What Life Is Really Like While Following Dreams of a Career in Photography

What Life Is Really Like While Following Dreams of a Career in Photography

A basic formula to attain a fulfilling photography career does not really exist. The industry is abnormal, so your life climbing into it will be too. Whether your dream is to be the go-to photographer in a small town or to be a world-traveling journalist, this is what you can expect in a life full of photography.

When I talk to people about being a photographer they rarely know what this entails aside from the fact that I own a camera and when I began to work towards a career in the industry, I hadn't the slightest idea what I was getting myself into either. Life would have been a bit easier for me if I would have read something like this when I was first starting out. I would have been much less overwhelmed if I knew how much of my life I'd be giving to this, so I want to share it with you. I had no one to ask "what is this really going to take?"

After five years of devoting my life to photography, I finally feel confident answering this question. My answer on the surface is simple: photography takes everything. It takes the complete nonstop dedication of your mind, body, and soul to do it.

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Sacrifice Becomes a Normal Part of Life

In order to have the time, energy, and mental focus to actually build the career you want in photography, you will likely have to sacrifice greatly to get there. At first, I didn't believe it, I thought I could have everything all at once, but this is definitely not a career where having it all is easy. Sacrifice and the willingness to do so has been crucial for my career. If I wouldn't have given up these things in life I wouldn't be here. I have lived in rough neighborhoods so that I could afford the equipment and devote my time to photography instead of a job. I have ended relationships to relocate for opportunities. I have lived away from my family for years to gain the experience I needed and lose a lot of sleep. Whether the sacrifices are major life changes like mine, or something as simple as driving long distances for clients, they have to happen.

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Image by Gabrielle Colton

You'll Learn to Be Comfortable as an Outcast

While you work towards a fully realized career and even after you've reached a successful point, many people will not understand it, which is fine because a career in photography isn't as simple or as socially acceptable as going to college and applying for jobs. It is both a career and lifestyle that most can't wrap their heads around because it is greatly different than a 9-to-5. So many people in your life will dismiss, discourage, and flat out not accept your choice to pursue it. Even though I work harder for photography than I ever did in college, many people in my life still feel that my hard work is not the right way to pursue a career. I have to remind myself often that most people don't understand the industry or any part of the process to be a success in it. 

In order to maintain my positivity and continue pushing, I surround myself with just a few people who support my career completely in order to prevent discouragement and feeling as if photography is wrong. The few friends and significant others in my past who didn't believe in my work and success as a photographer did absolutely nothing but hinder me, their doubt rubbed off on me until they were out of my life.

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Hard Work Is Never Ending and You'll Never Be Satisfied With It

When you start working towards a full-time career in photography, the insane amount of work will be the most obvious, important, and time-consuming portion of your life. In addition to perfecting your art, you'll be building, maintaining, and marketing a business from nothing. It takes so much to make it in the industry; I am not yet where I'd like to be in my own career so every single day and often night, little by little, I work on it. When a rare day comes that I feel I can relax a bit, I don't turn on the TV, I go out and take photos of new things or learn new tools online. 

All this work is freeing though because there are few rules, boundaries, or definitions of success in the art world. This is one of my favorite things about creating, but it's also what challenges me to most on a daily basis. The endless possibilities of imagery and the blurred lines of success in a career make it impossible for me to ever feel like I can stop working. Luckily when I get that feeling when you take a great photo, one better than any you've taken before, I want to do it over and over again. As long as you love it you'll fall asleep each night feeling thankful that you did the work.

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Image by Gabrielle Colton

Money, Achievements, and Satisfaction Come in Waves

Photography is one of those careers where every little bit of work you do is a success,  a step closer to the larger achievements to come down the road. This is what makes the hard work so difficult sometimes because you might not see the results of your efforts immediately like in other careers. It takes time to be successful, it doesn't happen overnight. Most careers have a luxury of consistency, you go home from work knowing you still have a job in the morning and will make the same amount, but this is not the case in the art world. 

The work I do each day can often seem pretty small and insignificant compared to the daunting goals but trust me, it always sporadically leads to some sort of money or success that you can build from little by little. Even though the hours of work I put in daily is pretty consistent, clients, income, and opportunities in this industry are as rocky as a bad relationship. However, I could never leave photography for something else, no matter how unstable it gets

Final Thoughts

I commend anyone who has enough passion and ambition to pursues a career in photography or any other art form for that matter. I know all too well how hard it is, how much it takes from you, sometimes without giving anything back. It may be the most difficult journey you'll ever set out on, but as long as you love it enough, I promise the windy road with no end or limits insight is completely worth it.

