The Myths and Realities of Becoming a Professional Photographer

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As a professional photographer, I think the number one mistake for aspiring pros is to fall for certain myths about the craft and career. In this article, we’ll look at some of the myths and realities of being a professional photographer. If you’re on the fence about taking the leap it may help you decide.

professional photography myths

But first a little story

My heart was beating fast as I approached the school. My dad was holding my hand when I started to put my foot down on the ground. Despite my protests, my dad quickly dropped me in class and left in a flash. I wasn’t his problem anymore.

Bad move. I started screaming.

The teacher, as wise and as calm as she could, tried to calm me down. She made the mistake of putting her hands near my face. I opened my mouth just like you see in the movie jaws and WHAM I bit her hands and pressed as hard as I could. I bit her so bad you would think an enraged dog bit her.

The moral of the story

What, you may ask, does that have to do with professional photography? In a sense, everything, because that episode taught me about one thing I would like to talk about today – setting expectations.

You see, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into both as a 5-year-old heading to school for the first time and starting out as a professional photographer. They both caused me trouble. If you do not plan, you plan to fail, but it’s hard to plan when you have absolutely no idea what to expect!

professional photography myths

Here are a few myths that I believed about professional photography and how reality slapped me hard. Hopefully, these will help you avoid the same mistakes I made.

Myth #1 – Being a professional photographer = validation

I don’t know where the idea comes from, but it seems like for everyone that picks up the camera, the pinnacle of achievement seems to become a professional photographer. It’s almost like a necessary evolution. At first, you have a camera, people start complimenting your work, then you decide to become a pro. It was too late for me to realize it, but I would have been perfectly happy as an amateur.

At the end of the day what really matters is the images, if you can get a few bucks for them, great! But becoming a pro will not magically validate you or your images. I expected to feel better about my images and myself when money started rolling in, but that never really happened.

Myth #2 – You get to spend all your time shooting

pro-photography-myths-1

This is most likely the biggest myth of all time in regards professional photography. People sell it to you like all you will be doing is shooting all day, every day. But that is far from the truth because you will spend more time seeking work than actually working.

You don’t spend most of your time shooting, you spend it marketing, attending events, networking, putting yourself out there. Whatever time you get in front of the camera, you’ll spend two to three times as much simply editing as well.

If you believe photography is hard, it is actually the easy part. The hard part comes after; selling your work. It’s a sobering truth that probably hits every photographer, writer, painter, etc., that the product or service is only the first and easiest part of the process, the hardest effort comes afterward.

professional photographer myths

But you say, “I believe that I am good photographer, and people will realize how much better I am than Joe Shmoe.” I understand the feeling, and you are probably better than Joe, but that brings us to the next myth.

Myth #3 – Being good is enough

I call this myth the “best product fallacy”. Just because you are good doesn’t mean anything. Van Gogh was good yet he died in obscurity. Talent is not enough, the world has millions of talented photographers, painters, actors and more that are eating dust.They had a social experiment where they put one of the

There was a social experiment where they put one of the world’s highest paid musicians in a subway station, playing a million dollar violin by the way. Did the world recognize his talents, did they put their wallets out begging him to take their money? No. Nobody really cared. Watch the video below.

We’ll get back to this later but for now, just know it doesn’t matter that you’re a good photographer. Don’t get me wrong, you’d better be good at what you do, but that does not in any way shape or form guarantee you success by itself. Talent is just not enough.

Myth #4 – You’ll be rich and famous

If everything you see is success story after success story, doesn’t it follow that if you try it too, you might become rich and famous? Even more, won’t you just blaze through it because you are talented? Many photographers make a living telling you how to be a professional, so of course, they will sell you a dream. It’s like many guys on YouTube, you’ve probably seen a few.

professional photographer myths

They try and sell you a dream. But the reality for all the photographers that I know, is that it’s an income that pays the bills. And they sure aren’t well-known outside their local area. Sure there are superstar photographers in the world but that is what they are, stars. Just like the Hollywood stars, for every well-known one, there are others just making a living.

