How to become a Professional Photographer Part 1
This June will mark our 6th year as full-time professional photographers. Even writing that causes me to feel anxious. Breathe. Trust. Move forward. After quitting our jobs we’re left with much of a choice, we were all in. It was do or die time. Ramen noodle time. No really, we were terrified and filled with self-doubt. (This doesn’t magically go away I might add.) We were both still in college working days, weekends, and finishing up our degrees. O’ how I don’t miss those early years of very little sleep, toddlers, and weekly papers. Maybe some of you can relate. Youtube becomes the parent/teacher you never had because reading manuals and renting outdated books from the library just isn’t cutting it. Bootstrapping becomes your way of life. Credit Cards and student loans are the angel investors you don’t have and Dave Ramsey is the condemning voice you hear every time you make a new equipment purchase from B&H.
But… there was hope. Hope that one day we would be able to live the life we always dreamed of and create a business that would not only serve others but fulfill our calling as parent-tographers. For us, it wasn’t about having the freedom to travel the world or spend our mornings together in coffee shops, we simply wanted to be able to raise our children the way we had always dreamed.
Growing up on a farm (James) gave me a distorted and utopian view of the world. My parents were almost always around and if we couldn’t see them, we trusted that they were only a dinner bell’s sound away. When my brothers and I weren’t frolicking in the fields with calves or catching tadpoles in the pond, we were collecting eggs and helping mother put clothing out on the line. Okay, maybe that isn’t exactly what happened, but for me, it was freedom and that feeling is what I wanted to give my children, but without the burden and lifestyle that comes with having to feed hundreds of farm animals in the wee hours of the morning during Wisconsin’s harsh winters.
Having watched both my father and grandfather do this their entire lives gave me a great appreciation for what it means to truly earn a living, to work with your hands and to be proud of what you do. There was always something to be done and in order for my brothers and I to be able to attend private school, my mother cleaned houses – often after she had cleaned our own. Yep, pretty incredible if you ask me. I don’t know how they did it and to be honest, I don’t know how we do it. I am reminded daily of how dependent and truly needy we are.
Photography was always something I did. From the age of 6, I could be seen most often with a camera around my neck. Photographs shaped me. They were how I learned about who I was and where I came from. Images and the art of creating them taught me how to see the world. It was magical and expensive. With anticipation I remember begging my parents to go and pick up my film from the local Walgreens, hoping for that one shot to be in focus. So much has changed and I am thankful for the valuable hours spent in a dark room during high school and for the teachers and close friends who encouraged me, evening allowing me the freedom to learn uninhibited by expectations and often arbitrary grades. I must admit I was terribly spoiled by my small town upbringing. Had it not been for those Media classes and for a full summer of taking photographs with our German exchange student, I doubt I ever would have pursued photography as a career. Scary to think of where I would be had it not been for those incredibly valuable experiences and relationships that fostered my love of creating images.
So why share this? For all of us, there is a backstory, a reason we fell in love with photography. That story, our WHY matters. It will be the foundation we fall back on during hard times, during times of self-doubt, and our why will come into question after we make our first big mistake. The time we didn’t advance our film or our hard drive crashes with all of our client’s images. No amount of education can ever prepare you for how you will react in times of failure, but having these experiences and learning from them will be what causes you to grow not only as a person but as an artist and ultimately as a professional business owner.
With risk, there is always a chance of failure or unfortunate consequences. It is our fear of the unknown and our own fear of failure that prevents us from taking risks. Change is scary. Fear of what others might think, rejection prevents many of us from putting ourselves out there. Criticism either from ourselves or others discourages us before we even start. The negative voices the project into the future all the ways in which you are most likely to fail. We second guess ourselves for the sake of reason and sometimes never return to our original feelings of courage that could have carried us through to taking that first leap.
I don’t pretend to be brave or courageous. I don’t think I’m the best nor do I feel terribly qualified to teach anyone anything and yet I do. I coach a sport I was mediocre at. I educate business people who are smarter than me. I volunteer for things I feel ill-equipped to handle. I say yes often before thinking of the consequences. I have learned that controlling me fear and forcing myself to do something that scares me is the most important lesson I have learned from being a professional photographer. I wear the hat that is required of me to do my job well. What I lack in expertise I make up for in passion. Zeal can take you a long way and I believe the consistent pursuit of a tangible goal with a plan will often result in success when we define those terms for yourself.
Success is what we make it! We are not defined by what we do or how much money we make. We each must each decide what our own pursuit of happiness looks like. What is our light at the end of the tunnel? For me, it has always been the journey. We have to choose to be happy and fulfilled even in our times of failure and struggle. We can’t say to ourselves, “I will be happy when…” Our joy must come from outside ourselves, our expectations, our own talent. If it doesn’t we may reach our goals without ever truly being satisfied.
My purpose extends beyond simply being a creative, father, and husband – I am a believer. My faith has shown me that Risk for Christ is Right. Paul writes, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:20–21)
For Katie and I, honoring Christ, magnifying Christ, making much of Christ is the meaning of our life! It is a purpose that extends beyond just our personal life; it is at the foundation of our business and the goal that supersedes all the rest. At the end of the day, did we serve Christ by caring for others well? Did our work point to Christ? It is so easy to self-promote and to make much of ourselves, but when we look at what we’re able to do and how very little of it has anything to do with us, we realize our great need and dependence on our creator and savior.
The greatest passion we will ever know is that of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Bible tells us that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2) Therefore, the greatest act of love was enabled by hope of joy beyond the grave. We want others to know this joy, to experience the promises of God, even when life seems most uncertain and everything around you is falling apart. There is a peace that surpasses all understanding when we place our hope in Christ.
Who will you put your hope in? Who is going to help guide you through your discouraging failures? Who will you praise for your successes? It is our hope that as you create a plan for becoming a professional photographer and as you search for answers to your questions, you may find the ultimate answer and purpose for your life.
Stay tuned for more about our journey and practical advice on becoming a professional photographer.