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FAQ: What should I do to become a full-time photographer? (or, “10 reasons NOT to become a professional photographer”)

The following is catered towards wedding photography, mainly because of all the photography industries out there, it’s most feasible to make a living shooting weddings. There are definitely those who are financially successful doing commercial, fine art, or landscape work. But the truth is, they are few and far between.

In addition, I will be making some generalizations based on my experiences and my knowledge of the industry. Like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the norm.

A few years ago, whenever someone would tell me, I want to become a wedding photographer too!, in my naïveté I would immediately exclaim Yea! Go for it! But nowadays, my responses are not quite as enthusiastic. On one hand, I still want to say, You HAVE to pursue your dreams! On the other hand, I also want to say …

10 reasons NOT to become a professional photographer


1.
Running a photography business has little to do with photography. If you think you should go pro just because you love photography and friends say good things about your pictures, think again. Being a photography professional has little to do with actual photography. Sure, you’ll shoot your weddings on the weekends, and there’s always editing to do. But ever consider how much of your life you’re going to end up devoting to emails, contracts, client meetings, advertising, troubleshooting, networking, researching? You are the human resources, IT, admin, marketing, sales, and accounting departments all wrapped up in one. And those responsibilities can be a rather significant part of your job. How much experience have you had running a business?

2. You can earn more working full time at Starbucks. It is true that there are some ridiculously rich wedding photographers out there — they live in mansions, drive Ferraris, live a rock star lifestyle. But according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 the average professional photographer earned $26,170. If you worked full time at Starbucks, you would be making about $35k/year. You’ve also heard about their awesome benefits, right? The truth is, many among the new generation of professional photographers are able to do what they do because they still living at home, or have a S.O. or spouse who is working full time helping to pay most of the bills. Do you ever plan on raising a family or buying a home? Good luck with that on your $26k income!

3. Your workweek is almost twice as long as the average person’s. When you have a full load, expect to be working at least 60-80 hours per week. Do you know who else works long hours like that? Doctors and lawyers. Guess how much they make?

4. Weekends are work days. Ask any wedding photographer, and they’ll tell you about all the birthdays, parties, baby showers, movies, (friends’) weddings, graduations, dinners, and trips they have missed out on. When the rest of the world is out relaxing and sleeping in and hanging out and having fun, you’ll be waking up at 7 in the morning to shoot someone else’s happy day.

5. You get to pay for your own health insurance. Forget about company benefits. As a professional photographer, you get no health insurance, no 401k, no paid vacation, no sick days, no paternity/maternity leave, no subsidized higher education, nada.

6. You get to pay for your own equipment! You thought camera equipment as a novice was expensive? Wait till you get to the pro level! And add in equipment insurance, business insurance, workshops, laptop upgrades, desktop upgrades, program upgrades, studio rental (unless you work from home), album and print samples, etc. Sure, they’re all business write-offs. But they’re also all money out of your pocket.

7. It’s easy to book jobs if you’re only charging $2-3k/wedding. If you’re excited because an engaged friend of yours is willing to pay you $2500 to shoot their wedding, and you think that this is a sign you should go pro, keep in mind that booking at $2-3k is a piece of cake for any half-decent photographer. The question is, how much do you need in order to earn a living? Do you realistically think you can one day stop budgeting like a college student if you only charge $2500? According to a recent CNN report, the average federal government employee earns about $116k/year in wages and benefits. They generally don’t get fired even if incompetent, clock out everyday at 5pm, and are entitled to hefty pensions when they retire at 55. How much do you want to be compensated for your 80 hour weeks? $50k without health benefits?  $60k with no P.T.O.? Then you need to be booking at a minimum 15-20 weddings/year, and charging at least $4-5k each. How many years do you think it’ll take you to ramp up from charging $2k to charging 2.5x that amount? Most do not think about how difficult it is to scale up.

8. The immigrants weekend warriors are coming to take over your job! These people work during the day as accountants, engineers, IT professionals, etc, and during the weekend, they shoot weddings. Because they already have a stable income, most of them are content charging $2k/wedding. (You’re probably currently one of these yourself.) But if you want to make this a full-time job, how do you expect to compete against an exponentially growing number of people who are delivering a service virtually for free?

9. Most people cannot tell the difference between great and average photography. I don’t think I really need to explain this point, right? But here is the significance of this statement: if the average couple cannot see the difference between your work and Uncle Bob’s weekend shooting, why should they pay you more? To them, your prices are just overinflated. Not only are weekend warriors and novice photographers competing with price–they are also competing with perceived quality. Such is the nature of the industry you are thinking about making a career of.

