Today was typical. I woke to the alarm clock screaming at 4:00am. I knew exactly how it felt. Chris and I threw on our clothes, checked out of the hotel and drove 4 and one-half hours down a kidney jarring rocky road to reach our first shoot site. There, amidst the mud and dirt and dangerous conditions that exist in the oil field, our assignment was to somehow create art. Challenging work? Yes. It’s not easy making something butt-ugly look good. Glamorous? Hell no.
But later, as part of the assignment, we drove through and shot in the spectacular Flaming Gorge region on the border of Utah and Wyoming. Challenging work? Hell no. Any idiot can point a camera a something that is already gorgeous and get a great shot. Glamorous? Hell yes. It was brilliant.
God, I love my job. I really do. I get to travel all around the world to exciting, exotic places. I work with top-notch communication professionals who are outstanding in their field. But I also work with minimum wage guys who are out, standing in a field. Those poor hardworking guys simply cannot believe that all we do is push a button on a camera to get paid. If they had any idea how much we get paid, they would fall over dead. But we are among a very fortunate few in the wacky world known as freelance photography.
About once a month we get a call from someone who wants to become a rock-star professional photographer like us and is seeking our sage advice (I can hear our kids and clients laughing at that one). I have a set speech I give them. I don’t talk about the exciting travel and the fun parts – they already know about that or they wouldn’t be calling on me. I am brutally honest because this is a brutally tough profession and they should know that. Generally they are shocked. I tell them the competition from other professionals is cut-throat fierce which is true. I tell them the world is their competition because anyone who has ever been lucky enough to take a good photo thinks they can do what we do. Most of these wannabes are young kids who have been told by someone (their moms or their art teachers) that they have “talent”. Most don’t, I’m afraid. I’m also afraid that most are really just looking for some way out of working for a living and think taking pictures would be cool and easy. Cool? Yes. Easy? Far from it.
They don’t want to hear about the fact that the average annual income for a full-time photographer (according to 2004 US Census numbers) was around $26,000 or that to be considered in the top 10% earners you only have to make $55,000. Surveyed successful freelance photographers say they spend on average 2 days or less per week shooting and the rest of their time is spent on boring paperwork and ego-shattering marketing. I make a point of saying (hopefully within earshot of mom, otherwise known as The Neverending Wallet) that the startup costs are very high. Our current camera bodies cost around $5,000 each and that doesn’t even get your toe in the water as far as gear is concerned, and then there are computers, etc., - and repeat all that about every 2 years to stay current.
The vast majority of freelance photographers go out of business within the first 5 years – many not from lack of talent, but because of lack of business acumen. As I tell the wannabes: It’s a photography business – you must give as much or more time to the business side as you do to the photography part. They don’t want to hear that.
I shamelessly do everything I can to discourage them. I pull no punches when I review their portfolio. I am a dasher of dreams, an ego eliminator. I’m downright cruel. Why? Because I know how hard this business is and how many times they are going to be turned down, in a harsher fashion than I handed out. I know it takes unending resolve, nerves of iron and limitless faith in yourself – despite how many times anyone (including me) tells them they don’t have what it takes. God knows we heard that enough times! Photography can be very hard on the ego. If they can’t take me telling them no, how are they ever going to face their first less than kind art director?
Most of the time I do my part to perpetuate the myth of the glamorous life of a professional travel photographer. I feel like I’m breaking some fraternal code - like magicians have about divulging magic tricks - if I say otherwise. But that’s the point. There is no magic trick to success in freelance photography - just a lot of hard work, dedication, some luck and some talent – in about equal measure. If you have that, after 20 years you too can lead the glamorous life!