Every decision you’ve ever made, each image you’ve ever shot, and each chance you’ve taken, has brought you to where you are now as a photographer. Think about that for a second. Regardless of what your goals might be or where you want to go with your photography, it all comes down to a series of moves. So really, all of your success and all of your failures are a beautiful mix of causes and effects. One action yielding one outcome big or small. For most of us, our love for all things photography points to one end and that ever-burning question of “How can I be a full-time photographer?”
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it takes to quit your job and become a professional photographer or how it feels to turn your love of photography into sustainable income, then this is your lucky day. I’m about to share with you some lessons I’ve learned during my three-year journey to become “one of those people”; someone who managed to turn their passion for photography into a full-time job and kiss the rat race goodbye. A few of these lessons are ones you might expect and a few might not be so obvious. So, sit back and get ready to hear some real-world advice from someone who actually made their dream happen, and how you can follow if you choose.
#1 – You have to want it more than anything
It’s easy to say you want something. But have you ever truly desired to make something happen? I’m talking about the kind of want that consumes your very being. Well, maybe not that dramatic but it’s not far off. If you are going to “make it” at anything then you will have to want it more than anything else.
The happy upside to finding something that you so completely want is that the challenges you face don’t seem to matter as much as they might otherwise. And yes, there will be oh so many challenges. Which leads us to lesson #2.
#2 – You will have to sacrifice
Don’t get me wrong. The following words aren’t meant to be a deterrent but at the same time, they are quite true. To ultimately reach your goals there will have to be sacrifices made along the way. The nature and exactness of these sacrifices will vary greatly but there will always be things that you will have to give up in order to make your dream a reality.
These sacrifices could be anything from giving up sleep and experiencing physical discomfort or missing time out with friends. Photography is a medium that literally requires you to be present for every shot. This means that to truly be there in the moment you won’t always be able to someplace else. It strains relationships and can take a toll on your body, your finances, and even your mind. But much like lesson #1, the sacrifices won’t seem so terrible if they are viewed as a necessary means to make something you truly want happen.
#3 – Understand the “calculated risks”
Taking calculated risks is sometimes misunderstood by some people who are looking to take a leap with their photo work. Let’s break down the very phrase “calculated risk”.
First, we have the word “calculated” which means something that is done with full awareness of the possible consequences. Then we have “risk” which refers to exposing something we value to danger, harm, or loss. So, when we say that we are going to take a calculated risk, it means that we are about to put something on the line knowing full well that the outcome might not be favorable. This is where I feel the point becomes lost with some photographers.
To reach your goals you’ll certainly have to take some risks. While that’s true, I’ve learned that it’s the manner in which you take those risks that makes all the difference. When it comes to taking calculated risks, never risk anything that will ultimately prevent you from reaching your next goal.
I’ll admit though, this advice can be somewhat paradoxical. Meaning that in the end, you will have to take the ultimate calculated risk. That is going all in and attempting to make your living exclusively from your dealings in photography. Until that time comes, make sure your risks are of the non-terminal variety.
#4 – You will have to teach yourself patience
This is a hard one. You will have to be patient. Stay ambitiously patient, but be patient nonetheless. If you’re not a patient person then you’ll probably have to teach yourself to be one. And if you come to the conclusion that you can’t teach yourself to be patient then you’ll just have to fake it. I can tell you that there is no set timetable when it comes to reaching a sustainable goal.
Being patient doesn’t mean that you should sit back and wait for things to happen. Instead, make every minute of every day count towards achieving the thing you want the most. But understand that there’s no guarantee when that goal will be reached. Just know that you will reach it if you are patient (and persistent) and don’t stop.
#5 – Confidence comes after the fact
This is something that I struggle to remind myself on a daily basis. Confidence is just as important as skill in some cases. Having the gall to try something new, to attempt difficult things, that’s what it takes to make big things happen with your photography.
Some people are born confident (or at least so it seems). But for others, confidence is a learned talent. What’s the downside to becoming confident in your work? Confidence only comes after you do the thing you’re afraid to do.
Yeah, that’s a hard idea to swallow but it’s true. To become confident you will have to constantly step outside your comfort zone to varying degrees. This could mean being proactive with clients, taking on jobs that are just slightly outside your assumed skill set, and at times even talking your way into (and out of) a few situations.