10. Most never make it. Of the photographers I know who started out around the same time I did, the majority of them are either still struggling to make ends meet, or are seeking another career path. And every week, countless “established” photography studios are going out of business. Most likely, you’d just end up becoming another statistic.


Wasn’t quite the rosy picture you expected, huh? I know that many of us photographers often give off the sense that ours is a glamorous lifestyle. We travel to exotic locations, do what we love, are part of the happiest days of people’s lives, are among beautiful people, get to be our own boss. But that’s only one side of the coin. There’s a good reason why we don’t talk about all these other things. I urge you — before making plans to turn your interest into a career, count your costs. If being a professional photographer was as fun and easy as most people think it is, then everybody would try to become one. Which, I suppose, would explain the sudden glut in the supply of wedding photographers — along with the subsequent (albeit smaller) exodus from the industry. However difficult you think it is to become a successful wedding photographer — it’s likely even harder than that, and there are many things I have also left off this list. Is any of this giving you pause yet?

Or after reading all that, are you even more resolute in becoming a professional wedding photographer? Then perhaps — just perhaps — you have what it takes. If you have been following my blog and facebook for awhile, then you know how much I freaking love my job! And trust me, the benefits faaaar outweigh the drawbacks I talk about above — at least in my experience. At a later date, I’ll be posting the real answer to “What should I do to become a professional photographer?”

p.s. If you would like an automatic reminder, go ahead and add yourself to the email list at the top right corner. Or you can also subscribe to my blog on your RSS reader.

p.p.s. If this is your first time reading my blog, I just want to put it out there that I’m not saying all this to discourage new competition or anything like that! I’m all for the free market, and my philosophy is “Go big, or go home!” Several dozen photographers have told me that I’ve been an inspiration for them to jump into the industry, and I am currently also personally mentoring a handful of local photographers — so much for equipping my competition! =P This post was written to encourage people to think seriously about their plans before betting the whole house.

p.p.p.s. Looks like this entry is getting reposted around the web. Feel free to chime in anytime! Would love to hear what you have to say.  :)

p.p.p.p.s. For a hard look at some of the numbers, here is a veteran photographer’s perspective. Here‘s another.

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January 23, 2011 - 7:49 am

Robin - Hardcore and sobering. I’ve said that I have no idea where my photography will take me but all I know is I want to keep learning.

November 11, 2010 - 1:37 am

orange county photography - NUTS!I did a really long reply to your post but my internet crapped out and I lost it all! Oh well, just wanted to say that it was a great post! Nicely done!

October 18, 2010 - 2:14 pm

Tweets that mention FAQ: What should I do to become a full-time photographer? (or, “10 reasons NOT to become a professional photographer”) » Junshien International Photographers | San Francisco Bay Area Wedding Photography -- Topsy.com - […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christina Chen, Ryan Chua. Ryan Chua said: Another MUST READ for aspiring wedding photographers out there! This one is by pro wedding photographer Junshien… http://fb.me/LDFkIq4l […]

May 9, 2010 - 10:46 pm

Cristiano - Man! What a sobering list! I think I’ll keep my photography to a hobby. ^^

I work as a pastor and I think I’ll one day make a top ten list for becoming a pastor! I think it’s sorely needed.

April 6, 2010 - 12:58 pm

Arielle - Soooo well said! You know how to put in word clearly, reality.

April 5, 2010 - 12:35 am

Procks - |
KarmaGarda – Nice post, found it a very interesting read. I agree with all your points accept one. You’re post title is invalid.
It should read:
“10 reasons NOT to become a professional WEDDING photographer”
|

I totally agree with this reply.
The article mostly covers about the Wedding Photography.
And another major fact is that more than half of the wedding photographers are Amature-photographers who like to call themselves as Pro-photographers.
There are many successful wedding photographers as well. Why dont we take those references.
And about competition, It’s every where so thinking about working in a non-competitive environment, I guess wont be practical.
I’d love to work 60-80 hrs a week on what I enjoy than
to suffer from 42 hrs/week which i dont enjoy.

January 8, 2010 - 12:11 pm

Best of 2009: Fashion shoots and blog posts recap » San Francisco Bay Area Wedding Photographer - […] “10 reasons NOT to become a professional photographer” Unquestionably THE most explosive post of this blog. This article has been read by almost 4000 people, and has raised a few firestorms around the web. See what the fuss is about. […]

November 8, 2009 - 12:21 pm

Les liens de la semaine #8 at Event-pics Blog - […] 10 raisons pour ne pas devenir photographe professionnel […]

November 3, 2009 - 5:26 am

KarmaGarda - Sorry about the typos! Also, I should clarify, maybe it should be titled “event photographer” as opposed to just “wedding”

November 3, 2009 - 5:23 am

KarmaGarda - Nice post, found it a very interesting read. I agree with all your points accept one. You’re post title is invalid. It should read:

“10 reasons NOT to become a professional WEDDING photographer”

seeing as that was the only area you dealt with! Apart from that, about time someone said it.

