It happened again about a week ago. The Conversation. You know the one. It starts innocently enough.
“You’re a professional photographer?”
“Yes. I am.”
“Wow! That must be so exciting.”
“No, I bet you go to all sorts of cool and exciting places, and meet lots of interesting people.”
And so on and so on.
I enjoy talking to people about what I do, but sometimes I wish there was a simple way to paint a more accurate picture of it. People think that we travel the world, partying like rock stars, hanging out with supermodels, and taking a break every once in a while to shoot some photos. You and I know that this couldn’t be farther from the truth, but have you ever tried explaining to someone that in 2012 the median hourly wage for photographers was $13.70?!? That’s right, folks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average photographer can barely go out for dinner on what they earn in a single hour.
So, where is the breakdown in communication? What is it about being a photographer that most people just don’t get? What is it that makes this job harder than it looks?
It Tests Your Resolve…Every Day.
I think this applies to most creative endeavors. For those of you who are not full-time photographers, I’m sure you fall somewhere on the love/hate scale when it comes to your job. Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it. Most likely, you fall somewhere in between. Just where you fall in between can and will change on any given day. But even if you love your job, it may not feed your soul. I loved a lot about my old life as an attorney, but it was strictly a job. My emotional investment in it extended no further than taking care of my family. It defined me to an extent, but not in the same way that being a photographer does.
For those of us who create for a living, it at least seems as if there is so much more at stake. I’m not trying in any way to lessen the importance of what anybody does for a paycheck. For me, though, every photo I put out there feels like a piece of me. There’s a certain amount of vulnerability that comes with that, as well as pressure. Pressure to create. Pressure to surpass what you did the day before. Pressure to share your passion with the world, even if the world doesn’t necessarily like what you’re sharing with it. It’s a daily battle, and rising to the occasion– and the challenge– is not always easy.
It Swallows Your Free Time.
Golden hour. Blue hour. Sunrise. Sunset. Nights. WEEKENDS. We shoot what our clients need shot when they need it shot. People get married on weekends, which means we work on weekends. My family assures me they understand, but if I’ve been barricaded in the editing bunker all week and I finally emerge just in time to spend 16 hours shooting a full wedding day over the weekend, promises involving jewelry will occasionally have to be made.
But even if your weekends aren’t filled with paid photography work, your brain is probably churning with ideas for personal projects and ways to improve your technique. Those of you who take your camera with you everywhere never really shut the photographic part of your brain off. If that works for you, I salute you. Photography was my life-long hobby. When it also became my profession, I had to force myself to put the camera down every once in a while and take back some free time for myself and my family.
Three Words: Cost…Of…Gear.
Requires no explanation.
Benefits? What Benefits?
Unless you’re working as a photographer for a fairly large company, I’m guessing that you’re footing the bill for your insurnace– health, life, disability, and don’t forget the gear. Gear premiums aren’t usually that bad, but paying for quality health insurance out of your own pocket can be extremely difficult. Vacation time? Forget it. You’re on your own, son. You need a steady– if not constant– stream of work coming in the door in order for this to work. That can be a very tough, stress-inducing pill to swallow.
Crazy Working Conditions.
Combat zones. Hurricanes. Art directors. Bridezillas. Not to mention our seemingly inherent disregard for safety and common sense when it comes to getting “The Shot.” In a world where it seems there are no more original ideas, finding and creating those opportunities and images is no small task or challenge. Obviously, this has a lot to do with your specific type of photography, but whatever your type is, I’m sure you have stories to tell about crazy conditions. Especially you freelance photojournalists. Being on call 24/7 with a portable police scanner as your constant companion cannot be easy.
More Photographers Than Jobs– You Do the Math.
Digital photography– the great equalizer. Suddenly everyone’s a professional photographer. Lower overhead might have made getting into photography easier, but it has also made it more difficult to stay in photography. The professionals and the hobbyists are using the same gear. The learning curve has fallen drastically. Learning the ins and outs of exposure and technique are still very important, but you can still get some really good shots straight out of the box. More importantly, though, there are only so many jobs and assignments out there. It’s Economics 101. Once you start dividing a limited number of gigs between an ever increasing number of photographers, somethings going to give.
It’s a Business!
When you get right down to it, such a relatively small amount of our professional time is actually spent behind a camera. Once you start factoring in the marketing, the client meetings, the research, the location scouting, the social media, the blogging, and all of the other activities that have nothing to do with an actual camera in your hands, you may actually start wondering why you ever thought this was a good idea in the first place.
Too Much Noise. Not Enough Signal.
About a year ago, Zack Arias put together an amazing video and I urge you to take a five-minute break to watch it. In “Signal & Noise,” Zack talks about the importance of clearing out the the petty, insignificant stuff that we stress about– the Noise– and concentrating on the stuff that matters. The stuff that makes us better photographers. The Signal. It’s not an easy thing to do. Sometimes you just can’t help comparing yourself to other photographers or stressing about how many people like your Facebook page. Too much noise can make concentrating on the signal a pretty daunting task.
Would You Have it Any Other Way?
Of course there are things I would change if I could. Who wouldn’t? The fact remains, though, that photography is– in many ways– just like every other job and career. It has its ups and downs. Its good days and bad days. Do I think our jobs would be easier if clients and the public had a more realistic understanding of what we do? Without a doubt.
On the other hand, traveling the world, partying like a rock star, hanging out with supermodels, and taking a break every once in a while to shoot some photos wouldn’t be so bad every once in a while either.