“Choosing to be a professional photographer because you think it will be fun is a little like choosing to be a plumber because you like to play with water.”
This quote from yesterday’s post is the root of a lot of the challenges faced by new photographers taking the “professional” step. The idea that professional photography is all about fun is an easy one to come by. It’s fun to take pictures. It’s fun to share them on Facebook, see our friends use our images for profile pics and the like. All of these things are fun. And there is certainly fun to be had in the business of professional photography. Even the crustiest pro (and there are some really crusty ones) will smile and glaze over a little when you ask them about their last great capture.
With that said it is important to remember that the business of professional photography is first and foremost, a business. Success demands hard work, investment, frustration, disappointment, humility, and determination. And once you have success, the business isn’t likely to be what it may look like from outside.
Let’s get down to basics:
How a pro spends their time.
On average, around 90% of the time a professional photographer will spend in their business is spent without a camera. That’s right. The process of actually taking pictures amounts to about 10% of the total time spent. While this ratio will change over time and photographers with more business (or larger businesses) tend to get more time behind the viewfinder, the simple fact is that the basic requirements of the business demand time.
What are these demands? Marketing, scheduling, invoicing, accounting. Researching product and pricing. Selling. Note that these are all non-shoot related activities. In the digital era, editing has become a huge time suck. For time, read money. You can hire outside firms to edit for you and some do a pretty good job, but it’s expensive. The average photographer spends about 125% of the shoot time editing. Many spend much longer. In general, the better you are behind the viewfinder, the less time you will spend in front of your computer. However, many photographers choose this path, preferring to create solid work on screen rather than in camera. Each to his or her own.
Add to all of this the fact that most photographers are very gregarious. In fact, one of the keys to success in wedding and portrait photography is the ability to instantly connect with new people. But the business of photography is, for the most part, a pretty solitary pursuit. You have to be ok with that. Sometimes it’s downright lonely. To be sure, in time you will make friends of other photographers and I can personally attest that they are among the world’s greatest people, but you will spend much of your time alone, in front of your computer, working.
This may come as a shock. You may not love all of your clients. They may not all be great looking (and there is no corollary between the two). Heavy folks will expect you to make them look thinner. Women with worry lines will want to look worry free. Every man and woman knows every one of their foibles and that’s the first thing they’ll look for when they get their pictures. If you’re good their foibles are there but they’re not front and center. Are you that good? Sitting down to edit images for clients you love can be fun and very rewarding. Sitting down to edit images for clients you never want to see again is a chore. Both paid for your services. Both paid for your professionalism. Both will give you good or bad references - the life blood of this business.
Here’s the last thing. Every year brings the same challenges all over again. Every year requires hustle. Just because you have a great year this year doesn’t mean you’ll have a great year next year. The marketplace changes. Tastes change. You’re a sole proprietor. A marketing department isn’t figuring out where you should go next. That’s on you. There is little nest egg, no business to sell, no pension. You simply have to keep going.
Pretty depressing huh? Here’s the thing. To a certain extent I’m most certainly writing this to discourage you. To be honest, I want you to go and do something else. If you choose to do this I want it to be more than a whim - more than a decision you’re making because you think it might be fun.
I can point you to a thousand photographer’s blogs where they talk about the work. Sweat pouring down their bodies as they lug equipment around outdoor receptions on hot summer days. Clients with unreasonable expectations. “What do you mean you can’t accomplish my 653 shot list in 45 minutes while we’re having cocktails?” “Why CAN’T you get a picture of my kids looking peaceful and serene? I yelled at them and told them that’s what I want and after all that’s what I’m paying you for!” “My fiance hates taking pictures. Please make him look like he’s having fun even though he would rather have his thumbnails extracted than spend five minutes with a photographer.” All of these things tend to grate on one’s soul.
If you want to do this after all of that. If you really think about all of it and you want to do it. If you have that kind of passion. The passion that makes you say, “screw what Jim thinks, I’m going to do this anyway,” then you’re on your way. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be expensive. It is a lot of hard work. If you’re willing to do all of that and you’re ok with not being rich, then you may find that professional photography is among the most personally rewarding of careers. And if that’s the case I’m happy to help. In fact, it’s my job. So long as you’re willing to do the work.