A while back we got an email from a new photographer who felt down, defeated and discouraged about the future of his photography business –– and whether or not he should even keep going — because of an article he read by another photographer who painted a very dim, grim, pessimistic picture of the day-to-day realities of building and running a photography business (or any small business, for that matter). The article mentioned a lot of reasons why building a photography business isn’t, in the author’s opinion, a wise career choice: the startup costs of gear and equipment, the ongoing costs of taxes and health insurance, not to mention the amount of hours you’ll pour into the job before seeing much of a financial return — if you see one at all. That, when you add it all up, you might as well just give up now. Because it’s hopeless.
The new photographer who reached out to us wrote, “I’m hoping that you might be able to rejuvenate my appetite for this business and tell me that this other photographer is wrong.”
So, we emailed him back, and decided to share part of our response (with a few edits and additions for context and clarity), because as we finished writing it, we remembered one thing and realized another.
First, we remembered that when we were new photographers, we felt the same way he did.
Second, we realized that if he felt that way, and we felt that way, then he’s probably not the only new photographer that feels that way right now. Asking themselves the same questions we did: Am I in over my head? Am I even good enough? Is all this hard work ever going to pay off? Can I actually make a living doing the thing I love, or should I just give up now before I’m in too deep? Is it really possible for “me” to be successful, or is it just for a select few?
Here’s what we told him (and we’re telling you):
The first step is to define success for you. Not what you see on social media. No two photographers’ situations or circumstances are the same. Their goals shouldn’t be either. They can’t be. Because when we start measuring every detail of our life against an online snapshot of someone else’s, we’ll never feel truly successful. Especially if a new photographer is comparing themselves to a seasoned veteran photographer. Use the people you admire to inspire you, and give you a glimpse and a glimmer of what’s possible in your life, but don’t wish for theirs.
“Start with the end in mind.” That’s what Dr. Steven Covery says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and we took that advice to heart. We took an honest, realistic look at our life, and asked ourself this question, If social media didn’t exist. If we didn’t know what other people were doing, and if other people didn’t know what we were doing, what would we want to do? How would we want to spend our time? How would we want to live our life? What would success look like for us?
We still as ourselves those same questions all the time. It’s freeing. It’s liberating. It’s clarifying.
Because success looks different for everyone. At different times. In different seasons. For different reasons. And it can’t always be measured strictly by the numbers.
There are intangibles that can’t be accounted for in Quickbooks or on spreadsheets. Happiness being one of them. According to polls, about 87% of Americans are dissatisfied with their work. For a lot of photographers, both the new photographer and the seasoned photographer (and entrepreneurs in general), working more and making less is actually more appealing than keeping a day job they hate if it means they get to do something they love every day. If we’re going to spend most of our lives working, our quality of life is deeply impacted by what we do for the majority of our waking hours; and the happier and more fulfilled we are at work, the happier and more fulfilled we’ll be at home.
If you have a spouse or children, and your job gives you the ability to spend more time with them, you can’t put a price on that. Or the freedom and flexibility that comes from being your own boss and calling your own shots. The field trips you can attend when you work for yourself, from home. The time you save in traffic from not commuting back and forth every day. There are too many intangible benefits to list. Which, again, is why your decision to pursue your dream can’t be dictated by numbers alone, because, as Dave Ramsey says, “Money can buy fun, but it can’t buy happiness… for long.”
Side Note: Money does buy food, clothing and shelter, so please hear us loud and clear: We are not suggesting that you quit your day job tomorrow without a plan, because if you can’t feed your kids or pay your mortgage, it doesn’t matter how much you love your work. That’s why we have a recommended reading list with books like Quitter by Jon Acuff, that’ll help you know when the time is right (and responsible) to make the leap.
Now, it is true that the majority of small businesses fail. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them do. We won’t sugarcoat that for you. But that’s any industry, not just photography. But we know a lot of successful photographers of all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes, colors, backgrounds, styles, etc. who are making a full-time living (or the right amount of supplemental income) with photography. And they’re loving it. That doesn’t means it’s not hard. And it doesn’t mean it was that way as soon as they started out as a new photographer. It’s one of the hardest things they’ve ever done, and it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.
But we believe the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. It’s like Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it good.”
We worked multiple jobs, days, nights and weekends, for years before we ever paid ourselves one penny from our photography business. But, now, standing on the other side of the hill, we can tell you that, at least for us, it was 100% worth it — and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. We’re making more money than we could’ve ever imagined doing a job that we love, and serving people in a way that brings us so much purpose and motivation to get out of bed every morning.
Like we mentioned before, that doesn’t mean quit your day job tomorrow. We kept ours for years, building slowly and strategically before we made the leap to full time. But it does mean don’t let anyone or anything deter or discourage you from the dreams and desires God’s placed on your heart. It’d be a slap in the face to Him to bury those dreams out of fear of the future.
We always say this, and we’ll say it again because it’s true: success is not for the chosen few; it’s for those who choose. So define success for yourself, and then go get it. There will always be naysayers and critics. Let them sit in the cheap seats and throw verbal grenades, but don’t let it keep you from getting to your dream job. It might take you proving to them and yourself that you can get there before they’ll have the courage to do it themselves.
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