The eternal debate of what defines professional over amateur still rages on in many forums, groups and online discussions, but this is not about my definition of what a professional is, more a confession of where I went wrong when trying to make the change from hobbyist to career.
Stepping back roughly two years, I found myself in a very advantageous position financially; my job at that point in time was extremely stressful and the universe seemed to be whispering in my ear, “now is the time to make a life changing decision”. So I made it, and to this day I’m still in two minds about the leap of faith that I made, because when it comes down to it, that’s exactly what it was, a leap of faith, with very little planning and a smattering of thought here and there. I may have not been a naive photographer, but I was greener than a summer’s meadow when it came to business knowledge.
I had unknowingly walked straight in to the classic trap of, gear equals success, one that many a photographer has fallen for over the years; mainly because of the false philosophy that goes something like, if you buy expensive equipment, then surely that will make you a great photographer and people will flock from far and wide asking for your services. That couldn’t be further from the truth, expensive gear may help later on in your career, but it should never define you and most certainly not give you false expectations of eager clients. Granted there are often unrealistic expectations from clients, who assume your abilities are based solely on the equipment you use, but what they should be judging you on is your actual work, not the equipment you use to produce it.
So, there I was, a room full of gear, confident that I was about to be the next greatest portrait photographer, commercial photographer, landscape photographer, wait, what kind of photographer was I going to be? There it was, a glimmer of doubt and I’d not even started, it so easily cripples the creative mind, crushing confidence and renders even the best of artist motionless and unable to perform. After mulling over the failure of my career move for nearly two years now, I can sadly admit that I simply didn’t think, plan or strategies anything before diving in head first. What follows are my thoughts on where I went wrong and maybe how I could have been more successful.
Build it and they will come, or will they?
We all hopefully get out of bed every morning, go through the usual routines and carry on with our day. You may work your way methodically through multiple tasks, but do you ever think about what you do as you’re doing them? Probably not; mainly because you’ve done them so often, day in, day out, that you simply do them naturally. So, if you’ve never made money from your photographs before, booked clients or marketed yourself, why would you imagine that this will simply fall in to place without planning and a whole lot of time, research and repetition?
Nothing is going to simply pop in to existence because you have a £3,000 digital SLR in your hand, you may look cool with your flashy over the shoulder camera strap, from a company who is eco friendly and charges you premium for the pleasure of owning their extra special support; you may be confident in your skills after spending hours watching YouTube clips of ever top photographer out there; but unless you put the time and effort in to covering all the other bases, then you are destined to fail. They often say that a photographers career is 80% business, 20% creativity. Basically you’re going to spend 80% of your time, talking to clients, finding clients, filling in paper work, marketing yourself, following up on payments and so on. If you think you can’t cope with that, then let me be totally blunt, you’re not going to succeed; certainly not as a career photographer, and there is no shame in that, I’ve finally come to terms with the reality of it myself.
I get by with a little help from my friends
Starting out with finding clients is tough, unless you’re a person that has a supreme confidence about you and you can sell ice cubes to Eskimos; cold calling, and finding clients you can trust is the hardest part of the job sometimes. Starting out with friends to build confidence is a wonderful idea, but eventually you’re going to have to take off those training wheels and say hello to the real world. This was certainly one of my fears when starting out and if you’re not careful you can get stuck in the rut of relying on friends to be your next photo client, it’s easy, safe and pays for your next beer, but does it pay the bills?
Friends will eventually hold you back from growing as a photographer both creatively and financially, it’s nothing personal on their behalf, it’s the fear of moving on as a photographer. You already know the person you’re dealing with, therefore you won’t experience different personalities that you’d get with new clients, your business and social skills may suffer because of that. You may have to deal with clients who are unhappy with your work, they may not pay you on time, sometimes they may not pay you at all, a friend will not give you this experience. Financially, unless you’re lucky, your friend won’t be able to pay you the going rate that you want to charge a real client, and you may feel awkward asking for it. The time you spend with a friend, through fear of moving on to a real client takes away from the time you could be using to build up your confidence and experience.
Your portfolio defines you as a photographer, or certainly a great part of you, if you’re specialising in portraiture for example and all your photos show the same person, say, your auntie Janice, who loves having her photo taken in the garden, especially with her prize roses in the background; then a potential client may doubt your creativity or even skills as a photographer. Unless you have many willing friends, then you may be doing yourself a disservice by simply sticking with that safe and reliable friend you though was just helping you get started. Look out for local modelling agencies who have new models on there books that are happy to work for a lower rate or even for free to build up their own portfolio. With that you get variety in experience, shots and you’re also helping out someone else on their journey, which can be a big boost to your confidence. Sorry auntie Janice, you’re fired.
It’s all fun and games, right?
What you first felt to be a fun and entertaining hobby, may soon become a time consuming and relentless job, travel, random hours, late nights editing for clients and so on. Photography has been a hobby for me most of my life and the one true thing that I could rely on to entertain and give me a feeling of achievement, even in the darkest of times. The difference is, a hobby you can do when and where you want, there are no time constraints save those you set yourself, there is no pressure to produce or complete, simply taking snapshots or playing around creatively is enough.
Enter the client, they have deadlines, demands, expectations and so much more, and you are now the person responsible for their happiness. Suddenly you’re in a different world, your comfort zone has been erased and now you’re under pressure to create, which most creatives will agree, is the worst position to be in, because forcing creativity is almost impossible. Your fun hobby is now not as colourful and rewarding, if you allow this to happen that is. I speak from experience, returning to a job as an IT Tech, a year after trying to become a pro photographer, I didn’t pick up my camera for about six months; only now have I started to feel the urge to go out and take photos like I use to do. It can be soul destroying if you allow it.
You reap what you sow
It may all sound like doom and gloom and I’ve probably painted a negative picture of the whole experience, but the moral of the story is, have a detailed plan, simply thinking it all over and writing it down will tell you if you want to start the journey or simply stay at home and enjoy what you already have. Be prepared, and I’m not talking boy scouts here, more a frame of mind, similar to a doctor patient relationship, where you provide a service without losing your individuality and own personal creativity. Sometimes you may need to bend a little to satisfy the client, but you should never break. Try to separate work from personal life. If you have your own studio, then I’m jealous, but try and treat it like you’re going to work, once out of the studio, it’s your personal time, or else eventually it all blends in to one and your work photography becomes your personal photography and the enjoyment often dies.
To all those thinking of starting out as a career photographer, I would ask this one question, is your goal to make money out of photography or to create images that you get paid for? It may sound the same, but if your thoughts are the first option, then you may be in for a rough ride, if it’s the second option, then your desire to create will hopefully shield you from the knocks and disappointments that will inevitably come your way at some point in your journey. I have great respect for any photographer who has made a career out of their craft, but I’m comfortable with where I am now and although I still have a sense of failure, I’m happy to return to the comfort of my hobby which means more to me than financial reward.