5 Reasons a Pro Photographer Sometimes Regrets Going Pro

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Following your dream is not always easy. Actually, it’s never easy.

To be frank, I think the only way you can achieve a dream goal is to leave yourself no other choice. You can’t say, for instance, “I’ll try this for a while and see how it goes.” because you’ll always find a reason (often a pretty good one) to give up and do something else. You have to be fully committed. That makes it easier decision-wise, because you literally leave yourself no other choice but to keep going forward. But the process itself is still very hard.

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So, that’s what I did and now I take pictures for a living. I also write for magazines and for newspapers. Sometimes, I sell my images by themselves, but my articles I always sell with my photos. I’ve been doing it for a long time now, and I can’t imagine any other way to make a living. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a struggle. Sometimes, when everything seems to be going against me, I have regrets about choosing photography for a career. Here they are, in no particular order.

#1. Low Pay

Photographers work hard, whether they shoot weddings, war zones or wallabies. But the pay is generally not great, which is just a polite way of saying it sucks. There are exceptions, of course, but they are, well, exceptions. So you work hard and are good at what you do, but you don’t make a lot of money. Your friends earn a lot more than you do, which is fine, but after a while it gives a numerical significance to how much you’ve sacrificed to be a photographer.

 

Of course it’s possible to make a lot of money at photography, as Peter Lik will tell you, but if making money is a priority in your life, you’re far better off choosing a different career.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard that before, and it’s not going to be a problem, you’re ready to live frugally. You say that now, but will you feel the same way in ten years?

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#2. Inspiration

While it’s definitely true that you should try to work at something you love, it has its consequences. The most obvious is that what you love becomes work. I have friends who shoot images just because they enjoy it and sometimes I think, “hmm, they seem to be having more fun at this than I am!”

The truth is, taking pictures with the aim of selling them is different, most of the time, from taking pictures for the pure joy if it. A lot of people confuse the two things.

It’s not that I love it any less, I don’t think, but sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the enthusiasm I see in amateur photographers. As much as I enjoy taking pictures — hey, I’m the one who decided to make a living out of it — I also like doing other things as well. I guess this is a way of saying that when you do the thing that you love for a living, you choose something else for a hobby.

#3. Work Never Ends

One of the great things about being a self-employed entrepreneur of sorts, is that if Monday the weather is great and a friend calls up and suggests a long lunch on a patio somewhere, at that moment you get to say, “Sure, sounds great!” Or perhaps, if you’re more disciplined than I am, you say, “Maybe next time, I really have to get some work done.” But the point is, you have the option. Freedom is pretty great.

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Of course, it comes at a cost, because depending on how you look at it, you’re never truly free. You can draw the line between work and play wherever you like, yes, but that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Because you’re never not working. I sometimes envy my friends who have regular Monday-to-Friday jobs because when I see them on the weekend, they’re truly off work. Not me.

Also, vacations? Pretty much never. I go to a lot of great places, don’t get me wrong, but mostly on my own. I know this sounds like the stuff of dreams, but believe me, it’s still work. You go on an assignment somewhere and tell your friends you went to such-and-such destination, and all they think is “Ah, vacation.” But being in a vacation spot and actually being on vacation are two very different things. I get it, because vacations are awesome – I wish I could take one.

#4. Loss of Creative Input

Depending on the kind of photography you do, it can be hard to maintain a personal vision, or any creative input at all, really. I was once at the studio of a friend of mine, a commercial photographer who pulls in many big-time clients. I wasn’t involved in the shoot in any way, he just invited me over so I hung out and watched, scarfing down the free sushi when nobody was looking.

The shoot was of a young couple who had found their dream home. It was going to be a full-page advertisement in magazines and newspapers. The art director was there, and he knew exactly what he wanted. He had a clipping of a photo taken by somebody else, gave it to my friend and essentially said, “Copy this. This is what we want exactly.”

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This is an extreme example, but the point is, if you want to make money taking pictures, you shoot what other people want. At the very least, you shoot what other people want but in your style, and that’s the best-case scenario.

That’s why a lot of photographers take lower-paying jobs that allow them more creative control. If not, there are times when you’re just a robot putting the camera where other people want it and pushing the button when they say so. Unless, that is, you’re a superstar commercial photographer, but if that’s the case, you’ve already paid your dues, I’m sure.

I don’t usually have an art director over my shoulder telling me what to do, but I still submit my images to photo editors and designers, and they get to choose which ones get used, not me.

#5. The Myth of Being Your Own Boss

Some people who have regular jobs, whatever those are, tell me, “You are so lucky, you’re your own boss.”

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Well I suppose I am, in a way, my own boss. But that depends on how you look at it. From my perspective, I have it a lot worse because I don’t have just one boss, I have many. Every one of my clients is my boss.

I’ve been lucky in finding many great people to work with (for?) but I’ve had my share of nightmare clients, as well. Some of those people pay quite well, and although I’d sorely like to tell them to do something to themselves which is unprintable here, well, you know how it goes. Sometimes I have the courage to fire a well-paying client, and sometimes I don’t. But if you think that being a freelancer allows you to escape the unpleasantness of having to deal with certain bosses, think again.

Thinking about turning pro? Here’s another good read on the topic from a different pro photographer’s perspective: 6 Things to Consider Before Becoming a Professional Photographer

Mike Randolph has been a professional writer and photographer for more than 20 years. His photos have appeared in National Geographic publications as well as hundreds of others. For photo tips, techniques and gear talk, check out his travel photography blog.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mike Randolph

has been a professional writer and photographer for more than 20 years. His photos have appeared in National Geographic publications as well as hundreds of others. For photo tips, techniques and gear talk, check out his travel photography blog.