#6 – Disregard secret formulas for success
The internet is chock-full of every kind of self-improvement website and video imaginable that all aim at making you better at photography. That’s 100% okay and none of us would know much of anything about making photographs if it weren’t for people who publish good educational information. After all, you’re reading this article on one of the best photo education sites online. But that doesn’t mean that everything that glitters is gold.
A big red warning flag should go up whenever you hear or read something that tells you to, “Do this and you’ll be a great photographer” or worse yet, the dreaded, “I’m a master photographer so listen to me” line. Understand that your journey to finding success is completely unique to you. My goals and choices are likely totally different than those you will choose. At the same time, some lessons are universal. Just remember that there is no secret formula, only tested advice.
#7 – Grab opportunity by the throat
I love a good metaphor and grabbing opportunity by the throat is one of the best ones I can think of to describe what I learned about approaching opportunity. Learning to recognize opportunities for advancing yourself and your work is only a small part of the puzzle. You have to also aggressively seize those opportunities when they come along.
For me, there were three or four big opportunities that eventually put me where I am today. Narrowing it down even further, one of those opportunities hinged on a single email that I sent to someone. If I hadn’t sent that one message, things might have turned out much differently.
Don’t just say, “I think this is a great opportunity but…” There are no buts when it comes to this sort of action. Unfortunately, you have to decide that for yourself whether not an opportunity is worthwhile. But if you do decide to go for it, do so with everything you’ve got. You never know where it might lead. Which brings us to #8.
#8 – Your destination will change
This is somewhat of a strange lesson which I’ve only come to grasp in the last year or so. The end all be all dream I had when I started making photographs was to take pictures of beautiful things, sell them, and repeat. I thought I would do this enough to make a living.
Well, the hard truth about photography is that it’s nearly impossible to make a living exclusively from selling prints. It’s not impossible, but even the established greats in the photography history books didn’t merely sell prints to support themselves. The ones who did often were only able to do so AFTER they became giants in the art.
Don’t be afraid to allow yourself to evolve in a natural direction. Currently, I write for four to five publications, have authored two books on photography, host my own YouTube channel, and dabble in all manner or photo-related adventures. I still love making photos and do so whenever I can, but do I sell a lot of those prints? Not really.
Would I ever have imagined myself as a writer? Absolutely not! But when the opportunity came along I took it, and it’s all been one amazing ride to where I am now. The takeaway here is to be flexible with your attitude and accept that you always understand that a glorious outcome is out there, but it may not be the one you originally set out to achieve.
#9 – Think big but have realistic expectations
Set huge goals for yourself. Dream big. Think big. Never let anyone tell you that something is impossible for this or that reason. While you should never set strict limitations for yourself and your dreams it’s also important to live in reality. This is a reality, isn’t it? The point is to never expect great things to happen quickly or without a lot of work (remember #2 and #4 above) supplied on your part.
The most saddening thing that can happen to those who have unreal expectations is that they quit. They stop chasing after what they love and resign themselves to an existence they don’t really want. If you want to go full-time in the photography world always remember that success finds us at different times and with different outcomes. Think as big as you need to but keep your feet firmly on the ground.
#10 – It’s all worth it in the end
As we close out our list, #10 is the lesson that I want you to understand with the most clarity. Of all the lessons I’ve learned on my journey to independence with photography, there is one that had to wait for until the end and it’s this – it’s all worth it. All of it. All your hard work, all your sacrifice, everything that you poured into making your dream of being a working full-time photographer will ultimately lead to one of the greatest feelings imaginable.
Honestly, any description I can give of how amazing it feels to make photography (or photo related) your full-time job will ultimately fall miserably short of its mark. So, if you’re struggling with whatever you happen to be doing with photography let this final lesson fortify you enough to keep going. Believe me, it will all be worth it.
Some Final Thoughts
These lessons are just a small portion of a nearly indecipherable culmination of trial and error, ups and downs, peaks and valleys. Your particular path will be different than mine, as it should be. I managed to leave a successful, albeit unfitting, career in healthcare to go on to make a living doing what I really love. The best part? I’m no different than you.
I’m ecstatic to tell you some of the lessons I’ve learned so that you might understand that you can do the same thing I did. It may not happen quickly and it might not be exactly what you originally planned, but when it finally happens…and it will happen, it will be better than anything you can imagine.