Everyone wants to be a photographer. At least they think they do. It’s one of those fantasy professions like deep sea diver or professional snowboarder. It’s the kind of glamours job you dream about being as a kid, and day dream about when you’re an adult trudging along in a 9-to-5 office job.
Fantasy is rarely reality. The truth is… work is work. Even if you do what you love there will be bad days, hard times, and difficult people. I feel extremely blessed to be able to work as a full time photographer/videographer. It’s taken years of hard work, practice, and persistence to get here. And honestly, while my job may look like a dream job to those on the outside, to me it’s still just a step in the journey for me.
My advice to anyone considering this field as a full time profession is to set realistic expectations. I hope this post will give you a realistic view of what it takes to get paid a living wage doing photography. The two strategies I outline below are based on my own experiences and observations. The first one is based on my own career path, the second based on friends that I’ve observed. Obviously, everyone’s path will be different. You should not read this and feel like you have to do everything exactly like I did. I do believe what is written below can help aspiring photographers, no matter where you are on your journey.
Strategy One – Gravitate.
Some people are lucky. They figure out that they want to be a photographer early in their education and career journey. It took me longer than some to figure this out. I had a love for video. I was always making short films or funny videos with friends in high school. In college I got a more general education and got a degree in communications with minors in photography and graphic design. I stayed involved with video where I could. I competed in the college film festival and helped with the DVD yearbook. I fell in love with photography in photography class, but never saw it (or video) as a serious career possibility.
My general college education served me well at my first job. I graduated in 2008, right as the economy took a face plant. I was applying for anything and everything. I responded to a sales position at a local software company. I didn’t get the sales job but was hired as a marketing specialist instead. They needed someone that could do a little of everything. And that’s exactly what I did. I built them a new website, created new branding, and created and populated a youtube channel. As time went on and as I helped the little company become more successful, I was given freedom to gravitate towards the types of work that I really enjoyed and that made me happy.
I got more creative with our corporate videos and started to learn more about still photography as well. These years gave me the luxury of time to practice and develop the skills I wanted while applying them in a real world situation. Much of the work resonated with our customers and prospects. I believe I helped give the company a young, fun, and exciting image to an otherwise drab and boring industry.
The software company started expanding our marketing department. We added a writer, graphic designer, and web developer. I was put in the position of leading this team. I quickly learned that managing a creative team is much more about leadership than it is about being creative. I enjoyed the opportunity and appreciated the things I was learning, but I missed the days of pure creation without the stress of leading a team towards meeting business goals.
The owners eventually decided to try and spin the marketing department off into a stand-alone agency. I believe there were a few reasons for this. One of the reasons was to try and off-set the cost of employing us all by allowing us to take on additional outside clients. Goals were imposed and the expectation was made that we’d become self sustaining. I not only had the stress of a team but the financial stress of making a new business profitable. Not the best environment to nurture my own creativity.
We had some success. We landed some clients. One of which is a national brand. This was a huge boost but wasn’t enough to make our little spin-off company profitable. We failed for many reasons. I decided it was time to move on and found a job at another local agency. At this small agency my new position allowed me to focus exclusively on video production and photography. It was a breath of fresh air. It was amazing to be able to focus on one thing again and try to do it well. I was reminded of the types of creation that I enjoyed and I worked to improve my skills and portfolio while serving my employer the best I could.
I was only at this small agency for 6 months when my work attracted the attention of an executive I had become acquainted with through a Facebook photography group. This executive worked for a worldwide company and knew that their CMO was looking for a full time photographer/videographer. He reached out to me and I interviewed and ended up accepting the position. This is the job I have now and it’s been amazing. With this company I’ve had assignment all over the world and have traveled to a dozen different countries in the past 18 months. Yes, there are still bad days, hard times, and difficult people. But the experience I’m gaining and the job I have now are the closest thing I’ve ever had to my ideal career.
So that’s my story so far. Here are some strategy nuggets to glean:
1. You can find ways in almost any job to gravitate toward what you love to do. Photography may not be part of your official job description, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering to take company head shots or group photos at the company Christmas party. Make sure you are fulfilling your job responsibilities first, and then look for ways to do what you love while helping the company you work for.
2. If you are recent graduate, don’t be too picky about your first job. Yes, ideally you’ll get hired to do something in your field, but almost any position will allow you to go the extra mile and contribute in some way with photography.
3. Don’t rush it. The key is slow but consistent gravitation towards your goal. You don’t start out as a professional photographer. Nobody does. But with enough practice and experience, you will become a desirable candidate for the position you want. If you work on your skills and portfolio everyday, eventually you will improve to the point where you will get noticed.
4. Understand that photography is a competitive field. Everyone wants to be a photographer. That’s why it’s so difficult to become one full time right out of school. You need time to develop as a photographer. You also need to survive while you are developing. That’s why I suggest getting the job you can, and then working towards your goal over time.
5. Network. Every job I’ve ever had I got through a Facebook connection (except the first job at the software company.) I don’t really like Facebook. I use it almost exclusively for networking. Most of what I post helps brand myself as the guy who does event photography and video. If you have a consistent presence and build a image that your contacts see, you will be amazed at the opportunities that can come from Facebook or other social media. It won’t happen over night, but constantly improving your craft and building your brand will eventually get you noticed.
Strategy Two – The Side Job.
This strategy has similarities to the strategy above. Both entail taking a job to support yourself that is probably not your ideal job. I have a few friends that have worked in full time jobs that have nothing to do with photography but they use that job to make a living while they work as a photographer on the side.
Interestingly, many full time photographers went to school and started a career in a completely different field. There is an excellent podcast by Josh Rossi on this topic. In each episode, Josh interviews a photographer and they tell their story about how they became successful in photography. If you listen to the stories you’ll see this trend emerge again and again.
Here is some of the best advice that I’ve gleaned from listening to the Full Time Photographer Podcast.
1. Don’t quit your day job too early. There is no reason to put undo financial strain on you and your family by quitting a job that is paying the bills before your photography business is large enough to replace your income.
2. Even if you are at the point where you think you are ready to quit and do photography full time, it’s wise to save up a 6-12 month emergency fund before you take the plunge. This way, if you have a few slow months you will still be able to keep the lights on and pay the mortgage.
3. Specialize in one thing and do it well. I hear this said again and again. It’s much easier to land a customer if you know who your ideal customer is. Pick the area of photography that you’re most interested in become a master. Build a portfolio that shows your master in this area. Don’t post work that is outside of this niche. You’ll continue to book the kind of work that you are known for and that your portfolio proves you can do.
Are you a full time photographer? Tell us your story in the comments. What advice do you have for those wanting to make it in this field?