Zenfolio | Heatwave Photography | What it's really like being a professional photographer

What it's really like being a professional photographer

April 18, 2016  •  3 Comments


I lied by omission. It wasn’t my intent to lie, but when I originally published this piece, it was a watered down version of the truth. Scrubbed clean for public consumption. Because no one wants to hear that there’s a dark side to being a creative. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to admit to it at that stage. To admit that it’s often hard. You’ll go through phases where it’s so difficult that you spend your days longing for a job. A job where you’ll have security, however fragile that may be. A job where your path is set out for you and trailblazing is not your concern. It sounds so easy. It’s not realistic though. Once you’ve worked as a freelance photographer the chances aren’t good that you’d be employable again. Skilled? Absolutely. Able to do the same job for the same boss day in and day out? Not so much.

Amateur photographers have the luxury of playing around while learning their craft, but professionals have to produce excellent results consistently. This is the good, the bad and the ugly of being a professional photographer:

  1. Your personality type may predispose you to perfectionism.

In his book, Why You Act The Way You Do, author Tim LaHaye analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of different personality types. Each person is a blend of two personality types, and it’s almost guaranteed that creatives will have a strong melancholic side to their personality. In the book, LaHaye says that melancholy individuals are creative, analytical individuals who have aesthetic traits. They are often plagued by feelings of inadequacy in spite of recognized talents and creativity. See page 125 if you’d like to take the personality test.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that being a perfectionist is a good thing. If you’re that way inclined, chances are good that your work will be of a high standard, and you’ll serve your clients with excellence in mind. Nothing wrong with that, right? It becomes problematic when you delve into perfectionism and get to the root of it. In an interview with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday, author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, says “It’s what I call the haute couture, high-end version of fear... perfectionism.”

Watch the clip here: http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/elizabeth-gilbert-on-perfectionism-video

Perfectionism encompasses various fears:

  • The fear of failure.
  • The fear of disappointing your clients.
  • The fear of losing clients, and losing income as a result.
  • The fear of being insignificant, and being invisible in the process.
  • The fear of being deemed inadequate.
  • The fear of our creativity being ridiculed.
  • The fear of being mediocre, of creating without purpose and value.
  • The fear of losing inspiration.

These fears can drive you to overcompensate. You strive harder, sometimes to the point of burnout.  In those situations, it's often best to take a break to clear your head. You tend to find it counterintuitive though, so you keep pushing.

  1. It's not as glamorous as you think.

Take a look at these Instagram and Facebook posts:

I wouldn’t blame you if this left you insanely jealous with a good dollop of what-am-I-even-doing-with-my-life on the side. You do realize that this is the exception to the rule, right? The average freelancer’s life is anything but glitzy. Photography is a demanding career.  Our equipment is heavy and we lug our kit and our backup kit around everywhere. When we travel to do a destination shoot, we're normally subject to a very tight schedule, and even though we may fly to beautiful places, we don't often get the opportunity to do sight seeing, as we're on the client's timeline and usually on the first plane home after the shoot ends. Photography is a rewarding career, but it's anything but glamorous. Sometimes we do attend glitzy events, but as the photographer, you don't get the opportunity to socialise. Instead, you're on your feet for hours capturing the event.  In fact, it often happens that clients forget to provide the crew with food. Shooting on an empty stomach isn't the most fun you can have in one day, and hangry isn’t a good look on anyone.

3.         The business side.

Don't shoot me for saying this, but most photographers are terrible business people. Running a business full time is not the same as shooting weddings on weekends while earning a full-time salary. Self-employed photographers often have to do their own editing, sales, marketing, accounting, client liaison, debt collecting, admin, conceptualization etc. A lot of time goes into doing tasks that are not photography related. It can be a source of frustration because most of us aren't gifted in finance and administration, we want to be free to create.  When you start doing this full time, you quickly realise that the overheads are high and equipment is expensive. In fact, it's just like running any other business, and the impressive hourly rate you charged when shooting on weekends is now swallowed up by the costs of marketing, equipment, administration, accounting etc. Thinking that your days will consist of doing shoots that speak to your heart, balanced by a leisurely lunch here and there, will leave you disillusioned. However, when you approach this as a business that requires a lot of admin but allows you do the photography that you love from time to time, you're on the right track. Doing personal projects helps quell this frustration, as you're free to be creative without outside influence.

