10 Lessons I Learned in 10 Years as a Professional Photographer

I still remember the day I decided to go pro. I was just fired from my job as an executive at a toy company. I hated my boss for it but he knew my heart was not in the job and he was right. When he was talking to me about why he's firing me he was looking through my photography online and told me I need to pursue photography. He was right about that too.

It was March 25th, 2005 that I made the choice to be a pro. While I learned far more than I can put into a single post I want to share with you one thing I learned from each year in business that has had a lasting impact on the way I work both as an artist and a business owner.

Lesson 1, 2005 - Play Full Out, Be Unreasonable

You’re either in business you’re out of business. You’re in business? Fine then what the hell are you waiting for? Market, shoot, show your work. Tell everyone. I would tell the check out clerk at the grocery store, the bar tender serving me drinks, the cabbie driving me home. Even if they they were not my target market it was practice for my elevator pitch and besides, you have no idea what connections that person has. Don’t give into a reasonable life, EVERYONE needs to know who you are and what you do. Social networking means being social and its best served in person.

Lesson 2, 2006 - Stay Hungry

Be consistent and have no fear - look, you need business and businesses need photographers. Problem is, if you don't call and email and visit and network no one knows how to hire you and you will go out of business. Every job can be your last and with anything freelance your income can go from pimpin to poor in no time. Here’s what I did to market myself:

Week 1

Monday, Wednesday, Friday - emails go out. Tuesday and Thursday I call those I emailed. I take basic notes in Apple Contacts so I know who I contacted.

Week 2

Monday, Wednesday, Friday - I call those I was not able to get ahold of the previous week and a few new ones on my list. Tuesday and Thursday - emails go out.

The goal is to be pleasantly aggressive. Don’t get upset that most people are not returning your calls. They’re are busy and getting loads of marketing from other photographers. I usually give someone a few times to respond then put them on the back burner for a few weeks. Not everyone is a good fit and if you’re not getting people on the phone (don’t bother with voice mail) then they either don’t have proper budget or are too busy with work (quite ofter overworked because their employer does not have enough budget to hire more staff) in which case you can assume that there could be issue getting paid.

Lesson 3, 2007 - You’re Also a Collection Agency

This part of the job I hate to THE MAX. We’re artists, business owners and sometimes collection agencies. It’s bullshit when a client wants an artist to be their bank. DON’T DO IT.

I’ve held photos from publishers because they didn’t pay their deposits, I’ve held my ground and not proceeded forward with a production because I did not receive my deposit. I hate to be like this but you know what? Sucks to be a company’s bank too knowing that they could easily pay in full. There’s a lesson in pimpery here my friends and a touch of street justice when needed. The best way to handle collections is just don’t do it unless you absolutely must.

First thing

When you’re starting out get legit by having proper T&C. Start here - https://asmp.org/tutorials/terms-and-conditions.html#.VRG510JlS4Q ASMP is your friend. I once had a client ask me if they had to read all nine pages of my T&C. I said no, they just needed to sign it. Remember it’s either in writing or conversation and conversation don’t hold up in a court of law.

Second thing

I don’t do terms with clients until they built up trust with me (like we do with the credit bureau) The job is 50% paid before any pre-pro begins. The second half is on delivery or they don’t get the work. Sometimes, on small jobs, I might not worry about the deposit but that’s a risk I’m willing to take if their office is nearby. On more than one occasion in 2007 I walked into offices and did not leave until a check was in hand.


Only after the client has established trust with me will I do terms but often add in a line item for 10% finance charge that is taken off the final invoice if paid within 30 days of invoice date. Once a client has proven themselves to me I’m more chill.

I’m easy going until you mess with my money.

Lesson 4, 2008 - Your Body of Work Needs to be Different

No better way to learn the above until the economy becomes a shit show then you’re really standing on the back of your work. Thank god almighty when the economy took a big crap my work looked different. When your work looks like most other peoples you can benefit by shooting safe work for most types of clients and that’s ok. When money gets tight, the art budget is the first thing to get cut and art buyers need to justify your work to their boss. Having work that can be shot by most photographers you’ll find yourself in a bidding war and that’s not where you want to be. Because my work had it’s own personality, although I did slow down, I was able to make ends meet.

