Episode 17

17. Before you go pro, enjoy being an amateur

You have a camera, so naturally you want to make money with it right? Well, before you start stacking Benjamins, maybe enjoy your time as an amateur -- while you still can.

Show Notes

The following links are discussed in this show:

Transcript

You have a camera, so naturally you want to make money with it right? Well, before you start stacking Benjamins, maybe enjoy your time as an amateur, while you still can.

Hello friends and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

Recently, I’d been thinking of writing an episode about the benefits of being an amateur or hobbyist photographer. This morning, I stumbled across an article on Medium by photographer Robert Rittmuller, who managed to ruffle a few feathers because he said he never charges for photography.

The comments on his article immediately turned mildly negative, which is unusual for Medium, since things are typically pretty civil over there. The thesis of Robert’s article revolved around his love for photography and how he maintains that passion because he doesn’t take paying jobs. He doesn’t need to worry about client expectations, judgments and requirements, and this liberates him to create rewarding personal art.

In the comments were the usual tired arguments we’ve heard before: If you work for free, you’re taking money from a professional photographer and thereby killing their livelihood. Someone claimed the writer was, “basically destroying the work of others by not charging.” The top applauded commenter implored the writer, “don’t be in the line of sight between the spouse and the professional photographer,” who is “working really hard” amid guests getting in the way with smartphones.

Why are photographers so triggered? Especially photographers who take offense that someone might want to shoot photos for free. That’s called being a hobbyist, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

What is it about photography that brings out these territorial insecurities and egomaniacal rantings? Mr. Rittmuller never suggested he was taking work from pros by offering free services. But even if he was doing that, good for him. Pros who are offended by that probably need to step up their game.

Look, we’ve all had to deal with Uncle Bob at an event from time to time. You know him; he’s the enthusiastic hobby shooter who has better gear than you, and maybe he has a nice portfolio too, you know, lots of HDR images, and bokeh shots. Maybe once upon a time he wanted to be a photographer, but life sent him down another path.

I used to get annoyed by Uncle Bob, but lately, I’ve had a change of heart. I’ll make friends with Uncle Bob. I’ll establish a rapport. We talk shop. We respect each other, and therefore, we don’t get in each other's way. Hell, sometimes, I’ll invite Uncle Bob to come shoot beside me.

At a wedding I photographed last month, one of the guests was a very enthusiastic videographer. He’d just invested in a Sony rig with a snappy little prime lens and a gimbal that enabled him to shoot cinematic footage. We got to talking and I happily let him shoot alongside me, even though he said he’d barely learned to edit video. And why not? At the end of the day, the couple will have some good looking video, and both the novice shooter and I bonded over a common experience. If someone is passionate about something, encourage it, and remember, you were once that same person at some point in your journey. If you claim to be a professional, act like it, and maybe pass some light on to the younger generation. Or don’t, and come to depressing photography message boards and complain like a petulant child.

If you’re just starting out as a photographer, undoubtedly there is pressure to “git gud” and start making money. Don’t fall into that trap. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur photographer. Think about the freedom you have. Freedom to shoot when, where, how and what you want. Freedom to constantly experiment. Freedom to create your art.

But what about “doing what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life?” Just, no. I hate this and other Hallmark card sentiments that attempt to oversimplify the slings and arrows of life.

Why as photographers are we so quick to jump into making money with our skillset? It’s almost like a societal expectation. Case in point, I bought my first really nice camera in the mid-90s. I was showing it to my uncle and he told me, “now you have a camera, go make money with it.” That stuck with me, and to be honest, it was an exciting prospect, that this gadget had the potential to create income. A lot of people feel the same way.

Where does that come from? Is that some level of privilege? A remnant of the American Dream lodged somewhere in our DNA? It happens in other arts also.

Maybe a guy buys a copy of Ableton Live and starts making electronic dance music. He releases one track on Soundcloud and gets disappointed when every record label isn’t begging him to sign. Is he making music because he loves it, or because it’s a business? Or maybe a couple of movie nerds make a podcast and give up after a few episodes because it didn’t land on the “new and noteworthy” section of Apple Podcasts.

I’m guessing you know some folks like that.

Some things are never going to be more than hobbies. It’s a case of balancing expectations versus reality. No one should enter into a new hobby intending to earn money, and those who do -- those EDM musicians who drop a remix and get featured on a Solardo setlist, or that podcaster who starts a true crime show and suddenly lands on the top 10 -- those folks are outliers, and don’t represent the other 99% of us. Maybe they got lucky, but more likely, they’re just that good.

