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6 Reasons Why You Should Never Become a Professional Photographer

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.   

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69 Comments

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Lance McCaughan's picture

"The Image of a Professional Photographer Is Not What You Think It Is" do not care never fitted that image anyway. Normal first reaction to me is "you're a photographer ???"

"The Money Can Be All Over the Place" that was life before photography
"You May Stop Making Personal Work" not bloody likely. If i stop enjoying it, i will do something else. If i have been doing a lot of client work and feel i need a break i take a break. i have certain types of photography that relaxes and centre me, if i feel i need to take time out to do them i do. have only twice had to tell a client i can not do a job for them that was not really time sensitive, unless they cam back in a week and if did not work for them then find someone else. they came back to me in a week. "Some photographers may feel guilty doing something for themselves" never had that. If i want to do something for myself I do it and enjoy it.

"Your Skillset Could Suffer" "If you only work with the same few clients your skillset will stagnate" LOL i choose mine based on the wide variety. I looks at a job and if it is challenging or weird I am all in. sometimes i take on the "ordinary" just to be different then what i may have been doing for a month. i do a fair bit of charity stuff and that is chosen based on it deliberately creating diversity.

"You'll Spend More Time Being an Accountant, a Website Designer, a Computer Administrator, and a PR Specialist" well ok this is sort of valid. I try to palm as much of this off on to others as i can. far better to find someone that like messing around with numbers to do accounting than me anyway as i find it sleep educing. So far i have managed to "skill swap" for most of this sort of stuff anyway sometimes it is "i'll do this for you (or your charity) if you do this for me" sometimes it is "you find someone to do this for me and ill di that for you". My father did my accounting for years, bit of an inconvenience when he died, and he was right i did need to get off my arse and make an effort in that area. Ended up finding a solution that did not involve me being board out of my mind doing boring accountancy stuff.

"It May Destroy the Thing You're Most Passionate About" haha, LOL, 🤣 not bloody likely. As pointed out i manage that to ensure it does not go down this road. I basically do this because i like doing it.

Paul Parker's picture

Thanks for the break down Lance. Appreciate your thoughts...

Jeif Hawk's picture

The absolutely number one reason you don't become a photographer is the same exact reason you don't get a business degree... Everybody's doing it and nobody has any need for it.

Paul Parker's picture

It's an interesting concept Jeif! Although I think a business degree can be used in all walks of life... Thanks for your thoughts :)

Rex Hadro's picture

Paul, you nailed it perfect. Besides, Digital made everyone a professional. Even my cat. Throughout high school I used to assist a well-established local photographer who also taught at my high school. He had a massive portrait and commercial studio. I had full access to a studio to dream for. Lots of Hollywood folks sought him when there was a film shooting in town. He also had the Mexican market. I was his 'fixer'. I did a 5-year, well paid apprenticeship until he got busted for back-taxes! The business side was brutal. Not my cup of tea. I go back to my dad's 4X5 Speed-Graphic as a kid in '63. I was born holding a stinking camera in '55. My bricklayer father always said, "Never prostitute what you love doing most. When you do, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to whoever is paying for it. You'll only pick up the camera when there's money to be made. You'll only cut off your wings!" He was a great photographer and musician who built his own Harps. I took his advice to heart. After my hard trigger-time in the Green, I needed and got a totally unrelated Government job that would still allow me to photograph on my own time. Got it the day I received my discharge! 34 years and 57 nations later I've now retired from my 'real' Government job that was never to be affected by any shutdowns especially after 9-11. June 30th, retirement day was my last day shooting with a digital camera. My Nikon F2 and Mamiya RB 67 cameras and lenses are at full throttle. Today I can take a military hop to almost any US base on the planet. ( No stinking X-rays and film-damaging scanners.) Even A-Stan and Iraq. Been there too. I'm re-visiting and photograph everyplace I can get to. At no cost. Not a dime. Not even for food, medical or housing. All from planning every move back in 1978. What professional photographer can say that especially today when walk-in business is almost gone with the CoVid?

Paul Parker's picture

What a story! I hope you have written your life story down for prosperity? So great to hear you made life work for you and that you still have passion for photography even after all this time. This was easily my favorite comment on here after working for Fstoppers for the last 4 years. Should be made into a Hollywood movie!

