That was a question I posed to myself about 5 years ago. Fast-forward to today and I have just succeeded in making that leap. It has been a wonderful and difficult journey so I wanted to share 10 lessons that I learned along the way.
1. You gotta love it
I have never been very good at job interviews. I do not like explaining myself and I was never passionate about the job. The feedback was always something like ‘that was great Adam but Paul/Charlotte/Greg/Olivia wanted it more’. People always know when we do not love it. Faking it for a while might be possible; but eventually you will let your guard down and get found out. It has never been more important to be genuine, honest and transparent. When a photography journey starts as a hobby and a passion, the credibility will shine through and connect with people.
Video is at number 2 for a reason. There might still be professional photographers out there who make a living only taking pictures, but there are not many new ones. I just can not see anyway in which a photographer in 10–15 years time is not doing video in addition to stills. Thankfully a photographer has a head start. They understand composition, light, exposure and the gear. Capturing great sound is equally, if not more, important than good footage. Sound is probably one of the biggest challenges for photographers moving into video. Once mastered it will quickly elevate your work. People probably won’t notice, but your films and movies will have a more professional feel.
3. Build a brand
How you brand yourself is a personal choice. Many photographers use their own name for their business. This is fine but be aware of your long term goals. To have the option of selling your business in future, avoid using your own name. My brand is First Man Photography. I use this because when people read my Polish surname, they always get it wrong. The little practicalities are worth thinking about from early on.
Most photographers, whether they are full time or not, are all looking to build a brand. When we dedicate time and energy and pour our souls into our work, we want someone else to see it at the end. We therefore need to draw attention to our work, have people remember it, and remember us once they see it.
Marketing and branding is a key element to the success of every full time photographer. Choosing to ignore tools like Instagram, facebook, websites, email lists, Youtube, Snapchat, Medium, Podcasts, etc could be a terminal mistake for a business. Even if the business survives on the all important word of mouth and reputation, it will be even bigger with a solid social media strategy.
Building and maintaining a brand never stops. Being a good person who is hardworking, honest, open and approachable, supportive and possesses a little bit of talent will mean there is nothing to fear.
4. Find your niche
Life does not reward a jack of all trades. I have learned this the hard way. My interests are wide and varied and my photography is no different. When photography was just my hobby I explored absolutely all genres of the art. Even when I started my YouTube channel the videos I created mirrored this natural mindset. However people like to associate a specialism with a particular photographer so there are not many successful ‘all rounder’ photographers out there. Try and focus your brand down onto one or two genres. I am known for my landscape photography and macro water drop shots and I try to maintain focus on that. It is however possible to run more than one brand where you can expand your business or interests. The wedding side of my business, for example, does not feature on my YouTube channel and sits on a separate website.
5. Ignore conservative photographer
Conservative Photographer is a character to represent photographers who succeed by putting people down. I have written about him in detail before but he will do everything he can to stand in your way and make life difficult. He will appear supportive, whilst ripping your work apart under the banner of “critique”. He will comment negatively about your work or style without directly mentioning your name. He will run Google Adwords on your name so his website appears above yours when people search for you (this is a modern day equivalent of sticking your flyer over the top of the competition’s). He will call you naive to discourage you from trying. He is rude, unpleasant, dishonest and does not particularly care about his clients.
The good news is conservative photographer can be easily handled if you know a few other things about him. He is scared, he likes the status quo, he thinks his experience entitles him to continued success. He is afraid you will be better than him, he does not want to work as hard as you and he is also stuck in his ways.
Ignore him, do your own thing and send a little pity his way. Conservative Photographer, your time is done.
6. Figure out your USP
Figuring out what makes you special as a photographer is an important step. What separates you from everyone else and makes you stand out from the crowd? It is a completely personal thing and will be discovered by exploring self-awareness.
Thanks to the twice weekly schedule on my Youtube channel and hundreds of videos uploaded, I became very proficient at turning out 10 minute videos in double quick time. It has allowed me to offer an additional video package to my wedding clients on top of the photographs. The extra work is manageable for me and results in extra revenue from a single client whilst saving them the cost of paying for a full time videographer for the day. It is a unique selling point that has proved very successful so far.
