10 Bitter Truths About This Job ~ Wisconsin Photographer
Being endlessly positive is hard.
In anything. In parenting. In love. In friendship. In work. Looking at our working life and saying "It's AWESOME!" all the time is nearly impossible....not to mention not realistic. Nothing is awesome all of the time.
Except for things like, I dunno, ska music or delicious Italian food. That's awesome all of the time.
But I'm getting off track.
I think when you're a professional, full-time photographer...the majority of your job is convincing yourself (and others) that you're "okay".
Maybe it would be better if we were just HONEST, for once....and took that honesty and made what we could of it.
These are my bitter truths. Yours may be different. But, after 8 years of full-time camera-slinging, I've learned a little. I, by no means, know it all....but here's some conclusions I've come to.
Feel free to comment and add your own :)
1. There are too many of us.
You're going to hear all the time "there's enough work for everyone" but that's just bad math and bad business. There's never enough work for EVERYONE. That's not the way the free market works. The work goes to those who succeed in persuading the market to go to them. Those who don't persuade the market or attract their "tribe", as Seth Godin has taught, will fail. Their studios will close. That's business. That's capitalism.
Right now, in the Wisconsin Photographers Facebook group, there are over 7000 people. SEVEN. THOUSAND.
Yes, there are too many of us. The supply has far overtaken the demand. It's not "negative thinking" to admit to that. It's just simple numbers. Small towns don't need 20 "professional photographers"....there's not that much demand for those type of numbers.
2. You can still make a living doing this, but you better "werk".
This does not mean that no one is making it as a full time photographer. I've been full time for 8 years....and managed to successfully support my family.
Easily? No. But, we haven't lost our house yet. So, there's that. Silver lining. It CAN be done....still. For how much longer? Who knows.
What the truth is, this job looks a lot different to people who are supporting their families as the breadwinner than it does to someone who doesn't have that hanging over their head. That's true for most jobs. No one really talks about that. They want to hear about the travel, the beauty, the "cool", the fat cash. They don't want to hear that it's slow as molasses in January and sometimes I'm one "we went with someone else" email away from standing on a street corner with a "Will Shoot for Food" sign.
3. Gear matters.
People will tell you that a "real" photographer can take a disposable camera and make incredible art.
People can be a bit thick. Let's face it, the majority of us are not slaving away in a darkroom, mixing chemicals and creating amazing art. The majority of us have never been IN a darkroom.
If you can afford a top of the line $6000 camera body, your pictures are probably going to be better than the person who can only afford a used, say, D40 with a kit lens.
4. Being "cool" matters.
This is a simple marketing reality, so there's no use in bellyaching about it. "Cool" brands succeed, lame brands do not. They end up on clearance racks at Dollar General.
But, if you want to insist your WORK is all that matters....and that creating better work will lead you to succeed over the cool chick with the great wardrobe and the adorably "twee" quips.....yeah, no. Cool chick (or cool guy's) work can easily be mediocre or even forgettable. It can look EXACTLY like everyone else's work. Because their work really doesn't matter as much as the persona. People are going to pay cool chick $8000 to shoot their wedding because of who she is, not because her work is something especially...well...special.
There are those rare times when you can be a complete humorless, personality devoid jerk....but your work is absolutely incredible so people will hire you. However, you...my boring friend...are the exception.
It's something I've struggled with since starting. I didn't realize the overwhelming emphasis on "cool" until I started paying attention to social media and realized that my "mom wardrobe" and my affinity for geek culture probably wasn't going to cut it on the photographer circuit. I probably needed my husband to grow a beard or something.
I was never cool in school. Right Ben Folds?
I'm not cool now either.
5. Very few clients TRULY care about the technical aspect of the work.
This is not to cut on the clients. Our clients are not photographers. We know that. Deep down, we GET that. They want pretty pictures. They want a snap of their kid smiling. They don't care HOW we go about doing that OR if it was done correctly. The majority don't care about white balance or f/stops.
But, I have to tell you, we die a little inside when we get a perfectly lit, sharp-as-a-tack, beautifully composed image.....we post it....and crickets. A like or two. Then we see some out-of-focus, muddy garbage get 1000 likes and a bunch of shares. There's no science to this. Seriously.....it's about emotion. Sometimes it simply comes down to the subject of the crap picture has more friends that the subject of your picture. They're maybe more apt to "like" things. The shooter is "cooler" than you. Marketing!
But, we sit at our computers and we say "I don't get it. I did everything right".
6. Most of us care....a LOT....to a detrimental degree.
Even after 8 years, I'm sometimes going to get that dreaded email: "I'm disappointed"
If someone tells you they have never had a disappointed or unhappy client, they are lying liars from Liar Town. It's bound to happen. We are working with a myriad of personalities with a myriad of issues....we sometimes have an "off" day.....we are human.
