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Tuesday, 15 October 2013


Those percentages make for a pretty sweeping generalisation, I'd say.

As a pro, if you were on a nice travel assignment, you might spend nearly all your waking hours shooting. On the other hand you might be doing a complex studio set-up which could take one or two or more days to build, decorate and light, followed by a few minutes actual shooting. But all that time working the set you are in the role of director (or co-director) which is the same fun as shooting.

I'd have to agree with Bill Owens -- Working: I Do It for the Money

I didn't respond to the "What Would You Do" post, but I did think about it quite a bit. My imaginary assistant would have been doing nothing photography-related, but instead would have been calling me to meals, opening the mail, cleaning house and laundry, while I just worked. This was, to me, the most valuable thing about the couple of sessions I attended at the Penland School of Crafts; you just worked. Meals were great, if you wanted to stop and eat. You could sleep if desired, or you could just work all night. There was no phone to answer, or mail to open. You just worked.

Coming from someone who slogs away all day at a job which has nothing to do with an all consuming passion for photography (not to mentioning dealing with a couple of rugrats when I get home), you have made my day!
Thanks for putting it all in perspective Mike.
David Drake

Thanks. That was just what I needed. For multiple reasons October is always my worst month for photography. After two weeks without taking a decent photo, I was feeling pretty down. It's good to know I'm not the only one who feels bogged down with day to day responsibilities. The good news is: I have four free hours to work on my blog today. Time to turn off the phone and get to work.

Funny, I've been thinking a lot about that very thing. Several times in my life I've contemplated - and even made preparations - to become a "Professional Photographer". I've always ended up with the realization that doing that would probably ruin everything I love about photography. Especially because of the fact that the kind of photography I most enjoy is large format, black & white film photography, which is, well...you know, probably not considered main stream in-demand.

Then it occurred to me that if I were to make a run at being a "Professional Fine Art Photographer", that would eliminate all the undesirable aspects of being a commercial, or other mainstream pro and I could shoot what I want, when I want and all I want and make my living selling prints - ideal right?

Until one considers that any artist, photographer or otherwise, probably spends even more time doing non-artmaking related activities then the former case. Only now, all that time is spent marketing, working to get exhibitions in galleries and shows, art fairs, etc., etc., etc. and unless you truly have something special (odds are, unfortunately, against) not much of a living. There can only be so many Shermans and Gurskys in a given generation.

It's not like an aspiring artist can just while away the days out shooting, then process and print, then shoot some more, ad infinitum until one day some observant critic "discovers" you.

I think I was under the influence of that fantasy for quite some time and unfortunately, that was largely what was driving my productivity - the flawed idea that one day I'd be discovered and then all that work would have been worth it.

Best to make one's living by whatever means they can and keep photography as an amateur pursuit - lest it become nothing more than WORK.

When I was doing it for a living, I actually had a good enough shooting-to-other ratio. I had a couple regular clients, so I didn't spend too much time promoting. The labs and camera shop were in the neighborhood, so that didn't take much time either. What I didn't do enough of is shoot for myself. Once in a while I'd be out on a job and shoot something that looked neat "for the portfolio," but I'd never do a series simply for the art, even though I had the time. I felt I had to be able to sell the picture, or use it to sell other pictures, because that film cost money, after all. I'd hope that photographers working now, in the digital age, feel free to do more personal work since the per-picture costs are so insignificant.

Its not only how much you shoot as a pro, its what you shoot.As a pro you photograph what your customer -your boss- wants. Not what you necessarily want. Thats why I turned down a partnership in a commercial photo business, many years ago. If a pro has a personal project going, either he/she is lucky or not getting enough business. In my profession, I often have two or three bosses, even four, who generally don't agree on much, and I have to sort them out. So for me photography is a chance to do what I want, as much as I want, and if I don't want to do it, I don't have to! You seem to have it better than most photographers. You have few limits on TOP content, although you still have constraints on the implementation and business sides. Many don't have even that much control. THe content, schedule and cost issues are largely beyond their control. And in your situation I suspect that shooting and your images are less likely to get stale.

As an avid reader of your work, it makes me a little sad that you get so little time to produce the excellent writing that we all enjoy so much. I'm not sure what can be done to lessen your administrivial overhead, but if there's anything your loyal readership can do to lessen the load, please ask.