November 3, 2009 - 4:50 am

Budianto Chen - True, but I’ll take that risk, let’s see next year which path that I’ll stand on. Thanks for the post..

November 2, 2009 - 1:47 pm

Tracy G - They are charging even less out here…I am such an idiot…lol.
ah so.

November 1, 2009 - 4:54 pm

Weekend Links | iffles.com - […] a professional photographer, and I always respond with an emphatic “no”. This list of 10 reasons NOT to become a professional photographer touch upon some of my reasons why (via […]

November 1, 2009 - 4:05 pm

Eric Farewell - Ahhh yes, I’ll be sending lots of people to this link in the future… THANK you for taking the time to write all the stuff I’ve had to repeat over the years.

November 1, 2009 - 12:10 am

Jenny - Very well said Junshien ! I think I’ll just refer to your post whenver someone ask me that same question.

October 30, 2009 - 6:20 pm

Peter G. - Very accurate. Very realistic. Very honest. Great post!

October 29, 2009 - 11:01 am

anastasia - i’m using this as a reference. this is a good post and thanks for sharing.

October 28, 2009 - 1:46 am

Karl Johnston - well that was fucking depressing.

though sadly true

I think I must be the only pro photographer out there trying to become a weekend warrior. To be quite honest I would love to be full time, and I am currently..but to face reality I would rather do what I love, enrich peoples’ lives through my photography and work a different job, with more protection, benefits, more insurance, more satisfaction and possibly a consistent income.

I love running businesses, building them…but there’s only so much you can do to be different and now even the best photographers, the most reputed photographers, the best image creators on our planet…aren’t really professional photographers (they’re WWs)

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But man, is it really damned difficult being an artist in this day and age.

And there’s also nothing wrong with that.

Though, who says you can’t do both? The average person changes career paths 7 times in their lifetime..why do you have to stay a pro photographer or an accountant or an astronaut or a pole dancer or whatever? I’ve changed career paths twice, nearly changing it for a third time in the past 10 years.

I’ll still continue doing what I love, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to just stick to that and that alone…like was said in #1: “You are the human resources, IT, admin, marketing, sales, and accounting departments all wrapped up in one.”

One thing I’ll say..running my own business as a pro photographer has taught me more about life, business, myself and other people than any other job I’ve ever had working for someone else in a job I didn’t believe in or want to do. I’ll still continue doing what I do, and in the meantime if something better comes along..well I’ll go do that for a bit, so should all of you..what’s tying you to doing one profession ? Branch out, evolve, adapt..that’s business after all.

October 27, 2009 - 8:21 pm

Mike - Great job with writing this. It spells out the unspoken truths very well.

October 27, 2009 - 5:13 pm

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October 27, 2009 - 1:58 pm

Raymond Chou - Well said Junshien. I can attest to a majority of your points. Tis true tis pity.

October 27, 2009 - 10:56 am

KS - As a “weekend warrior” myself, this is an enlightening post, although I have a few things to add:

1. Everyone starts off doing $2-3K weddings. But you get what you pay for. Better photographers will charge more. It’s plain economics. And although not everyone can tell the difference between a decent photographer and an artist, some people can. There will always be a market for the talented. And I would venture to guess that pro photographers *prefer* the discerning bride that can tell the difference between average and great.

2. Yes, photography *is* expensive, which is why people start off as weekend warriors. I bet most/many photographers started out that way. These people (including me) get the experience they need under their belts until they have the skill that justifies leaving their day jobs to become full time pros.

3. Long hours: Do they matter if you love what you’re doing and find passion/purpose in it? I’ve always believed that if you land a job that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

October 27, 2009 - 10:46 am

KS - As someone who is a “weekend warrior,” this is an enlightening post, although I have a few things to add:

1. Everyone starts off doing $2-3K weddings. But, people get what they pay for. Better photographers will charge more for their skill, and although not everyone can tell the difference between a decent photographer versus an artist, there are always people willing to pay for better photography.

2. Photography is e

October 27, 2009 - 10:44 am

Kenneth - Great thought-provoking list! Does #9 mean that there’s still hope out there of making it as an average, mediocre photographer? (Okay, okay, stop throwing the tomatoes!)