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Mark Holtze's picture

You're essentially a small business that will never REALLY grow beyond yourself which makes it tough. Always hustling for that next gig, always at the mercy of an ever changing landscape and clients who don't respect the craft or what it takes, and in many ways the watering down of the craft by the replacement of apprenticeships with youtube teachers (not a bad thing)...but more competing photographers NOW than there were 10 years ago. With that comes a saturation and price competition to the point where a 20 something can take a photo for next to nothing while living at home vs someone with a family who needs to put bread on the table.

I don't mean to discredit, I'm all for the craft and don't want to undermine any efforts ,but yes it's a VERY difficult medium. Some people love that eternal chasing of the carrot, keeps you from becoming stagnant and irrelevant in many ways. It's an adventure and what makes an adventure so fascinating is the discomfort of it all.

Great article

William Howell's picture

I truly believe we are on the cusp of a reemerging need and want for high quality images. As American business’ become even more sophisticated and cognizant of marketing the market will expand.
Now the question is can one get what its worth? I think so.

Good article, makes you think.

Michael Holst's picture

Yet the low barriers to entry, bargaining power of buyers, competition within the industry make it unattractive. It's a rough place to do business for most.

16mm Camera's picture

Only getting worse with influential youtube creators giving what I would classify (given their age and their actual content reels) somewhat shotty information to justify their own content. Likes and views in exchange for "how to undercut other professionals".

I just don't feel the information being provided in many cases is relevant or good for the industry as a whole.

Enjoyed the article by the way.

Michael Holst's picture

The magic is gone when the magician explains his tricks.

William Howell's picture

Michael you are absolutely correct in that assessment, but there is no substitute for equipment.
I came from the construction industry and to truly be successful in that industry you need top notch equipment and of course you need to be proficient in the use of the stuff.
For instance; let’s say you are a ditch digger, you can’t make any money with a pick ax and shovel. You need a back hoe, in-loader, auger and a dump truck, this setup cost’s around $400K, but that is what’s needed to make a profit in the ditch digging game.

Same with photography, and if you still can’t make a living at photography, then just do it on the side. But charge the right price and the right price would be what other artisans and skilled tradesmen charge.

Michael Holst's picture

The equipment needed to make a business in photography requires relatively little capital. $5k can get a relatively bare bones setup that will allow someone to enter the market. The Construction industry uses specialized equipment and the up front capital investment means someone won't be doing it as a hobby unlike photography. The more accessible photography becomes the less attractive the industry is under Porters Five Forces analysis. There's a reason why similar industries like that of Hair Stylists and Barbers require a license to practice. It creates a costly barrier protecting the wages of those who are serious about making it a career.

William Howell's picture

Right,if you can’t make money you are in a bad business, and it doesn’t matter if you are the best, you’re still in a bad business. But I don’t think photography is a bad business.
Which is to say; if you have a shoot that cost $1200.00 to do, you can bill double, which is 50% gross profit. One should be able to make a net profit.
But there is a fly in the ointment, and as you point out, Porters Five Focus shows certain competitive forces makes it tough to make money. But we know you can make good money in photography, but it is super tough.
So what is my strategy to make money? It is best cost strategy, this involves providing the best value for a relatively low price. And to succeed at this strategy you need something to differentiate you from the competition. I believe that something starts with equipment and five grand isn’t going to cut it. And it goes without saying, you gotta know how the gear.
No one is going to pay someone for a product shot if you only have a few hot-shoe flashes and a D7000. I would say a minimum of fifty grand would be the cost of entry to true professional photography.

Excellent comment, thank you for replying to me and spurring some good thinking.

Michael Holst's picture

Porter's Five Forces model doesn't have anything to do with how much money can be made. It's about attractiveness.

There will be many levels of investment but it being a subjective art (I've seen product photographers compete with a few flashes BTW) entry cost will vary depending on what the artist feels they can get away with.

A good example I can think of is the supermarket industry. Sure there are some HUGE supermarkets chains like Whole Foods and Super Value who are working with a ton of capital but there are also successful smaller private businesses who while they don't necessarily scare the big players, are competition if they're located in the same area. Their startup costs are much lower.

