As long as I can still be on my own and do my own thing and be working full-time, it’s great. —Marian McPartland
I was one of the lucky ones. For almost 20 years, I was paid exclusively for being a full-time photographer. I was fortunate to have an exciting job, in exciting locations, with expenses paid, insurance, vacation, and a 401k. I was one of the few.
One can work full time at being freelance as well, but the pay is rarely equivalent to a full-time salary and the benefits are almost never present. Making it as a photographer in today’s world is hard work and, to a large extent, the reasons most of us need at least a part-time job escape most people. Running your own business is never easy work, no matter what field one is in. For photographers, though, the challenges are frequently insurmountable.
I came across this article on LinkedIn earlier this week with the headline, “Why Most Photographers Don’t Work Full Time.” The author is Jenna Johnson, a “community manager” at ZenPhotos.com. I was hopeful the article might have some real insight as to the problems facing freelancers. I was disappointed. Instead of a constructive, real-world look at the photography business, all Ms. Johnson presented was a bunch of emotionally-driven, change-your-attitude claptrap that offers no substantive advice at all.
Full Time Is More Like Overtime
Sure, we would all like to be employed full-time as I once was, but the number of those jobs still in existence has dwindled dramatically over the past 15 years. Many companies find that utilizing freelance talent plays better on their bottom line. They don’t have to pay benefits, cover HR costs, or even pay social security in most cases. Companies also take advantage of the fact that many photographers undersell their services and quote rates considerably lower than what the company would pay a full-time employee.
Freelancing as a photographer means doing much more than just taking and editing pictures. When we work for ourselves, we become our own HR department. We have to take care of our own insurance, our own business expenses, our own social security, and even our own equipment. We also have to do our own marketing, branding, and advertising. This is no easy job by any stretch of the imagination.
Add up all the time I spend doing market research, meeting with potential clients, marketing, handling social media, adding content (such as this article) to our website, and maintaining equipment and I can fill a 60-hour week without ever picking up a camera. I’m sorry, but a lack of confidence, treating it as a hobby, and impostor syndrome don’t even begin to factor into the challenges most photographers face.
The Real Reasons
The reasons for not being full time are draped in a reality that challenges every small business owner. We’ll keep the list brief.
- Lack of start-up capital. Being a photographer is expensive even if one is working out of their home. If one is going to be full time, however, there are numerous additional expenses that must be addressed before hanging out one’s shingle. Everything costs money and finding that money keeps most photographers from ever making the leap to full time.
- Lack of committed professional facilities. If one wants to work full-time without working themselves into complete exhaustion one needs their own studio. Cooperative studios with multiple photographers are often the best option, but without committed space larger clients such as ad agencies and real magazines have difficult taking a photographer seriously.
- Failure to understand the market. I love shooting nudes and have, on occasion, even sold a few. However, there is no realistic way, sitting here in Indiana, that I am going to earn a full-time income from that market. Every market is different and has its niches, but not every market plays well in every location.
- Not understanding the difference between marketing and branding. There are a lot of articles on marketing one’s photography business. Information that really understands branding a photography business is far less. Most photographers blow it on branding. I’ll have to write more about this later.
- Being in the wrong place. If one wants to be a full-time photographer, one has to be where there are full-time clients or at least be able to reach them efficiently. Being full time in Red Oak, Oklahoma is much more challenging than being full time in Atlanta, Georgia. If the opportunity is not there, one might need to move.
- Lack of business skills. Being a good photographer doesn’t make one a good business person. Tax and other business laws are serious and you have to do those things yourself or hire someone to do them, which is expensive.
Photographers tend to have strong egos and are not necessarily open to criticism. Many of us share those traits. Unfortunately, if one is going to succeed as a full-time photographer, we need an honest assessment of all our skills, not just photography. One can be a fantastic photographer and still fail miserably at running a photography business.
Sure, attitude is an important part of one’s success, but that’s true of owning any business. Encouraging someone to quit their day job and become a full-time photographer is irresponsible if we’re not looking at the real barriers to entry. Being full-time just doesn’t work for many people and as photography itself becomes more commoditized that opportunity shrinks even more.
We all would love to do nothing but take pictures all day. Unfortunately, that situation exists for only a handful of people. There is much more that goes into being a full-time photographer. Consider all the variables before striking out on your own. Good luck.