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 https://thepowermoves.com/the-e-myth-revisited-summary). 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.