Turning Pro: Ten Reflections on the First Year

Honeybee on Texas Thistle

About this time last year, I announced to the world that I was turning professional and hanging out a shingle as a photographer. I’d been photographing since I was 15 or so, and have always dreamed of making a living as a photographer and writer, but had never done so.

Truth is, I gave in early to the pressure to be “sensible” and “reasonable” in a career choice. Those around me frequently reminded me about “starving artists” every time I voiced my inner desire to do something creative with my life. Eventually, I bowed to my inner fears and slumped into a more “sensible” career.

Thirty years later, I found myself in the midst of what my family now refers to as a “mid-life event.” For a whole host of reasons, it was time to choose something else to do to bring home the bacon. Over the last few years, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to a) learn to live on a LOT less than what I’d been used to, and b) re-examine my heart, my passions, and my abilities. Early last year, I took stock of my situation: I had a day job that didn’t pay much (and still doesn’t), a wonderfully supportive family, and a freshly rekindled passion for photography. So I decided to stick my toe into the water of professional photography to see if I could turn it into a career.

I’ve now been doing this for a year, and what follows are a few reflections on the last year.

1. First, from my perspective, there is a lot of not very helpful advice out there about trying to make a career out of photography. My most pressing need, early on, was for some advice on what to do first. A lot of people said to build a website, so I did. What I’ve learned is that sinking a bunch of time and money into a website is almost certainly not the best first step. There will certainly come a time for a professional website, but it’s almost certainly not the first thing you should do. I’ve spent about $400.00 over the last year on maintaining a website. It looks great, but has not brought one dollar’s worth of business in the door. I’ve received more benefit, I think, through my blog. To be fair, my blog hasn’t brought any income to my door either, but it hasn’t cost me anything but time to maintain. The $400 I spent on my website would have been much better spent, I think, on a year’s subscription to Kelby Training, a subscription to Professional Photographer, and John Harrington’s book Best Business Practices for Photographers. And, I’d still have money left over.

2. Just owning an SLR camera does not give you the right to charge other people money for photos. If you can’t operate your camera unless it’s on auto, can’t use off-camera flash, don’t understand how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all combine to make a pleasing exposure, don’t understand the color temperature of light, or don’t know how to compose an image, you’ve got a lot of work to do before you think about trying to make money at photography. I spent a lot of time this past year learning about light and the use of off-camera flash, and that has done more for my photography than anything. If you want to make a career out of photography, you’ve got to take better photos. One of the definitions of “professional” means being able to consistently deliver a quality product on demand and even when conditions are less than ideal. This involves both art and craft, because photography involves equal parts of artistic vision and technical expertise. Truthfully, I had a lot to learn about both last year when I ignorantly announced my professionalism, and I still do. Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski did a great episode of The Grid last week in which they talked about what makes a good photograph (and a poor one). It’s a long video, but it’s free education, and it’s an absolutely must-watch if you’re even thinking of trying to call yourself a professional. It made me want to slash about half the photos from my portfolio. Bottom line: you must spend time improving both your art and your craft. The good thing is that there is plenty of help out there. For starters, check out my guide to improving your photography.

3. Assuming you can produce good work to begin with, marketing is everything! You’ve got to show your best work and hustle clients. They will not come to you. If you want to shoot editorial photography, you’re going to have to talk with and visit some editors. If you want to sell fine art photography, you’re going to have to talk to some gallery owners. If you want to shoot commercial photography, you’re going to have to connect with business owners. You, Inc. needs an aggressive (but congenial) marketing department. Period. I had the naive idea last year that if I just built a good website, with good SEO, customers would find me and hire me. Didn’t happen. You must go to them, build rapport and relationships, and show your work. Constantly.