Just my two pesos, but I probably shoot 3x a week. That, for me, is about all I want to do, but when I am not shooting I think to myself "I need to be shooting, SOMETHING or I'm going to go crazy." Go figure.
So I make up little self assignments and they keep me busy. Fortunately, a lot of people still walk around the streets and that fills in my time.
My wife actually mentioned that I should shoot weddings. After over 350 of them back in that day, I will not shoot a wedding EVER again. (That is just a reminder to myself NEVER to shoot another one.)
Anyway, I do what I love and at my age that's about as good as it gets.

...something I learned a long time ago...if you're going to make a financial killing in the photo biz, then by all means be self-employed, but if you're paying all your profit to be in the photo biz, then you're paying down your assets to have a medium income job and work all the time...there are catalog and e-commerce photographers working for retail store chains in the midwest, earning mid-40's to high 60's (and sometimes higher in fashion), who work generally a 40 hour week, then go home and spend time with their families; they get some sort of 401 (K), and some sort of medical benefits, and the most important thing of all: SPARE TIME!

There are also self-employed commercial photographers in the midwest, lucky to gross bill $60K a year, trying to live on that, and relying on their spouses work to provide health care and any retirement, and they shoot, work on the post-processing, spend inordinate amounts of time on the internet managing and developing personal promotional assets, are doing all their own book-keeping and tax work, and are constantly cold-calling clients and trying to expand their assignment log.

If you spend more than a few years like this, the potential isn't there for success, and you'd have a much better life shooting for someone else, and focusing on taking good pictures. It's the ancillary work that's killing you, and that you're never going to get paid for. Even the successful cede a lot of that work, and even post-processing, to others.

Have a life!

I think it is the same way in any profession that you love doing. Before retiring, I taught teenagers gifted in science, math, and technology. I loved to teach. My challenge was to inspire or motivate young people’s interest in science. But more time was spent in preparation of innovative lessons and curriculum (which I enjoyed), dealing with parents and the special problems of gifted students, grading and evaluation of student work, and all kinds of other administrative duties. It was worth it to see those AHA moments and excitement for learning in some of the students willing to express them.

After I retired, I decided it was time to share some of my photography of the past 30-plus years. Going into it I knew it would be about 10% actual photography and 90% business. We started slowly and this year did ten art shows plus an unexpected invitated exhibit at one of our local Academy of Fine Arts galleries.

I would not trade the experience for anything! Yes, there is hard “other” work involved, but I get great pleasure in watching people stop, look at my work, and say “Wow!” Some come into my tent, share feelings or memories that one of my images rekindled in their mind. Some actually purchased my photos. I had a doctor purchase a large framed image that he said would help put his physical therapy patients into a better mood. Another woman purchased an Appalachian Trail image for her mother. It was of the last place the mother had hiked with her terminally ill husband. I love hearing the stories and memories that people of all ages and walks of life share with me. It motivates me to create even more work to share with them.

I do not need the income, but it is beginning to come in, more I suspect, because I am sharing my work instead of just trying to run a business. Doing the photography is only part of the picture. I have a lot to learn, but I am having the time of my life doing the 90% to enjoy the 10%.

This article relates quite closely to your hypothetical from the other day (deliberately, I know, but I like to state the obvious). The thing that grabbed my attention in that post wasn't the promised camera equipment - the idea that got me excited was the idea that for a year, all I'd have to do is photograph. What joy!

The thing I love about my current job is reading, and I barely do any of that.

After returning home from vacation, have you ever noticed how often people say, "now I'm really exhausted, I need a week off".

Goes to show having fun is a lot of work, and by the same logic, laboring at a true vocation is enjoyable, rewarding, pleasurable, in other words, "fun".

Of course, going on vacation has the same features, like the awful annoyance that air travel has become. But because it's for recreation we forget it and just remember it's all for fun.

What we call "work" and "play" are are indistinguishable. It's all the tedium, distractions and impediments to action that takes so much burdensome effort which we identify as work.

Why is it so much trouble doing the same regarding our important life's work? If we are lucky enough to have a sense of "calling", the petty chores we complain about so much have got to be far outweighed by a vision of salient purpose.

Around 90% of my photography income comes from portrait work. Of that, around 60% of that comes from family Fall portrait work done between late September and as far into November as weather allows.

