Are you struggling to make it as a professional photographer? Here are the top five warning signs that your career is headed for failure, and how to overcome your own self-defeating habits.
Over the past 15 years that I've been in the photography industry, I've met hundreds of photographers around the world, from highly successful professionals to struggling artists trying to make it as a pro. One thing I've learned from contact with such a range of photographers is that there are common traits among those who thrive in this industry and those who quit.
Here are some of the top warning signs that you might be losing your struggle to become a professional photographer.
You're Letting Your Gear Control You
Whether your gear is a low-budget starter set or your have an advanced kit with all the best bodies and lenses, it's easy to get trapped in the gear wars and lose sight of what's most important.
My first DSLR was a cheap Canon EOS Rebel series kit. I had just one lens, the standard 18-55 f/3.5-5.6, and eventually bought a 50mm f/1.8 to achieve background blur for basic portraits. This is pretty much the least expensive gear you can own, and I made it work for nearly ten years. I invested in travel rather than gear, and was forced to be creative to compensate for the limitations of my gear. It was a great way to grow as a photographer.
Today I shoot with a Canon 6D and have a full kit ranging from 16-24 f/2.8, 24-105 f/4, 70-200 f/2.8, and most recently a lovely Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Lens. Ironically, I find myself limited in other ways now. Now I get hung up on which lens to use, and find myself swapping out quite often rather than focusing on capturing the moment.
The lesson is this: don't get so hung up on your gear that you're ashamed to shoot with what you've got. Don't be so obsessed with upgrading that you put off shoots you could otherwise handle just fine with your current kit. Learn to work around your limitations. Control your gear, don't let your gear control you.
You're Not Sure If You Can Run a Business
The business of photography actually has very little to do with photography, and a whole heck of a lot to do with business skills. Once you've mastered your photography skills, being successful is all about being able to sell yourself.
If you find business management and marketing cringe-worthy, if you feel guilty asking to be paid for your work, or if you have trouble organizing a shoot schedule, you may want to reconsider how you approach your photography career.
I've seen too many photographers struggle with this. Many love the idea of being a photographer, but have zero skills or interest in actually starting a business. Whether you're running a service photography business shooting portraits and weddings for a fee, or you're working commercial jobs shooting campaigns, you still need to know how to sell yourself and stay organized or your business will stagnate.
If you realize your not really interested in running your own business, that's okay, it doesn't mean you can't be a successful photographer. You just need to work with an agent or partner with a business manager. The key is to discover the right path for yourself as soon as possible to avoid wasting time and wrecking your confidence.
You're Not Advancing Your Skills
No matter who you are and how advanced your talent, you can always learn more. Especially when photography software and tools are constantly improving. This means doing things like joining a photography community to learn from others, attending photography workshops to improve your techniques, or even just browsing YouTube for photography tutorials.
When I think back over the course of my photography career, my least impressive work was produced back when I wasn't focused on professional development. Back in the beginning, I never really analyzed my own shoots or considered how to improve them. In order to grow, you have to learn, practice, critique, and repeat. Whether you prefer the self-taught route or formal instruction, keep moving forward, keep learning, and keep improving always.
You're Not Networking
Knowing other photographers will help you grow as a photographer. It will also help you find opportunities in your field. From photography groups here on Fstoppers, to sharing on Instagram and posting to groups on Facebook, to real-life photography meetups and photowalks, getting to know other photographers is a great way to share skills, swap gear, and partner up on shoots and photographic endeavors.
All of my big travel photography gigs have come from hard work and hitting the pavement. Networking itself, especially on social media, can nearly be a full-time job. But it always pays off, and it's both inspiring and enriching to discover the work of fellow photographers. Share your work regularly and connect with like minds to encourage your own growth.
You're Not Being Proactive
When you're just starting out, it's all too easy for the days and weeks to slip by and before you know it, there's a fine layer of dust on your camera bag. The only way to grow as a photographer is to shoot, and the only time shoots happen are when you make them happen.
This is the number one reason I see most photographers fail. They stop planning shoots, they stop picking up their camera, and their career simply fades out before it ever really takes off.
Even if you have a day job, or you're remodeling your house, or have six little kids at home, it doesn't matter. You need to shoot every single week. No excuses. This is the minimum amount I've settled on to keep your skills in check and keep on pace for business growth. It doesn't matter if you're shooting an elaborate series or you're shooting a fly on the wall. Be creative. Just keep shooting, take it seriously, and aim to improve week after week.
I have to give props to my friend Jason Keomany of Visual Soul Photography. He's a model photographer in this regard: a great husband and father with a full-time day job, and yet he manages to produce work constantly. Follow him if you want inspiration from a great Detroit photographer who makes it happen.
Becoming a professional photographer isn't easy, but it's very rewarding and very possible if you continue to improve and don't give up.
Are you struggling with your photography career? What's holding you back? Let us know your biggest challenge in the comments below.