I have to be a professional so I can be an amateur.

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Angles

At first glance, the headline makes no sense whatsoever. But contemplate a bit further, and you’ll find that it’s a perfect summary of what happens when you turn your passion/ hobby into your job. It’s taken me a while to figure out where the balance lies – and I admit I nearly gave up a couple of times – but I think we’re just about there. Let me explain…

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Mornings

Initially, photography was a curiosity: I did it because I’d always wanted to, I liked the tangible creation aspect, and I liked the gear. I liked learning. Above all, though, I liked the fact that it gave me a solid diversion from my extremely boring day job – audit. And better still, you could do it in bite sized pieces when you had time; you can take pictures on the way to somewhere for a few minutes, or spend an entire week doing it. In fact, at first, I found a week to be far too long – I went to Venice* alone on a shooting trip about six months after I first picked up a DSLR, and got bored. I wasn’t seeing it and I wasn’t really enjoying myself, either.

*I plan to rectify that in the second half of this year.

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Suburbia, untitled

At some point, probably when I was getting some semblance of the results I’d envision before shooting – it became satisfying rather than frustrating and somewhat random; this was probably the point at which I was happy to see my images in print, online, and being used for things. For most, this is about where the journey ends; inevitably, more effort, time and money was being spent in improving my results; this lead to more exposure and then the question of shooting for pay as the tradeoffs became increasingly large. I think I took my first commercial assignments – at what I know now to be embarrassingly low rates – around this time. So long as you’re working for free, you have the right to say no, and you have the right to deliver whatever you want. But the moment a client has claim over you – i.e. there’s an agreement in place – is the point at which you now have a responsibility to deliver what they’re expecting. The higher the fee, the higher the expectation, and the greater the pressure. Delivering what you agreed to is the basis of professionalism.

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Tesselation by necessity

I suspect that the moment you feel that external expectation pressure, you are no longer shooting for yourself. And at that point, you have to think very, very carefully about why you’re doing it: if you’re shooting for a living, then you have no choice. If you’re shooting because you were asked and thought it’d be a good way to pay for that bit of gear you’ve been lusting after, you may find that it’s not as easy as you thought. If you keep doing it, you may well find that photography is no longer fun: it really is a job and a task that has to be completed. You need to make the image that the client wants regardless of whether you disagree with their creative choices or not. You may get lucky and have a client that leaves those choices to you; or you may get a bad client who listens to an agency that isn’t creative and says ‘here, copy this’ – where ‘this’ is a bad competitor’s catalog. I’ve had both and everything in between, and I can honestly say that the latter type is extremely soul destroying and makes you think you should have stayed in a job with a more certain (and probably greater) level of income instead of destroying your passion.

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Geometry I

At the end of last year, or perhaps early this year, I found myself at that point. My professional/ commercial work had diverged so far from my personal work that many of you have emailed and asked why I no longer post images of certain types of subjects; the simple reason is because I did what the client wanted, and didn’t have the freedom to shoot the jobs the way I thought best – either because there was no time, or because it would have required significantly different setups. None of this work entered my portfolios, because it was simply something I’d rather not be associated with, or worse, have another client see it and say, ‘I want that’.

On the other hand, many have also commented on the reduction in equipment reviews on the site; this is because at first, like photography, you’re excited to get new stuff – even if you have to pay for it. Then you’re excited because you get to test it for free, and even more excited when people pay you to test it. But, like client-fixed angles, it gets formulaic and becomes a chore after a while. I’ve gone back to only reviewing stuff that personally interests me, when I have time for it. And because of that, I’ll write a better review, too.

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Geometry II

I think I’ve found my balance in much the same way with photography itself: I shoot what the client wants, put in as much soul as they’ll allow me to, if not, then I detach and let go. That’s perhaps the toughest thing to do, because it requires you not to take something that’s very similar to your passion personally, but at the same time still care enough to maintain the highest possible standards – after all, your name is still attributed to the image. What I shoot for myself, on the other hand, has to be as perfect as possible for my goals at the time – be they aesthetic, subject or print/ image quality – if not, then there’s no point in keeping the shot. The successful experiments do make it into the portfolio, and sometimes, I get clients who say ‘yes – I want that!’. I no longer care that the kinds of images I like have diverged so far from my professional work that they’re mostly commercially useless; in fact, I’m trying to make them go even further off tangent to the point of being art.

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The pool

The next trick is to make sure that there’s never too much of either in a stretch – too much rigid production (craftsmanship, I suppose) is going to get boring. Too much personal photography is going to leave you out of touch with the market, and possibly broke, too. A little bit of everything – commercial, personal, directing, teaching, fine art – is a good way to retain perspective as well as have latitude to experiment. All of the images in this article are photographs that I’ve shot for myself, on my own time, which I personally like; I don’t care that they have no commercial value whatsoever or that they may not push the envelope far enough to be art.

