How I Became a Professional Photographer

 A few weeks ago in England, I checked my email one morning at Vanessa’s aunt and uncle’s house in Chester, and found a message that interested me. It was from a young man I didn’t know personally, and he asked me what it took to “make it” in photography. I chuckled at first, because, even though his message was very earnest, the wording implied that I had hit some kind of jackpot and was now sitting pretty, which was, and is, far from the truth. I wrote back a short response and got on with my day, but the interaction stuck in my mind. I thought more and more about it, and realized that the young man’s perception of my self-employment was not unlike my own vision of what I wanted my life to be like in 2008, when the first notion of photography for money entered my head. Back then, I too dreamed of “making it”, rolling in the loot my photos provided me, and living like a rock star. Well, 3 years after I first realized what I wanted to be, I’m living it – but it’s far different (and much more rewarding) than I had initially thought.

 As of September 2010, I have been a professional photographer. I define this as the moment where the majority of my income changed from working for someone else (in my case, as a waiter and bartender) to being a self-employed picture-taker for hire. I still have several small income streams I maintain on the side (More on this later) but these rarely amount to more than 150 bucks a week, and aren’t enough to cover my basic monthly bills, much less jetting to Europe, which I was able to do three times in a 6 month period this winter.

 My transition from burnt-out waiter to self-employed creative professional is worth sharing because it can be done by anyone. I am not special. I’m a terrible procrastinator, I have no organization or attention span, and like so many people I’ve talked to, I just never thought I would be able to swing a creative endeavor as an actual profession, despite years of developing my craft. I eventually reached the tipping point after a few years of very-tolerable-yet-personally-unsatisfying work in the restaurant industry, and I started looking at things I needed to be doing differently to be able to wake up in the morning and work on what I wanted to.

 This isn’t a tell-all, and I am in no way an expert (or anything close to it) in photography or small business. Nor is this an overnight success story – I had spent two solid years teaching myself photography and lighting, and struggling to profit off it, before I was able to. But several small changes contributed to me being able to make the transition – The best part? Many of them had little or nothing to do with photography itself, and not only helped me make money off my passion, they improved my life in many other unrelated ways. I lost weight, I traveled more, I consumed less, and in general have been happier than I’ve ever been. I’m just getting my feet wet – I have many years ahead of me in this journey, and a ton more to learn, but if I can help at least one person with this post, then I’ll consider it a success.

Here are ten things, in no particular order, that I started doing that helped me make my photography business my main source of income.

 #1 – I redefined my goals.

As I mentioned at the start of this essay, my goals was often undefined and skewed in the first few years – I was frustrated because I wasn’t “in magazines” and taking part in other events that, in my mind, seemed like the gateway to “making it”. At the end of last summer, as The Diamond’s Edge was about to close and I was soon to be unemployed, I thought about what my goal really was, and, in an exercise introduced to me through Chris Guillebeau’s “The Art of Non-Conformity”, I began to pinpoint HOW I WANTED TO SPEND MY TIME in my day to day life, imagining that money was not a factor. Here’s what I came up with.

Taking photographs, editing photographs, collaborating with small businesses and individuals, working on growing my business, spending time with my girlfriend and family, hanging out with friends and planning social gatherings, eating good food, exercising, reading and listening to music, and traveling 2-4 times a year.

 Suddenly, my goal was much more tangible. I went from being someone frustrated that he hadn’t gotten an undefined “big break” to someone who wanted to make money taking photographs, to realize a specific list of preferred day-to-day activities. I now spend the vast majority of my time on the above activities, and the best part is that often, four or more of them are taking place simultaneously.

Try the exercise. It takes no time at all. Remember that everyone, myself included, is quick to say that more money is the answer to most problems. Hey, I’m a huge fan of money myself, but MONEY IS JUST A MEANS TO AN END. Once you have it, you still need to fill your days. How would you fill yours? When you actually write down how you want to spend your time, you may find that it costs far less than you imagined.

 #2 – I ignored magazines and other gatekeepers.

Back in 2009 and even early 2010, I would routinely “cold-call” in the form of email, various magazines and publications, asking (read: begging) them to let me shoot for them. It makes me laugh/cringe to think back on this practice. To quote Seth Godin, “If you run into Elton John at the diner and say, “Hey Elton, will you sing at my daughter’s wedding?” it hurts any chance you have to get on Elton John’s radar. You’ve just trained him to say no, you’ve taught him you’re both selfish and unrealistic.”

This was exactly what I was doing. It’s really funny, and embarrassing, to look back on. The best part? When I finally realized how little being in magazines (or being recognized by any media source in general) meant to me, I stopped wasting time emailing them, and focused on projects where people actually emailed me back, and I was actually doing what I set out to do – Get paid, not get recognized.

 The same policy of ignoring gatekeepers holds true for this blog – When I was writing The Wedding Photography Manifesto, I wondered whether or not I should appeal to New England based Wedding Blogs for affiliate advertising. When I examined all the wedding blogs on my facebook radar, what I saw was a TON of loud, noisy, advertisement-filled sidebars, combined with a TON of really crappy writing. Nope, no AdSense for me, thank you. Keep your two cent click-throughs, I don’t want them.