4. I experienced a certain internal tension between shooting what I really wanted to shoot and shooting what people will pay you to shoot. There are two schools of thought here, and I find myself in tension between the two. The first school of thought says be sure you know who you are photographically, and don’t just settle for the low hanging fruit of, say, seniors, babies, and couples because that’s the easiest path into paid photography. Shoot what you love and show that work because the kind of work you show will be the kind of work future clients hire you to shoot. I understand that, and I think that’s true. I spent much of the last year learning who I am and what I like to shoot, and honestly, there are several things I think I enjoy shooting, and some very lucrative things I know I don’t enjoy. David Duchemin says that you can easily wind up chained to a camera just as surely as you can be chained to a desk. So shoot what you love. Learn what that is and do it. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stuff you can shoot that may be a lot more enjoyable than what you might be doing in your day job. Plus, having a more flexible schedule may, in the long run, be worth shooting things that may not be your true passion. In much of America, making a living with a camera might just mean being able to take nearly any job that comes your way and to deliver competent results. So I’d also like to make a case for being a generalist photographer — someone who is versatile and who can do competent work in a variety of areas. From portraits to products, learn to be versatile. Just make some time in your schedule to shoot what you’re truly passionate about.

5. Don’t quit your day job . . . at least not yet. Unless you’re single and can share an apartment and live on rice and beans, you will not make enough money to support you (and a family) quickly. Dave Ramsey says to have a 2-5 year plan to transition out of what you’re currently doing into what you’d like to be doing. Good advice.

6. The business side of photography takes much more time than the photography does, so learn to run a profitable and professional business. Rick Sammon says he spends about 70% of his time on the business side of photography, which means he only spends 30% of his time shooting. I will probably take a business class this year, or at least read a book geared toward small businesses.

7.  Don’t devalue yourself or other photographers by shooting for peanuts. Many photographers are working for far less than minimum wage once you factor in their time and costs. I took a few cheapo jobs early on, because I thought any paying job was better than nothing, and spent more in gas than I got paid. You’re not helping yourself when you shoot on the cheap, and you’re actually creating the conditions that will preclude you from making a living at this. It’d be far better to take that time and shoot for yourself and improve in the areas you want to shoot. Or better, to work on your business and marketing.

8. Do everything you can to get your photo right in-camera, but learn to do competent post-processing as well. In the old days of film, we did post-processing too. It just involved chemicals and darkrooms. Learn to master Lightroom and Photoshop. They’re the industry standard photo cataloging and editing programs. Nearly every professional uses these tools, so there are a lot of resources out there to help you use them well.

9. Give yourself time to acquire experience and skill. Be patient with yourself. What I’ve noticed over the years is that it’s far better to measure progress six months or a year at a time rather than trying to compare yesterday with today. If you try to compare this week with last week, you’ll likely not see much improvement and you’ll get discouraged. But look at where you were last year and compare that with where you are now. I bet you’ll see significant improvement.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), famously asserted that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Assuming that you have another day job to support you while you grow, and that you can devote five hours per week to photography, that’s 260 hours per year. At that rate, it’d take you 38 years to accumulate the 10,000 hours. Discouraging? Yes, if you make  reaching 10,000 hours the goal. Instead, make improvement the goal. Make it your goal to be better next year than you are this year, set some reachable yearly goals, and have fun while you’re doing it. Any other approach will turn photography into drudgery.

10. Find a local photography group to be a part of, preferably one with regular print critiques or competitions. I consider myself extremely fortunate to belong to both the West Texas Photographic Society and a local Photographers Facebook group. I have found encouragement, friendship, and great growth as a photographer through my participation in these two groups. I have met some amazing people who are doing outstanding work. They are an endless source of encouragement, and they give me hope.

So, how have I done financially since I “turned pro” last April? Most of 2011 was a bust (but I did not waste my time). I got my first regular client in November, and picked up another one the first of March this year. I made more money last month than I did in all of 2011. I also had a photo published in Texas Highways last month. I have another project in the pipes that, if it comes together, will more than double my revenue. For the most part, I’ve had fun doing it all, and I’m really encouraged about 2012!

What will I do differently in the next 12 months? Lots of things. I’m strongly considering a cheaper website. I’m making some necessary upgrades to my gear, funded not on credit, but by income earned from photography (by the way, there are good reasons professional photographers spend big money on professional gear). I’m working hard to learn what it takes to produce better images, and I’m learning to master post-processing. I’ve been playing with a Beta version of Photoshop CS6, and will probably buy it when it’s released later this year. I’m going to pay a lot more attention to my fees, my expenses and how they relate to my bottom line. And I’m going to share what I’ve learned with others, as others have so readily done with me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s