I’ve often said that the best kind of photographer to be is a skilled, moneyed amateur: it’s because you have the freedom, means and ability to shoot only the kind of images that you want – it’s just that most people in this position don’t realise it, or lack one or more of the three things to make it work. It’s only after you’ve spent some time shooting to somebody else’s imagination that you can truly learn to appreciate your own. MT

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Comments

  1. I used to be a “moneyed amateur” with nice equipment and little skill. I hope that I am now a “skilled amateur”, able to make good images with whatever equiopment is to hand. Having been made redundant and encountering age prejudice in my profession of computer programming (despite being a MUCH better programmer now than at any younger age) ther is a temtation to try to turn one eof my strong passions into a profession. But as you say, it is dangerous. It could destroy my love for it.

  2. I completely agree. The sick cycle that is professional or amateur photos is quite upsetting. Either you are called a professional by making money and taking photos that you don’t necessarily enjoy or you are taking photos you enjoy, while working another job, and being called an amateur. This article was brilliant and I really enjoyed reading it as well as looking at the photos that you took!

  3. As much as I like photography, I have purposefully tried NOT to make it a full time job. In my opinion, turning a passion into a career is not always a good thing. I want it to remain a joyful hobby. Wanting to shoot, and being forced to shoot are two very different feelings. I fear that the passion will turn to pain if I turn my passion into full-time employment.

  4. Only an inspirational mind can share something as awesome as this 🙂 No matter how much professional we become, I think the factor that makes us distinct from others is the rawness in appeal. A raw soul that is uninfluenced and pure exhibits freshness. I couldn’t agree more, thanks for sharing this visual bliss…and the grace of words.

  5. Another great and thoughtful article Ming. I definitely fall into the category of “skilled, moneyed amateur” (well hopefully somewhat skilled). Whilst I agree it’s great to have the freedom to shoot what you like and not be dictated to by anyone but yourself the downside of the amateur (assuming they have a full-time day job) is always lack of time to practice and hone your skills. As a professional even when you are shooting for someone else whose artistic vision may not match yours you are still learning and improving, even if you do not realise it at the time. The “moneyed” aspect of the “skilled, moneyed amateur” can also be a negative of course. Having too much money to buy kit you do not need or will ever use can easily detract from the actual act of making images. I’ve been through this having bought way too much gear over the years. I now feel I have arrived at a happy balance of having just the kit I need that does the job and is good enough (probably better than) for the type of images I want to make. Now all my spare cash goes on hiring studios and locations for portraits shoots.

  6. I made a similar career change to wine. My hobby became my profession. There have been times when that has evaporated all enthusiasm for wine, which surprised me (though it shouldn’t have). That comes and goes.

    My observation is that the more your income is derived from – your videos, your teaching, your workshops, and, most of all, your Ultraprints, the more this issue will go away. Without understanding the nitty gritty of your business financials, my casual observation would be that at some point – when those Ultraprints cost quadruple (not too soon please!!), and your teaching income grows, that you will reach a point where zero percent of your income is derived from clients who ask you to produce work that makes you feel compromise on artistic questions and on quality. I hope so. You have worked exceptionally hard.

    • I’m trying to get there – but we’re nowhere near it yet. Do you still derive pleasure from wine though?

      • I do. Anytime I am learning about wine – especially when it involves cellar visits, or the chance to taste a flight of wines side by side, and to discover something I hadn’t realised in the process. Keeping a mix of projects going also helps – not spending too long on any one thing, and putting gaps into the bigger projects (while at the same time looking after long terms goals). I have also found that working with others – collaborations, hires, and so on – very stimulating.

  7. When I tune into your blog, I always appreciate your candor. Every time I hear this familiar dance between inspiration and despair, it helps as a reminder of the crazy road to creativity and reward. Helpful insights. Thanks.

  8. Steve Jones says:

    The pool! Beautifully seen and captured. Much more of this and I’ll actually have to buy an iPhone, but not until next year.
    I plan Christmas on a small Island in the Tasman sea with a Leica M, three lenses, tripod and a bag of film. Going to slow things down and go old school with some landscapes and coral reef photography. Just have to find some good, slow, color film that will scan well. Can’t wait. Not sure how big the iPhone image will go but I’d love to see this pool shot blown up and hung on the wall as a piece of art (which it is.) Inspiring.

    • As a conventional print, the iPhone 5S will go to about 13×19″ without too much trouble under ideal conditions. As an Ultraprint…4×6″, perhaps.

      Try Provia.

      • Steve Jones says:

        Thanks for the tip.. Getting tough to find a selection of color film around 100 ISO these days, will do a test run with a few rolls of Provia
        and see how it goes. Must try to stop looking at that pool image. Hypnotic, in a good way, and I love that it’s a square,

    • Von Manstein says:

      Ektar 100, was made for scanning. As was Portra film.

