I hate to be the bearer of bad news but being a professional photographer is not always as amazing as you may think. Here's why choosing something else as a profession may actually be a better option.
Talking about being something other than a professional photographer or bashing the industry are two popular topics of conversation that come up regularly when I speak with my peers. Could this be more to do with the type of people I surround myself with and not the profession as a whole? It's possible. Although, I do also hear similar noises from many other industries that are not photographic related. The consensus always seems to be that turning a hobby or passion into a profession can suck all the joy out of it. Let's take a look at some of the reasons why this may be the case.
1. The Image of a Professional Photographer Is Not What You Think It Is
If you believed everything you saw on social media, you'd probably have an incorrect image of what it's like to be a professional photographer. Glamorous photoshoots, exotic locations, celebrity subjects, and prestigious brands knocking on your door every day. While all of the above can be true, it's far from the average. What you don't see as often online is the boring photoshoots, the controlling clients, the art directors with no imagination, the horrible locations, and the monotonous days photographing the same thing over and over and over again. The main thing I want would-be professional photographers to know is that it's not all glamorous. Quite often, you are given strict briefs that allow very little input. The worst is when a client will hand you a tare sheet of some other photographer's work and you're told to recreate that image exactly. At this stage, you are little more than a camera operator in my opinion. I personally find that the bigger the budget and the more people involved, the less I'm able to express the real me creatively. This isn't the end of the world, and many of you may like these restraints. On the other hand, if you're used to being the boss and making images on your own terms, you're going to be in for a bit of a shock in the commercial world. A fellow photographer I know described it best when they said: "Being a professional is like doing the hobby you love but on other people's terms."
2. The Money Can Be All Over the Place
Being a freelance photographer can be feast or famine at times. I have earned five figures working with a big client for several weeks. I have also earned close to minimum wage when I factor in all the unforeseen work involved in some shoots. The number of days you work will vary too. Some months you'll be block-booked, while other months you may have very little on at all. All these numbers are going to vary dramatically depending on which area of the industry you work in. One thing which is more universal when being a photographer is that the job can be a hard slog both physically and mentally. The hours can be unpredictable and there are definitely easier and more consistent jobs out there. If a routine and regular income are important factors in your decision for picking a job, then being a professional photographer may not be the right profession for you.
3. You May Stop Making Personal Work
When you're working every waking hour to be a successful professional photographer, it can be hard to find the time or motivation to make work that is just your own. This phenomenon doesn't always happen overnight but I have seen it creep into some photographer's behavior over time. Some photographers may feel guilty doing something for themselves when they could be doing "real" paid work for a client. Obviously, this is the wrong approach to have as it's vitally important to carve out time to make work for yourself. Clients like to see it and your skillset will always benefit from doing new things. Still, the last thing many working photographers want to do at the end of a busy week is even more photography. This means personal work can go out the window.
4. Your Skillset Could Suffer
Being a professional photographer can bring great variety but it can also bring a lot of repetition. Many photographers will have several regular clients they work with often. While this is mostly a desirable outcome, it does come with a downside. If you only work with the same few clients your skillset will stagnate if they always ask you to do the same kind of stuff. There is nothing wrong with being a one-trick or two-trick pony but it can restrict who you work for in the future. If you're passionate about photography and you want to become a master of your craft then doing the same few lighting setups over and over is not going to help you progress.
5. You'll Spend More Time Being an Accountant, a Website Designer, a Computer Administrator, and a PR Specialist
The ratio of days behind the camera to doing other stuff will vary from photographer-to-photographer. One thing I would say with some confidence is that the numbers are usually stacked toward non-picture related tasks. Unless you work in-house for a company, you'll be working for yourself. This means doing all the paperwork that is involved with that. Filing tax returns, maintaining websites, doing meetings, chasing invoices, and trying to get work are just some of the things which will eat into your working week. The majority of your time is not behind the camera which is something that came as a surprise when I first started out. I always understood there was housekeeping involved, but I didn't think it would take up so much time. I am most happy when I'm behind my camera so anything that takes me away from that is not good. My strengths are not as an accountant or as someone good at schmoozing prospective customers or clients to get work. If the sound of these additional roles makes you want to run a mile then being a professional photographer may not be for you.
6. It May Destroy the Thing You're Most Passionate About
Being directed and micromanaged for years by unappreciative clients and art directors with no imagination can really suck the joy out of being a photographer. When you combine that with all the other things mentioned above, it's understandable that some people begin to associate all these negative issues with the art of photography itself. I've seen many photographers become so fed up with the industry that they leave and never pick up a camera again. This really is a great shame as I'm sure many of those people used to really love the act of making pictures. Unfortunately, turning something you love into a job can change how you feel about it in negative ways.
So there you have it, some of the reasons why becoming a professional photographer may not be a good idea. My intention in writing this article was not to try and put anyone off following their dreams. I just want people to be aware of the less glamorous side of the industry which is not always talked about. I also want people to know that just because someone can't label themselves as a "professional photographer" does not mean their pictures are any less worthy. In many ways, having a different kind of job can give you the time, money, energy, and breathing space to become an even better photographer than some of those busy "professionals" that are stuck on the same well-trodden path. There have definitely been times in my career where I have longed for a more regular and structured job. For me, it's always been about making pictures and I try hard to stop any of the negative aspects that come with being a professional photographer to ever cloud that.
Do you think being a professional photographer is a good idea? Any of you already tried and not liked what you saw? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.