Thanks for stopping by! : )

Rex Hadro's picture

Paul, I had a ton of advice from many a working photographer. All credit goes to my Old Man, my mentoring Photographers and growing up in a crappy neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks and interstate. The barrio (Mexican Neighborhood) provided thousands of living and dead examples of what not to do in life! It's called networking today. Did a few years as a newspuke (photojournalist) with UPI and the Virginia Ledger-Star and Pilot. I was based out of Erhabbi-Land (Beirut) back then. Middle-East was my stomping grounds. Everything was facilitated through friends I went to college with via a full scholarship. Cranking out images was easy as going back into combat. Who, what when, where, why and how applies to imagery as it does to text. My weapons this time were my Nikons. Screw Leica's! Ever try to knock-out a crooked check-point guy with one? Kidnapping media people for a living started in Lebanon. Nothing beats a motorized F2 with a 300mm 2.8! Especially a lead-filled non-functioning one! It's called keeping tradecraft in check. Getting paid was a whole different battle! Lousy pay but the greatest experience no school could teach. Imagine a former 2nd Marine Corpsman delivering 62 babies, patching-up uncountable amounts of civilian casualties in a 3- year period as a photojournalist! Never in a million years did I ever think of again finding myself caught in the middle of fire-fights and bombing aftermaths and having to complete on-site traumatic amputations, ligating major veins and arteries, packing wounds, doing crico and thoracotomies inside rubbled-out buildings as a lensman. Now there's a Brain-bender! Hollywood couldn't ever dream of such a scene even if under the influence of a million stoners. Logistics were many times a nightmare as you so well put it. Thank you for putting out this much-needed advice.

Paul Parker's picture

You really have lived a very colorful life! I mean it when I say you should put these stories down on paper. Would make a great book!

Keep shooting sir! pleasure is mine... :)

Doug Pizac's picture

There is nothing new about the six reasons. They, and others, have been the norm for at least 50 years. The shooting part is a small percentage. The biggest is hunting for jobs, the logistics and accounting -- ie sound business practices that are not taught in schools anymore as far as I can see.

Rex Hadro's picture

The fact that Paul is putting out his information needs a constant rebirth. This last year has put an end to a lot of photographer's walk-in businesses. 8 full-time studios died here. None left. For almost three decades I have had two fully-equipped 4X4 2-ton location trucks that allow me to take the studio to the client. 20KW power inverter in each. My niche. All ARRI & Elinchrom lighting and Avenger & Matthews grip gear. No Chinese knock-off junk here. I have nothing to lose, besides they make great camping vehicles using all that grip gear. I started in movies. I can build a killer set in minutes with my sister as an assistant and 2nd truck driver, Movies have died, thanks to CoVid. No debt, mortgage, car or education loans. No credit-card debt either. No wife, kids. Everything is profit. Everything is paid for. Local ranchers have barns that make instant studios. I have a 20X30 14' high tent that can be completely darkened on board each truck. Rural Mexicans no longer want to cross the border here to a studio .CoVid and Trump killed those studios. I have no problem going there where cash is king. Only minutes from the border. I'm American-Mexican as a chimichanga! . My business has increased three-fold with CoVid. and Trump. SSI allows me to make 38K max a year. No problem meeting that. Realize I have thought through and planned every step. I worked hard at it. The secret is to not have debt. I don't pay taxes on Mexican shoots. They only deal in cash anyhow. And I'm 100% film-based. I've even rented my location trucks to photographers who've lost their studios and more here. I 've even hired them. Those guys used to laugh at me for not wanting to commit to the overhead of a studio. If I can pass them some work I will. I could've been one them! I NEVER, EVER wanted to be a full-time photographer, I'll cite #3,5 & 6. I rented venues instead when rarely needed. I get to KEEP everything I have. They don't. They don't know how to do anything else. They're unemployable in anything outside of photography. That, my friend, is as abnormal as it can get. No better reason for repeating Paul's word. Add that Digital has made everyone a professional, even my cat. Have a trade that's in demand. Here it's the cops, fire dudes, all construction, the postal/delivery guys and essential medical folks (dentists, plastic surgeons, psychos, are all unemployed) haven't missed a day's work. Pickin's are gonna be mighty slim. The cow is gonna have to pick it's nose with it's tongue. I also share a property line with one of our city's most exclusive parks. Before CoVid I made money renting my tents, tables and seating, electricity and lighting almost every weekend to family gatherings. All profit. many led to photo gigs. Phones have been increasingly used in place of hiring a CoVid restricted photographer. Phones are the new normal. DYI comes to place here. Get used to it and learn a job in demand. And everyone's got a phone. Much of that lost business is never coming back. And more new fandangoed and still unemployed going to be camera-monkeys calling themselves professionals are gonna lose out with whatever scraps are left. Those are gonna go to proven professionals who'll have to take less money to do the jobs. With the CoVid, folks using their phones are saying good enough. I would add #7 to the mix. The world can live without a photographer. CoVid is proof. Better learn to do something else that's in demand. Start with a shovel and pick-axe. Be a 'professional' with that! #8 would be to have all your $hit paid for. In America the banks own your home, health, transportation even your education. Clear all that B E F O R E attempting a living with photography. CoVid has changed the normal of the last 50 years you have stated. CoVid has drastically changed the budgets given to photography. More for less is the rule now. I have nothing to lose but gain a lot of photo/video gear I might have a chance at selling. I don't care. They're paid for. Paul couldn't have done a better job! Kudos, Paul!

