5 Reasons NOT to Become a Professional Photographer

Excerpts from the book ’66 Reasons NOT to Become a Professional Photographer’. Head to Kickstarter to order a copy before the fully backed campaign ends on Saturday 24 October.

This is a how-NOT-to article; it will expose you to the things they never mention in the art-school brochure. Unlike other articles, this one has no answers, but it will lay out some realities that professional photographers face every day.


Imagine a perfect day with a pink sunrise, no wind, rent-a-puff clouds. Maybe your model or groom is especially photogenic or the flock of bluefooted boobies you’ve been tracking finally lands across from you. You run home and burst through the door calling out, “Honey, I’m home and I just took the best picture EVER!”

You have just experienced a perfect day…That doesn’t mean your pictures still don’t suck. We all arrive home from perfect days and in an hour we can have all those new images up on our homepage. Don’t do that.

I have a theory: Fresh photographs have the potential, over time, to turn into wine or vinegar. The problem is we won’t know which until we’ve gotten some distance from the pictures.

I have found that if I put my photos in the proverbial cellar and let them mature I’ll have much more perspective.

Especially if I thought that image was Moonrise revisited the day I took it. The time period varies, but after a few days with my digital pics or sometimes a few weeks with my film negatives, the new-photosmell associated with the experience wears off. I can then view the images with more objective eyes. I’m always surprised how many turn to vinegar, and which ones age nicely and become my favorite vintages.


Most of our subjects survive being shot and captured. Any monkey with an iPhone can shoot pics. Take this challenge: I dare you to remove the terms “shoot” and “shooting” from your vocabulary and totally replace them with “photograph” and “photographing.” I assure you it will be one of the hardest things you do! But don’t blame me when you’re heard walking around the studio saying “shoot … fuck” like a guy with Tourette’s.


To paraphrase Julius Shulman, “We are not hunting. We are not shooting. We make photographs.”


Have you ever been late to your meeting at 1234 East Main Street and when you get there you realise that bitch Siri took you to 1234 WEST Main Street? Do the math, you have 24 blocks to look like an even bigger moron, and when you arrive you really can’t blame the girl in your phone.

‘Scout everything’ is my mantra. Scout every location you can get access to. Go the day before and walk around. This way you’ll miss the U-turn, get lost and find out your mobile phone doesn’t have any bars before the models arrive. Find your angles and your backgrounds, see if you need a ladder, and find the electrical outlets and bathrooms. Ask if you can move trashcans, cars, or even trim trees. This can all be done the day before or even an hour before the client, model or wedding party arrives, but it doesn’t work if you all arrive at the same time. If you’re a wedding photographer, attend the rehearsal and meet the players.


The ASMP location checklist for architecture is a great resource.

As an architectural photographer, I visit all my local projects to determine the best time of day for each view. If it’s an out of town job, I’ll check out the sites on Bing aerial maps and Google Streetview™ and I’ll examine the arc of the sun on the Photographer’s Ephemeris app. I’ll find out when sprinklers come on, I ask to have burned-out light bulbs replaced, and if there is air conditioning on the weekends. I have hedge trimmers and a tree saw and I’m not afraid to use them.


I know you’re not sitting at home thinking, “How do I get less experience?” You need experience to become a pro and a 6-point photo credit sounds better than no photo credit. Maybe someone will read it and hire you for a paying job. Not gonna happen, it doesn’t work that way.

There are always people willing to take advantage of you and let you work for free. Many actually need photo-content to sell their product or service. But are they working for free? Their philosophy is: ‘My enterprise is important, what I’m selling has value and I need images to promote it…But I find no value in photography and you should feel honoured that I even called you to offer you the exposure’.

Fuck them.


You can’t pay the rent with photo credits.

In 20+ years I have never gotten a job or sold a photo because of a photo credit. NONE. Requests for more free work don’t count. The only people who read bylines are you and your competition. Working for expenses sometimes provides benefits if you can take advantage of the offer to further your own goals or work on your own portfolio. If a spec project gets you access to a person or place or you can trade for a good or service, then maybe it has value and it’s not really working for free. Otherwise, do your own projects for free so you can photograph exactly what your portfolio is missing, or donate to non-profits (no thankless clients needed). Don’t reinforce the idea that photographs and photographers have no value and that we should feel honoured by the offer of a 6-point byline in the gutter of a magazine that sells ads for $10,000 USD a page.


Have a sense of humour–yeah that’s it. Humour is one of the most important things–it keeps you going when self-doubt sets in or when your softbox flies in the pool. In the beginning, when you suck, at least you can say, “I may suck, but I’m fun to be around.” If you don’t have a sense of humour, maybe you can partner with a witty person. She tells the jokes, you focus the camera.

Humour is one of the few things in the photo business that’s free and can help both your photography and your relationships. Seriously.

This doesn’t mean learning some jokes will get you work.

One of the reasons we got into this business was for the fun of it, and humour keeps the fun alive when the paperwork gets daunting and the phone’s not ringing. It’s okay to have fun doing this job and your clients don’t want a boring, tedious experience, either.

S. Dirk Schafer is just another average photographer working in California who’s done everything from weddings to product to corporate to tabletop to fine art. He’s been making mistakes as a photographer since 1987 and wants to share them with you in his book DON’T SHOOT – 66 Reasons NOT to Become a Professional Photographer. Schafer now specialises in architectural photography ( and draws the snarky @CLICKittyCAT photography comic almost daily. His Kickstarter for DON’T SHOOT just reached 100% and after that the books will be available at