As much as I love photography and all of the aspects that come with it, I’m also interested in the psychology behind “making it” as a photographer. In this case, let’s assume “making it” means making a living on photography alone.
I wanted to take this opportunity to speak about how I personally got to this point, and to reflect on the subject in general.
A lot of people inquire as to how I got started in photography, which is an interesting question.
When I first started taking photos, I worked at a daycare center to pay the bills. After clocking out each day, I dedicated any free time I had left to photography. I did this for two years straight, and after that, I was finally able to start pursuing photography full time. But, even after I officially changed careers, my primary focus wasn’t on making more money or launching my dream projects; it was on networking and gaining work experience, which often resulted in working for much lower rates. What I learned during that time, though, is that if your basic needs are covered economically, it’s okay to work for a bit less, or even for free, in the beginning because it’s all about gaining experience and finding your voice. In the end, it pays off.
With that said, there are a few things every photographer should note before taking the plunge into full-time work.
Make sure you have enough money
Money is your oxygen. Don’t underestimate this simple fact. Work a “normal” job to build up your funds for when you decide to pursue full-time photography. This will allow you to negotiate effectively when you do get photography jobs. I’ve known plenty of people who messed up their deals because they were too dependent on one assignment. Don’t let that be you.
Figure out what you want to do in photography now
The emphasis here is on the “now.” A lot of people, including myself, try to figure out their entire career when they’ve just started the climb. But in the last few years, I’ve learned how little control we actually have as creatives. So, follow your intuition and work on what makes you feel alive until something else pops up. Trust the process!
Look into how much time you have and plan accordingly
Once you know how much money you have to work with and what type of photography you want to focus on, you can calculate the amount of time you have to devote to photography. But the key is to not be too picky — even an hour a day is better than no time at all.
When I started out, I was working a “normal” job five days a week and focusing on photography after work hours and on weekends. I slept about five hours a night, and that worked for me. There’s is no universal right or wrong. There’s only what you want and what you need to do in order to get to where you want to be.
UPS AND DOWNS
No matter what business you’re in there are always going to be days that suck — even if you love what you do. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a plane headed to Iceland to work on an independent project. It’s a project that’s extremely close to my heart, but I have a cold. And let me tell you, getting sick before 10 days of travel sucks. My energy levels are low, my anxiety levels are even higher because I can’t stop thinking about the outcome of the project, and I’m terrified because I’m about to work with people I’ve never met before.
This is what I mean. This kind of stuff happens all the time. If a short-term “down” makes you want to quit or doubt your connection to what you’re doing, I’m begging you — hang in there. It will get better.
In this particular case, I know that I’m going to feel awful for the next two or three days, but if I drink a lot of water, eat well, and rest as much as I can, it will pass. And most of all, what keeps me going is that I can already see the images in my mind. I can envision the end result of this project, and that’s my main motivation.
The ups will always outweigh the downs.
COMMUNITY (AND LACK THEREOF)
I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a creator of any sort. With the variety of platforms provided today, you can literally make your own destiny. We could all be one post, song, or article away from being “the next big thing.” This has led more people to get out of their heads and express themselves — because there’s just so many more ways to get your work out there. And, there’s a huge sense of community because of that. It allows you to meet creatives from all over the world and find smaller communities within those larger ones.
That said, although it’s possible to feel extremely connected through today’s communication channels, there’s also a very lonely side to being a full-time creator. There’s an insane amount of work that goes into it — your schedule is never consistent, you have to learn to deal with client complaints, you get more no’s than yes’s (at least, in the beginning), and you often lack a consistent “core” group of people to spend your time with.
In my case, traveling makes everything in my life inconsistent. It also leaves me with a lot of alone time — which often leads to me getting stuck in my own head and doubting what I’m doing. I used to overreact whenever I felt this way, and I let it mess with my self-confidence and overall belief in my own abilities. But the more I experienced these thoughts, the more I realized that they’re perfectly normal. Even though I still experience them, I wait for the feeling to pass and trust that it’s just temporary.
The other thing I want to mention, which is important throughout your entire career but especially in the beginning stages, is mentorship. As a photographer, you need to find the best people in the business and learn from them. It doesn’t matter if that means watching a YouTube clip, talking to someone on the phone, messaging them on Instagram, or actually following them around the world. Just be observant. I’ve had two “official” mentors, but hundreds of unofficial ones.
I love social media. I think it’s because it has allowed me to express my creativity in a way that I never had before. Through social media, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with who I am, and, in turn, I’ve been able to express my personality.
Some argue that social media is “dangerous,” but I disagree. I think the problem lies within ourselves. When it comes down to it, social media is a tool that allows us to distribute our content (FOR FREE!). We don’t have to spend time on these platforms — that’s up to each individual. This goes back to what I said about there being no universal right or wrong — you have to figure out what works for you and only you. And, look at it this way: it wasn’t that long ago when it was considered a privilege to be a photographer. Today, anyone can make it and build their own audience with without gatekeepers. That’s pretty amazing. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think it’s safe to say we’re moving forward.
THE LONG HOURS
Being a full-time photographer also means that you have to run your own business. It’s something I think a lot of people forget. That said, it’s not a 9 to 5 job. Personally, I work about 65 to 80 hours a week. But, many of those hours are not in an office, so I often forget that I’m actually working when I’m out in beautiful locations or editing on a plane.
This is one of the best parts of the job, but this is your time that you’re selling — which is another factor that people often forget.
So please think about this before you work for free or before someone sends you a product in exchange for your images. And, if you do need to take on free work when you’re starting out, remember to ask: Are they supplying the gear that I need? Is the project going to elevate my portfolio? And, is it going to connect me to a brand I really want to work with? In the end, you need to make sure that you’re gaining something of value in exchange for your time, whether that’s money or something else.
There are few things that make me as happy as seeing people pursue what they actually want to do in life. I’ve done my best to chase my own pursuits, and I still have plenty to explore, but I know how hard it can be. I’ve had people doubt me, I’ve had people tell me that I’m not good enough, I’ve doubted myself, and I’ve put a ridiculous amount of time into my work — so much so that I’ve questioned how well I’m living my life. But it’s all a part of the journey. And at the end of the day, I know it’s all worth it.