The things is that not everyone can be a superstar photographer (depending on who you ask, a superstar makes more than $40,000 a year) because when it comes to wealth distribution there is inherent inequality. There will always be a group that makes more than the rest combined. For example, there’s about 20% of the countries that have 80% of the wealth, about 20% of actors make 80% of the wealth, about 10% of the companies that make 90% of the wealth: Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, etc., take the lion’s share.

Only the top elite will ever reach that level

Same for photography, there’s a group that earns more than all others combined (and if you really want to go deep, a group within that group that earns more than the others combined again, Terry Richardson, who earned 58 million in one year, is probably in that group ).

professional photographer myths

The worse part is that many of them make it sound easy because they want to teach you how to become a professional photographer. I’m not saying you can’t become rich and famous. What I am saying is, that when you are on your quest for fame and fortune know that there’s only a few that can make it to the very top. It’s a bit like football, not everyone can be an NFL player. That should put in perspective the amount of effort required.

Count the costs

A few years ears ago I had to rent a U-Haul truck to move from my apartment to my wife’s parents’ house with our baby in tow. The reason was that I had failed to understand that professional photography was as much about marketing and selling as it was photography. It almost cost me my marriage as well.

So, count the costs. If you want to build a house, add up the costs, if you want to be a pro, count the costs. It’s not just about shooting, see the sacrifices and the long and hard road ahead.

professional photographer myths

Also, understand the nature of the beast. You will usually see success stories but never those who have failed…and there’s more of the latter than the former. Take it from me, I cried many times because things were not working.

What now?

This article is by no means meant to discourage you from becoming a professional photographer, just the opposite. It is meant to empower you to avoid unnecessary pitfalls due to unrealistic expectations. That episode at 5-years old would not have happened if only my dad prepared me for exactly what was going to happen. I would not have needed to move out to my in-laws’ if I had known what to expect going pro.

If you want to become a pro, by all means, go for it, just be realistic about it. You’ll need to learn a whole other field (business, marketing, etc.) above and beyond photography. Coming back to Joshua Bell (the violinist), he didn’t change, his skills didn’t change, the only difference between him and countless other metro violinists is his marketing. So the wisest thing you can do is to learn about marketing, running a business, and how to sell your work. This is probably the single most important piece of advice I could ever give you, because trust me, your images won’t sell themselves.

professional photographer myths

Conclusion

I love being a professional photographer, I wouldn’t do anything else, it’s in my blood. But making a living from photography is harder than many would lead you to believe. It’s not just about being talented, it’s about selling yourself, and more of your time will be spent doing the latter than the former.

I believe people make mistakes so that not only they can learn from them, but others can benefit as well. So, take it from me, I had to move in with my wife’s parents, I was on the brink of divorce and had many teary nights. Count the costs, and learn how to sell.

Be yourself, stay focused, and keep on shooting.

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Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.

  • Excellent article that shines a light of reality onto what is indeed an over-mythologized profession. At various times in my life I have let myself dream of how nice it might be to turn my hobby into my living, but it didn’t take a lot of hard thought to realize that I would never match my current profession (I’m a biochemist) in terms of job security, salary, benefits and indeed overall satisfaction by doing so. So I remain an amateur and a very content one too. Plus I’m now turning all that chemistry knowledge into film photography, developing and printing. Sometimes it pays to stick with what you know.

  • Charles G. Haacker

    Outstanding, Olivier! I’m delighted that you are still in the “racket.” My late wife and I had a studio, an actual location, years ago. We bought it from a retiring pro and tried to carry on as he had. We lasted 16 years but one thing and another… (I don’t have to tell you!). I was a solid craftsman, always able to deliver the goods, got plenty of referrals and repeat business, but I think our single biggest problem was lacking business skills, plus BOTH of us hated to sell. We struggled for 16 years and eventually the thing sank, taking everything down with it. That was nearly a quarter century ago. We got “real” jobs we both despised but we had to build some sort of retirement. I was so crushed I hung up my guns for years until acquiring a tiny point-and-shoot in 2007 and rediscovering love. I still have no desire to sell. I take pictures for extreme pleasure, which is probably where I should have stayed long ago, but I had invested heavily in a degree in commercial photography and felt I would have wasted all that money, time, and energy if I didn’t actually work at the craft. Sometimes people ask me what they should study to be professional photographers. I tell them BUSINESS. The most talented photographers in the world won’t make it if they don’t understand business, and as you say, SALES!