I was heading home from a session a couple of weeks ago around twilight and saw a photo-op of horses beautifully silhouetted and rimmed by a sunset to their rear. I felt like I didn't have time to stop and take the shot - and I didn't (stop, that is).

One of my favorite quotes from Robert Fripp captures this exactly:

"The business of the amateur musician is music. The business of the professional musician is business."

Mike, I agree, taking pictures and processing thru Photoshop are what I enjoy the most. Now I really should get to making books of my favorite local, the city market. I only have 15 to 20 thousand to work on. Oh well maybe I will leave it for the kids to develop. Enjoy your blog, even when people are hollering at you. I learn something even from the bad critics

Well, my feeling is that if you're a photographer who does it because they get satisfaction out of it, then you probably don't spend much time actually taking photographs, Especially in the digital age---

You said it man! Although I do spend a lot of time shooting (probably 10-15 hours of actual photography per week) I generally tell people for every hour in the field, it's at least two on the computer.

The other thing to note is what type of photography you end up doing. Although I'm shooting as much as ever in my job as a college photographer, I'm actually doing LESS landscape photography, which is actually my passion, and which was the high majority of my photography before I began relying on photography to make a living.

Alas, we must all suffer the fate of backend work. And although I'm sure this applies to most professions, I always find it interesting to chat with people who think my job is to just walk around and take photos, not realizing that the photography is just the beginning of the work.

At least now that I'm employed, vs self-employed, I no longer have to work to find more work!

After writing a modestly successful 80-page paperback book on the business of freelance photography, I was lucky when Ben Fernandez asked me to teach on the subject at The New School. The first class of the semester was always fun, but when I asked the question "How many students here consider themselves a businessman or businesswoman?" the one or two hands that hesitantly went up indicated that we clearly had our work cut out for us. Even a professional with an agency like Magnum as support or -- as Mike mentions the Geographic staffer -- spends an inordinate amount of time not taking pictures. If you truly love taking pictures do it as an amateur -- "amare," or "to love" being the basis for the word amateur. Forget trying to make a living as a professional photographer. Especially today when newspapers are laying off staffs en masse and magazines are slowly but assuredly sinking into a sea of red ink.

Well, it's all "work" - the taxes, accounting, phone calls that go nowhere, dealing with less-than-motivated folks. Perhaps "All we want to do" is what we tell ourselves we're principally doing; be that photography, writing, fixing cars, decorating cakes, acting on stage, etc. "Work" is the struggle to do what we really want to do for other people to pay us. (Ahem, IMHO.)

Indeed, what you wrote could describe what I do (scientist) pretty accurately, and I suppose is quite general. For me too, the only period I was doing most of the time what one would imagine a scientist does was as a PhD student.

I hate my job ... but it's a good thing I love photography.


I was thinking about Vivian Maier the other day. I’m sure the process of promoting herself, if she had, would have diminished her output. I guess, for her, it wasn’t about becoming rich or famous. It was the work.

I think we could all echo the sentiment.

Being paid means having to do what other people want. First you have to find them, then negotiate a price, then provide the service, then invoice them, then chase them for money, then do your accounts, then pay tax on the income, then pay yourself and pay tax on that income as well, then start looking for the next customer....etc etc.

Yeah, life is a drag. I am amazed anyone has time to have kids these days, or is that why the population in declining in the western world?

Mike - This little aside is what I latched onto when I read your article today: "I ended up spending most of my time in the darkroom, because I enjoyed crafting prints more than taking pictures."

I thought I was the only one who felt that way back then. I don't feel that anymore - do you?

We ought to talk about it sometime.

I like shooting. I like making prints (when my printers cooperate). I hate marketing and my sales reflect that. :-(

As a retired office worker, what amazes me about photography (especially working with models) is how damn physically hard the work is. A few hour shoot is the equivalent of many hours at most jobs, but great fun.

The other problem with working for yourself, at least in my experience, is that it turns out your boss can be a real jerk.

Ha-ha. Only serious.

Here's a view point, if makes any difference to those on the fence:

The amount of pictures I took every year that meant something to me, when I was a professional studio commercial photographer: About 2.

The amount of pictures that I took every year that meant something to me when I was a studio manager and photography director: Many more than 2!

Unless you control exactly what you're doing professionally, and only do exactly what you like, doing anything you love for business will kill it for you....

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