“No, Irina, it is a very bad idea to become a photographer,” the editor-in-chief at a federal car magazine told me disapprovingly. “I know one photographer. He’s a grown man but his income is so unstable. Today he might have a few contracts lined up, but tomorrow he might have none. He never knows what his financial situation is going to be. He often feels the pinch.”
Back in 2006, I was a freelance journalist and the owner of an affordable DSLR camera. Actually, my dream was a compact Fujifilm, but fellow photographers and magazine editors insisted on purchasing “the real one.” That real one was far too big for a girl like me. It was heavy. It was too huge to fit in my small, girlish purse, so I had to get a special bag just to carry it around.
As time passed, I got used to my new gadget’s size. Also, a magical thing happened - my pictures started getting published. Selling amateur photos paid much better than professional texts I had been writing. The paycheck was especially impressive if a photo made it to a cover.
Here, I should confess: I am lazy. Very lazy. There was no good reason for me not to become a photographer, as I was working less and earning more.
Also, frankly speaking, I was starting to enjoy it.
Many people insist that the only way to earn a stable income as a photographer is to shoot weddings. Let’s see, a loyal client is the best way to secure steady business, right? Some of my clients require photography services several times a month. Dear naysayers, should we count how many times an average person needs a wedding photographer?
In 2006, I had a full-time job at a marketing company. On payday, I often went shopping with the girls from work. They were spending hours in apparel showrooms and I in photography equipment stores. My bags were much smaller than theirs though because do you know how many dresses you can buy for the price of a camera lens?
I just can’t allow myself to spend an arm and a leg for a single Gucci garment that costs almost half of the price of a new Canon lens.
Besides, I also need flashes, stands, reflectors, softboxes, and maybe one day I’ll even buy the full format.
Actually, how often do we, photographers, even have the chance to wear a dress? Jeans are much more convenient for those of us who are always standing on our knees in front of models or climbing structures still under construction. We love denim. It’s comfortable, firm, and long-lasting. Denim is a photographer’s favorite uniform.
Can freelance photography guarantee a stable income? There is a belief that a full-time job with corporate health insurance and other social benefits is much more secure. Especially nowadays when we live in a world full of financial crises.
In the midst of financial crisis, people get fired. They completely lose their jobs. If they’re lucky, they receive some severance, but it won’t even come close to replacing their salary. And what about photographers? They also have to tighten their belts. Companies cut their costs during crises, and, subsequently, the number of photography contracts. In my experience, the drop can be 20-40%, but never 100%, and lasts just a few months.
However, if you really want to become a self-employed professional I have to warn you about some nuances. It is not enough to just be a talented photographer; you also have to be a talented PR, sales, and marketing manager, plus an accountant.
Sure, you can hire all these people, but:
a budget for salaries will be required; and
having a good handle on the basic principles of these disciplines is still necessary for a success.
You have to begin all by yourself, making mistakes and gaining experience, just as in any other type of business. Once you obtain a stable income, you can hire assistants, educate them, and finally delegate them tasks.
Good assistants are few and far between. Once you find them, cherish and nurture them. Set a fair wage, provide access to gym passes, and gift them with tickets to shows and other spiritual benefits. However, even with all of these perks, there is no certainty that your assistant will not jet off to the Dominican Republic in a search of a momentous change in life. Feel happy for them and start looking for a new one.
Assistants are essential because there is so much work for one photographer to take on alone from the initial stages to post-production. Here is a typical timeline of a project:
- Make initial contact with a client and discuss the possibility of a photoshoot
- Negotiate conditions
- Approve contracts
- Prepare casting, location, equipment, releases, catering, etc
- Manage props
- Convert Raw images into jpg files and send to the client for selection
- Send selected files to a retoucher
- Do final retouch
- Send retouched photos to client
- Finalize the contract
All these things that happen before and after the photoshoot take much more time than the photoshoot itself. Preparing the initial contract and negotiating its conditions can last forever and after all this an actual contract may never pan out. Also, there are plenty of other things to manage, such as social media, advertising, blog posts, comments for the press, non-commercial projects and so much more. Fulfilling all tasks by yourself is an impossible mission even for the Iron Man.
For the past several years, I have been accruing not just a bundle, but a whole warehouse of knowledge. Knowledge about photography, running a business, working with clients, building up solid relationships, managing projects and people, comprehending promotion nuances, and the social responsibility of being a public figure. Even if I decide to go back to school to become a doctor, most of this experience will be extremely helpful.
Once you become good at what you do, you possess a superpower of changing the world. Don’t waste it. There is only is so much that we can do in a 24-hour day. As a photographer, I can contribute to success of a business, to a person’s self confidence, or help a pet in a shelter find a new home. A successful career can give you the potential to decide how exactly you sell or donate your professional time. Making these kinds of decisions about how choose to live your life and the kind of impact you want to make is so much more satisfying than just making money. That is what brings real joy and meaning to our lives.
If someone advises you not to become a photographer, musician, entrepreneur, psychologist, consider ignoring them. Let them take their trivial, secure, traditional paths. Chose your path yourself.