I never thought of full time projects for a living. I set a goal to be as "good" as I could, learning from the "old timers", about light, composition, color grade, quality gear and many lights. I like what I do, but, I am really not that good, though I have taken time to learn, practice, etc. So I must admit. I rarely charge or have a fee, Its an expensive endeavor. Guess I am a gear addict. But this craft keeps me using my mind and staying creative. I need that as I age. Grateful I am.
From my perspective, the field is ultra crowded as least in my area. Spend less than 1k and everyone is a professional. But you guys know that is not true. I made it my policy to not "run down" anyone in this craft. Some take potshots at me cause I shoot for fun mostly. I get it, Some may lose revenue how I do my "stuff" . I get offers for all kinds of work, that pay really well. I turn them down and pass on to folks who wanting to make a living and are a lot better than me. I found my niche. I am a good 2nd shooter for weddings and I work cheap in that regard. But if the pro is hard up for funds, I will do it for nothing. It fun to give back and help younger folk. My rewards are immense. I do agree with this post. Good read.
1. Stop obsessing with shallow dof and bokeh.
2. Don’t overly rely on modern features to do things for you instead of properly learning the exposure basics.
3. Don’t chase likes on social media.
4. Stop obsessing with shallow dof and bokeh!
Bokeh, DOF - how else can I justify that big, impressive "portrait lens"?
OMG the try to destroy your career. It's true. every 4 to 5 years or so. It's someone. An upset client or a peer. They just get set on burning your reputation to the ground. I would have NEVER expected that. Agreed on all the other points as well. Great piece
"try to destroy your career"
This isn't limited to photography. As a farmer in a small community, we had three different people bad-mouthing us in the community. One of them was actually a board member on one of the two local farmers markets, and managed to get us banned!
But for every one who bad-mouthed us, there were many tens of people who sang our praises. As Pythagoreas said, "Rest satisfied with doing well, and leave others to talk of you as they please."
I guess there's just nasty people everyehre!
thanks a lot for reading, Michelle! Glad you found it relevant :)
I once had an angry client build AN ENTIRE WEBSITE michellevantine.com (mine had "photography" in it). The landing page was a picture of him giving me the middle finger and then he wrote a whole slew of awful things. That was a fun one.
This year I had an employee at a manufacturing plant who asked me for the name of the person who hires me when I come shoot for that place. He doesn’t talk to me any more… didn’t get what he wanted for his grand daughter’s boyfriend. People are just plain rude. So when I need assistants, I hire friends who love doing it but have absolutely no interest in doing it for a living. I do know of a person in video who recently has actually talked badly about me. She has no clue but that came back to me, and we haven't worked on the same job for 12 years! People can be nasty for what ever reason they have. I ignore it, but yeah, no doubt it’s a real thing. I’ve had that happen to me many times, but none of those aggressive people have really made it that I know of.
17 years ago, one of my clients decided to hire a family member. I knew nothing about it until she revealed that she tried and that nearly cost her job. She went to say that I will be her photographer until she retires, which she did about 5 years ago. I still shoot for that company.
Very sound advise that wannabe photographers should take to heart. I'm in this business for 35+ years. The first 15 were a struggle to stay afloat and only the last 10 years or so I can be really picky about assignments. I've seen dozens of fellow-photographers eventually giving up and switching to a more 'secure job'.
The industry (esp. fashion) is tough and there's a lot of gossiping and bad-mouthing going on you have to deal with. I've made it my habitude not to hire people who are vilify others. You can't prevent people from doing that, but at least don't give them a platform to do so wherever it's in your power.
Being criticized is part of the job. Pay attention to criticism that's constructive and ignore all the rest. With some common people-skills you'll know by heart which is which category.
very well said