A glut of spam this morning reminded me that turning passion into profit sometimes means going back to a very basic concept. I’m a fan of the clean inbox. For years and years, as I
A glut of spam this morning reminded me that turning passion into profit sometimes means going back to a very basic concept.
I’m a fan of the clean inbox. For years and years, as I sat behind a desk at job after job, sifting through the bottomless pit of useless emails seemed determined to consume my day. I would always look forward to those brief moments when I could look at my inbox and see absolutely nothing. Just a clean blank page to the right of the folder structure. A visual representation of the fact that at this precise moment, I was completely caught up.
The fact that I enjoy an empty inbox so much might just be another result of my TOC or it might be a reflection of my long-standing approach to task management, which usually boils down to ‘why put off see you tomorrow what you can do today? “I was the kind of kid in college who always had his homework completed within an hour of being assigned, and as far as I can remember, I never had a last-second sleepless night in my school year. life. I like to get things done early so I don’t have to worry about it later. I like a clean inbox because it indicates that there are no pending tasks that are beyond me and that I can sit back and watch Turner Classic Movies in peace without feeling like I’ve forgotten something.
Of course, now that I’m a professional photographer whose work usually arrives via emails from potential clients, it’s safe to say that I don’t want to stare at a sterile inbox for too long. I can’t wait to spot a sudden flash of text out of the corner of my eye and turn my head to see that a new message has arrived. Yet, unfortunately, not all emails I receive are from a client or colleague. In fact, if I could replace with a customer every lost email I receive from sellers asking me to buy something, from contests asking me to pay money for a small chance to win a prize. I’ve never heard of, or from publicists sending me press releases for products that have nothing to do with photography because they apparently found my name on a mailing list, I’d end up being a man very rich. I could even go so far as to say that the vast majority of the pings in my inbox are emails meant to land right in my trash completely unread. Of course, this quick elimination satisfies my desire for a clean inbox. But it’s also a constant reminder of one of the biggest dichotomies I’ve found in my photography career. Simply put, we become professional photographers to probably make money and make a living. But, there are many aspects of the industry itself that seem much more designed to make us spend money than to actually do it.
There is the big one, of course. The newest and best equipment that most people spend more time studying and discussing than they actually spend using on homework. There are constant trial sessions that may or may not cost you money depending on your topic and your level of ambition. Then, once you’ve created your masterpiece, there are the showcase costs associated with building websites, sending promotions, and printing portfolios (although the latter is a less in the age of zoom meetings). Since marketing is a fairly obvious and necessary part of growing a business, there are entire cottage industries built to get you noticed. Some are clearly transactional. You pay an amount X to your representative. This may or may not be worth the money depending on your representative. You pay the sum of money to participate in such and such a “prestigious” competition to have the chance to have your work seen by “the right people”. Assuming you’re specific about which competition you are applying for, instead of just clicking enter on every competition that arrives in your inbox, this can be a successful way to showcase your work. But, even as someone who has won several of these awards over the years, I can’t help but think of the large number of photography competitions out there and wonder if the majority of the competitions themselves are not just the means for the company to organize the competition to transfer the wealth from my pocket to theirs without really offering me much in return other than fleeting hope. Then there are the thousand and one different conventions and photo exhibitions that you can buy a ticket for. The practical courses you can register for. The preset and LUT packages promise to make all of your images look amazing with the click of a mouse, seemingly replacing your own creativity with a unique and cool aesthetic.
Do not mistake yourself. Each item listed above has its place. And spending on any or all of these things is not necessarily a waste of money. I only refer to these things because I have spent money on each of them at one point or another over the past two decades to build my career as a photographer to varying degrees of return. And with so many potential opportunities to spend your money, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that your job as a professional photographer and business owner is not to spend money, but to earn it. .
I remember many years ago, before being a full-time professional photographer, I was chatting with one of my best friends. He was an aspiring graphic designer. I was a budding photographer. We were both working at a dead end and spending a lot more money on our “hobbies” than we made in income. That day he had just finished designing a book project for a client / friend only to get paid in exhibition. He had clearly spent a lot more time on the project than he got paid, and he joked that he and I were in the same boat in that we were both “paying to work”. It was a flippant comment, not meant to linger, but he lingered, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. At that point, I was so focused on buying the latest gear, all the shooting situations I could afford, and all the opportunities I could find to make myself feel like I was doing more. part of the photo community, that I had forgotten that the goal was to make money. The research of the part is fine. But, at some point, you have to shut up or shut up. At some point you have to stop being a consumer and start being a producer.
The old adage that “it takes money to make money” is unfortunately very true. If you are running a business, you will need to make strategic investments. But what you can’t do is replace the expense with the hard work of building a business. You cannot buy a career as a professional photographer. You have to learn it. Spend less time looking at what equipment you can buy, and spend more time researching customers who might buy your product. You need to sit down and calculate the numbers and understand concepts like cost of goods sold. While those jobs that allow you to be creative, but don’t pay enough to cover the costs, can sometimes be beneficial, if you do too much of such work, you will find yourself incredibly busy while losing money. Spending money on equipment is fun for all of us. It’s like crack for photographers. An instant boost of joy that lasts at least as long as it takes the credit card bill to arrive. But one thing that is so much better than spending money is making money by producing work for clients that will allow your bank account to grow rather than shrink.
Is everything I said above obvious? Yes. But, in an industry that seems designed for photographers to spend money rather than earn it, is it easy to get the wrong balance and find yourself on the wrong side of the ledger? Yes it is. Learning how to make the mental shift from someone whose job is to make purchases to someone whose job is to make a profit is a simple lesson, but one that will pay dividends for years to come.