  9. I was amazed by the pool image, then quite depressed 😉 when I saw it was taken with your iphone. Seriously, you have all manner of equipment most of us can only dream of, but the best gear you have is your eye, which no one can buy.

  10. “The Pool” is perfectly beautiful. Thank you, Ming.

  11. A good read. I don’t have to deal with clients, or a day job, thankfully. Guess what, I am a retired CPA too.

  12. I suspect that you need to look closer to the words that you are using to describe your journey from paid professional to amateur. The origin of amateur is a person that is doing something for love, from the French Amor.

  13. Might it be reasonable to have a two tiered price structure for commissioned work? That is, to quote one rate, for projects where your aesthetic ideals are roughly in alignment with your client’s, and a MUCH higher rate, for personally unsatisfying projects, that you only take on for the pay.

  14. Carlos Esteban says:

    Even thought i liked all pics, for me Geometry II resembles an impossible geometry paint – really loved it on par to last one.
    About what you said, don’t you think that shooting only to oneself could reach some kind of “self saturation” – to be bored by oneself vision? Creativity and fresh vision, without any outside demand, couldn’t be exhausted? And to deliver what somebody else expects isn’t a different kind of skill?
    Regards

    • I do wonder about that – keeping your creative vision fresh is always challenging.

      Satisfying clients/ delivering a different product all the time is a different skill, but perhaps not a really useful one because it actually requires you to suppress creativity and vision.

      • Carlos Esteban says:

        … and then you may refresh both(?).

      • Maybe satisfying clients still keeps technical skills oiled?

        • Carlos Esteban says:

          Maybe, but i think that producing something according to someone else needs/desire, as implies distance from someone own vision, could represent a rest – putting in other way, taking pics based only on own vision and creativity could int time be boring – and pushed to take pics in other way (only technical approach?) could be a bless.

          • Carlos I think I agree with you very much; these seem like excellent points to me! The mix of original creativity with “paid” engagements could provide just the kind of rest you are speaking of, as well as some temporary distance from creative vision which might allow rethinking, new directions, and improved objectivity.

  15. How did you know your work was good enough to turn the hobby into a profession?

  16. roblowephoto says:

    Superb writing, MT. Whenever I think about, or dabble in paid work, my fears about client-lead control always, always brings me back to shooting just for me. The adding of someone else’s money and their expectations into a creative mix just ruins it for me.

    And yes, the pool … what a gorgeous frame!

    As always, Ming, thank you for sharing with us.

    Best regards,
    Rob.

  17. plevyadophy says:

    The Pool.

    OMFG!!!!

    Brilliant!

  18. Ming I follow your blog regularly and look and listen closely to what you say but this post stands out as a milestone. It seems as making money and your creative self have, at least for now, found a nice balance.
    One last thing, that pool photograph is a terrific example of the kind of art you do best, exquisite detail, punchy geometry and dynamite light.

  19. That’s it, Ming, that’s it… and that’s what I meant with what I wrote about changing in my reply to your other post… the one were you might have meant me when mentioning trolls. You’ve changed your perspective, and all of a sudden things “klick”… composing a life and composing a picture have a lot in common.

    • No, I didn’t mean you at all. There are some seriously deranged trolls out there.

      And yes, ultimately it really boils down to not trying to make everybody (or anybody) happy except yourself.

  20. Excellent article! I love the pool image.

    My situation is a bit different. I do not claim to be a “professional photographer,” but do shoot evidentiary images as part of my big-city police patrol job. My typical “client” is a living, breathing person, sometimes bleeding, often a women just beaten by her husband. Making these images is a very intimate, invasive experience. Empathy can be a burden. I now struggle to find the desire to pick up a camera during my personal time.

    Thanks.

    • I can’t imagine what that’s like – your work is probably far more documentary than aesthetic/artistic in nature (if the latter at all) – the emotional effect must be tough.

  21. A moving and personal article Ming. I really love the photos and love the things you love to shoot, the way you love to shoot them. “Pool” is especially artistic. I’m listening to you and taking it seriously. I’ve been asked to do a few projects for others but it just stresses me out even though I know they’ll be appreciative. I want to be that free, able and reasonably talented amateur who has no one to answer to but myself. 🙂

  22. I’ve often told photo enthusiasts: if you like photography, then don’t do it as a living. 😉

    • And you’d be right about that – just that some of us, myself included, are far too stubborn to listen 🙂

    • “I’ve often told photo enthusiasts: if you like photography, then don’t do it as a living.”

      Let’s just dissect that for a moment. If we take that statement as an axiom of sorts, then it follows that the opposite must also be true: “If you hate [something], then do it as a living.”

