Stuff that sucks about becoming a photographer (and what you can do about it)

Photo by: Liz cooper

Photo by: Liz cooper

This post is mostly for other photographers, especially those just starting out, or considering a career in photography.

I’m going to talk about photography-related stuff, but first just hear me out for a second. I need to provide some context for what I’m about to say.

I’ve always been a stubborn person. When I got pregnant and had a baby, then two more, all during grad school, I convinced myself that it was no big deal. That things were largely easy, and any frustrations I experienced were because of my disorganized nature, or other personal failings.

Never once did I admit to anyone - including to myself - that parenting is difficult, that pregnancy can be shitty, that it’s not super fun when breastfeeding infants make your nipples bleed, and that kids eliminate your social life, delay your career progression, etc.

In fact, if you ask me today, I’m still on the fence about whether this constitutes ‘difficulty’, though I’ve experienced all the above.

My point is - I like to tough things out because I secretly think nothing good comes in life without a measure of struggle.

So. When I became a photographer, it was during a pretty shitty time for me. I’ve written about it before on social media, but I’m going to recap:

  • In 2014, we moved to Kingston, where jobs are scant. I wanted to become an assistant professor at Queen’s university. I held out for a couple of years and taught classes there as an adjunct, waiting for a job opening. No one really cared too much about my situation, and eventually they gave my courses to established faculty who wanted them (and who got first dibs, because they weren’t adjuncts) without telling me. The message was clear: I was a lost and easily replaceable cog in a lonely machine.

  • I needed to pay bills. We had started a hobby farm - our dream for over a decade - but with three growing kids and many animal mouths to feed, my patience was running low.

  • Along with financial strain and an old farmhouse that seemed to fall further into disrepair with every passing day, there came marital tensions. Fritz and I fought more than before. Resent built up. We were both trying so hard, and yet we constantly felt like we were failing.

  • Something HAD TO GIVE.

  • I stumbled across paid photography randomly when a friend asked me to photograph the birth of her baby. I didn’t know what to charge, so she set the fee.

  • I realized I might be able to do this as a living.

me, making my usual face…. (photo by Liz cooper)

me, making my usual face…. (photo by Liz cooper)

That’s how things began. I dove into it full force, but with the same unrelenting attitude of stubborn denial about things being difficult.

When people said, “it will take you five years to get this thing off the ground,” I gave myself one year.

When people said, “you will burn out”, I said no way.

Whatever difficulties people presented to me at the time, I bounced them off like ping pong balls. I didn’t want to consider that this new venture could be as complicated as the previous one I’d walked away from.

That’s the history. Along the way, over the past four years, I’ve learned a lot. Most of it through personal experience, and some of it from interacting with other photographers who have shared things with me.

So let’s get to some things about photography that SUCK. :) I promise this will end happy.

This short list of some of the bigger items. I’ll only admit they suck if I’m permitted to tell you how you can make them NOT suck. So for each thing I’m going to talk about, I’ll give you an idea about how to flip it on its head and learn and grow from there.

  1. Photography is a hyper-saturated field. Everyone and their cat can become a photographer. All you need is an entry level body with a kit lens, and a business name.

    You’re competing with a crap-ton of people, many of whom are happy to undercharge, or - hell - even do shoots for free. I know it because I’ve done it.

    Lots of the photographers who are competing against each other are not yet any good at what they do. They’re producing low quality work, lured by the potential income. This all leads to my next point.

  2. Most people can’t tell the difference between a good photo and a bad photo.

    Lots of people just want to pay a little bit of money and get some photos. Most people who aren’t trained photographers can’t discern nuances in photography. Just yesterday, I had an old client call me on the phone to rant about ANOTHER photographer who was charging $120 for five portraits… (I told him I charge five times that, but the whole thing was my fault, because I’d gotten him used to paying next to nothing for photography). Most folks will be excited for photographs of themselves, even if they’re overexposed, poorly lit, and horribly edited. Plus, it’s not their job to police the quality of the work.

