How To Become A Successful Full-Time Photographer In 1 Year: The Ultimate Guide – Part 1
- By: Steven McConnell
Just over 1 year ago I was working 50 hours per week in a cafe, dreaming of some day that I’d quit that job and work for myself.
I remember the day I made the commitment to stop dreaming about this idea and put it into action. I came home from the cafe and began the long process of trying to translate all my thoughts into a something that could be remotely called a photography business.
Of course, nothing I had originally planned turned out to schedule. And the journey has not been a smooth one.
Nonetheless, just over 1 year later, I often find myself pinching myself to remind me it’s all real because I’m spending my weeks taking and editing photos, answering calls from real clients, learning about photography and teaching lessons I’ve learned to others.
It’s not only a dream come true, but a job that I find intrinsically fulfilling and rewarding, there’s enough money coming in to pay the bills and the business is growing fast.
I think there were some key factors which really helped me along this journey. Had I not paid attention to them, I’d be behind where I am now, and if I paid attention to them sooner I’d be a lot further ahead.
It’s my aim here to share those factors with you in hope that the lessons I learned on my journey towards being a full-time professional photographer help you along on yours.
1. Motivations Are Everything.
Your motivations will determine whether the game is lost or won, long before you register a website or start writing down ideas about what your business will look like.
Your motivations provide the context for your actions. For example, if you’re hungry, you’ll go to the fridge – not the garage, right?
Your context, in turn, sets the boundaries inside which you’ll look for a solution to your problem. And that’s a huge thing to keep in mind, because most people buy into the myth that “working hard will yield results”.
And it’s true – hard work is necessary, but without the right context you won’t move your photography ambitions forward because the actions available to you will be limited in their power. Put another way, you simply won’t be able to see all options available to you.
2. Are You A “Getter”?
Let’s take a closer look at your motivations.
Broadly, people are either driven by a desire to get something or to contribute something. And that applies to everything – business, relationships and recreation.
In the context of your photography ambitions, ask yourself this – why are you thinking about quitting your day job and becoming a professional photographer?
- Do you hate your boss?
- Do you want to get rich?
- Do you want to look cool with your latest D1X?
- Do you think that “Rock Concert Photographer” is a much better job title than “Retail Accounts Executive?”
- Do you think you’ll be more popular with the ladies? C’mooon, be honest!
Notice how all those motivations are centered around getting something – be it status, acceptance or freedom from being told what to do.
3. You ARE A Getter! (And That’s The Good News).
And there’s nothing wrong with experiencing motivations of the Getting variety – it’s a perfectly normal human phenomenon. Most people out there who are trying to become photographers are driven by the same thoughts.
But unfortunately it’s also true that most people who want to start a business will never succeed.
And for you it’s actually good news, because it means that if you become aware of, and take control of, your motivations, you’ll find yourself miles ahead of the pack.
If you remember anything, remember this: any time you’re driven by a desire to Get something, you are significantly limiting the scope of actions available to you and the depth of your interactions with people (which will limit your opportunities to do business with them).
4. How To Become A Contributor.
The best businessmen rarely talk about themselves. They spend so much time thinking about your problems that their only problem becomes .. all your problems.
Here’s what I mean. An ineffective (A Getter) salesman is likely to start his conversation with you like this: “I have something great, cheap camera gear for you!” and try to rattle off his pitch before your attention wanes.
A good one will just remark “Hey, I noticed your gear could be up for a replacement soon. I know somewhere you can get it for 20% less than in shops and get extra warranty for free – you want me to send you some details?”
And it’s not because the second guy memorised a better sales script. The second guy walks around, wondering about people’s problems and then tries to fix them. What he says to you just becomes a contextually relevant extension of his motivations.
5. Look For Problems.
Have you ever noticed that when you pay attention to your own problems, your life begins to suck more? But when you focus on problems of others – and especially when you fix them – you feel fulfilled, powerful, alive and connected?
I challenge you to start reshaping your life so it becomes about fixing some problems in the photography community.
And there are no shortage of them. Here are some that I spotted:
- Why is it what it still costs $10,000 to hire a great wedding photographer – how can you bring the price down while maintaining the quality?
- Why is it that big photo studios charge people $2,000 for a quick shoot and some big enlargements – could it be a rip-off?