  • walwit

    That was an honest and useful message, thank you very much Olivier.

  • Your article is a timely Blessing – can relate (and in some ways, validate/reaffirm) to it. Thank you for candidly sharing.

  • Ao K

    I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for the candor. Like another respondent, I have a profession in which I am both deeply and happily vested. And, like so many people, I absolutely LOVE photography. However, there is one thing that I understand about my love for the craft. Although I love it, and put a lot of time in improving my approaches, I can’t invest the necessary time to become a professional on the business side unless, of course, I discontinue my current life’s work. Thus, for me the goal is to still be an exceptional photographer (yes, I believe that is achievable) and practice quality photography for spiritual and artistic reasons. I do secretly hope to sell some of my work when I retire, and even before that time. However, …. just in case they do not sell, I still love the craft enough to give it as much of my time as I can spare. By the way, I would like to encourage people like me to still join professional photography organizations (if you can afford it, that is). I have learned so much from those who photograph for a living. Their lessons inspire me to keep on shooting for love alone. And, the new ideas regarding how to approach the craft are invaluable. So, happy shooting. Simply enjoy it!!!!

  • Thanks for this insightful and very true article. When people ask if I am a professional I really like to answer “Yes!” as it seems to give me more credibility as a photographer (or that is what I tell myself anyway). However,if being able to survive on a photographer’s income is what makes one a professional then I certainly do not fall into that category. I love photographing, but am a lousy sales/marketing person. At times the frustration with those things has nearly led me to question whether I best give up photographing altogether, but that would mean giving up what truly gives me life as I really thrive the most when I am out and about photographing the beautiful Australian landscape and nature (mainly birds). So in order not to be miserable, I will happily forego the title of Professional and if one day someone comes along who is a great sales person and believes in my work as much as I do maybe we can work together to bring my photography to others for their enjoyment as well. At the end of the day my goal is to share my work with as many people as possible one way or the other…. 🙂

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  • Mark

    I had to google Terry Richardson, so there you go.

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  • Richy Norman

    Me too,i just googled him and although he may be a successful pro,he seems like quite the slime ball.

  • Recognizable!

  • pete guaron

    ROTFLMHAO – that’s certainly “telling it as it is”, and “shoving it right up ’em”, Oliver! There’s scarcely a wasted word, or a point missed!

    Van Gogh is a very good parallel image. His story – sad as it was, for him, during his life – is a moral story of a genius who could never reap an adequate reward for his extraordinary talent. Simply because until the end, few people appreciated it. And as we all know, that was reversed almost at once, after his death. If that happens now, to a photographer, it is not exactly going to provide a living income.

    So as you emphasise, it isn’t a “sufficient condition” to be a gifted ‘tog. Perhaps it’s not even a “necessary condition”. What is both a “necessary condition” and a “sufficient condition” is strength of marketing skills. As indeed it is, with any other business.

    Being an amateur brings with it all sorts of freedoms. Freedoms from deadlines – snivelling clients – parameters set to achieve someone else’s objective, which inhibit or block creative effort – freedom from trolls and critics – and ultimately, the freedom to do as you damn well want to. Freedom to choose the gear you enjoy working with, instead of the gear that’s needed for the job. Freedom to explore and experiment, because there’s nobody waiting for what you produce.

    Perhaps we should seek to follow in the footsteps of Picasso, rather than Van Gogh. But with so many people around the world taking photographs now, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could promote the sale of their work if they produce it first, and then seek buyers for it, as Pablo did through most of his working life.

  • Hehe thanks, and very eloquently put too!
    You know, one of the things you said is the concept of necessary equipment. If I wasn’t a pro all I would ever need is a good ol’ small camera and be set, but hey I can’t complain ^^

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