The reality is, most of us are not remarkable photographers. From the standpoint of skill and creativity I consider myself somewhere in the bottom portion of the bell curve, closer to the bad side of the curve, rather than the good side, where those outliers live. Yet many folks in the middle to lower portions of the curve want to make money with photography, and they are even encouraged by family, friends and clients, and many of these folks actually do turn it into a career. Being a professional just means you earn money from your skillset. And going pro doesn’t automatically make an individual great at their job.

But why can’t photography remain a simple, fun pursuit? After all, cameras are just tools. Imagine a bird-watcher buys his first pair of binoculars and someone tells him to then “go make money” with his new hobby. Does owning a pair of gloves and a trowel qualify you to be a professional landscaper? My dad’s hobby is model trains, so I guess he should be designing track layouts for the local railroad company?

There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. Photography doesn’t have to be a monetary pursuit. You don’t need to start your own commercial photography company just because you have a DSLR and a Squarespace site. Before you convert your past-time or artistic endeavor into paid work, you need to know you’re about to go down a path you might not be able to turn back from.

Let’s face it. Sometimes working just isn’t fun. Sure, many of us like or even love our jobs, but at the end of the day, it is work. It’s not supposed to be for our pleasure.

In fact, in the French language, the word for “work” is “travailler,” for instance, “Je travaille,” meaning, “I work”. The etymology of this word is fascinating. It comes from the Old French, “travailler,” meaning “suffering” or “torment.” When we use the English derivative of this, travail, it’s definition is “painfully difficult or burdensome work.”

This fact is the one thing I remember from taking French in high school. Our teacher emphasized the meaning of work was to be in “constant pain.” And given the rowdy nature of disinterested students, coming to class to teach a group of miserable 16-year-olds was probably about as fun as trying to get a good night’s sleep in an iron maiden while suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome.

Once we start getting paid for something we once loved, it may stop being fun. Psychologically, this is known as the “Overjustification Effect.” It describes our tendency to become less motivated to partake in an activity that we used to enjoy when offered an external incentive such as money or a reward.

This can happen in many disciplines, where a hobby activity is perceived as having value. Photography has to be one of the ultimate examples of this. There is a notion or maybe expectation, that if you own a decent camera, you’ve earned the title of “photographer” and therefore, you’re open for business. How many of you get pulled into shooting engagement photos, weddings, newborns, youth sports and so on, just because someone knows you have a good camera and an eye for composition? Nevermind these are photographic areas you have no interest in pursuing.

I can speak from my own personal experience on how I bungled my way into spending a few years as a wedding photographer. Things started innocently enough. A family member wanted me to shoot some photos of a newborn. I took a roll, not really interested in the subject matter, but excited to use the camera. They didn’t pay me anything, so in the end I lost money on the deal because this was still in the film era. Still, I was happy to be providing a service that made someone happy.

I did more gigs like this, and eventually, a co-worker asked me to shoot their wedding. Because I had no business acumen, I didn’t know how to charge for a wedding. I didn’t even know how to shoot a wedding, if I’m being honest. But I bought a pro pack of Kodak VPS film (the expensive stuff), because I’d read that’s what wedding shooters used. I did the wedding and needed to get the film developed and printed. I presented the images to the client and they loved them, and handed me a wrinkled check for $100. Because we hadn’t agreed on a price, and factoring in the cost of film, development, and printing, plus the travel involved, I actually lost money on the deal.

Knowing he underpaid me, the client, who didn’t have any extra cash, offered me marijuana as a form of payment, as if a sticky dime bag of Orangeburg’s finest was going to somehow replenish my bank account.

The next paid gigs I had were to shoot official group photos for several class reunions in the area. Terrible work to be honest, but I came equipped with printed order forms and collected more checks and cash than I’d ever seen in one place at that point in my life. All for shooting a singular image. Of course a lot of that profit disappeared once I had to get prints made, packaged and mailed off to recipients. What an absolute pain in the derriere that was. This was in the days before printable postage, and photo mailers weren’t cheap. I still wasn’t charging enough.

The universe was sending me all the signals: It was saying “You’re not ready to make this a career. Don’t do this. Stop chasing money. Work on your craft more.” And I didn’t listen.

It would be a few years of fumbling around pretending to be a professional photographer before I got wise to how to make decent money. Creating proper invoices and contracts was a big part of that. Notice I said, “decent,” not “a lot” of money. I still didn’t know how to properly charge for services. Fortunately, I learned from these early failures, and I never quit my day job.