  • Thathater1935

    < col Hiiiiiii Friends….uptil I saw the paycheck saying $8736 , I have faith that my neighbour woz actualy receiving money parttime from their computer. . there friends cousin has done this 4 only about thirteen months and by now repaid the loans on there mini mansion and got a great GMC . visit their website SEE FULL DETAIL

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~x

  • I used to study to be a graphic designer but actually wanted to do more photography than design, so I guess that, for me, it sounds normal to not have a lot of creative freedom. Graphic design forces you to create within boundaries; professional photography is like that as well.

  • Belle Lee

    Thanks – this post echoed a lot of my own experience and journey. For me these things are obstacles/hurdles but in facing and jumping them I feel I’m getting stronger all the time.

  • Thanks Amaryllis. I agree with you for the most part. I can’t speak about the graphic design world, but sometimes, photography can make you money without working within any other boundaries but your own. I wrote a post about it on my blog, if you’re interested. It’s an update to this one. Being a pro photographer is not all bad, I assure you!

  • Thank you for your comment Belle. You’ve got the right attitude! That’s the only way to approach it if you want to succeed, which I’m sure you will. Keep moving forward, that’s what it’s all about.

  • Thanks Mike – its sage advice like this that really assists with going into things with your eyes open, in testing the waters a little myself on the topic there’s certainly alot to think about đŸ˜‰

  • Thank you Adrien, very nice of you to say. I hope it wasn’t discouraging. It sounds a little trite, but it’s true: it’s better to try and fail then never to have tried at all. Good luck!

  • John White

    I shot for special projects in the Navy, Had my own darkroom – the whole tamale, When I retired I had the hardest time loving to just compose – just for me. Now I can walk and see things that I hadn’t seen and it really makes my day.

  • It’s funny, isn’t it? But that’s how it goes, I guess. One thing is shooting for other people, another thing is shooting for yourself. I know a lot of photographers put their personal work on their websites, for the very reason that it tends to be quite different from their commercial images. It’s certainly very important to cultivate your own personal style, which it sounds like you’re doing. Congrats!

  • Stacy

    So what are the pro’s to being a photographer?

  • Hi Stacy. Good question, thanks for asking. There are lots of pros, the main one for me being the lifestyle. In this post I merely wanted to show that the life of a professional photographer is not always the perfect dream that some people think it is. But I would hate to discourage anybody from making photography their vocation, which is why I presented the other side of the story (i.e., the good stuff!) in a post on my blog. Here’s the link. http://randolphimages.com/the-life-of-a-pro-photographer-not-always-fun-but-mostly-fun/

  • Neoh Soon Hueng

    Hi Mike,

    I do agree with you that photographers don’t get high pay (with exceptions) but it’s also a very satisfying to work with. After all, at the end of the day, it’s not how much you earn, but the experience that you gained through the years in photography.

    Professionals loses inspiration & creativity input. That happens when we’re fixed to a specific genre of photography for too long. It’s like “routine job” in the corporate world. I’m working on actual day wedding photography for the past 8 years. Now venturing into engagement photography (a big business for freelance in my area). I’ve also do some training and workshop along the way so that I can keep the creative spirits up.

    Work never ends is actually a good thing. It means that you’ve continuous clients to serve, and in return, you’re getting continuous flow of income. But if it take months to deliver the photos to the clients…then there’s a problem with the workflow.

    As for the last myth…I fully agree with you. Being in a 9-5 job really beats being own boss. The job security is there, but not doing our creativity any help. Well nothing’s perfect, need to balance what we have and what we need. Sacrifice needs to be done along the way.

    Rgds

  • Frederic Hore

    Interesting article, and perhaps one every aspiring photographer or photo journalist in a college or arts program should read. With so many media cutting back their staff photographers, the market for stock being hammered by royalty free websites and more – it can be a tough slog to be a pro photographer these days.

    For myself, I started as a photographer-reporter for a small local newspaper in Power River, BC eons ago. I lasted there two months. Pay was, as you described, quite low. So I worked as a tech in television and radio for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp across Canada, and started freelancing on the side.

    Fast forward 35 years, when I went full-time pro in 2008, when my then client, a horse racing track where I worked in the AV department, went bankrupt. Now I work as an editorial photographer for a daily newspaper, teach photography to mostly amateurs who are confounded by DSLR cameras with 400 page manuals, give photography workshops outdoors – from Old Barn Tours to Stargazers outings, and travel show conferences and lecturers at libraries and small groups.

    In summary, the key to success is to diversify, develop a style and niche, and to just stay positive while pursuing your goals! And nevah give up!

    Cheers,
    Frederic in Montréal

  • Charles G. Haacker

    Excellent piece, Mike! Been there, done all of it. Had a studio of my own for 16 years. Things happened, eventually it “sank” and took everything down with it. I ended up at Home Depot. If I had it to do over I’d have a year’s worth of all expenses in the bank, own my building, and the ground it sits on. That was many years ago. Today most pros seem not to have a permanent studio location, and I think that’s a good thing. I had a “general practice,” doing anything and everything that came over the transom. It was fun, heartbreaking, stressful, and we were always broke. Losing the place made me hang up my guns for years. I only went digital after I finally escaped from Home Depot and retired. Now I’m lovin’ it all over again, just doing it for myself.

  • Ana Arruda

    I can say from my own experience. I had won a lot of money with my job since the beginning, but there’s a problem: I don’t love what I do. And it’s a very complex situation, because I need the money although I’d prefer to be somewhere else most of the time. And sometimes I use this money to do what I like, like traveling and photography. I know that the life of a photographer isn’t easy. And also I envy these people who are able to live happily with the job that they love doing. Life is complex.

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