Photography Hobby vs. Business

It started with some flowers. Actually, going back further to high school it was landscapes of Michigan and urban scenes of Chicago (more about that later). Once I started on a gear upgrade path and more shooting, I realized I really loved photography.

Then, about 4 years ago I got asked to shoot a church service — Palm Sunday and Easter. I got a check. Money. I thought, “I’m a professional…” Well, I knew better…but it was a nice thought.

Later, I had the opportunity to do some paid real estate photography. And a couple weddings. It had not gained real momentum, but it made me think, “perhaps I am becoming a professional photographer.” I invested in better gear (again). I kept shooting. Imagining. Researching. Had this hobby of mine turned into something more?

Just one problem: my small business background was warning me to be mindful of the lessons I have learned in someone else’s failed start-up. 

I recall Michael Gerber’s excellent book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. There are many summary pages online for this book because of its tremendous impact (e.g. see In short, the dream of being one’s own boss doing something they’re seemingly good at very often ends in ashes. This is due to some very predictable (yet fixable) behavior patterns. Gerber offers some helpful remedies, though I wonder how many would-be entrepreneurs would execute effectively.

Specifically for photography, my observation is that a lot of people who love photography get the idea they should do it professionally and full-time. Sometimes people close to them say they should. Or they just see other photographers and think, “hey, I can do that!”

The problem is that doing photography professionally means becoming a business owner (unless you happen to be one of the lucky few to get hired by a firm–but that is increasingly rare in the 21st century). Now the photographer who loves to take pictures has to learn marketing. Buy insurance. Pay taxes. Do all the tasks that any small business must do. Moreover, photography start-ups rarely are profitable in the first year or two. There’s intense competition. There’s huge pricing pressure. And now we have a lockdown that has essentially stopped all events and photoshoots across the board. It frames a rather gloomy picture, doesn’t it?

Yet the hobby photographer (who takes the craft seriously) can just continue to enjoy photography. I think defining the word “hobby” is where the issue lies. The word “mediocre” likely comes to mind. Amateur in the sense of inept. I rather prefer this definition: “An activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure” (“hobby.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 19 May. 2020). 

What’s key for me is that word “pursued”. I go after an image I envision. I practice with passion. I strive for professional results, just not the burden of running a business. It’s a balancing act. As paid photography works comes my way, I feel the freedom to evaluate it on my own artistic and personal expression–not the pursuit of making money at it.

So with increasing photography expertise (though acknowledging I still have a lot to learn), I keep walking the tightrope between hobbyist and professional. Business or pleasure. 

This very website is my way of slowly building a photography business platform without jumping in the deep waters and risks of pursuing a small business full-time. And ultimately this is about patience as I pursue.

Photography projects in a world of social distance

Quarantine life continues. As self-isolation lingers, I am realizing the trajectory upon which I had planned to journey this year has taken a huge detour. Like most of us, my life is significantly different than I expected just a few months ago (though we aren’t suffering financially in a big way–just stuck at home). Because I am prone to anxiety, I have found it difficult to redeem this time. And with so many talking heads saying this is the perfect opportunity to explore new avenues, my anxiety grows when it feels like I am just surviving.

Ironically, I started Lent with an idea for growth as a photographer: “40 Days of Film: A Lenten Focus”. That was before all h e - double hockey sticks broke out. I had planned to shoot exclusively on 35m film through Easter. Putting down my digital camera and going old school seemed a good way to experiment and slow down when shooting. 

Then #shelterinplace came. I stopped shooting film and returned to the comfort of instant gratification in digital photography. Now, that doesn’t mean laziness. I have been going on photowalks and shooting daily things that capture my attention. 

Of course, I was tempted to go out and be a photojournalist (sort of) documenting the empty streets of downtown Chicago. The current lockdown is strongly discouraging of such activities, and frankly it’s been done already. What more can I add to the story of a soulless city?

Nevertheless, I am trying to explore areas of photography I have yet to try. I have done a few self portraits. That is actually an excellent activity, which makes me solve problems such as lighting, manually focusing when I am the subject, self-expression etc. It’s a good exercise.

I have also dabbled in macro photography. Sometimes I am taking photos of old cameras. Or flowers we have in the house. Or other objects. There is nothing wrong with this. Anything new is welcomed.

Yet I am starting to find myself at a point where I need to decide what photography really means to me. What subjects are important to me? What do I hope to do with it? I do realize I am missing people in my photos. Does that mean something? Maybe being socially distant is waking me up to an intrinsic need to be with people and to learn how to capture their soul in a frame. That would be an important milestone for me – I do not think I am there yet. What will that look like?

Mastering a place

#shelterinplace is getting old, isn’t it? As a photographer, it sure could cramp my style. Yet it need not mean I am stuck. In fact, being limited to a small footprint and unable to visit the many places that attract my wife and I as photographers can serve as a framework for improvement. 

I admit that the anxiety of this season of #COVID19 makes personal growth difficult. But I have always found one effective remedy for anxiety is getting outside on photowalks. And instead of hopping in the car or riding the train to the city, we are kept in the bounds of our local community–at a safe distance from others! 

At first I was struggling with the same subject matter, over and over. I mean, even if we walk for a few miles in different directions, the fact is that we pretty much know the area. Or do we? As a photographer, cultivating curiosity and new perspectives are essential qualities. 

So I am trying to master a place. Specifically, our little Chicago suburb of Cary. The Main Street is nice, though it is a single street with few other roads that aren’t residential. It’s a one-horse town, so-to-speak. Therefore, I must ask myself: do I know this town? Even the single Main Street view can have variations of light, activity, weather, and so on. Perhaps the life in lockdown is a gift–a way to overcome obstacles of the mundane and familiar–and capture the life of a place. Perhaps. We will see.

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