A year ago I jumped ship, off a well-tread path of commercial art, to do what I truly love — photography. It was not only scary, but anxiety-inducing. I sat in the deep riptide of existential madness for months, wondering if I could even do it, not to mention the worry of how to feed the children and pay the mortgage with one of the country’s most notoriously difficult and low-paying careers.
Still, with encouragement from family and friends and a steady request for my images, I stuck with it. Slowly, my mindset changed — from someone who was trying to be a professional to someone who felt professional. But the truth is, I should not have waited as long as I did to feel like a professional. In retrospect, I was a professional from the outset — it just took me a very long time to embrace it. I knew very well how to take photos and had been doing it for a long time, even within my previous career. It just felt like there must be some horribly long checklist of things I needed to do, buy and achieve before I could really call myself a pro.
We tend to mark our sense of professionalism in photography by this undefined set of detailed technical skills and milestones: first with our mastery of controls, then lights, then concepts, then the quality of jobs we’re getting. This deferred definition of professionalism only exists in the arts and it can create some emotional anguish for those trying to make it in the field. Without the normal cues and markets of job growth (promotions, raises, steady paychecks, etc.), photography growth is something that has to happen inside your own mind.
To that end, embracing the mental shifts one must go through to become truly professional is every bit as important as being able to “make a shot,” as they say. Here are the big ones you’ll need to get your head around:
Mindset Shift 1: Unapologetically Photographer
The real test about your own mental state over your photography happens when someone asks you what you do. You’ve learned to qualify the response so that mentioning photography also happens with comments like, “but I’m just starting out” or “I’m trying to make it as a photographer” or “I’m making a go with my passion.” These kinds of statements will certainly garner appreciation and support , but they also cue insecurity and can inhibit your growth or hirability.
Make business cards that say “Photographer” on them and answer confidently and succinctly, “I’m a photographer.” It might feel awkward and different at first, but within a few months it will actually become more natural than any other profession you used to introduce yourself as being a part of.
Yes, there are still things to learn, this is true in any profession. That doesn’t mean you aren’t a professional. And the real truth is, all photographers still have things to learn — at every level. Your professionalism starts the minute you declare it, even if you are still learning things. As long as you have the ability to get hired for one thing, that’s being a professional.
Pro Tip: Make sure to start to surround yourself with other professionals. This is a quick way to start to embrace your new title and mindset and get over the idea that this is just a hobby. The seriousness and professionalism of other photographers is infectious and will help you define your new sense of self faster than if you have to try to figure it all out on your own.
Mindset Shift 2: It’s Not About The Equipment, It’s About Your Ideas
There are a lot of things in photography — the camera and lenses, of course, but also lights, light modifiers, stands, bags, clamps, gels, cards, more lenses, card readers, and a whole lot more. Then there’s the added elements that start to creep in — doing video, animation, invoicing and the myriad of post work and portfolio needs that require more things, each of which come with their own learning curves.
So overwhelming can these things be as to start to define how you view the profession. Suddenly, you’re finding yourself behind the curve and comparing yourself to the massive skillsets of other photographers out there. It becomes difficult to feel like a professional when all you can really concentrate on is how much you don’t know, or don’t have.
Here it’s important to remind yourself that it’s not about the equipment. If you talk to any renowned photographer, none of that stuff defines them. Much more important to their sense of self are things like concept, art direction, narrative and subject. So, if that’s at the end of the rainbow, why not embrace it at the start of the rainbow? Be more defined by the story you want to tell in your imagery and let equipment be a means to that end. Gels are great, but only if you really have a use for them. Professional photography is not about having every item needed for any situation, it’s about having exactly the items needed for your specific idea. Focus on your ideas and let everything else fall into place from there.
Pro Tip: Practice answering the questions: what kind of photographer are you? What have you been shooting? How is your work different? You should be able to answer these in singular thoughts, quickly described. The idea that you can do many things is a far secondary topic to what your core work is like and where your ideas, and uniqueness, come from.
Mindset Shift 3: Social Media Is A Reflection Of Your Business, Not A Reflection Of Your Life
Social media, as an entity, is having its day in the court of public opinion right now. A growing ambivalence over its value, worth and healthiness is necessarily being questioned and examined, as is our addiction to it. But this is specifically about social media in the context of checking out what people are doing — their parties, friends, travels and selfies. For a professional photographer, social media serves a very different purpose.
When people go to your feed, they go to see your work. Rarely is a photographer so interesting a personality that anyone really cares about their day-to-day goings ons (though certainly many of them fancy themselves very interesting). But there is value in having people see your work and getting a sense of your style and ability to create appealing content in the medium.
So, for your first mindset shift, re-think your social feed as a place where someone will make a decision about hiring you. Does it work hard to showcase your talent and answer questions about your style, process and, most of all, your professionalism? If not, perhaps it’s time to re-think it.
Pro Tip: I suggest having a separate feed specifically for your professional work as a photographer. Many professionals I see these days have pruned their Instagram feeds down to less than 50 images, all of which work together to define their creativity and ideas.
Mindset Shift 4: A Single Image Won’t Define You, The Entire Portfolio Defines You
Many of us in photography were inspired by some key images. And I often get asked what my favorite image is, or which image (or set of images) inspired me growing up. Some of these shots are so good it can mess with your brain and we can get in a mindset of believing our careers can be made by finding that one amazing image and capturing it just right. I’ve never known this to be the case for any professional photographer, even the ones who have created some singularly stunning images. In most every case, the image you know them for was one of many great images from a long-spanning career in the field.
You can certainly find a great image of yours that will win or place in an award show, and that is definitely a special feeling, but that has a very impermanent affect on your career as a professional. In fact, it can set up a dangerous expectation for anyone looking to hire you, as most clients are looking for a specific thing that they want you to be able to recreate — the one-off image can be extremely alluring, but also do nothing to help your career or signal that you are a professional.
The proper mindset for a professional is to look at your canon of work and every image in your portfolio and see how they hold together and define you as a series, set of images or overall narrative about your vision and ability. This is what clients want to see when they visit your feed or portfolio — far more than that one “wow” image.
Pro Tip: Fine-tune your website so that it is not a reflection of how many different things you can do (or have done), but so that every project listed on there adds to a story of who you are as an artist and photographer. These projects, or series’, should 100% deliver on your answer to the question: what kind of photographer are you and what makes you unique? If it doesn’t add to the answer, don’t put it on your website.
Mindset Shift 5: From The Images You Get To The Experience Of Getting Them
The last mindset shift to discuss when embracing your professionalism is that you’re getting hired for your process as much as the final images. Photography is actually a whole set of things, each of which you need to be in control of. From ideas and estimates to running a set to delivery and invoicing, you’re doing all of it. A client will not only be impressed with your final images but with the entire process of working with you. And that will lead to more work, from them and those who they recommend you to.
In the beginning, it’s all about the images — how to see, take and process them. But your mindset will need to shift as you embrace your professionalism. Now it’s about you and how you work. This is a big change and can only come when you’re confident enough in your own work to expand your mind to the entirety of your professional work.
Pro Tip: Establish a reason to work with you that is impossible to pass up for a potential client. Learn to discuss your process in a way that frames it up as different and special from how everyone else is doing it. This often entails understanding someone else’s business or individual needs. A pet photographer needs some tricks in working with animals. If you’re doing headshots, you need to know what kind of images help in auditions. Be an expert in getting images, but also the surrounding business for which your images will be used — and then position yourself as an expert in all of it.
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed and are now headed off to go do some photography!