I could start a photography business for far less than $50K. True professional photography has less to do with the money they invested and more to do with their skill level. A rookie with a PhaseOne will shoot worse content than a seasoned pro with a nikon coolpix.

Liam Doran's picture

10+ years as a full time freelancer and its never gotten any easier. The moment you take your foot off the gas pedal its over. The part about success "coming in waves" is absolute truth.

Hi Gabrielle, this is what I found when go to your website: "This account has expired. If you are the site owner, click below to login."
Good article anyway.

Jason Pietroski's picture

Great article! It's all about the hustle each day every day!

Patrick Williams's picture

Amen!! Sacrifice and hustle 24/7 to succeed as a full time photographer, or do it part time - the ground between those two options is as wide as the edge of a razor blade....

Ughhh... another article from a millennial...

Every and I mean every person who runs their own business has to err work hard, day and night, make sacrifices, and commit 'the complete nonstop dedication of your mind, body, and soul to do it.' Photography is nothing special there. Moving away etc... we all do it, even accountants and lawyers and carpenters and electricians. Hole diggers for construction sites live months away from home, out of a portable cabin just to make a low wage....

Why did you think any career would be 'easy'..?

Think of the small coffee shop/diner owners who set up and within 6 months Starb*cks move in next door...? The sports person full of promise and potential, who gets injured...? I personally know a now retired tennis player who won several grand slams and when she started, she left home and moved continents, learnt another language, just to 'maybe' make it as a pro... she was just 14 when she left home. So living in Bushwick or Redhook isn't so bad.

I know a model from one of the flyover states that was signed to a BIG agency, went to work as one of their bright new things, on the other side of the world at 16... her USA based agent ran off with her 6 figure signing on fee and all her money. She was later back in the states and had an even worse nightmare happen to her by an older male within the fashion industry.... That's real commitment, real pain, real suffering.

Success in any business has always needed dedication and effort, not just 'right now' now that you are old enough to work for yourself, for centuries getting ahead in business has been tough, you 20 somethings really don't know you are born, go back 20 yrs, not internet full of inexpensive models, no easy auto everything cameras, no cheap but effective kit from China, no 'digital' no website to promote yourself, nothing like that.

Portfolios cost time and money, film and prints cost time and money, going to a large city to show your book everyday for 2 weeks 4 times a year cost a heck of a lot of money, hiring an industry standard model cost money. We didn't live in rough neighborhoods we lived in our cars and vans. We didn't have a darkroom so we used 'the shed' at the end of the garden, we spent hours wiping away dust before we started printing, hoping we could keep the chemicals warm

This is the 21st century, taking pictures has never been easier, the internet devalues images to zilch, older so called professional photographers don't shoot anymore, they teach Millennial's how to use Lightroom.... BUT... we all have stoves, yet we all eat out from time to time...So the need for professional photography at various levels still exists and will continue. Social media doesn't get you work, social SKILLS get you work, meeting people does.

The only thing I sympathize with you are the countless doubters that have surrounded you as you took the plunge, many of those same doubters would have said nothing if you were a man, hopefully times and attitudes are changing. you deserve a pat on the back for getting out there and having a go.

However, you poor young things, you grew up thinking life would be just plain easy.....

Michael Holst's picture

You lost me at "Ughhh... another article from a millennial..."

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Hahaha me too.

Tim Behuniak's picture

This is very well-said. Awesome article!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Thank you so much Tim!!

Nicole York's picture

Great points!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Than you Nicole!!

dale clark's picture

Let's face it...The "fun" industries (perceived by outsiders as fun) has always been hard to break thru and make a full time living. How many actors, musicians, models, photographers, painters, etc are out there truly making it with the "fun" aspect 100% of the time? Many actors have to do commercials, etc..to fill in the gaps. Pro musicians may give lessons. Photographers may have to shoot senior pictures or Real estate. It's even much more difficult now with cheaper digital gear available to pretty much anyone. With that, however, there are MORE opportunities for the hard working, self motivator, thru all the media outlets, to stand out from others.

These really are exciting times!!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

I agree very exciting times, happy to be a part of it!

A wedding photographer here. I can so much correlate to your post so much so. Building a career in Photography demands your mind, body and soul!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

It truly does!! But it's not impossible and it's worth it, keep going!!