5 Things I've Learned After One Year of Professional Photography

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This month brings the one year mark since I went full-time as a freelance photographer. It has been all the adjectives: amazing, stressful, exhilarating, freeing, terrifying, etc. I've worked with 44 different clients in that timeframe, all with varying needs and requests. Now is as good a time as any to reflect on my experience thus far with five things I've learned, since that is how reading on the internet works now.

I can't think of myself as a novice

Shedding the novice moniker is liberating and terrifying. Confidence is warranted when it's not misplaced. I can't expect someone to pay me with their hard-earned money if I don't think my work is good enough to require it in return. It is in part a matter of positioning. If you lack the confidence to consider yourself a true pro or an artist, neither will a prospective client. Nobody will be excited about your work if you aren't. Sometimes you have to be your loudest cheerleader.

And I don't consider this "fake it until you make it." You can't ever really be anything until you actively decide you are that thing. At some point you have to accept the responsibility of calling yourself an artist or a pro, and not worry if everyone considers you on par with their definition of those terms. If you struggle with something similar to this, I promise you it will be liberating to change your mindset. You begin to develop thicker skin that deflects useless criticism, however real or perceived. 

Finances are hard

I've never been great with money management. Numbers fly through my brain in not so much an orderly fashion, but a chaotic flurry of confusion and exhaustion. They bore me. If you're someone who is not only adept at money management, but gets an actual thrill out of it, more power to you, I guess. I think you're weird, but likely smarter than I am, so we can call it a wash.

Couple this disdain for numbers with my relative inexperience in financial planning (specifically business financial planning) and baby, we got a stew going. A nasty stew that requires far more of my time than I'd like, but is nevertheless,  one I need to deal with. If I'm going to continue to do this, I have to do it right. That includes the hard stuff, like money management, planning, and clamping down where I need to. There are a lot of complexities to owning a business, like say, taxes. How anyone understands small business taxes without an economics degree is beyond me. On that note, if you know of anyone who is an affordable business financial planning consultant guru shaman capable of guiding my unbelieving heart to salvation, please introduce us. 

The bulk of my time isn't spent photographing anything

The dream is to get out of the office and do something I'm passionate about, right? To go out into the streets, capture scenes and photograph people doing interesting things. That's rarely the reality. Maybe 20% of my working hours are spent on actual shoots/editing. The rest? Finances. Emails. Following up with current and potential clients. Looking for future clients. Brainstorming. Talking to my dogs like they're my business partners.

It's not as glamorous as I thought it would be, even though I consciously knew it wouldn't hold up to that ideal going into it. That's ok. It's still incredibly fun and rewarding, and I don't think I can ask for anything else from something that helps me earn money. I was making more in my day job at the marketing agency before all of this, but I spent far more emotional energy simply keeping my head above water. I'm actually a more enjoyable person to be around. I know this because my partner lovingly tells me so. As usual, she has a point. 

Truly listening involves asking the right questions

It's not uncommon for a prospective client to contact me without any real parameters in mind for the job they have. So many don't really know how many images they need, what locations would/would not work, or a number of other details. This is where I have to help guide them to the answers we discover together in order to create a clear vision. Sometimes those questions are initially uncomfortable or awkward, like with budgets. Who wouldn't want to pay as little as possible for something while getting great value in return? That's sort of capitalism in a nutshell.

But if I'm not willing to take less than a certain amount for a job, it needs to be understood as soon as possible if my number and their number is in the same ball park, and almost nobody wants to be the first to bring up pricing. So the tactful way to gain that information is to seek to understand what their need really is. I need to probe and get down to the "why" of their reason for needing a photographer. And once I've asked the right questions and have truly listened, I can determine whether we are a good fit. Which brings me to...

Not everyone should hire me

I can realistically say that I've had 5-8x's the number of prospective clients not hire me than hire me. That's a rough batting percentage, but thankfully this isn't baseball (A boring sport, by the way. You won't change my mind.). While a close ratio of 1:8 is a number any photographer would love to have, there are just far more people for which I'm not the best fit. 

I've been incredibly fortunate in that I haven't had any troubling client issues with the ones that did hire me. In fact, nobody has asked me for a refund. Very few times does any client have issues with my final edits, and when they do it's easily resolved. It won't remain like this forever. There will come a moment when I make a mistake, or wires between the client and myself get crossed and an expectation isn't fully clear or realized. I might even *GASP* have to give a refund! Knowing this is going to happen at some point sort of dulls the pain of the moment, or at least that's my hope. Negative visualization can be a great exercise.

I'm also very picky about the jobs I'm going after/accepting. My style isn't universal. No one style is. The way I create might not translate what a certain client is looking to accomplish. But this isn't just applicable to the aesthetics of the job. There are simply projects that aren't worth it to me in terms of time, money, or morality. While I've hardly carved out a niche for myself yet, I ascribe to the adage that you can't be all things to all people, and that applies to the work you do. Knowing your limits (technical or personal) is a crucial part of playing to your strengths.

Bonus Thing: It's ok to breathe and celebrate

I'm going to be very real and share some personal details with you; the kind of details we don't normally feel are appropriate to share with others in today's society due to a misplaced sense of propriety. When I began this journey, I had a pretty decent amount of savings. My partner held me accountable to putting away nearly $1000 a month in the year before I went "pro" full-time. Since making the switch, I have lost money each and every month, forcing me to dip into that savings. Considering that I've calculated my monthly expenses to be roughly between $1400-1600/month, doing the math will tell you I haven't been making any money. That part hasn't been fun. In fact, it has caused two actual panic attacks. The mental tax of constantly checking your bank account and wondering what you're going to do is very acute, and it can cause real harm to your ability to focus on creating.

However...HOWEVER! For the month of August of this year, I have already booked nearly $6k in revenue, with a couple more projects in the works. I cannot begin to capture in words how incredible that feels. In fact, I almost didn't even allow myself to think about it. Had Leighann not pulled me aside the other night to gently but firmly remind me that this was a success worth celebrating, I would have instead been thinking about HOW IN THE HELL AM I GOING TO REPLICATE THIS NEXT MONTH? But no, that's not what I'm going to do today.

Today I'm going to celebrate a feeling I wasn't sure I'd be able to experience so soon, or sometimes even at all. The feeling of joy that comes with realizing I don't have a job. I get to take pictures and people pay me for it. I'm making a living doing something I love.


That is wild.