Lesson 5, 2009 - When Times Get Tough, Get Creative

My work’s unique personality helped me through 2008 but by 2009 being slow got old..real old. The Canon 5DMKII came out and while the last thing I wanted to do was purchase a new body this one offered something very different in the form of full HD video. Having video in a camera that was familiar to me got me to thinking…’what if my photography moved?’ Now I’d have something in addition to stills to offer for sale. Getting my photography to come alive took a ton of work but I had a surplus of time and needed an additional income stream in the worst kinda way. I went on to pioneer some early forms of animated photography. Motion changed my life and I’m happy I got into it when I did. When change comes embrace it or step aside because some like me will.

Lesson 6, 2010 - Change is a Good Thing, Embrace It!

Wow, 2009, what a shit year. Even with embracing video, the market was just not quite there yet. Most regular clients, that will still in business, were open to the idea but their budgets were cut so low and the concept of moving images the sales process was a struggle. I had got myself into a bit of trouble with one particular assignment….lost about 25K…that was my fault. Got too hungry and I didn’t follow the lessons I learned in 2007. I had to do something really risky, my brain was taxed, emotions taped out…Valdese and I put our family on hold. I decided to sell off my studio and Phoenix home to move to Miami and take a hiatus. Luckily I sold four licenses to a major corporation for a handsome fee and lived off that for a while. Valdese drilled into her career (and has since become a rockstar in her career as well) but I needed to examine what is really happening in photography as a profession.

Realizing how camera technology is making cameras smaller, smart phones are growing in popularity and video + photographer a becoming one I began to experiment with mirrorless cameras. In addition I also transitioned my business from owning an expensive studio to working from a home office, a move that I’m thankful for daily. Also I came to the conclusion that photographers today need to be much more than just selling a static image so I started Small Camera Big Picture.

You know the rest.

Lesson 7, 2011 - Learn From What Doesn't Work

Have an idea? Sure you do and I’ll be you have many. Well guess what? Few ideas will work because you’re not thinking them through nor are you seeing them through the rough spots. Every idea is fun when it’s fresh and easy but you have to push through the challenges to get to the good stuff. Photography is NOT easy as a business but if you love it you’ll see your ideas through to completion.That said, sometimes knowing when its time to let the project go is best. Even a successful project needs to come to an end.

Lesson 8, 2012 - Hybrid Now

First thought that Hybrid is the future, realized quickly that its actually the now! Gave up print books, focused efforts online and shooting for screens. Expect to have a long term business by selling print? It’s possible but very niche and very limited in scope. Thing is good photography will stand the test of time and various media but don’t turn a blind eye to where the market is consuming media which is an iOS device. If you’re not shooting video now start now. If you’re fighting it get a part time job or consider other career options.

Lesson 9, 2013 - Do What You Love But Love What You Do

Don’t be foolish. You have a business, it needs to profit so you can be around in the long run but you need also love what you do. When times are tough your love for the business and the art will help grow to the next level.

Lesson 10, 2014 - Mind Your Ego but Know Your Worth

Probably the #1 mistake I see with new photographers is they get a big ego after just a bit of attention. Look, you’re new and up until you’ve gone pro you had all the time in the world to slowly develop some work. Great! Now that you’re in business you need to deliver high quality work on demand and often in very demanding situations.

Ego is a smoke screen for fear so if you’re ego is flaring up check yourself before you wreck yourself…or before someone like me checks it for you.

Know your worth. Better to price high then undercut yourself. You’re not hurting other photographers in your market as your are eroding your own financial future if you’re the cheepo in your market. This is especially true if your work is avant guard or considered at all edgy. Clean and simple is an easier sell to corporations than creative and edgy but there will be people willing to take a risk on edgy. Treat these clients like they’re gold because they are. If you come to a job with the ego of a superstar and you’ve been in business for six months you’re asking to be checked. Even seasoned pros need to check their ego.

Make radical art that says something, charge well and build a solid career. Don’t be an asshole about it though. No one is that awesome where one can get away being a jerk. I know this because I had to check my ego and I think that we all need to from time to time. The sooner you’re aware the better. If you’re not good seeing it have a close friend point it out for you (in private) when they notice the flair up. You’ll thank them.

Note - sadly there are plenty of suckas (one born a minute right?) out there that lap up an ego centric photographer. These suckas will even believe the hype regardless of the quality of the work. When this happens take note and don’t work with these people. They want to live a lie and if you’re legit you’re already onto the next big thing.