At some point my wife decided to do some marketing for me on The Knot website and from that one post, wedding jobs fell into my lap for more than a year. Word of mouth from those clients led to more clients. Co-workers saw what I was doing and they recommended clients.

One of my early clients was a paralegal and she helped me devise a photo release form and tweaked my contract. I doubled my already low prices, and people still wanted to hire me. On many weekends of the year, especially spring and summer, I was trekking across the state, from hidden coastal plantations, to cathedrals in the Midlands, to historic buildings in the upstate, I went everywhere. One weekend I drove to Washington, DC to shoot engagement photos, and several months later, I joined the couple at a resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico on an all-expenses paid trip.

Strangely enough, I didn’t really think of myself as a wedding photographer. I enjoyed making money, but I didn’t enjoy the work itself. When I first got into weddings, I was happy that someone thought enough of me to simply ask me to shoot an important life event for them. I felt that way for a long time, and I never minded doing weddings, corporate events or magazine assignments, because there was fun in making images, and more fun in cashing checks.

At some point, my time became much more precious. I had to drop a lot of my usual activities to deal with a family crisis of sorts. The next few years required that I spend less time chasing my own pleasures, and focusing on the type of responsibilities that are generally reserved for people older than me. My free time dwindled, so the last thing I wanted to do was work on a weekend, drive across the state to shoot a wedding, or spend my weekends tweaking photos.

Several years would go by before I was able to return to my old way of life, but I discovered I didn’t have the motivation to return to my old ways. Yes, earning some extra cash is always nice, but not at the expense of my sanity.

This goes back to the Overjustification Effect I mentioned earlier. Once we associate a once-pleasurable activity, such as photography, with some form of reward -- like money -- it becomes a chore. It becomes work. It’s not something we do for fun, but because there is some external pressure or expectation of us.

And here’s the really nasty thing about the Overjustification Effect. Even if we eliminate that expectation, we may never find pleasure in the activity anymore, because our brains have rewired themselves with negative associations with the activity. And psychological research says it’s unlikely our motivation to pursue our once-favorite activity will ever return.

I’ve experienced this first-hand. It took me years to re-engage with the photography world. The only gigs I take now are for a local magazine, and my motivation there isn’t so much based around photography itself, but nostalgia. I like to maintain my connection to the journalism world where I spent so many years as a young adult. Journalism took me on some of my greatest adventures; and it still makes me smile to nail a cover story.

In other aspects of photography, I’m happy to remain in hobby or amateur status. I don’t mind attending a wedding and being able to hang back in the corner eating cake and watch the designated pro herding the cats. If my family members don’t ask me to shoot photos of their kids, and even pay someone else to shoot them, I’m not bitter. I’m not defined by this skillset anymore, nor do I want to make money taking photos. I want to stay passionate about photography, rather than have it turn into another one of life’s travails.

Your artistic vision is another thing to consider. Once you are getting paid for your work, it’s not really your work any more. Your vision is basically the client’s. It may have an imprint of your style on it, but it’s basically out of your hands. You aren’t the boss anymore. You’re repeating a formula, whether you realize it or not. You’re another “vendor” … a hired gun.

Talking about weddings again, as a photographer, we know the work we’re doing isn’t the same type of work the bartender is doing -- no shade on the bartender, but they aren’t exactly producing original art while they work. They are serving Uncle Bob a Tequila Sunrise, and White Claws to the bridesmaids. But to everyone else, you’re basically on the same level as the bartender.

You’re also no better than the high school kid refilling water glasses, and you won’t get as much respect as the caterers, because people love and understand food, but they think you must be an idiot because you keep your flash pointed at the ceiling.

If you think you’re somehow superior to the guy sweeping up floors when the wedding is done, you’re absolutely wrong there too. At the end of the day, you’re another check the happy couple has to write. That doesn’t sound like an artistic endeavor does it? But at least you’ve earned the money so you’re not a starving artist.

Photographer and writer Ming Thein, in a blog posting from 2014, described how his personal work dried up as he became a successful commercial photographer. He suggested balance. Shooters who can do commercial work should make an effort to balance that with personal work, so both disciplines remain sharp. His theory was the best position to be in is that of a well-off amateur, who can do commercial work as needed.

In other words, if you must earn a living with photography, earn enough to create more amateur opportunities for yourself.

Folks that’s going to do it for this episode of Photo 365. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a friend. Be sure to check out the show website, photo365podcast.com, from time to time. I post full transcripts of each episode, along with photos or anything else discussed on each episode.

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Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time.