When I look back at the past 7 years of my life as a professional photographer, I'm amazed by how much I've learned in that time. It feels like the person I am now versus the awkward, inexperienced, unsure person I was back then are complete strangers to one another.
It's tough when you're just starting out in this industry. It's highly competitive, and people are not often willing to pass along their knowledge and expertise unless there's something in it for them.
Whelp, I thought I'd put together a list of the 7 biggest lessons I've learned over the years so maybe (just maybe) someone else who's thinking of following this path finds it that little bit easier to get their feet on the ground.
1. Don't undersell yourself
It's easy to make the mistake of selling yourself short when you're just starting out - but undervaluing yourself and your services because you feel that you’re too young and inexperienced to be “charging like the pros” can be horrifically detrimental to your business in the long run.
Your equipment costs. Your editing software and image storage costs. That time and effort you’ve spent honing your craft? All those years spent studying techniques and theories and how to read light? That definitely costs.
Believe in yourself and your talents.
The best advice I got while I was studying was to never price myself into a box that I'd struggle to break out of later. Coming into the market too low can really hurt your chances of being able to comfortably increase your prices as you grow.
Take into consideration the costs involved in purchasing and maintaining your equipment; the monthly fees for your editing software and cloud storage; fuel spend travelling to and from clients; new memory cards, replacement camera straps, UV filters, the horrendously finicky eye pieces that are always popping off the viewfinder...the list goes on.
These are all factors that you should consider when trying to figure out your pricing. You need to be able to maintain your equipment and (in the worst-case scenario) replace it should something catastrophic happen. You can't do that if you've grievously undervalued yourself and your skill set.
Do not sell yourself short just because you think you don’t have as much talent or experience as someone else. I promise you, you do. The talent has always been there. The experience will come.
2. Your time is valuable
We photographers, like many other creatives, are often plagued by an industry-specific sickness; a virus that you just cannot escape, no matter how far you run or how well you hide. It will come for you at your strongest, at your weakest…and always when you least expect it. Or maybe even sometimes when you do.
And no, I'm not talking about Covid.
This is the vilest of diseases creative diseases. It is the dreaded exposure.
I’m going to say it loud and clear for the people in the back - exposure is a trap.
Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t put fuel in your tank or food in your belly. It always comes neatly wrapped in a sincere, apologetic email, with an attractive satin bow and a tiny hand-written note promising next time. Spoiler alert: there is never a next time.
Anyone who offers you exposure in return for your services is just looking for a freebie, plain and simple.
They know how much your equipment costs. They know what other professionals in your line of work are charging. They’ve probably contacted a fair few of them, too. They know all of this, but they don’t see the value in it.
A potential client who truly respects and values what you do would never expect you to do it for free. Sure, there are always budget restrictions and tight belts, but those can be worked with. I am always happy to work within a client’s financial parameters, even if it’s slightly lower than my standard rate - as long as I am paid for my time and my expertise (and as long as they’re not expecting me to work for pennies).
As a photographer - or any creative for that matter, whether you’re a graphic designer, copywriter, artist, or musician - your time is valuable. Your time is money. The time you spend on site, in the car, and behind the computer is what pays your bills. An hour worked is an hour paid. A client that truly wants to work with you will pay your rates.
Anyone who doesn’t respect that is not worth working with.
3. You will have nightmare clients
This was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a professional:
Some people are just impossible to please.
I am a natural people-pleaser. As a Pisces with intense social anxiety, I never really stood a chance.
In the early days of my freelance career, I would run myself into the ground to make sure that a client was absolutely beaming with happiness when I handed over those final images - I would stay hours longer than what I quoted for, spend even more undocumented hours on editing, hand over hundreds more images than necessary, and say yes to rush turnaround times of sometimes less than 12 hours.
I did all of this, and sometimes it still wasn’t enough.
It’s hard not to take criticisms of your work to heart. Very often, they’ll feel like personal attacks - and, depending on the Karen-o-meter of the client, sometimes they are. But the one thing you start to develop in this industry after a little while is a thick skin.
Don’t let a hard-to-please client break you.
We’re all human. We all have bad days, and sometimes we mess up - the shot of the first kiss might be out of focus, or you might have missed an obscure (but no less important) aunt in a group photo at a child’s birthday party. It happens.
These are the moments that build your experience. You’ll triple-check your focus points before every wedding. You’ll learn how to mentally catalogue every important family member at a birthday party, and do an extra sweep of all the guests before leaving. Mistakes will continue to happen, but they’ll be less and less often, and certainly not as big.
Even when you’ve done everything right - gotten all the important shots, captured every significant moment, and every single one of your images is technically perfect - there will still be someone who isn’t happy. And there is nothing you can do about it, other than to remind yourself that it’s not a reflection on you as a professional, or as a person.
Do not let a difficult client extinguish your creative fire.
You take the hit, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. There will be so many wonderful clients who you will get to work with down the line; clients that inspire you and make you love what you do. Don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch.
