Once or twice a week in an email, I’m asked to give advice on how to become a professional nature or travel photographer. Should I go to school to study photography? Should I fully commit and quit my job to “follow my dream?” How do I even get started?
My response is usually none at all or I say that I really don’t know how to answer the question. Aside from my discomfort with giving anyone advice on what they should do with their life, the overriding reason is that I just don’t know. What is this person’s strengths and weaknesses? What drives them? Are they even driven at all?
I’m an extremely driven person and it would be unfair to assume that their drive and intensity matched mine. What worked for me, as well as the lessons I gleaned from my own experience, might not work for someone else – particularly a total stranger. I concluded that my advice would be unhelpful at best, or possibly even harmful.
Then my conscience got the better of me. I felt awful that I wasn’t even trying to be helpful. I could offer platitudes: work hard, stay focused, dream big, etc. but platitudes are hollow and empty. I might as well say nothing.
So I’ve had a lot of time alone up here in Iceland and a lot of time to think. This question, and my lack of a response, has been weighing on me and I believe I’ve finally come up with something helpful. The answer can be found in the form of two questions.
1) How passionate are you?
I’m not talking about every day, garden-variety passion here. I’m talking passion bordering on insanity. I think you have to be a little insane to make it in this business, I really do. This is hard work, despite the mythicized fantasy that persists. I’m not saying photography is hard work, although to do this seriously, it ought to be. What I’m saying is that making a living as a photographer is hard and incredibly difficult.
So why is passion important? I personally believe that passion is important in every aspect of life and that includes your work and career. If you do work that you love and are passionate about, you’re going to be happy and happiness is important.
But beyond that, having passion for what you do is what allows you to persevere when things get difficult. While the casual practitioner simply quits when the going gets tough, the insanely passionate pushes on because he or she doesn’t have any choice. If you’re not sure which category describes you, the former or latter, you just don’t have it. Sorry to be so blunt.
2) What are you willing to sacrifice?
If the answer isn’t everything (with the exception of your core principles, your family, and your health) don’t even bother. Seriously. You have to be willing to give up everything in your life that you hold dear. You like golf, you say? Give it up, all hobbies for that matter. Financial security, middle or upper class lifestyle, house, car, personal life, friends, vacations, sanity; all to be completely sacrificed if need be. You need to know this in advance, before you even begin.
None of this might even be necessary, but If you’re not prepared to give up everything to be a success (or if you even have to think about it) save yourself the time and trouble and keep your photography as a nice diversion from the rest of your comfortable life. You’re not going to make it.
If you are one of the insane, congratulations. You have an amazing adventure ahead of you. But you really didn’t even need to ask, did you? In your heart, you already knew.
If you’re not, congratulations to you as well. I just saved you from making a huge mistake, and an expensive one at that. You still have photography as an incredibly meaningful hobby and refuge from stresses of modern life that we all have to endure. But you shouldn’t give up on being one of the insane either. Find exactly what it is that you’re insanely passionate about and go all in. When that happens, you will never be the same again.
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