Whenever I have a client who isn't 100% over-the-moon about their images, it HURTS. Bad. I stress over it ALL. DAY. LONG. What could I have done better? What can I do to HELP the situation. How can I fix it.
Is this going to destroy my business?
The silver lining here? The fact that I (and others) still care THIS MUCH means I truly care about my clients and their happiness. I would start to worry if I got to the point of "Whatever....they don't get my ART" because that's when I need to quit.
That leads me to.....
7. It's not really about art.
Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment. Most of us aren't really making heart-stopping art. Most of the time we are too worried about fulfilling our contractual obligations or churning out what Pinterest-loving clients expect from us. We are in customer service. It's ALL about what the client wants and how we can deliver that to them.
When we DO get a chance to be creative....a lot of us come up with some pretty incredible stuff.
But the 9-5 stuff? That's the bread and butter. As much as we'd like to think we are "artists"....we are probably, most days, closer to assembly line workers. There's NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS....as it's how we feed our kids and pay our mortgage.
But striving to portray ourselves as deep-thinking artists online....it's not always authentic.
There are exceptions to this, of course. There are people out there who can live out of an camper van making wet-plate prints of their hipster friends holding plants and make six figures.
99.9% of us are not those people.
8. Facebook has created a monster.
At one point, you needed a website....a strong presence on the bridal show circuit....or a stellar level of customer service to make it in the industry.
Now, you need a Facebook page....and BAM....you're "in business".
You would not believe the bitching and moaning about this. And I'm going to put a hand to the sky and admit that I have taken part in the rabble rabble. Because it's annoying. But, it's the nature of the beast. We ALL jumped on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter train and we beat the hell out of it. Poor, poor dead horse.
Now it's a SUPER noisy room with everyone yelling their pitch at one another and you're stuck in the corner trying to be heard above the din.
It's hard, dude. It's really hard. You post something....a picture you're proud of. A promotion. Anything....and you get engagement at about 200 people.
There are workshops out the ying yang out there to teach you how to be heard. But if thousands are taking these workshops and employing the same techniques....isn't it still noise?
9. This stuff's expensive.
There's NO secret that I'm a Frugal Frannie. I HATE spending money. HATE it. I don't like to shop. I don't like buying things that I feel I don't need (which is pretty much everything)....parting with the dollar bills in my wallet it a painful experience.
I sit back and I watch my friends drop mighty duckets on workshops, leather ONA bags, ProPhoto lights, Pocket Wizards that aren't broken, creamy bokeh making lenses that are more expensive than my mortgage.....and I feel like I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
My biggest expense is my studio. I look at my yearly expenses each tax season and I want to be SICK. You charge what you charge and about 45% of that is GONE immediately for expenses and taxes. Yup.
But it is what it is. This job is FREAKING. EXPENSIVE. to maintain for a single-employee business. It's just little ole me. I don't have big reserves to throw towards "fun stuff" for the business.....I have enough for the bare minimum. And I feel that sometimes, that puts me behind the pack. I work every single Saturday in the summer....I miss time with my kids, family events, vacations, and SLEEP. I edit when I can, around nap times, and very often I take on jobs I don't necessarily WANT to shoot because I need to pay the bills. It's the not-so-cool-or-Instagram-worthy part of the job. That it's a JOB, at the core. That we need to take that into consideration when trying to mold what we want this job to look like for us.
I think if we pay attention to the workshop givers or the "cool' shooters, we can believe that we can ALL bring in fat cash all the time and that this job is a road to riches.
It takes a LOT to get it to that point.
The expense is great, in money and in time. Can it be done? Yes. Is the cost high? Yes. In more ways than one.
10. Here's where I get cheeseball....but it's the truth. Get the tissues. It's 'bout to get real.
I don't want to do anything else.
I was talking to a friend the other day who does the same thing I do for a living and I laughed with her that we were grumbling about another work day when our work day is TAKING PICTURES....and how many people WISHED they could do what we making a living at.
I've been in the cubicle. I've been in the office. I've HAD a boss (several.....never really worked out too well). At 36 years old I know myself well enough to know that no matter HOW hard it gets, or the overcrowding...the expense....the negative parts of the job.....I can't do anything else. Not right now. I was MEANT to be self-employed. It fits me. It is ingrained deep in my soul and my psyche.
I will always defend this industry always. I will LOVE this industry always. I will always take a critical eye to it, because it's mine...it's ours...we should evaluate it every once in awhile.
It's a way to keep it alive and growing. The storm clouds have always been there....the silver linings will be there too.
As we enter another frantic summer season, let's just hang in, folks. Let's try not to let the bitter truths destroy something that is bigger than our little world.
Roll with the changes, never stop growing, and realize that, for this moment, we are tremendously lucky to do what we do.