Paul Parker's picture

Powerful words Rex. Thanks for taking time to share your fascinating story. I hope you all the best as we claw our way out of this pandemic... : )

Paul Parker's picture

Youre absolutely right Doug. But there are many who have no idea the industry is the way it is though. I think we take it for granted that those less familiar are aware. Especially those who see the world though the curated lens of social media.

If I give just one up and coming photographer a better picture of the industry it will be well worth it. I wish I had some of the info in this article and the comments when I first started out...

Thanks for your insight. It's much appreciated. : )

Gordon Hunter's picture

Spot on Paul. Doing photography day in day out can make you lose the passion for it. For the past 12 months, my Fuji X-T3, X-T20 and X-E1 and of course the lenses, flashguns, light modifiers, etc have hardly been out of the camera bags! Before Covid, I was doing portraits, weddings, headshots, etc. but the stream of business has all but dried up due to lock down restrictions. Weddings that should have taken place last year and were postponed to 2021 are now starting to be postponed to 2022.

Before I did this full time, I worked in IT for 40+ years, but also doing portraits, weddings, etc. as a second income. I rarely went anywhere without my camera bag. These days, the enthusiasm has waned as photography became the "day job". These days, usually the camera that I have with me all the time is my phone.

Also, of course as you say, there is the 90% of the time when you are not taking photos, even when you do have a good stream of business coming in. Editing, accounting, advertising, website designer, etc. The joys of running your own business. I thought that I would be semi-retired doing something I loved to get a reasonable income, but sadly, a great many people who are looking for a wedding or portrait photographer are shopping around based on price, not quality. "C'est la vie", as the French say!

Paul Parker's picture

Great to hear your side of the story Gordon. I must say I think we are in similar camps regarding enthusiasm day-to-to. I still get a buzz from shooting but I lift the camera up to my eye and push the shutter less and less. Pre pandemic when I mixed with people at social events my fav saying was that I was "off duty" when people asked me why I wasn't shooting. Sometimes it is nice to have a day off to just enjoy the moment.

I really hope things pick up post pandemic for you. Photographers will be needed again at some point...

Thanks for your thoughts : )

Bob Locher's picture

Fine article. For a lot of people, going pro is a great way to ruin a fine hobby. Ideally a pro should be a very good photographer, a self starter and have a good sense for business. There are really not all that many people with that skill set. Obviously Mr. parker has that set, and I suspect he takes that somewhat for grated. But a lot of people simply don't. Best advice I think for most people thinking of making the jump is "Don't give up the day job."
Cheers

Paul Parker's picture

Wonderfully concise and accurate analysis Bob! I must say there are some things in the article that are not strengths of mine. I just work a whole lot harder at them. May not be enjoyable but it has to be done. Like the dishes and laundry!

Completely agree with you that going pro can ruin a fine hobby.

Thanks for your thought it's much appreciated : )

Paul Parker's picture

Hello Dan. Long time no see.

I have seen plenty of commercial photographers hanker down with the same dozen clients and live a very comfortable life providing the same kinds of work day-in-day-out for them. Nothing wrong with that, but their skill set is bound to suffer if that’s all they do. And let’s face it, we’ve both been in this game long enough that we probably know photographers who do very little personal work of any kind. In the early days of my career, I assisted some rather well known photographers who fell into this category and would crumble when faced with a lighting situation which went off piste. I’ve also seen plenty of “famous” one trick ponies who basically perform the same lighting set up for every single shoot they do. In both these instances their skill sets plateaued a long time ago.

That’s what I wanted to warn readers against.

Completely agree with you that the target for success (and for a feeling of fulfilment for that matter) is not static.

Thanks for stopping by. Hope all is well. :)

Philip A. Swiderski Jr's picture

#1 Is a horrible reason not to be a pro, first, I dictate the shoot, the style, and the type of clients I work with. If your truly an artist, then you never allow yourself to become a button pushing service provider. #2, Money is all over the place no matter what job you have, we all can be fired, or get sick ect, and money dries up until we can make it again. #3 If you truly love Photography your personal projects will never stop, and your personal work will fit in fine around paid jobs. #4 If your skills set suffer because you become a Pro, you where never good to begin with, you should be learning something new with every photo you capture, you could take a photo a day of the same box, in the same spot, and after a year the 365th photo should be better than the 1st, if your not learning and honing your skills, your not moving forward. #5, again every small family biz, has to do the home work, to get the projects done this is biz 101, and it really does not take that much time out of your day to manage your admin duties. #6, if being a pro takes the joy out of shooting, you have been doing it all wrong to begin with. Balance is key, like everything in life, everyone loses momentum and joy in what they do, until something and there is always something that rekindles your passion.