4.         Security (or lack thereof).

When you're employed full time, you have a certain level of security that comes with earning a salary every month. Self-employed photographers don't have that luxury. Our earning potential is hardly ever linked to a set agreement with a client, but it relies on ongoing relationships with various clients. The saying "you're only as good as your last shoot" rings true. Clients change photographers for various reasons, and it's quite possible that a client may move on from using your services or perhaps stop shooting altogether, as happened with a lot of companies during the recession in 2009. Many clients see photography as a luxury, so it's first on the list of services to get the boot when times are tough. There is also no sick leave and no paid vacation time. If we don't work, we don't get paid, simple as that. The uncertainty is definitely not for everyone. Often you’re left wondering where your work is going to come from. The image we create aside, it takes a whole lot of unnerving faith to keep doing this year in and year out. There have been years that have been exceedingly difficult for me. There have been easier years. It’s never balanced. You’re always riding this roller coaster without ever having signed up knowingly. The ups are supposed to carry the downs, but sometimes it’s a little too much to bear.

5.         Boundaries.

I can write books on the topic of boundaries. Instead, I’ll tell you a story that illustrates my growth in this area and the learning curve it took to get there. Unfortunately for most of us, understanding and enforcing boundaries is a long, difficult process. I used to work from home. I would rent a studio when a brief called for a studio shoot. One day a client, a record producer, booked a studio shoot for one of his artists. I confirmed the time with them and with the studio. I showed up a little early to prepare for the shoot. Then I waited. And waited. After a multitude of phone calls and excuses, my client and the talent showed up two hours late. Who do you think was responsible for the studio fee? And who do you think took no responsibility whatsoever? Not only were they late, and I was liable for the additional costs, but I had been kept waiting when I could have allocated my time to another paying client. This was the beginning of my journey of learning how to stand up for myself and realizing that my time is valuable. Of course, I invoiced for the additional time but to no avail. I found out that the client was only a record producer part time. He worked for a corporate company full time. Instead of allowing this to eat at me, I found out where he works and I showed up during office hours. I walked straight into his office and demanded my invoice be paid. He was full of excuses, but I got paid that same afternoon. It was an unpleasant experience, but it was necessary so that I could learn that my time is valuable, my service is worth paying for, and being taken advantage of has a shelf life. It took a few more years for me to raise my hourly rate and to charge clients a market-related fee without feeling guilty. My desire to please tripped me up for years. Don’t be that person. Learn your worth. Know that the service and product you offer is worth paying for. Stop doing shoots for free. There is a time and a place to learn and practice photography. Once you quit your full-time job and this becomes your career, those days are over.

6.         "Is this your real job?"

Professional photography isn't generally seen as a viable career choice, and many people are misinformed about the nature of the work. You'll find that some don't take you seriously, and many will see your position as a glorified hobby instead of a career that requires years of hands on training, technical skill and personal dedication, often to the detriment of your family or social life. The rewards far outweigh the drawbacks though.

7.         Opportunities.

Being a professional photographer affords you opportunities you probably wouldn't have had otherwise. I have met the most amazing people over the years. You get to meet people from all walks of life. I've met famous celebrities, and I've met people who rely on corporate funding for their next meal and the roof over their heads (have a look at these articles I wrote about that:

http://www.heatwavephotography.co.za/blog/2013/10/malawi-poverty-viewed-through-a-western-lens and


Once you've seen how different people live, you realise that we're all the same, regardless of status or income. It's a humbling experience, and one not easily accessible to those who work in more traditional jobs. I am truly thankful for this.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of capturing an image that you're thrilled with, or even better, that your client loves. That is the reason we get up in the morning, the reason we work when everyone else is socialising and the reason we love what we do. If you're considering photography as a career choice, I hope this article has shed light on the practical side of it. 

Happy shooting.

Till next time,




Heatwave Photography
Thank you ladies!
Thanks for the insight, so beautifully written!
And you make it look so easy Marinda but I know there is much sweat, blood and tears behind your profession.
No comments posted.

January February March (4) April May June July (1) August September October November December
January (1) February March April May June July (4) August September (1) October (1) November December
January February March (1) April (1) May June (1) July August September October (3) November December
January February March (1) April (2) May (1) June (2) July August (1) September (1) October November December
January February March (1) April May June July August September October November (1) December
January February (1) March (3) April (1) May June July August September October November December