Sometimes, I wish I could go back to the 2011 version of myself and give myself a mentoring session. Like, “here are all the difficulties you’re going to encounter, but don’t lose heart! Just give it some time, and before you know it, you’ll be so much farther along than you’d ever dreamed.” I was so fortunate to have not one, but TWO incredible mentors during my first year on my own, and then to stumble into the photography community that I’ve come to love so much. Not everyone starts off that way- some have such a rough time during the first two years that they never push through to see the sunshine on the other side. If that sounds like you, read on: this is what I wish I could have told myself three years ago.
This is me in 2011 (courtesy of Terra Dawn)- my friend Doza has informed never to cut my hair this short again.
1. You’re going to spend a significant amount of time creating subpar work. There’s a quote by Ira Glass that sums it up PERFECTLY-
“…All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this, We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this, And if you are just starting out or are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Holy cow, do I wish I’d seen that quote on day one. I spent 2+ years battling through the desire to create something beautiful, but the inability to make my visions come to life in-camera. It’s only within the past year and a half, really, that I’ve started seeing glimpses of the quality, the very feeling of work that I’ve been so desperately running after, start to show up in my work. If the quote above feels like a description of where you are right now, take heart and PUSH THROUGH IT.
2. You’re likely not going to make a profit within your first two to three years, and that’s OK. You’ll make money, but almost all of that will go straight back into your business. I spent $15K on equipment my first full year- pretty much everything I made from weddings and sessions went straight back to B&H, Adorama, or Penn Camera. After filing our taxes for 2012 and being discouraged at the small margin of profit, our financial guy clapped me on the back and congratulated me- “Most businesses aren’t profitable for the first 3-5 years, and you’re managing to do so within your first two. You should be proud!” Don’t let this kill your ambition- keep on going! It gets better :).
3. Nobody owes you anything. < I’m saying this because I needed to hear this as well when I first started out. Just in the sense that nobody OWED me a job when I graduated, no photographers OWED me their time, whether that was in-person for a coffee date, or over email in response to questions I may have asked. I went in with an entitled spirit, and instead of assuming I needed to do the legwork to get my questions answered, I figured other people owed me their responses so I didn’t have to do the irritating job of figuring it out for myself.
Paying for education from photographers I admire has made a WORLD of difference! So if you’re in search of knowledge, have a hunger to learn, do yourself a favor and sign up for a workshop or mentoring session with a photographer you admire and respect. It will be absolutely worth your time.
4. There are going to be times when you’re so discouraged, you seriously consider quitting. Don’t do it, though. Discouragement is natural, and during the highs and lows of a year in the life of a wedding photographer, I felt my fair share of discouragement. But I also knew, in my heart of hearts, that this is what I NEED to do, this is what I’m supposed to do. So instead of quitting, I pushed through, because the yucky stuff is worth it for the chance to live a life Matt & I truly love. If it weren’t for pushing through the not-fun/downright-depressing side of my job, I’d never have had the chance to shoot all over the country, photograph around the world, Matt & I would never have been able to take a two week vacation to Europe. So when you get to the point where you’re so tired of sorting receipts and counting expenses that you just want to quit? Push through it. It’ll pass.
5. That ideal client you have in mind? They are so worth the wait. I remember the first time I was ever upfront with a couple about me not being the right fit for them and their needs- it was terrifying! But because I sent them on to another photographer (who they LOVED), I was able to book another couple for that same date who WAS a perfect match. And the anxiety I initially felt at sending the first couple on turned to joy when I realized just how right that decision was. The way I look at it is this: if I’m going to work through the groans of owning my own business, I need to really LOVE what I do and who I’m working with. Otherwise, what’s the point?
6. People/things will try to steal your joy- don’t let them. Somewhere along the way, you’ll meet someone who’s got a chip on their shoulder. Someone who had a really hard run when they started out, so they feel it’s on fair that you have just as hard of a time as they did. If you encounter someone like this, someone bound and determined to kill your enthusiasm, shrug it off and then seek the ear of someone you know to be the encouraging sort. Local Shoot & Share groups are a GREAT place to find people like this- those who will lift each other up, who will share knowledge generously because they know that when we’re all growing, it’s raising each and every one of us up instead of pushing others down.
This journey, the one of owning and business and digging through to find out who you really are and what you want your work to stand for, it’s a long one. But it’s a WONDERFUL one, and it’s so, so worth it! If I’d known in 2011 that three years in the future, I’d have crossed almost every single one of my “Yeah-That’ll-Never-Happen” goals, I wouldn’t be the same person I am now. The work, the struggle to get there, that’s what makes the victories so much sweeter. Because they’re just that- victories. Wins. Chances to celebrate to say “Hey! I just accomplished something I never thought possible!” You guys, savor those moments! Write them down and remember them during the not-so-victorious moments. It’ll make your desire to push through the less-glamorous moments that much stronger.