If I hear one more person or read one more camera ad that tells me to SHOOT LIKE A PRO! I swear to god I’ll start drinking gin from the cat bowl and Fluffy can go drink out of the toilet. What is this obsession with being a so-called pro as if it’s the highest calling of the photographer and everything they touch turns to gold? Being a professional photographer is not a badge of honour, it’s not easy, and for some of you it could be the worst thing you do to the craft you love.
More of an audio person? You can download or listen to the Mp3 file here:
Listen, before we go any further, I love being a “professional photographer.” I love making a living from my craft and my creativity, so you won’t find me talking down about this as a vocation. But once in a while someone asks me about this in terms that lead me to believe they’ve been told by someone that until they’re making their living from photography they aren’t a real photographer. Can you imagine Olympic athletes being told they aren’t “real” athletes because they aren’t professionals?
The word professional means a lot of things to a lot of people. For the sake of this conversation it means you make much of, or all of, your money, from photography. It doesn’t necessarily mean those photographs are good. It doesn’t mean you’ve been doing this for any amount of time, either, which is probably one of the reasons being a professional doesn’t necessarily mean your work is any good. In this conversation it means you make money. Or you flounder desperately trying to do so. It’s not easy. So because I was asked point blank last month: “should I become a professional photographer?” – let me give you some thoughts and you can make up your own mind.
First, if your Mom told you, “hey, you know, these pictures aren’t bad, you should become a professional” then your mom and I need to talk. Being a professional photographer – no, wait: being a successful professional photographer does not mean you take pictures real good. It means you are an entrepreneur.
This is a business. And to do it well you need to master not one craft, but two. It is assumed you will master your photography. Some don’t and they fail. But some are incredible photographers, with more vision and craft in them than I have in my little finger, and they can fail too. Because no business in the world succeeds based only on how good their product is. You have to become an entrepreneur. You need to be as good at marketing and sales and cramming 26 hours worth of work into a 24 hour day as you are at making pictures. You have to be motivated to get out of bed in the morning and get to work. Ask any wedding photographer how much work they put into a wedding and how much of it is shooting vs client meetings, networking, post-production, file delivery, invoicing, and follow up.
If you want to be a photographer and have all the freedom in the world to shoot what you want, when you want, how you want, then keep your day job. Because “going pro” is a commitment to starting and running a business.
8 out of 10 small businesses fail. And if that business is yours it probably won’t be because you weren’t a better photographer but because you didn’t understand that in business the craft of being an entrepreneur comes first. People always talk about “doing what you love” for a living. Hell, I talk about it all the time. But it applies to me not because I love photography, which I do, but because I love the business side of things as much as the photography. I’ve been making a living as a creative professional all my adult life. If you don’t love being an entrepreneur and working 12 hours a day so you don’t have to work 8 hours a day for someone else, then being a professional photographer probably won’t, for you, be doing what you love. In fact it will steal your joy.
One of the misconceptions about doing this for a living is that you get to spend all your money on toys and if you want to bathe in a bathtub filed with Leica lenses, you can do that. It’s a write off! Bullsh*t. This idea that something is a write off and therefore costs nothing is so wrong-headed it blows my mind, and it’s why so many businesses fail. Businesses exist to make profit and the more money you spend on gear and the stuff you lust after as a photographer, the less profit you have. End of story. A write-off just means you spend less tax on the money you made that eventually paid for that new toy. That’s it.
If you want to spend your spare cash on gear, don’t become a working photographer, because working photographers spend their money on some really boring shit. Aside from travel and the rare piece of new gear, you know what I spend my money on? Things like online services: Dropbox, Shopify, MailChimp, Freshbooks. Web hosting. Insurance. Printer ink! Boring, boring, boring. I spend it on my manager, my accountant, my editor, and designers that do my website stuff. All vital things. I need those people, and those services. But they aren’t romantic or exciting expenditures. And sure, once in a while I buy a new toy and I can feel my accountant roll his eyes because in business if something you buy doesn’t make money it’s a liability, not just a toy you can play with while feeling no guilt.
Being a professional is a massive trade-off, and for most people it’s not the trade-off they imagined. But let’s say you aren’t deterred by this little pep talk. Let’s say for a moment that you just can’t not do this and you really, really, want to be – or continue to be – a professional photographer. What now?
First – get comfortable with splitting your personality, and setting your photographer personality aside for at least half the time so your entrepreneur personality can focus on his or her craft without getting distracted by Instagram or the B&H catalog for a while. The entrepreneur side of you doesn’t – must not – give a shit about photography, especially shiny new gear. His or her only preoccupation is making money so the other side of you can make photographs and serve clients. She is not swayed by your justifications for a new lens or camera bag because she knows you need to make tax installments or put money into savings or pay your insurance.
You have to, have to, learn your craft as an entrepreneur. The success of your business depends on this and if you want to reward yourself with a new camera at the end of the year because you’re doing well and your finances are in the black and you’ve got money saved for taxes and your family is fed, then it all depends on how well you study – and execute- your craft as an entrepreneur.
Second – The raw materials of the photographer are light and time. How well we master them determines how well we make photographs. The raw materials of a business person are time and money and how you master those two things determines the success of your business. You must get comfortable talking about money. You have to be able to look a client in the eye and give them your price without flinching, not because you’re a bad-ass but because you know how much value you bring, you know how well you can solve their problem, and you know – to the dollar – how much it will cost you, personally, if you under-charge. This is part of learning the craft as an entrepreneur: you’ve got to learn to manage your time, get shit done, and have some kind of financial literacy. You can’t wing it. When you open shop you become not only the chief photographer but the CEO and the VP of Finance. Would you hire a VP of Finance that can’t stop going into debt, spending frivolously, or won’t put enough money away to save for taxes, insurance, professional fees, contingencies, and employee salaries? I don’t think so.
Third – Now that I’ve got you wondering if it’s not time to start drinking gin from a cat bowl of your own: you don’t have to do this alone. You learned how to be a photographer one step at a time. You learned the craft. You can learn business craft too. If you don’t know Thing One about finances, there are bookkeepers and accountants who do, and you can learn from them. If you don’t know about marketing, there are books and people out there who can help you learn. Just be sure this is what you want to do.
We all do this – photography – because we love it. Some people get into the professional side of things thinking it’ll give them more time and money to do what they love and it just sabotages it. And for some – like me and countless others – it’s a good fit for our personalities and we love the added challenges. But you don’t have to do this to be a “real” photographer, and shame on anyone that ever made you feel that way.
If you were listening you’ll notice I never once used the word “amateur” to describe the opposite of “professional” That’s a false dichotomy. Or it can be. Amateur means lover – one who makes photographs for the love of it. That is what we should aspire to be. That is the badge of honour, the high place from which our best work is made. If you can be a professional without losing that, great. But don’t strive to do anything that will steal the joy you find in making photographs. Don’t trade the passion for the business cards. It’s not worth it.
Alright, that’s your sermon for the week. If this kind of conversation is important to you there are two resources I want to recommend. The first is my book VisionMongers, Making A Life and a Living in Photography and you can find it on Amazon here. Leave a comment below and I’ll chose one of you to send a signed copy of VisionMongers with my thanks for reading. The second is a quick PDF resource I created, totally free, called You Can’t Fix It Later in Photoshop, How to Avoid the 3 Most Common Mistakes in Business and Thrive – when you download that PDF I will begin sending you my VisionMongers Dispatch, which is a monthly conversation about honing your craft as an entrepreneur, and I’d love to have you be a part of that if it’ll help you do what you love and succeed at it, both in photography and in business.
Share this Post, Share the Love.