4. Make time for your passion projects
All work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy.
Even in highly creative fields like photography and design, working on client briefs all day, every day can be exhausting.
Making time for your own passion projects - even if they have nothing to do with your field of work - is the best way to avoid the dreaded creative burnout
Working on something purely for your personal enjoyment and satisfaction is an important part of keeping your creativity alive. It’s also essential to remember that not everything you make has to mean something.
Sometimes the only justification you need for it is “I felt like doing it, so I did”.
That hobby you’ve been wanting to pick up? Do it. That book you’ve been wanting to dig into? Read it. That art style you’ve been dying to experiment with? Try it.
Make time for the things that bring you joy, or spark your passion, or fuel your creative drive. Your own interests and hobbies are just as important as your day-job.
5. Remember to experiment
Experimentation is the mother of all creative inspiration. Sticking to the same formula for too long can make your work feel stagnant - even you might start to get bored of it after a while.
Experimenting with different styles and techniques is a sure-fire way to keep your own work feeling fresh and exciting. Take yourself as far out of your comfort zone as you can reach, and see where you land. Styles and artistic flair are meant to change and develop over time - they morph alongside us as we grow as people.
I look back at images from the beginning stages of my career, and they are nothing like the images I create today. My style has changed, my editing has changed, and even the way I view different subject matter has changed.
I’ve been guilty in the past of stagnating. I became too set in my ways; too comfortable in my “safe space” - and my work suffered for it. It became something I didn’t even want to look at after I was finished with it. And if I don’t want to be looking at it, then a client certainly doesn’t, either.
I began experimenting with different techniques and styles that felt almost alien to me - different lighting setups, angles, and colour grading. It all felt unnatural and unnerving at first, but then I began to see certain things in each of these experiments that I actually…liked. A colour preset here, a composition technique there…slowly, these elements began to filter into my own work, and changed the way I took photographs.
Every experiment leaves some sort of impression on us, whether it be something we like or something that we definitely know we never want to try again. More often than not, it’s the former. But you’ll only ever really know if you give it a chance.
6. Keep yourself inspired
Follow other photographers on social media. Create mood boards on Pinterest. Take screenshots of ads you see that strike a chord in you (in your heart, not in your wallet). Surround yourself with sources of creative inspiration that keep your passion for your craft alive.
I’ll give you some personal examples. I follow a lot of photographers on Instagram whose work makes me feel something - creatives like Alessio Albi and Jesse Herzog, who always makes me think “wow, I wish I could shoot like that”. And one day, maybe I will.
I have multiple Pinterest boards bursting with images that make my fingers itch to grab my camera and start shooting something - fashion editorials, creative portraits, aesthetic product photographs, and even things like Top Ten Poses To Try At The Beach.
I even have a folder of screenshots on my phone exclusively featuring targeted ads with imagery that I want to try recreate on my own. RIP to my algorithm.
Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. If it makes you excited to create, then it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.
There are no defined rules about where you can and cannot draw your inspiration from. What matters the most is that you keep yourself inspired in whatever ways make sense to you. Inspiration is the driving force that keeps our creativity alive.
7. Invest in your craft
One thing I’ve definitely learned over the past 7 years is that you are your own biggest investment.
You are the be-all and end-all of your craft. It doesn’t matter how expensive your equipment is, or how formalised your education was - at the end of the day, you are the one with the creative vision. You are the one who has developed the skills and the know-how to create the images that you do. You are the one who has spent countless hours, days, weeks, and years climbing up that daunting, jagged mountain to get yourself where you are today.
Value your worth, and invest in yourself. Investing in yourself is the best way to invest in your craft.
Make the time to develop your style in whatever way makes sense to you - whether it be taking an online course, reading a few articles, picking the brains of other photographer friends, or just experimenting with different things day in and day out until you come up with a final product that is irrefutably you.
Another intensely underrated aspect of being a photographer is the time and effort you have to invest into making your own editing presets. Sure, paying for pre-made filters from other creative studios and photographers is totally an option too, but your own unique editing style will go a long way to making your images instantly recognisable.
Crafting a preset is a fine science, and it doesn’t always work on every single image you apply it to - there will always be subtle tweaks in contrast, or in warmth and saturation, or even in infinitesimally minute percentages of colour grading. But once you have your own style perfected, it will be worth every single painstaking, frustrating minute it took to get there.
It also pays to invest in your equipment. Now I don’t mean paying exorbitant amounts for top of the line equipment that will put you in debt for the next ten years - but I do mean spending that extra little bit on a good lens with quality glass versus a Plastic Fantastic, buying a sturdy tripod, and making sure you have a little bit put away for an annual sensor clean.
After all, your equipment makes up 50% of what you do. It’s worth investing in upgrading and maintaining it to make sure that you’re both always performing at your peak.
If you've found any of these points helpful, or have tips of your own that you'd like to share with other up-and-coming photographers, let me know!
Catch ya next time!