There are a whole lot of rosy and misguided pre-conceptions about being a professional photographer but could the reality of earning your crust from a camera be a photographic passion killer?
A couple of days ago had a long chat with a former world mountain bike champion and in jest I mentioned the last time I saw him, which was on Swiss mountaintop as he raced towards a podium spot in a legendary marathon race. Somewhere around 4:00 am on that morning I’d been crammed into helicopter with four other photographers and flown through the darkness to arrive atop of the first of many mountains passes of the race.
With typical Swiss precision we were on a schedule that was nailed down to the minute, meaning that there were only around 15 minutes at each stop, so the other photographers (wisely) all stayed close by the chopper, presumably not scrambling into bushes or over rocks to get their shots (although, as things turned out, I can never be sure about that!).
I had an X-T1 and X-E1 over my shoulder and was running faster uphill than the racers were riding in order to get the images I wanted not the images I needed – a big difference. When the fourth drop came, there were a whole lot of people around, so I ran up the mountain and waited for the leading riders to come through so that I had that big mountain shot with the rider’s suffering faces in it. I could see the helicopter below me and got the image and then ran back down the mountain. Naturally, as I got within 50m, the helicopter took off, leaving me behind.
It was race over for me, which was entirely my fault. I walked, hitchhiked, took two buses, a train and then a taxi to get back to the aerodrome, arriving six hours later. I do laugh about it now (and then) and I got the images that I wanted – job twisted but done.
It was only after our chat that I realised just how passionate I still am about what I do, and that was some 22 years after I first shot the same race (from and old military helicopter). It got me thinking about the passion element, the declining viability and the realities of taking pictures for a living, or rather pictures that you are deeply passionate about rather than solely for financial gain. (When I say “a living”, I mean a full-time living, as opposed to a few bucks earned of fun from selling your soul to stock, which is a huge difference in scale and risk.)
I always find it strange when I watch photography YouTubers and read articles telling people how to make money from photography, as just about all seem to read from the same old and unrealistic hymn sheet, and without ever questioning it, and in many cases without ever having any experience in doing what they preach, but I guess myths and dreams are easier to sell than reality (just ask a modelling agency).
There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat in photographic earning terms and I won’t even begin to delve into them; in truth you have to decide and figure that out for yourself and balance it with a few harsh realities – those being largely financial. Taking pictures for a living is not so much about how good you are (unlike with most sports), although it does help (and hinder in some situations, if you happen to be a perfectionist and expect to be rewarded accordingly), particularly in certain genres, of which there are huge variations. It’s mostly about the business and sales side.
A lifelong love of cycling and a passion for travel and adventure were, and still are, my driving forces and from the get-go, writing and taking picture was a way turning those passions into a way of life. Would I have been wiser by taking wedding pictures and photographing cereal boxes in order to get by more comfortably? Well, even I cannot answer that one, but probably yes, although the nostalgic and passionate side of me says, “No way, it has taken me all over the world, led me to experience things I never imagined (for better, and more often for worse).” Then again, the logical side of me does come knocking all too often with the practicality of it all and he does have a strong point but he is probably calling a little too late in the day to balance things out between the two extremes.
Photography was not my passion to start with but it has very much become part of my all-encompassing passion, which these days people like to term “storytelling”. Even so, if I was to turn to only shooting sofas and school portraits, I think that my own life passion would be dead within weeks. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that as a job but I would struggle to get passionate about it.
We are all very different. Many photographers in the commercial and other mainstream fields do still cling on to a passionate side of their imagery, the landscapes or the street photography that drew them in to start with, although most soon realise that in order to make photography feasible as a living, you will inevitably spend more time shooting things that don’t exactly get you fired up and you will ultimately spend most of your time in front of a computer trying to make the whole thing work.
A vaguely wise man once told me that perception is reality and I’ve questioned his wisdom ever since. This can be a huge issue when it comes to making a living from your photography, particularly if your focus happens to be passion-led, as just about everyone around you has a vision of you living this idyllic life (apparently one with little need for material gains), so in their eyes, why on earth should you be paid well for that? Go and photograph boxes if you want to make money from it! This is a major hurdle that anyone who chases their passion as a career will face, or dare I even say a hobby, and something that people never really get over.
Keeping the faith
Despite not enjoying many of things I need to do to cut the mustard in this ever-changing world, my pure love for riding an unfiltered bike without a single computerised device for travelling and exploring new places, and ever-increasingly for photographing those experience, well, that passion is as strong as ever. I carry a camera with me almost everywhere and 99% of the images I take never see the light of day, not because of the outdated “only show your best images” mantra, but because they are for me and not to be shared and commented on by others. Sometimes it’s best to keep your passions in life separate from the financial evils of this world. At least that way they will stay pure and intact to you.