The Five Biggest Mistakes I Made When Starting Out as a Professional Photographer
There were more, of course… but these are the ones that cost so much.
(Being a freelancer can be quite a challenge. Survival means making big mistakes and learning as much as you can from them.)
I enjoy sharing the experiences I had in over four decades as a professional photographer. I do this in my weekly workshop, “Project 52 PRO” whenever someone asks for advice or guidance. From a very rich, and wildly diverse career in the photographic arts, there are some great highlights.
But, there are some things I did — specific things and general things — that were huge mistakes, ones that took time, assets, and energy away from moving forward. In this self-employed landscape, there are many hidden valleys and dark canyons that one can wander into if we are not paying attention. We will not be discussing the technical screwups that accompany most of us as we start out… ISO problems, no backup, loading film backward, forgetting an assistant at a roadside restaurant (yeah, it happens).
While I usually talk about the good times, great clients, and fun opportunities I had as a photographer, I think I should share these “not so highlight” moments from my personal reel.
Missing the Market
When I first got started in photography, my main interest was photographing girls. I wanted to make my mark as a fashion photographer and began buying every fashion magazine I could lay my hands on. From French Vogue to Italian Bazaar to obscure British mags with names I cannot even remember. I spent a fortune on them.
I wanted to be Arthur, Patrick, Peter, or Albert. I wanted to shoot fashion editorials in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Spain, and the jungles of South America. I wanted to know Polly Mellen and hang out with Christie and Kathy and the high-board girls from Ford.
I lived in Phoenix, Arizona.
Moving to NYC was not an option at that time, and I wasted a decade or more trying to be someone that I simply could not be while living in the town I lived in. Sure there were boutique shoots, editorials, ‘back pages’ for regional and national magazines.
But no Paris, Africa, Brazil, or Spain.
When I finally woke up to the fact that I would either have to move or change, I changed.
Well, I gave it a shot anyway…
I had created the brand of a “fashion photographer” in a decidedly not fashion-oriented town. (No, shooting OTR for department stores is not fashion… it’s catalog. There is a difference.)
So I stopped shooting fashion and began to change my portfolio. Since I was already doing some additional work in other genres (in a town like Phoenix, you better have more than one trick in your bag) I figured I would start to shoot more of that and people would see me in a new light.
I learned that it takes more than a different portfolio to change your brand in the mind of people who have known your brand for many years. I would show my book, full of tabletop, food, and portraits, and would hear things like;
“Nice book, you shoot fashion, right?”
“Wow, I didn’t know you shot still life. But we don’t do much fashion here.”
“Where did the girls go?”
I didn’t realize that in order to change my personal brand, it would take a few years and concerted efforts to do so. I expected a new portfolio would be all that was needed.
I was wrong. And since I had stepped away from the fashion work (department stores and boutiques) the void was already filled and I had a really hard couple of years before I got back.
I should have begun changing my brand BEFORE walking away from the work I was doing. Making a more gradual transition instead of the cliff dive method I chose.
Confusing A Job Description with Mystical Talent
I thought of them as the most visually literate among us. I mean they were the cream of the visual arts crop. I would hold them up to amazing worship status. They knew how to make ads great, and they would demand more from me than I had because of their greatness.
I was intimidated and emotionally fearful of those job titles. I let them treat me poorly, demand more than was fair, and in some cases pay less than they should have. I was in such awe of their “talent” that I figured they must always be right and if I got it wrong… well then I must suck, visually.
That held me back for years. This feeling that somehow I wasn’t up to that level of greatness I bestowed upon them. Because of a job title.
That changed one summer. A tough gig for a tough AD, and when that month was over I realized that this locally famous, top-notch AD was actually a wretched fraud who copied nearly everything he did from Dallas and Minneapolis designers.
Once that wall was down, I began to see how I actually did fit into the scheme of things. I realized that they were simply professionals doing what they do, and I was just as professional in what I do. That silly mysticism vanished and I found some confidence I really needed.
Letting a Competitor “Own” Me
(Wow… letting it all out here… heh.)
Yeah, I let another photographer ‘own’ my brain for a few years. He set up a second condo in there and everything I saw was through the prism of this other guy — and how I could best his work, and get even for all the transgressions he had committed against me and my work.
You have to understand that we did not know each other. We had a friendly “hey, how are you” relationship when we would meet at the lab, and everyone met at the lab at one time or another.
But HELL — that didn’t matter. When he got a gig, he “stole” it from me. When I got a gig, I “stole” it from him. His accomplishments were giant humiliations to me. My accomplishments were proof of my dominance over him.
Looking back on this time is painful. I cannot even imagine how many missed opportunities there were because of this stupid, nearly obsessive, one-sided war. I am actually a bit ashamed of my behavior at that time, and I can say absolutely that it cost me money. Lots of money. And emotional baggage that was crushing.
Most of the stupid things we do cost us money… maybe not directly, but indirectly it can be devastating.
I was having lunch downtown one day when he came in alone. He saw me sitting there and asked if he could sit with me. We talked about the business, and he told me how much he liked my work, and how he was going through a rough patch. I told him if he needed anything, to let me know — and he that he could use my studio anytime if he needed to.
He moved out of my head that day, and later he actually moved away to another town where he did quite well. I was and am glad for him.
Never let someone else be in charge of your life. Lesson learned.
Putting ALL The Eggs In One Flimsy Basket
“I’ve got something for you…”
It started that way. A deal so big it was almost unbelievable. A shoot so enormous in scope that it could be the only client I needed. A deal so magnificent that I would never have to look for a client again, I would have all I wanted to shoot delivered to me and fees that were downright awesome each and every week.
Who could pass up a deal like that? Especially when you have $1270 in the bank and $76,000 in receivables. I was so tired of being a bank for my clients — waiting 60, 90, and 120 days for payment after paying my vendors in thirty. Peter was robbing Paul who had his hands in Peter’s back pocket.
So I embraced the big deal.
And it went great for nearly a year. Just enough time for me to get lazy about the portfolio, stop seeing clients I had nurtured for years, and sort of go “dark” within the industry. I was making great money and shooting as much as I wanted.
I have not the time or the space here to tell you what happened. I am sure you already have figured out that it went south.
I lost a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of contacts. I was able to rebuild — once more. I will never put myself into one of those situations again. I am more astute in the world of business, and I have a well-refined bullshit detector that has become a big part of my vetting process.
Yeah — I have a vetting process.
And never ever put all of your income streams into one “amazing” deal unless you have strong contingencies for the inevitable “too good to be true” awakening.
Above are some big mistakes that cost time, money, and most importantly energy. Energy that should have been focused on creating more, but instead had to be utilized to ‘dig out’ or change course.
And yeah, it happens to a lot of us. I am grateful that none of them were able to take me down to the mat- although a few came close.
I will probably make other mistakes as I continue on. I hope that I have at least learned the lessons from above and make all brand new, shiny stupid mistakes in the future.
(I did not mention the disaster that taking on a partner cost me… both in business and money. Suffice it to say that I will NEVER have another partner, and in any case, we will BOTH have to sign any check that is issued for anything. If you don’t follow that rule with your partner, you may wake up wishing you had.)
I am a photographer, designer, and photo editor. You can find me at my self-named website or at Project 52 Pro System where I teach commercial photography online. This is our tenth year of teaching, and it is the most unique online class you will find anywhere.