Charlie Borland wrote an interesting piece recently titled Are You Sure You Want to be a Professional Nature Photographer? that I recommend to anyone who’s pondered that thought. I struck a few chords with me when I read it.
This kinda of struck home with me this recently when I realized it was five years since leaving Apple and which ties into that in some ways. Back in 2005, after my nervous breakdown but before I actually decided to leave mama fruit, I started getting serious about my photography. I was doing a lot of thinking and trying to plan forward as well, because at that point, I was seriously trying to figure out if I still wanted to be in high tech (or if I still had what it took to be in high tech), and if so how long.
One of the things I mapped out in some detail was what it would take for me to make the shift from geeking for a living to turning myself into a photographer and writer. The first thing on that list was not (surprisingly) “build a web site offering your prints for sale”, but “you need to get a crapload better as a photographer”.
QT Luong has a fascinating post on his trip down this path. It’s pretty much the path I figured I should take, and I think it’s the path any photographer looking to make this leap should be planning for and working towards.
Every six or nine months I’d sit down and do a formal critique of my work; I’d find comparable imagery from the pros and serious amateurs that I follow and judge myself against and I’d sit and look at my images and ask myself why anyone would buy my image instead of the other one? For a long time, my answer to myself was “I woudn’t” and then I’d set myself goals for the next round and go back to work.
It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve come to feel that my work is “up to snuff”, that I could not only take a quality image, I understood the techniques and mechanics well enough to guarantee quality images and do so reliably; this has been one of the reasons I’ve done the road trips, to put me out of my comfort zones and comfortable areas, and to create a plan for taking images and then following or adapting the plan, rather than going and praying for interesting stuff to happen. I think that’s worked out well overall; even my recent yosemite trip where I ended up seriously dehydrated (grump. oops) I ended up with some decent shots — and a lesson in being more careful for next time.
So I finally decided I was at that point where I could consider beginning that path that QT Luong talks about. So I sat down and mapped out what that meant and how I would start the process — and I decided that I really liked being an amateur.
Here’s the thing; “turning pro” doesn’t mean you stop working for a living and pick up a camera (and magically, your rent gets paid and stuff). In fact, turning pro implies spending a lot of time and energy on sales and marketing, and in a lot of cases, doing even less photography to make room for it. It’s not like I was going to give up my “day job” and hope I’d be making enough money to cover before the savings ran out. So how do you squeeze in building a photography business?
Most likely, by sucking time out of your photography.
I decided I just didn’t need to do that. In the meantime, I’ve fallen back in love with working in high tech and doing what I do, so that initial motivation is muted. And honestly, I can live without the added complexity of trying to stuff something like that into my life right now.
It can wait. Photographs don’t rot in the field, and nothing bad will happen because i choose to NOT try to turn a hobby into a business. I can always change my mind and try it later (or not). If opportunities to sell an image arise, I can do it. but I don’t have to put the time into running a business to take advantage of occasional sales (or get nervous if they don’t happen).
So here’s my advice to others thinking about this; photography, especially nature photography, is a very tough, competitive business. Doing it professionally is a lot of work — work running a business, not holding a camera. It’s not something you’ll succeed at taking images once in a while and putting a website out with a big “buy my prints” sign on it. So ask yourself — take a long, slow walk somewhere and think about this long and hard — whether you really want to walk that path. the reality of being a professional photographer is a lot different than the fantasy I hear from most people who dream of giving up the day job to take pictures. You don’t give up the day job to take pictures — you give up the day job to SELL pictures; you need to have pictures to sell, but you don’t make the money taking them. To some degree, that’s something you squeeze in around the selling.
In my case? It doesn’t make sense. I’m happy taking pictures and sharing them and pissing off photographers who think my sharing images under creative commons is wrong because it might cost them a sale (my answer is: if your images are good enough, they’ll sell. And what have you done for me to warrant me doing you favors?).
This is a personal decision for each of us. I’m happy to have put in the time to improve myself to be ready to go pro; I needed the focus and the goal as I worked through the things going on the last few years (my camera and my wife were the only things that kept me sane in 2008 when I was dealing with dad). But just because I did that, I feel no guilt at choosing to not take that “next logical step” and neither should you.
For me, what matters is the camera, not the sale. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to depend on income from my camera, and I’m happy to have decided to leave it that way and not complicate my life by trying to go pro. And before you take that step down the path, I encourage you to think about it, and think about whether that’s really the right path for you, right now….
Or maybe you should pick up the camera and to shoot something…