The journey to become a professional photographer is fraught with danger. Well, maybe not danger (I did drop a 5D Mark II on my foot once, though). Even so, it is certainly not easy. Unlike many professions, photography offers no clear path to follow, and what works for one person likely won’t work for another. Not only can this be confusing, but it can also lead one to place emphasis on the wrong aspect of the job, or doubt one’s abilities altogether. So here’s a list of some of the common lies we tell ourselves when trying to work out why our photography career isn’t going as swimmingly as we’d like.
1. “I don’t have the right gear.”
This has got to be the most common excuse I hear from photographers today trying to explain why they can’t be as good as they want to be. I told myself the same thing over and over again. I’ve always lusted after the latest and greatest gear, but the time I spent drooling over cameras and lenses I couldn’t afford would have been better spent actually creating pictures with whatever I had. Gear is great—I work for a camera store, after all—but it’s not what makes great photographs. Let your artistic vision lead you, and think creatively to work within the limitations of what you have or can afford. I know several photographers who have owned full-frame DSLRs who now shoot primarily with their iPhones and create some amazing images. Limits often force us to be more creative, and it is for our creativity that clients pay us—not our gear. And don’t forget, when you do need a piece of gear that you can’t afford to buy, you can always rent—plenty of established professionals do that for every job.
2. “I don’t need no education.”
If photography is art, and art is about personal style and expression, and I’ve already learned how to operate a camera—then why do I need to bother with classes, workshops, or school? I hate to admit it now, but I once felt that spending money on photographic education would be a waste of time. We’ve all heard the success stories of photographers who were “completely self-taught,” but this is the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, those self-taught photographers usually go on to learn a boat load of new information from their peers. Do not be afraid to learn from those who came before you, even if it means you have to imitate before you innovate. An investment in education is more important than an investment in gear. And remember, to be a successful professional photographer, you need to know more than photography, such as marketing, accounting, branding, etc. Trust me, being “self taught” in these things is going to take 100 times longer than taking a class or two.
3. “I’m a natural light photographer.”
There is nothing wrong with taking photographs in natural light, but some of us (myself included) use this label as an excuse to avoid learning studio lighting techniques. That’s a huge mistake. All photographers should study lighting, even those who truly do only work in natural light. Learning about strobes, umbrellas, soft boxes, reflectors, diffusors, flags, grids, and everything else will teach you how to really see the light in a scene, and to predict how your camera will react to it. You will start to notice things you didn’t notice before and, who knows, you may even realize that you actually like working with “unnatural” light. To call yourself a natural light photographer without first taking the time to learn the ins and outs of studio lighting will only put unnecessary limits on your growth as a photographer.
4. “I have to take every job I can get.”
Absolutely wrong. In the early stages of my photography career, nothing seemed as important as building a portfolio and establishing clients. My initial excitement was enough to fuel me through a few cheap jobs, but this proved to be detrimental to my business in the long run. It’s important to realize right away that the work you do is going to establish your identity in the eyes of your clients and prospective clients. If you want to be known as the photographer who takes every cheap Craigslist job, well then go ahead and do that. In fact, maybe that is a business model that you can make work, but that’s not what I wanted to do, so why was I doing it? Instead, put more time into thinking about what you actually want to do with photography. Then find the clients or jobs that are going to help you achieve that goal. There is great value in being selective and being recognized as a specialist. You may have to take on a few low-paying jobs in the beginning, but make sure those jobs are worth your time. Make sure they pay off later by helping you gain recognition for the type of work you’re passionate about.
5. “I hear there’s money in weddings.”
This isn’t actually a lie, but nor is it a reason to shoot weddings. I shot weddings for four years before I finally realized I had zero passion for it. Wherever you hear the money may be, do not pursue a photography career because of it. There are easier ways to make money if that’s really what you’re after (hint: don’t become a photographer.) Find your passion and follow it; don’t worry about the money. Do the work that makes you happy, because that is the work you will do best. That is the work you will do better than anyone else, and that’s how you will find your career.
Or, you know, don’t listen to any of this advice, because who am I to say anything? 😉