I've been a full-time professional photographer for over ten years, and semi-pro for about ten years before that. So I've been in the photo business for about twenty years. That's a long time! I started out shooting 35mm slide film, added 4x5 large format to my shooting, switched to 6x7 medium format, then gave up film entirely when Canon introduced the 5D. Now I'm still shooting Canon, but it's the 5D Mark III at 24MP. I haven't shot a frame of film for about ten years. And I'm loving being photography even more than I did when I started. Digital has added so many creative possibilities that weren't even options five or six years ago, let alone with film. Very high ISO shooting? Check! Incredibly high burst rates of 15fps or more? Check! Resolution higher than medium format in a 35mm frame? Check! All great stuff. So what's not to love?
When I meet people and tell them I'm a professional photographer, a common reaction is that I have a dream job. And in many ways I do. I get paid to travel to some amazing places. I've been to Iceland, Alaska, Utah, California, and many other beautiful locations to shoot for my clients.
I get to make my own schedule. I'm my own boss. I decide where I want to travel when I'm shooting for myself, and expense it to my business. I sometimes get to choose locations for my photoshoots for clients. This is all great stuff! But there are downsides that you might not realize until you spend a little time thinking about what goes into running your own business. Here are a few things to consider.
Paid vacation or sick leave? Forget about it. In fact, I rarely have a true vacation where I'm not working. I often travel on my vacations to places I love (don't we all?). But if I'm going to be in an amazing destination, it makes business sense to take photos. So I'm often up early for sunrise and late for sunset. I don't get much sleep or downtime on my 'vacation'. As a small business owner, much of the business of office work falls on me. I am the IT department, the accounting department, the office manager, the creative director, the marketing department, and yes, even the photographer of my business. There are a lot of hats to wear.
Of course none of that was a surprise when I became a photographer, but nobody thinks about that when they say I have their dream job. They imagine me on location in some of the most beautiful places in the world all the time. In reality, I do travel and go to beautiful places quite a bit. But more often than not, you'll find me in the office editing photos or sending out marketing emails, or, well, you get the point.
But just as importantly, the business of photography has changed dramatically, especially in the past five years. There has been a flood of great photography entering the market as amateurs post their images on Flickr, 500px, Photoshelter, or microstock libraries like shuttertock and others. And lots of amateurs are selling their work for little or almost nothing, just for the thrill of getting published. Stock photo rates are so low, sometimes images are sold for pennies. Not surprisingly, the rates paid for photo licensing and contract shooting have dropped as well.
But most surprisingly to me, is how there has been a loss of professionalism, not from photographers, but from clients. It would seem that getting paid for images being used is a straightforward transaction. You use my image, and then pay me, right? Unfortunately not. I have one (former) client that I just fired because they refuse to pay sooner than a year and a half after they print my images. That's not a typo. 18 months. the standard used to be 30-60 days after going to print. And they refuse to budge. So I refuse to work with them anymore.
I'm not trying to burst your bubble about me and your dream job. I wouldn't be doing it if I still didn't completely love being a photographer. But just like any job, there are parts of it you just would rather not have to deal with. Photographers have to work much harder now to make a living. And the days of going out and shooting great photos and sitting back waiting for the checks to roll in are long gone (if they ever really existed!). Professional photography, it's not all sunshine and lollipops!