- Why does a commercial client, going through an agency, have to pay upwards of $20,000 for one photo – can we eliminate the middlemen?
- Why is everyone obsessed about comparing megapixel counts on camera gear spec sheets – how about some real reviews?
- Why are so many photographers out there charging people for work that is below average – how can we educate the consumers?
- Why are so many photographers going out of business – how can we teach them to survive and prosper?
6. Contributor Is A Fixer, Not A Critic.
The temptation here may be to start a blog and begin to share opinions and criticisms. You’ve seen those blogs – bitchy, whiny and trying to be funny through abundance of sarcasm.
I’m not talking about that here. That’s the easy path. You won’t grow through it and it won’t feed your soul, either. Your life is too valuable to spend it blogging about real or imagined grievances.
7. Stand For Something.
Chivas Regal doesn’t sell you whiskey, it sells you sophistication. Harley-Davidson doesn’t sell you a motorcycle, but toughness. When you buy a TAG Heuer watch, you don’t buy a timepiece, but a hint at your ambition and success. A L’Oreal CEO once famously quipped that they don’t sell makeup, but hope.
Most successful businesses don’t sell commodities (i.e., objects or services). They sell a stand for something.
Sometimes those stands are artificially crafted (I argue that’s the case with make-up, for example), but the businesses which are amazing, inspiring, and world-changing (and are the kind of business that I’ll assert you probably want to have) are an organic extension of the original motivations of the person who started the business (is Apple too much of a cliche to cite as an example?)
8. Follow Jobs And Branson.
Read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. And then any of the business books by Richard Branson.
You’ll learn what it means to have a real stand for something. Apple’s stand wasn’t dreamed up by some advertising executive. Sure, it was implemented by them, but it was borne out of Jobs’ stand to fix problems he saw in the world of personal computing.
Similarly, Branson still succeeds to this day by taking on industries where consumers are getting short-changed by lazy businesses.
Make your photography business an organic extension of your stand for a cause you care about.
And don’t try to fake it – or you’ll just become another cheesy salesman with an elevator pitch. Your stand has to be something you deeply care about. And if you don’t care about anything, then don’t start your business today. And don’t beat yourself up over it – there’s wisdom in recognising that it’s not yet the right time for you.
And if that’s the conclusion you do come to, then great – go work for someone else, make more mistakes, learn from them, travel, shag, read, meditate – wait for a deep knowingness within you that you clearly care about something and then use it to create something remarkable.
9. Use This Real-Life Example.
My family photography practice has a stand for something that I deeply care about – closer families.
It’s not something I just pulled out of my butt. Both Irene and I have divorced parents and we both know first hand the damage, the confusion, the missed love and opportunities that kids experience when families fall apart.
Family photography for us is not just about taking snaps, but an opportunity to give families a chance to celebrate each other. We are deeply inspired by the love of families that we meet and form very tight connections with our clients.
It shapes the copy on our website, how we interact with clients, what kind of clients we get and the kind of impression we leave on them.
Importantly, of course, I think it comes through in our photography style as well – as we become more experienced, we focus more and more on bringing out the unique elements of each family and capturing those in a funky, fun, artistic way.
10. Avoid Other Getters.
Internet is full of communities of people who are hoping to get rich quickly and retire. They’re not short of advice (or info-products to sell). I’m talking about all those “online marketers”, so called entrepreneurs and “businessmen”.
They sometimes have sound business knowledge, but I suggest you stay away from them altogether because whatever good business knowledge you get will be offset by the Getting mindset you’ll also absorb by hanging around them.
As a test – if they’re not fixing a problem out there, they’re a Getter. And if they’re selling you on a dream of passive income, they’re a Getter.
(I couldn’t think of anything worse than a passive income. It means I’d have no other way of making myself happy than by spending cash).
My aim here is not to show you how to make money for doing nothing – I don’t know anything about that.
But what I can show you is how to build a photography business which helps you experience happiness and fulfilment through opportunities to create something amazing, through pushing your own boundaries and through making a difference in your field – all while getting paid to do it).
This article is part of a 3-part series about becoming a full-time professional photographer. Read Part 2 here.
Also check out the next series, Becoming a Professional Photographer in 2014, here.