 Does this mean I’m anti-magazine, or anti affiliate advertising? Absolutely not. When a magazine calls, I’ll be ready to go. But it’s not logical for me to appeal to these outlets right now, when I have much more productive ways to get recognized/hired through, that are currently within my reach, not a shot in the dark that will actually lessen my credibility. Don’t blindly appeal to bigger institutions. Spend time making connections, and earn the right to ask / be considered.

 #3 – I realized that gear was not the answer.

I have routinely fell victim to the plague of photographers everywhere – The belief that better gear will lead to better images / a better business. This is a tough rut to get out of – especially when you’re first starting out, have no credibility and a weak portfolio, and saving up for a new camera seems like an easier route than the slow, arduous, trial-and-error process of teaching yourself how to take great pictures with the equipment you’re already working with. Well, it’s tough to swallow, because it means more work, but a more expensive camera will not automatically lead to better pictures. Instead, you need to put the time in, learn your craft, and maximize the potential of what you already have at your disposal. The rest will follow.

 #4 – I kept some insurance.

This one is controversial for sure, because many established professionals, including people I have worked for and look to for guidance, will tell you that sooner or later you come to a point where you need to go all-in, to take the plunge, and quit everything else to focus on your goal of photography. Well, I didn’t. Like many people in my shoes, after a young adulthood of working in traditional lines of employment – for wages, tips, etc. – the idea of self-employment scared the shit out of me. I knew it had to happen, but at the same time, I wasn’t about to put myself on the street, or go into major debt. I began my quest in September 2010, with three alternative lines of income. The catch was that I made sure even all three alternative income sources combined couldn’t pay my basic living expenses. So there was no real safety in these streams, just a mental tie to the ways of traditional employment, that I could slowly whittle away at. I still had to make it happen for myself. The three streams dropped to two, which dropped to one (currently), which I anticipate dropping soon as my busy season starts to take off. Taking the plunge doesn’t necessarily mean going broke. Give yourself the hours of the day you need to launch your business, but keep some small alternative income streams going to help at first.

 #5 – I started spending my money consciously.

This was one of the biggest factors by far in my transition. Like most people in the restaurant industry, when I was working as a waiter I would go out for food and drinks on a whim, all the time. This is a common occurrence in the industry, as any past or present food service employee reading this will attest to. It manifests itself in many ways – drinks/apps at neighboring restaurants between shifts on a double, breakfasts at diners in the morning before your 11:30 am start time, etc. I took this to a whole new level working at Diamond’s Edge Restaurant, where, during the summertime, five to six nights a week, my cronies and I would get dropped off by the ferry in the heart of the Old Port, with hundreds of dollars of cash in our pockets and a thirst on our lips after a 14-hour day on “The Rock”. Bad recipe for saving money. As fun as that period of my life was, I was glad when it ended last September. With no more $350 Saturdays in my future, the constant eating/drinking out stopped too. I learned how to make simple, cheap, delicious and nutritious food at home. My roommates and I started having people over and cooking, as opposed to constantly eating out. After a long day, the same relaxation that used to be found after a 35 dollar pub tab was found in a 3 dollar bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s. In doing this, I found that I could spend an average of 60 dollars on food and wine for a week and be fine. Added bonuses-

-Hundreds of dollars saved each month

-Expanded knowledge of food, cooking, and where food comes from

-15 lbs of fat lost while not making any drastic changes in lifestyle

-Much more time spent with friends at mealtimes through group home-cooked dinners, breakfasts, etc

Hey, I still love restaurants and bars, don’t get me wrong. But going out to eat for the hell of it, especially at junk places, is just a waste of money. I currently reserve eating out for birthdays, holidays, special events, or friends visiting from out of town, and I only go to the best places, so it’s more of a treat. Believe me, The Grill Room once a month beats Denny’s and Applebee’s three times a week. Spend consciously and you will save tons of money. Period.

 #6 – I diversified.

In many cases, this tactic goes against the old guard mentality of photography, which states more or less to “do one thing the best”. I went against this out of necessity, since I needed to diversify to make enough money to reach my target monthly income. It involved a lot of hustle and often doing initial gigs for free to gain the trust of the new industry or social scene I was breaking in to. Doing small things for free has always yielded a monetary return on investment for me. I’m just one example, and I’m sure there are plenty of people that will say otherwise, but in my experience, If you give someone a taste for free, they’ll be back to pay for more, if your product is good. This is often referred to as the “Drug Dealer Business Plan” or something similar. This strategy is also great as a photographer to break into new industries where you haven’t proven yourself yet. Using this tactic, I diversified, and did work for-

 -clothing companies, both local and international

- a yoga studio

-families/children

-business card head shots

-modeling head shots

-beauty pageant head shots

-band studio shots

-band live shots

-small business websites of varying types

-engagements

-PR events

-restaurants

-corporate staff photos

 It may seem like I’m a “jack of all trades, master of none”, but hey, I’m paying the bills and having a blast. I plan to keep diversifying, here are some areas I’m targeting this summer-

 -fine art sales

-travel

-stock photo sales

This point may be argued, but at the end of the day I would rather do it all than do one thing. This has proved to be far more profitable for me.

