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|| News Item: Posted 2012-06-08

Should You Become a Professional Photographer?
By James Madelin

Photo by Jason Dorday

Photo by Jason Dorday

James Madelin being moved by police in New Zealand.
I’m going to take a pause in my Sports Shooter lighting series this month. I’m on holiday so my mind has been meandering. I got to thinking about why we do what we do. Why do we want to take better photographs? Why do we seek to learn lighting or shutter speeds or apertures?

Commonly it’s because you love photography as a hobby. It may be your living. For most of you, it’s somewhere in between. It’s a hobby but you’d love it to be your living. Or you’re trying to make it your living but for some reason you never have any money.

If you’re the latter, you’re not alone. Samuel Aranda was telephoned recently and told he’d just won one of the world’s most prestigious awards, the 2012 World Press Photo Award. He was sitting at his computer trying to work out how he was going to afford his month’s rent.

There can be few other careers where you regularly work for the world’s largest companies like the New York Times and Time Magazine, are at the pinnacle of your career yet don’t earn enough to make a living.

So here are some tips, both if you would love to make photography your career and if you are trying, but struggling to.

I fell into the latter camp when I was a photographer for reasons that will become clear but am confident my wisdom is relevant, thanks to my current job as an inventor and marketer of photo accessories. That might sound odd, so read on.

Should you become a professional photographer? My usual answer to this is “No.” Not because it’s hard. Not because there are fewer full time pro photographers than ever before. Not because the average take-home earnings of a full time pro photographer is less than US$30,000. It’s because the chances are you’ll soon find you don’t enjoy photography any more.

Ask a pro photographer what they enjoy doing on their time off and most of them won’t mention photography. I’m afraid to say it’s been proven that we enjoy things less when we earn money doing them (vis. Deci’s Theory, SDT and Lepper, Green and Nisbett et al on Extrinsic vs Intrinsic motivation). I never knew about this research when I was a photographer, but I did know that I have never enjoyed photography less than when I worked as a photographer. And most of my peers agree.

But I haven’t convinced you. You still want to make it as a pro. Then the most important thing to remember is that above all else, you will be running a business that, as is true with every business, your foremost concern will have to be making as much money from as little work as possible. In other words: to maximize your profit.

That sounds harsh. It sounds capitalist and horrible. But it’s really another way of saying that you’d like to be able to grow your business. Which will need profit.

You’d like to be able to sustain your business, which will need profit. You’d like to provide for yourself and your family. That will need profit.

You’d like (and will need) to be shooting with the latest gear. Which will need… you get the picture.

That is where almost every pro photographer fails. It’s what got me. I focused on my photography. I didn’t focus with anywhere nearly as much vigour on my business.

Of course you have be an accomplished photographer. But almost anyone can become that with enough dedication and practice. You also need to be a sharp, dedicated business owner.

The art of business has little to do with the art of photography.

There’s the rub. If you don’t pursue the business of photography with as much dedication and practice as the photography, you’re unlikely to get far.

My friend Richard Linton, who is both an excellent photographer and an incredible businessman, preaches the rule of thirds. Not the one about framing photos. Linton’s rule of thirds is this; Successful photographers are one-third photographers, one third businessmen or women and one third marketers and networkers.

Whenever I visit my friends who are successful wealthy pro photographers, I almost never find they’re shooting. Much more likely I find them reviewing their cash flow forecasts, tweaking their SEO, cold calling potential clients or working on their latest marketing campaign (the one for their business, not the one they might be shooting for someone else).

So my advice is to keep photography as your hobby. You’ll never dent the passion and love of a great image and never have to read another article about making it as a pro photographer.

I hope I’ve given you something to think about. If this has fallen on deaf ears, next month I’ll give you some essential tips on launching your successful photography business.

Want to send me some feedback? Find me on Twitter @jamesmadelin or

James Madelin is a professional photographer and lighting workshop tutor based in New Zealand, he is the inventor of the popular orbis® ring flash. You can see his work on his Sports Shooter member page:

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