There's no getting around it. It's a saturated market out there.
According to a study done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 49,560 photography jobs held in the U.S., earning an average of $42,770 annually. That does NOT include self-employed photographers or the client's niece, who just got a new Rebel and knocked you out of the chance for that job. (Good luck with that, guy!)
On the grand scope of life, there are much harder and worse things than trying to stand out and make a living as a photographer. It's still no cakewalk, though.
So how do you do it? How do you make the jump and go from part-time to a full-time professional photographer?
First, if you're beginning to beam with excitement at the notion that you've finally stumbled across the magic formula for success, that's not what this is. (Also, let me know if you do find that.)
In fact, you can skip all the details if you want and just ask yourself the following two questions:
- What are you willing to sacrifice?
- Are the foreseeable downsides that you will endure more appealing than their alternatives?
What I'm saying is that you can become a full-time photographer, but there is no shortcut.
The answer is precisely what you think it is: Be good, get better, and work your ass off.
That's how to become a full-time, self-employed photographer.
1. Know that You Will Fail
Yeah. Ouch. I don't mean at the whole thing. That's up to you. But you will fail a lot, especially at the beginning. You just have to get up and go again. It's going to happen sometimes, so start making your peace and talking to your therapist about it now.
2. It's a business - Don't pretend otherwise
The idea of being a professional photographer is more romanticized than it's ever been. If you're really going to do this thing, you have to treat it like what it is: a business.
While I wouldn't say that business advice is my forté, you have to, at the very least, know your cost of living and the cost of doing business. It seriously takes 30 minutes to create a very detailed layout of both. Do it, so you know how much you need to make in a given time span. This sounds scary to some folks, but trust me, knowledge is power here!
3. Save Some Money
If you're supporting yourself, have some money saved up before you go full-time, or at least have a couple of constant client streams of income.
4. Know What Makes You You
Every For Dummies photography guide tells you to "find your niche." That's not what I'm talking about here. If you're a wedding photographer, what is it about the way you photograph weddings that makes you unique?
To find out the answer to this question, you have to look at your own mind at work. If you take a playful shot at the reception, what was it in your brain that made you try that shot in that way? THAT is what I'm talking about.
Find out how your brain works, because that is your unique and inimitable competitive advantage.
5. Do Personal Work
This is possibly the very best advice I've ever been given. It may seem small, but the ripple effect of doing personal work is enormous!
Forget what your ideal equipment, setting, and scenarios would be. Take your ideas and whatever you can pull together, and go make some personal images. They can be as playful or as serious as you like, but do this!
In this ongoing exercise, you do two key things:
- You begin to unravel and learn how your own brain works.
- You show others how your brain works.
If one thing has gotten me more work than anything else, it's been my personal projects. Anyone can get technically good at taking an image. It's not hard. No one can create an image in the same way you do.
6. Show Your Work
This is so straightforward. Show your damn work! If you don't put it out there, then no one will ever know that they can hire you to make it. 🤷♂️
7. "The Shit Sandwich"
This is a term used by best-selling author, Mark Manson. Specifically, he asks, "What's your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?"
All it means is that everything sucks some of the time. Whether you work in a 5 x 7 cubicle or in a penthouse by the beach, no career path is 100% bliss. The flavor of shit in the penthouse sandwich may not be something you can stomach.
Gary Vaynerchuk describes it as "being in love with the process." That means the good and the bad.
8. You Can Always Get Another Shit Job
I made multiple "jumps" and had to go back to part-time bartending more than once. If worse comes to worst, I can always go get another shit job and try again. So can you.
9. Don't Go It Alone
Even if you love it, this can be a tough life. You need the support of a community that understands the unique problems that you'll face. You need a community that all you have to say is, "Ugh! Fuck!" and they'll say, "I know. Been there. You got this!"
Find people nearby if at all possible. Find Facebook groups or even professional groups like the ASMP, NPPA, or APA. Whatever it is, plug yourself in. Not only can you all learn from one another, but there will also be a time when you need someone who understands just to vent to.
10. Be Persistent
You're going to hear "no" a lot. You're going to hear nothing at all a lot. You'll have times when you really feel like you're doing it. There will be other times when you feel like the most worthless piece of talentless scum to ever adhere to the underside of Failure's boot.
No matter what, if you really want it bad enough, just—keep—going.
There is no magic bullet. Work hard. Get better. Show your work.
You're going to fail sometimes. That's okay. Try again.
It's a business. Treat it like one!
Do personal work, and get to know your mind.
Find a community.
Be persistent and stubborn as hell!
I write and speak more passionately about this topic than any other. It's because I've been there (and am still there, in many ways), and I believe in you. If this is something that you really want, you can get there. It's just a question of the price and if you're willing to pay it.
A strong community really helps. The Mastin Labs Community is among the best I've ever been a part of! If you're already a part, take full advantage of that. If you're not, come join us! We'd love to have you!