CPCD #4 – Are You Insane?

CPCD (Crappy Phone Cam Dispatch) #4: Preparing for a long night hike in northern Iceland

At least once or twice a week in an email – or a Facebook or Twitter private message –  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? Those sorts of questions.

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 really don’t know. What is this person’s strengths and weaknesses? Is he or she really passionate? 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 would or could match mine. What has worked for me, as well as the lessons I gleaned from my own experience, might not work or be relevant 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 bad that I wasn’t even trying to be helpful. I could offer platitudes: work hard, stay focused, dream big, etc. but platitudes alone are usually 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 that might be helpful. What you’re looking for can be found in how you answer these 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 really think you have to be a little insane in order 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 at times.

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. Period.

But beyond that, having passion is what allows you to persevere when things get difficult – and things will be difficult at times. 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 in which category you belong, the former or latter, you probably don’t have what it takes. Sorry to be so blunt.

2) What are you willing to sacrifice?

If the answer isn’t everything (with the exception of your family, health, and self respect – and self respect is negotiable) 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? Be prepared to give it up –  all hobbies for that matter. Financial security, a middle or upper class lifestyle, house, car, personal life, friends, vacations, sanity; all should be sacrificed if need be. You need to know this in advance, before you even begin. This is important.

Now none of these sacrifices 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) please do yourself a favor and save yourself the time and trouble and keep your photography as a nice little diversion from the rest of your comfortable life. You’re not going to cut it.

Now if you are one of the insane, congratulations. You have an amazing adventure ahead of you. But you really didn’t need me to tell you that, right? In your heart, you already knew.

If you’re not one of those crazy, insane people, congratulations to you as well. I just saved you from making a huge mistake, and an expensive one at that. You can still have photography as a meaningful, rewarding hobby and refuge from stresses of modern life. Still, you shouldn’t give up entirely on being one of the insane. Find exactly what it is that you’re incredibly passionate about (it doesn’t have to be photography either) and go all in. When it happens, you will never be the same again.

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Posted in CPCD, Essays | Tagged , ,


  1. Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm by Sharon | Permalink

    Thanks anyway. Love your photos and stay warm.

  2. Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm by Erika Tanith | Permalink

    This is the best response I have seen to this question.

    My partner tells me to “stop working”, all the time, and it confuses me. I love photography and when I’m not doing a commissioned job I take pictures to relax, then I edit them, try to sell them, and think of new ideas for my next project. What else would I do? There’s nothing else that I want to do. Photography is my life and if you want a life as a photographer that’s the way it has to be.

    Great post.

  3. Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm by LH | Permalink

    Great post. Stay warm. Can’t wait to see the images.

  4. Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:40 pm by chris jackson | Permalink

    Proper words and insanely inspiring. Enjoy the land of Fire ad Ice.

  5. Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm by Ben Coope | Permalink

    Great words, they are so true, you need to “go all in” with what your passionate about and already know in your mind that no matter the struggles you will keep pushing for it.

  6. Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm by Teresa Milton | Permalink

    I love your post, you are correct about “Going All In” because life is about doing what you love and loving what you do.
    Thanks so much.

  7. Posted December 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm by Simon Rimmington | Permalink

    I appreciate your bluntness, its necessary for people to be aware of the realities of the business (and your comments apply to any business for that matter). There is often too much flattery when it comes to photography. Myself I prefer constructive criticism, and I don’t mind being told that something sucks if it sucks. It drives me to try harder to succeed.

  8. Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm by Swapnil K | Permalink

    Excellent post Richard. It is by far the best reply I have ever seen to the question: “Should I quit my day job and turn pro ?”.

  9. Posted December 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm by David Culp | Permalink

    You know, you could have just sent me an email. See you in the funny pages!

  10. Posted February 3, 2013 at 8:31 pm by Lisa Bayne | Permalink

    What a brutally honest, thoughtful, wise, and passionate post! I find your posts almost as extraordinary as your images. You’re right, I already know.
    Thank you for the inspiration.

  11. Posted April 9, 2013 at 1:04 pm by Deborah Hughes | Permalink

    Ditto on the “you’ll never be the same again”.

  12. Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:49 am by John Fowler | Permalink

    I am a B-School professor with a BFA in photography. I tell students the following when it comes to fullfilling their dreams. 1. Passion to perserver-the ability to handle the ups and downs of starting a business. 2. Tenacity-the ability and imagination to overcome obstacles that stand in your way. 3. Resources-financial and emotional capital to get to a positive cash flow; CASH IS KING or QUEEN! 4. Support from family and friends that maybe emotional, encouragement, or financial. 5. Expertise-the knowledge and skill to create an economic opportunity you can be proud of. I am brutally honest about the chances of success and the rewards of being successful.

  13. Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:57 am by Susan Mueller | Permalink

    All I have to say… “Well said & to the point”

  14. Posted December 29, 2014 at 10:54 am by Junnu Ravi Kumar | Permalink

    This answer is simply a waste.I am not a person who try earn as a photographer but it’s one of my favorite passion.
    I Want people with great stature like you to say the first steps that keeps a photographer in a safe place.
    Alphabets are to be taught where there comes a state where a teacher is not needed after a while . At present If u are in such a position who was not able to suggest anything out of fear then I suggest you to write your autobiography which could be useful for someone who is in the same track.
    The point I want to stress is many people are passionate about photography but were unable to know about how to earn or make a livelihood . Make us know how to have a copyright and sell the pictures .or is there any online platform .i see many people with passion but ignorant at how to make a living . For instance i have a friend who is interested in travel photography but finally ended up as a wedding photographer where the only reason is neither me nor him don’t know how to make living with travel photography .
    That’s the whole point ,not considering u as a jerk but you haven’t dug out yourself enough to answer this .
    Hope that you will make enough sense of what I stress.

  15. Posted December 29, 2014 at 4:00 pm by Glenn Barlow | Permalink

    The earlier poster missed the point, as though you could offer up some magic pill. Good luck with that.

    I have passion, but about more than one thing. I’m willing to sacrifice but I’m comfortable enough I don’t need or have to.

    So, I’ll just sign up for a few workshops, have some fun, and then come home. See you in January.

  16. Posted December 29, 2014 at 10:25 pm by Nick | Permalink

    I love this post and if you don’t mind I may share it from time to time as I get the same questions and until now did not know how to answer them.
    You sum the whole thing up very eloquently.
    Thanks for the insights stay safe and stay warm.
    looking forward to your next set
    Chou Nick H

  17. Posted December 30, 2014 at 7:42 pm by Durwood Edwards | Permalink

    Andy Smith of Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe New Mexico told me that he gets asked The Question a lot, and his response is “First, be 35 years younger.”

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  1. By Pehoe’s Fury and Mailbag #2 on January 31, 2013 at 10:31 am

    […] assuming your talking about photography, right? As a career? Are you insane? Please read […]

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