  3. The photographic community is closed off. Everything about being a photographer in the early years is set up to pit one photographer against another like. Even if you’re not directly competing with someone, you might be seen as threatening to them for other reasons - for instance, your potential success might be a reminder to them that they themselves aren’t as successful, etc. Or, they might begrudge you for trying to take a faster path toward financial success than they themselves took. People are reluctant to help each other out. No one talks about this very openly, but when you meet with individual folks, they all tell the same story: when they started, they reached out to the community that they thought would welcome them with open arms, only to hear crickets in response.

  4. There is not enough work if you’re a specialist or niche photographer. Everyone says to specialize, but unless you’re in a huge city (and even then, because of #1), there is just not enough of a clientele to afford you being a specialist. So you need to do stuff you hate doing, be a generalist, take every shoot that comes your way, and cut deals with people left and right; which will inevitably lead to burnout.

  5. No one talks openly about their struggles. Few people seem to want to discuss how many bookings they have (or don’t have), or how many times they’ve made a deal for a client, or how frequently they’re working for less than they should be. People talk about “the burnout” as if it’s an inevitable thing that comes with enough years being in the field. They rarely talk about strategies to avoid it, because they themselves are feeling lost and overwhelmed.

OK, that’s five things that truly suck about photography. There are probably lots more, but let’s start there.

So, most of these can be viewed from different lenses, and can either be SUPER SUCKY or be almost untrue, depending on your stubbornness & denialist level.

But let’s assume they’re 100% true in every community, and let’s see what can be done.

HERE IS HOW THESE SUCKY THINGS CAN BE ACTUALLY GOOD THINGS!

  1. Photography is a hyper-saturated field = GOOD THING.

    HOW IT’S A GOOD THING: There are a few ways you can go when you enter the field of photography. You can either get acquainted with your individual strengths real quick, and follow your talents and passions, or you can choose to ride the trend wave. Neither is necessarily a good or bad thing, but it just means you have to self-evaluate, which is ALWAYS a good thing.

    You have to ask yourself: what do I really want from this career? What is important to me? Do I put more emphasis on being unique, expressing myself creatively, being an artist; or do I prefer to feel the thrill of creating photographs based on the latest trends, thus always needing to stay current, keep track of fashions in the industry, etc. Both have pros and cons, but both require a specific type of personality, and being in a hyper-saturated field means you’ve got to consider these things EARLIER on in your career (enabling you to make smarter choices earlier on, hopefully).

    BOTTOM LINE: A hyper-saturated playing field can actually lead you to find yourself quicker.

  2. Most people can’t tell the difference between a good photo and a bad photo = GOOD THING.

    HOW IT’S A GOOD THING: When you’re first starting out, you’re going to produce some work that won’t measure up to what you’ll be doing five or ten years later. It’s just a fact. No one sprints before they can walk. The fact that most of the clients you have will be forgiving of this means that you don’t have to beat yourself up over all your mistakes. In fact, you’ll likely be your own worst critic.

    This also means that people will be willing to vouch for you not solely based on your photography, but based on the kind of service you provide to people. Just being a decent human, treating people well, goes a LOOONG way. You’ll start to accumulate a little tribe of folks who support you because you took their photos and treated them well, even if you’re still learning and growing. Even if the photos you took of them will one day remind you of how many mistakes you used to make.

    BOTTOM LINE: Use your early years to connect with clients that don’t expect huge things from your photography, but who will become your tribe.

  3. The photographic community is closed off = GOOD THING.

    HOW IT’S A GOOD THING: Look, I totally get this. Coming from an amazing experience in the Netherlands, where my fellow academics all supported each other; co-wrote grants; helped edit each other’s papers; watched and critiqued each other’s presentations… It was difficult to be faced with a completely blank slate when transitioning to photography. This was additionally hard for me because Kingston was a new town. I had no friends here. I hoped that I could meet fellow photographers who would become my friends.

