What if it isn’t the market or the economy? Maybe you just suck.
Tough advice for aspiring professional photographers.
These days, a lot of people seem to be offering advice in the area of professional photography.
Some of those folks, like Greg Heisler, Jay Meisel, Gail Mooney, and others, have long careers and great inspirational advice for those who are beginning the journey.
Others, whose names I won’t mention but are mostly featured on social media with nothing to back them up, want you to know that the creative life sucks, the cameras suck, the business sucks, and the whole idea of being a professional photographer is a total pile of crap — one that sucks, of course.
My absolute faves:
Nobody wants to pay.
Moms with cameras taking all the gigs.
There isn’t any work out there.
AI is going to be the only way to get an image.
Everything is bad. Really bad.
I don’t bother with this stuff anymore. I laugh at it. I have students who are doing super well in this economy and did so right through the lockdown. One of my photographers doubled their 2019 income in 2020… you know, the batshit crazy year.
Let’s face some cold facts.
Being self-employed is absolutely not for everyone.
The challenges of self-discipline, fear of the unknown, difficulty with self-motivation, and a desire to not eat macaroni and cheese at every meal for a year are daunting to a lot of people. And it doesn’t make any difference if the self-employed person is going into graphic design, plumbing, or photography.
Being a professional photographer is not for everyone either.
On top of the challenges of self-employment, there is also a huge disconnect between what people think you do and the stuff you actually do.
I gotta get this perfectly clear here; I am not referring to wedding, maternity, ‘senior’, or family portrait photography.
That is not a world I am an expert in, nor do I really care all that much about it.
While it is most certainly similar in a few areas, the differences are vast in the aesthetic and the end use of the images.
I am only commenting on commercial photography and its many adjunct genres: architectural, editorial, food, fashion, product, and travel.
In other words, photography used for commerce — both directly and indirectly. Think of it as B2B photography — not B2C.
I have had the honor to work with a lot of emerging photographers and watch them grow from full-time ‘other job’ folks to full-time photographer folks.
Over at Project52Pros that is what we are all about.
(P52 is no longer enrolling.)
In over 40 years as a professional creative, I have seen amazing success stories and some spectacular crash-and-burn scenarios.
In most cases, the causes and reasons were the same for both. I have spoken with photographers who were in the midst of crashing and instantly knew why… Some things are obvious.
And surprisingly (or not), the reasons for the failure are pretty much the same for most people.
So I want to talk a bit about this.
Hold on to something, this may sting a bit.
To those of you who are struggling to make the jump, here is some free, unsolicited advice. Do with it what you want.
It isn’t the market; you just suck.
C’mon… That could be it, right?
I mean, other people are working, and some are working their asses off.
And you aren’t, and you don’t know why.
Maybe you haven’t spent enough time making images, building a book, building a list, or building a goddamn business!
(It is important to understand that, at some point in their career, every photographer sucked. Every damned one of them. The successful ones simply figured out how to not suck.)
No one has ever picked up a camera with a guarantee of success. Or even that their images would be good.
The ones we see shooting the really cool stuff—the assignments we all want to get—busted their asses to get there.
They found ways to not suck.
To get over the suckiness that may be holding you back, let’s look at a few glaring challenges (traits) that those who are struggling usually exhibit.
- You suck at shooting enough pictures to make a difference.
Getting a camera for Christmas and business cards for Easter may be a quick jump into the abyss of thinking the market failed you when, in fact, you still suck. Make sure you are ready and are able to make at least decent images before you put yourself out there. This is very important.
- Your photographs suck.
The images that you think are ‘good enough’ actually still suck. If you are measuring your work against others, make sure you pick high enough up the ol’ totem pole to make that comparison worth it. Being ‘better’ than some internet dude or dudette who has been taking photos for a couple of years may not be enough. Only excellence moves on.
- Your marketing sucks.
I recently read a painful article from someone who was honestly hurting from his failure. While sad and angry, he was chastising all the other photographers he saw as crushing him with lowball pricing. The problem was, the poor guy’s website totally sucked. There was no marketing message, the logo was amateurish and silly, and the images were — well — meh. Not bad, not great. Just yawnable imagery.
- Your presentation sucks.
Does your website look like it was made in 1995 with a quick refresh in late 2009? You may have a problem convincing anyone that you are worth hiring. This is a highly competitive, extremely creative world where presentation is a huge part of the equation. If you don’t know what good design is, why would I trust you to do good photography? They go hand in hand.
- Your list sucks.
Your list — you do have a list, right? Right? If you do not have a list of people who could hire you, you are not really in business, you are playing like you are in business. Pretend businesses can be very painful. Of course, playing at it is sorta fun, but when reality catches up, please don’t write a whining “I was crushed by the $200 Craigslist Shooters” post. It is embarrassing. It really is.