Secondly I pride myself on being a pretty good guy. Having a stream of people in your wake that respect you and want to work with you again is pretty much the key to life. I share knowledge, I am kind, I work hard, I have a modicum of talent, I am interested in you, I am interested in the client and I build and maintain relationships. I want to succeed from a base of positivity and without sticking a knife in anyone else’s back. I am convinced this new social era is when nice guys start to finish first.
7. Ignore the criticism but listen to the market
People are happy to dish out feedback and criticism freely and cheaply. You see it all the time both good and bad. An image is posted on social media and a few people say ‘great shot’. It does not necessarily mean it is. Likewise people attend camera clubs and have their images pulled to pieces by people who take one photograph per month. Both things are completely irrelevant.
Giving feedback properly is an art form. In photography it rarely benefits the photographer by pointing out what is not to like about the image. When dishing out feedback, firstly your intentions should be true. The feedback should not be about you in anyway. What you say should not make you feel better about yourself. Sadly this happens nearly all the time. Focus your feedback on the good points and suggest different things someone could try and be positive overall. If someone asks for your critique it is also a good tactic to ask what they think of their own image. They will often point out all the negatives in their own work for you. It is then just a case of gently agreeing with them and pointing out a few positives, leaving them feeling good.
It is however important to listen to the market. This is basically mass opinion compared to the opinion of one. Take instagram for example. If you post a picture of a mountain and it gets 500 likes when the picture of park bench gets 100, you can be pretty confident people like mountains more than park benches. Unless park benches are your absolute passion, follow the light and post more mountain pictures.
Another example is with your paid marketing such as Facebook ads. If ad A results in a 100 click throughs and ad B results in 5, something is working much better in ad A. If you get loads of recommendations for family shoots, but none for weddings……..you get the idea, the list goes on! Test new ground, develop effective strategies and listen to the market.
8. Give more than you take
I have lived my entire life by this ethos. Most people do not because helping people is hard and can be a burden. It also has no obvious immediate benefit and will often cost time and emotional energy. However, there are long term benefits and it leads to people having trust in you. You can not buy that kind of thing, it only happens as a result of our actions.
Businessman Gary Veynerchuk also subscribes to this ethos and describes a 51/49 theory. If you give 51% and take 49%, there is still a very large amount of bread in that 49%. Your success will then be achieved by doing the right thing and being a good person.
9. Understand your own needs
We are talking pure practicality here. If you want to become a full time photographer, earning enough money to maintain an acceptable lifestyle is vital. There is no set formula because it is different in every case. An 18 year old could be a full time photographer who lives with their parents and has very few overheads. The £300 per month they make could be enough. However the person with a £2000 per month social life is going to find it much harder. If I did not have a family, with mouths to feed, I would have been full time about two years ago. The risk would have been much more acceptable. Instead I had to build for another two years before I was confident to make the leap. Assess the risk of leaving a normal paying job and ensure it is right for you.
10. Work harder than the next guy
A very close and highly successful friend of mine once said, part of his achievement was because he always worked harder than the next guy.
Becoming a full time photographer is not easy. It might be more difficult than ever because everyone is now a photographer. It might also sound glamorous. Sometimes it is but the vast majority of the time a full time a photographer is not pressing the shutter button. That is the easy bit, that is the bit that we love already.
The hard work comes from the hours of travelling, marketing, making new contacts, editing, solving annoying gear related technical problems, answering emails, updating websites and on and on and on. Being a YouTuber also presents a whole different swathe of issues. I have learned to love all of it. It is an enjoyable challenge where input directly links to output and earnings.
Becoming a full time photographer has been an amazing journey. The thing is, it is just the beginning. Where will my business and I go next? Well, that is completely up to me…….and that feels good.
First Man Photography is a landscape photographer documenting the journey on YouTube. New videos go up every Sunday. If you enjoyed this article please give it a clap so more people can see it. Thanks