October 27, 2009 - 9:47 am

Paul D - Okay. This list is somewhat of a reality check but I think it is misleading. Many of the points directly have to do with business choices. (1 through 7 and 10). Most photographer’s fail for the same reasons that most small businesses fail – lack of planning. A good business plan will actually force you to ask yourself all of the pertinent questions and come up with answers. (health insurance, equipment costs, rate, etc.)

What is completely absent from this is the freedom and joy that comes from doing what you love. “Working” 80 hours a week is nothing if you love what you’re doing.

I am looking forward to reading the real answer.

October 27, 2009 - 8:25 am

Tammy - Pretty much why I say “no” when people ask if I plan on doing full-time! That, plus I’m not really a small business person, especially if it takes up weekend time. :P

October 27, 2009 - 8:21 am

Kim Nodurft - Wow! I just had this very conversation with a wonderful girlfriend I did a wedding with this weekend. I felt like I was bursting her bubble. But I love her and don’t want to see her suffer. But she’ll be walking away from a very lucrative career that anyone would envy in this economy. One other thing people need to consider before jumping into weddings, there’s nothing more difficult to shoot (if you’re doing a good job). Just because you love photography and bought a bottom of the line camera in the “Pro” level ie. Rebel or D90, doesn’t make you capable of taking on the low lighting conditions for a wedding. You need YEARS of excellent shooting before walking into a wedding.

October 27, 2009 - 5:50 am

Faizal - yes. spot on! i never thought about all these before.
great post!

October 27, 2009 - 3:34 am

Kevin Isabeth - While this post is scary and probably very true, it hasn’t put me off wanting to be a pro photographer. Thanks for the facts of life chat.

October 27, 2009 - 2:05 am

leland wong - I’m looking for a job.

October 27, 2009 - 1:43 am

saphoto - and weekend warriors bring down the market price of quality wedding photography national average haha

October 26, 2009 - 11:32 pm

Sean - Man, number 8 hits so many artistic industries hard. Your post rings so true, and it’s painful.

To play the Devil’s Advocate though, number 2 is a little misleading. The person working at Starbucks is an employee, while a photographer is a small business owner. As with any business owner, the photographer’s job is to claim as little as possible for income tax (which is most likely how the Bureau of Labor Statistics gets its information). Associated business costs can be written off of revenue, and many businesses are “inventive” in their accounting. Businesses also pay less tax than regular workers.

On a different topic, when are you going to take a vacation and visit us up here in the Great White North?

October 26, 2009 - 9:33 pm

Ingrid Joy - Amen to that!

October 26, 2009 - 5:55 pm

uberVU - social comments - Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by junshien: FAQ: How can I become a professional photographer? (This is a MUST READ.) http://bit.ly/27rWW9

October 26, 2009 - 5:50 pm

Life On The Edges - Great post!

October 26, 2009 - 3:20 pm

Quincy - dude! So So So So So VERY True! great words!

October 26, 2009 - 2:55 pm

donald lee - great post.

October 26, 2009 - 2:02 pm

hien ngo - thanks for the great words Junshien!

October 26, 2009 - 1:36 pm

saphoto - this is all 110% true.

October 26, 2009 - 1:19 pm

saphoto - WORD! U PAINTED THE PICTURE BEAUTIFULLY JUNSHIEN. =) GREAT POST AND GREAT WORDS.

October 26, 2009 - 1:18 pm

Ian - Well said… These are definitely all the things I thought about and it’s good seeing it from you as somewhat of a reality check.

***You get to pay for your own equipment!*** <== NOT fun.

-ian

October 26, 2009 - 1:13 pm

Chris Chen - great post my friend…..clients don’t know how much time we spent on post processing their images. They think it’s a 8-10 hour gig.

October 26, 2009 - 12:30 pm

JulieLim - Junshien, thanks for this post… I’m not even close to shooting a wedding yet and I am so scared especially after reading the list BUT if I really want to make it to the top I cannot let anything stop me. Same goes for other wedding photographers who are trying to make it out there.

October 26, 2009 - 12:19 pm

Tweets that mention FAQ: What should I do to become a full-time photographer? (or, “10 reasons NOT to become a professional photographer”) » Junshien Weddings & Portraits -- Topsy.com - […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Junshien Lau, Joanne Namocatcat. Joanne Namocatcat said: RT @junshien: FAQ: How can I become a professional photographer? (This is a MUST READ.) http://bit.ly/27rWW9 […]

October 26, 2009 - 10:37 am

Sophia Q. - Thanks for this blogpost. I’ll send it to everyone that has asked me “you spent HOW MUCH on wedding photography?!?” and then looks as me skeptically.

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