      Unfortunately, far, far too many people are stuck in jobs they hate, and the vast majority of those jobs don’t pay all that well either.

      He (or she) is fortunate who can make a reasonable or good living doing what they enjoy, or have a passion for. Life is much too short, and we spend far too much time at work, to simultaneously hate what we do. Remember: even the best, most enjoyable jobs have their downsides at times. IMO, that’s still better than doing something which offers little to no real satisfaction or sense of soulful accomplishment most of the time.

      I recently interviewed Joe McNally for a magazine. I asked the question, “Do you feel as much joy and enthusiasm when you pick up a camera today as you did four decades ago?”

      This was his answer: “Yeah, I do. In fact, maybe even more so now because I don’t have the same failure rate. You get to a certain confidence and experience level, I think, where you think to yourself, ‘I can do this.’ ”

      It comes down to the individual in question, I guess.

      • Joe is probably different: he’s got enough fame/ recognition that he can just walk away if he doesn’t like something. Not all of us can. I suspect it’s very different at that level (though I wouldn’t know).

        The converse is probably also true: the world is a worse place because too many people do something they don’t like; as a result it’s done poorly and nobody is happy – company or customer.

        • True. But of course Joe didn’t reach that level overnight. There were ups and downs along the way, and some darker times that I deliberately left out of the piece out of respect as I felt they were too personal. Point being: he stuck it out, persevered … and is glad he did.

          You’re absolutely right that too many folks end up stuck doing something they really don’t like, either because they couldn’t cultivate other opportunities, were afraid of change (aka in a rut); were unable to “find their calling”, or what have you. And that unhappiness is reflected in their performance.

  23. Firstly, I’d never seen that “The Pool” before – nice shot!

    I picked up a great book on Cartier-Bresson a while ago, and one of the things it mentions is how that, once he had taken the picture, he was no longer that concerned about how it was used. This could have been because he knew what the client (newspaper, etc) would or might do to it, but the author put forward another theory: for Cartier-Bresson, the real meaning lay in the approach to the shot, i.e. before he even hit the shutter button. What happened after that was outside his control to a greater or lesser extent, so he didn’t worry about it.

    Then again, he was hardly broke at any given time, so his experiences are probably not typical 🙂

    • Thanks – I try not to recycle images.

      It’s also possible that HCB believed that his best shot would always be his next one – it’s a philosophy I follow for my personal work, but doesn’t really apply for professional a lot of the time if you’re not in control creatively.

  24. the best kind of photographer to be is a skilled, moneyed amateur

    So if one can be well-paid as a professional photographer, this would presumably lead to regularly exercising the skills (fitness program) and keep you in supply of a certain baseline of gear to high professional standards. …. one way of being a skilled, moneyed amateur indeed.

    If your finances come from another domain — even one you enjoy rather than audit — perhaps there would be unpleasant tension because the effort devoted to keep your shooting skills in peak form (if substantial) would scream at you about ‘opportunity cost’ in the area that funds you. Restated, too much leisure-time shooting and you become a broke amateur instead of a moneyed one.

    • Depends on where/how your money comes from, I suppose.

      Being professional may be frustrating because of lack of time, or dulling of the creative spark because of the nature of client work…

      • Yes, I suppose.

        Extremely low wage work also brings lack of time because it may be necessary to work three jobs to pay a landlord. Wealth affords us more choices, I think, but usually places burdens on our attention to manage assets responsibly or to manage the managers of our assets, either of which can induce us to feel a lack of time.

        Hmmm, in passing, I suppose that overestimating the “freedom” of material wealth is the common but extremely serious error made by people who win lotteries and land up bankrupt and in ruin a few short years later; they mistakenly believe that people with financial assets “have it made” and can just “live it up” and those judgments are very mistaken.

  25. Billy Walker says:

    Ming, glad you have found your balance! Not that long ago you sounded somewhat dejected in your posts and I can see the difference in your writing lately. More positive; more upbeat perhaps. I had actually written you awhile back in regard to comments made in reference to automotive advertising in reference to this very subject.

    Unless born wealthy most of us professionals need to satisfy the customer at the end of the day. They become “right”. It truly is meaningless if you disagree with their concept of good imagery. The customer puts food on your table and a roof over your head and your children through school. As long as you’re not committing a crime or an immoral act the customer has every right to tell you what they want to see. You as a professional are obligated to try to guide them, to possibly educate them and to help them down the path. But it is their money that gets you through the day. You do not need to like their choices. You do need to put out a professional product in their eyes.

    However, people are entitled to different opinions and you as a professional learn at some point in time your opinion is not the only opinion on the planet. There should be enough work to satisfy the “art” drive so it is best to savor those occasions as you have walked into a win-win situation. But never let the customer get you down just because you think it can be done better. Do a professional job and take their money and smile.

    Thanks for what you do!

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