 #7 – I ignored my competition.

I used to study the webpages of studios/individuals I viewed as “competition”, to “study” what I was or wasn’t doing right. Well, now I realize that producing quality images has little to do with running a successful business. Take a peek on Flickr, where in addition to being able to see great work by pros, thousands of amazing, breathtaking images are produced and showcased by people who work day jobs, and only do photography as a weekend hobby (I pray some of these people don’t decide to go into business, I’ll be screwed!). There will always be someone who’s pictures aren’t as good as yours but who’s KILLING it with their business and doing way better than you, just as there will always be someone who views photography as a hobby, but has images that blow yours out of the water. I still look around me all the time, but it’s not to “study the competition”, it’s to get inspiration, and to learn. Learn, study, get informed, but at the end of the day no one else is running YOUR business, and what they’re doing doesn’t matter nearly as much as you might think.

 #8 – I made it my job.

One of the things I learned quickly after starting this endeavor is that when you become self-employed and/or start working from home, nothing else changes. The rest of the world goes on without you. No boss is calling you to ask why you’re late. After working in traditional jobs since age 16, this was a slow transition. I would wake up in an empty house- my roommates were working, and unless I was shooting, had no particular place to be, for the most part, in the mornings. Well, it took a while before I finally realized that I had PLENTY of work to do, but I was the only one who was going to motivate myself to do it. So I started viewing anything past 9:00 am as “sleeping in”, and gave myself rough to-do lists for each day. I found that it’s much easier to plan for 3-4 larger things per day than 25 tiny things. I’ve come a long way since last September. I’m still probably on Facebook more than I should be, but I’m getting there. Being self-employed doesn’t mean working any less. It will take some getting used to, but becoming disciplined with your time is key.

 #9 – I focused on creating, not commenting.

For years, I was content to blast images on Facebook, revel in the comments and messages I got about them, take more pictures, blast them off……but do little else. Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook, and many potential clients still use this as their means to reach out to me. But I’ve learned that Facebook is low-risk and low-involvement (which is why it is used by 50 million people, and, why everyone including the local hardware store has a facebook fan page). Look at your Facebook or twitter newsfeed. How much of it is interesting, original content, and how much of it is material created by someone that is retweeted, reblogged, or reposted by someone else? Facebook (or Twitter) is great for marketing and spreading your message, but it is low-involvement and largely built on discussing already-existing material. I still devote time to this, but I also now make plenty of time for creating- In the form of new images, new business contacts, and studying/reading up on ways I can do what I’m already doing better.

 #10 – When things got stressful, I examined the alternatives.

I’m not the most mellow, stress-free person you’ve ever met. Since last September, there have been moments where I have totally freaked out. It might be a big expense like a car repair, or just a slump where I feel like I have no talent and that this will never pan out. During these times, I always started to reconsider what I was doing, and to return to the safety of a “real job” seemed very alluring. But that was all it usually took for me to get back on track. It wasn’t the fear of failure, it was the fear of living out my life in relative comfort and safety while doing something unfulfilling. That is the scariest thing I can imagine. Usually, when I get in a slump, this is all I need to think about to get back on track.When you get stressed out over your choice to live an unconventional life (and you will), consider going back to the safe, expected route. Usually, this will be all the motivation you need to snap out of your slump.

So there you have it. If you got through this whole article, congratulations, I know it was lengthy, but I appreciate you taking the time.

As I said earlier, in case you somehow haven’t figured this out yet, I’m no expert. I have no answers, no secret recipes for success. But what I DO know is that the last nine months have been some of the most personally and professionally rewarding of my life, and have given me the confidence I need to continue with what I’m doing. I’ve got a long way to go, and I’m still learning every day – Currently at the top of my docket are obtaining health insurance, and figuring out a way to buy a new car. But I’ve had so much fun since I started this, made more money than I ever thought I could have, and enjoyed a much higher degree of control over all aspects of my life, with more time and flexibility than I’ve ever had before.

If I can do it, so can you. Probably better. So give it a shot. You don’t have to risk much to get something going on the side, you just need to be determined.

 If this article inspired you or helped you in any way, shoot me an email at Peter@peterjensenbissell.com, or share it with friends, it would mean a lot to me. Also, if you think I’m full of shit, I’d love to hear about that too. At any rate, thanks a ton for reading. Cheers!

About Peter Jensen Bissell

Commercial Photographer and aspiring brewer. Documenting interesting clients, Observations on Portland life, and marketing/biz ideas for photographers,
This entry was posted in General Photography, Maine Small Business and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How I Became a Professional Photographer

  1. catherine frost says:

    All great advice and solid approach. I have felt some of the things I am doing are “wrong” – but if they have brought you success, I am going to keep the faith that my internal compass is pointing me in the right direction. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Robert says:

    Excellent article! And very similar to how I became a full-time photographer.

  3. Pingback: Found this interesting,..

  4. Andrew says:

    Excellent article, thank you for writing it. I’m on my way to this (hopefully) You give me inspiration to keep working to make a transition from uninspired mediocre employee, to self employed photographer doing what I have a passion for.

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