- Your client outreach sucks.
No one knows you exist. You know this, right? So how in the world would they know to call you for an assignment? Osmosis is not a marketing strategy. You have to do your marketing. Waiting for the phone to ring from people who don’t even know you friggin’ exist is a foolish game, ya know.
- Your portfolio sucks.
You know, the portfolio that hasn’t seen a new image in 4 months or longer, has no current work in it, and totally misrepresents your style and vision. The portfolio that has no personal work, tired old client crap, and some nekkid chicks in the ‘art’ section will sink any photographer… fast. Get serious and get to work on the port.
- Your brand sucks.
Not your logo, the one you had your brother-in-law do for you for free — that totally rocks next to the fact that you have no personal look, never return phone calls, have no coherent message, no visual style, and are late with every shoot. Seriously — next to that dumpster fire of a brand, the $15 logo has it really going on, man.
- Your gear sucks.
No, wait… I am not talking about the gear itself, I am talking about the way you hold it up as a substitute for the work. Owning a fancy camera with all the bells and whistles only requires a good credit score, not a quality image score. Using all your money to acquire the newest pixel machine may make you a hit on Instagram, but it won’t do much more than suck your limited assets away from doing something important for your business. Gear Acquisition Syndrome will suck the viability out of any emerging shooter.
- You suck.
You are the type of person who sees everyone else as a threat or a competitor. You work against yourself in order to feel more powerful when comparing yourself to others — which you do at every opportunity. You treat other photographers and beginners as something less than human and have nothing but disdain for their feelings or challenges. And instead of addressing your own problems in your business, you choose instead to ridicule the successful and demonize the competition. You rock, arrogant tool guy.
So here is a thought;
Do it this way and get past the sucking part:
Shoot photographs as often as you can, and get those images critiqued by people in the business, not buddies or Pinterest followers. Find art directors, graphic designers, and other photographers (who aren’t total douchebags) to give you honest direction on that work.
Work to make sure your marketing is at the level it needs to be. If you do not know, get some other eyes on it. Knowing eyes. Being a great photographer does not automatically make you a great marketer.
Or designer. Your presentation must be professional, clean, and perfect. Websites do not have to be expensive to work beautifully, but they do have to have a sense of style. Are you a website designer? If the answer is no, get one made for you by someone who answered yes.
Get a list. Put one together yourself from magazines, local business papers, contacts, and referrals. Yes. It’s boring and tedious. Nobody cares. Just do it.
Then use that list and start marketing to them with email, direct mail, and personal phone calls. Don’t like personal phone calls? Who cares… Suck it up and do it. Reach out personally to at least three of your contacts per day with either a phone call, an email, or some other marketing piece.
Make sure your portfolio is kept up too date. New photographs (see one above), personal projects, BTS shots, and more can help you stay fresh in the eyes of art directors, photo editors, brands, and art buyers.
Make sure your brand is doing its job, and remember that there is no more powerful reminder of your brand than you.
In all you do in your business, and how you present your work, your brand is a de facto representation of your photography and your professionalism.
Spend the least amount that you can on gear that sits around waiting to be used. Shoot more, acquire less. Use your assets for creating stunning work, in awesome locations, and add cool new shots to your book instead of a new lens to the bag.
(There may be a time when your accountant says, “Hey, you've gotta spend some money this quarter!” That is when you grab that lens. If you actually, you know, NEED it.)
And above all, don’t suck as a person.
Be a mentor, a friend. Be a helpful person to those who are starting out just as you are. Be positive in your speaking and dealing with others, and never give in to despair or negativity, although it may be difficult when you are having another macaroni and cheese dinner.
Success is not an overnight road trip, and failing to understand that journey and its ups and downs, forks in the road, and challenges can be the greatest obstacle in front of you.
Understanding that it is an obstacle that can be overcome by hard work, careful attention to detail, knowing what you don’t know, and keeping your gaze forward will help you rise to the ranks of professional photography.
And, believe me, it is still a blast and a thrill to be shooting gigs for a living — no matter what anyone else tells you.
Oh, and try a little Tabasco on that macaroni and cheese. The additional spice breaks the monotony.
Trust me, I know.
My name is Don Giannatti, and I have, on many occasions, sucked at photography. I overcame those times when I sucked, and had periods where I didn’t suck. I have had a 50+ year career in this business that has been punctuated by thrilling highs and devastating lows. The challenge is to get back up after being knocked down, understanding that in order to be knocked that far down, you must have sucked at something.
And then fix it.
Don’t whine about it, or the competition, or the market, or the economy, just fix the damn thing and stop sucking.
You can find me at