    I did reach out to lots of folks, asked people to go for coffee, etc. Lots of those didn’t pan out. But you know what? Some did! I met a handful of folks with whom I can go to for advice or share my struggles. One of the people I met in those early months - Liz Cooper - has been a friend and invaluable photography mentor since then. (She took that photo of me up there)

    So, just because not EVERYONE will be your friend doesn’t mean that SOMEONE won’t be your friend. When you’re just starting out, you don’t need a billion voices telling you what to do and guiding you. You need just a FEW voices, to support and encourage you. Don’t stop reaching out to folks, but also don’t get caught up on knowing everyone. I imagine if I were a lawyer, I wouldn’t know every other lawyer out there in my field… (or would I? I dunno…)

    Another bonus to keeping your community small at first is that you will be able to develop yourself as a businessperson & photographer without the insecurities that come from comparing yourself to other more established players in your field. You should NEVER do that, anyway. Comparison is the root of all evil.

    BOTTOM LINE: Learning from others is good; comparing yourself to others is not. Keep your community small & strong at first to avoid overwhelm.

  4. There is not enough work if you’re a specialist or niche photographer = GOOD THING. (Really???)

    HOW IT’S A GOOD THING: I admit, I struggled with how this is a good thing. It can be a real problem, especially in smaller communities. But the chances are, there’s folks out there who will love what you do, if only you could reach them. This is where marketing and branding become huge. And to market and brand successfully, you need to be YOURSELF. Which ties in to #1 FINDING YOUR STRENGTHS, and #4 SPECIALIZING. If you have a clear vision of what you want to do, you will become excited about that thing. And believe me, excitement goes a long way to convincing folks that they should be excited, too.

    By the way, if you don’t have a clear vision when you start, then this isn’t so much a problem anyway. Then you can afford to take a few years and try out different things. This is the route I took. I tried out all sorts of photography - portraits, commercial, food, real estate, you name it - while narrowing more closely on weddings & family documentary photography. The early years for me were about experimenting and learning. When the point of burnout came, I knew what I had to do - specialize. I cut off most of the dying branches of my business (all the side gigs that hadn’t been bringing me joy), and my mental well-being improved. So did my focus and energy. I could now channel everything I had back into those things I knew I loved.

  5. No one talks openly about their struggles = GOOD THING.

    HOW IT’S A GOOD THING: I remember chatting with people about the daily routines of parenthood. People would say, “that sounds so hard and overwhelming,” to which I’d return, “well, but you have this huge motivation to do it because you love your children! It’s rewarding!”

    But you can’t convey that easily. It has to be FELT.

    Talking ad nauseam about the difficulties of a particular field - be it photography or academia or parenting - runs the risk of turning people off before they’ve ever tried it for themselves. Each new endeavour has its challenges. Often these same challenges are felt by everyone in that specific field. But knowing only about the challenges isn’t helpful. So I’m all for finding a balance.

    For that reason, I think it’s good that not everyone talks openly and constantly about their struggles with being a photographer. If they did, you might not have entered the field in the first place.

    And while it’s true that most people won’t talk publicly about what they’re struggling with, you’ll find that once you spend some time with them - become a friend or a part of the community - they are more than candid about things.

    It also helps here to be a bit pragmatic. Ask questions. If you’re struggling with bookings, then approach someone who seems to get a lot of bookings and see if they offer mentorships, or if they have any general words of wisdom for you.

    BOTTOM LINE: Everything comes in good time. You have to have some patience, and set yourself up for the long haul. Build communities slowly, but know that growing pains are a normal part of any career.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

When I first got into photography, I was largely flying blind. I stumbled across difficulties one by one, and somehow I made my way through them, sometimes quickly, other times - not so much.

If you’re just getting started and this whole thing is feeling overwhelming, then don’t hesitate to reach out. I offer mentorships and other ways to support you, as do many of my peers.

If you’re feelings overwhelmed and tired, drop me a line, leave me a comment, or email me at info@viaramileva.com and we can connect.

And if you have your very own story of career changes, or how you came into photography and overcame some obstacles, please get in touch! I’d love to hear from you :)

I clearly have plans for that ice-cream (photo by liz cooper)

I clearly have plans for that ice-cream (photo by liz cooper)