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Photography: The Death of a Hobby

The Triumphs and Epic Fails of a Photographer Turned Entrepreneur

January 31st, 2015

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Ducks Glistening in the Winter at Tingley Beach, Albuquerque, NM January 2009.

It was the Spring of 2005 and I was standing in the conference room at the Youth Development Inc. (YDI) offices in Los Lunas, NM, when I was asked by a visiting community partner how much I was going to charge her to shoot the upcoming Fame and Shame Awards - a red carpet gala for youth like the Academy Awards but instead of handing out Oscar's, they gave out "Shame-ies", a shameful award of sorts given to actors who cast tobacco use in a positive light.  The Shame-ie was a popcorn box adorned with cigarette butts flowing like golden kernels from the top.

For a second I was sort of frozen without a word to say......nobody had ever offered to pay me to use my camera to do work for them.  Before the pause got awkward, I coolly replied that I would have to check my Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to see how much I charged for 4.5 hours of event photography.  And just like that, I landed my first paid assignment!  Eleven years later and with a couple of hundred of events under my belt, I have never forgotten how special and serendipitous it was to enter the world of "professional" photography quite that way.

Back in those days, I spent countless hours patrolling the Albuquerque West Mesa and the fence-line of the Petroglyph National Monument with my light duty but capable Nikon N80 35mm film camera, looking for anything artistic and compelling.  What I found in the yet undeveloped mesa lands really inspired me to train my eye to look for beauty in the desert - in the dried out river beds, in the contour lines of the volcanoes eclipsing the mesa in the foreground, and even animal remains that are now permanently part of my archive, proof that life crawled around searching for its way.

But somewhere between the 100-200th roll of film, people began looking at my work and thought that I was doing a pretty good job of something and paid jobs began creeping their way into my life, lifestyle, and eventually even my DNA.  Personal projects (which I still have dozens of folders basically untouched) slowly began being replaced with gigs and more gigs.  At first and for quite some time it didn't really phase me as I was just appreciative to be doing something I loved AND was getting paid to do it - what an amazing thing!!!  So the more that I was loving getting paid to do photography, the more my professional work as an advisor at the University of New Mexico began to suffer, virtual opposite mirrors of one another.

For about 4 years, I had just enough photography work to distract me from my day job but not enough to make the leap to doing it full-time.  It was a painful reality when I knew I was destined for something else but struggling with the impatience of asking God to move his hand already.  And although I couldn't have made the eventual decision without my wife's unwavering support, no amount of rationalization and prayer eased the anxiety.  The pressure was mounting too because I felt that it was only a matter of time before I was going to buckle beneath the weight of the duties of both careers and I was going to be forced to choose.

Then in a weird twist of fate in the fall of 2011, the federal government's budget got held up in Congress and my program at the University of New Mexico was affected.  We were actually given papers that said we were going to be laid off - even if it was temporary - until the President and Congress passed a budget bill but I didn't see that.  All I saw was, "Here's your chance buddy".  I could justify beginning anew to the University, to my spouse, to God, and yes, even myself. 

Have their been enormous missteps along the way?  Heck yeah.  Here are the "Top 10", in no particular order:

1) Dramatic miscalculation in the amount of income that has to be earned to replace your J.O.B. in addition to earnings needed to grow the business.

2) Pricing, Pricing, Pricing.  I struggle to this day in being able to calculate how much to charge a client without scaring them away and without cutting my own throat.

3) Budgeting for seasons of little work with seasons of abundance; making our dollar stretch year-round.

4) Not being more active with social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.

5) Failure to use studio software/business software to track everything from expenses to invoices to contacts.

6) Lack of effective networking/unwillingness to go visit prospective clients.

7) (Until fall of 2014) Lack of participation with a professional photography organization.

8) Ability to manage downtime more productively.

9) Limited professional development courses taken.

10) Failure to do more personal photo projects for myself.

On the flipside, here are my Top 10 highlights from self-employment as a photographer since 2011:

1) Unparalleled amount of time with my wife and four children.

2) Extremely flexible schedule.  I can be of great assistance to my wife if I need to stay home with the kids while she runs errands, shops, or simply needs to go to a doctor's appointment.

3) No boss.  But be careful what you ask for too because just as this is one of the greatest blessings of being self-employed, it can also be one of the greatest challenges or weaknesses because now you're in charge of creating your own agenda daily.  As Mr. Parker told a young Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility", or something like that!

4) Taking on creative, fun, and challenging assignments for awesome clients.  My work has taken me on whirlwind 3 day trips to Baton Rouge, trainings in Minneapolis, and travel through New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming doing what I love best.

5) Creating friendships with other photographers, creatives, and generally other hard working individuals who have put a high value on fearlessly pursuing their dreams in a world that seeks conformity.

6) Seeing our work on billboards throughout Albuquerque, publications throughout New Mexico, and meeting people that have said they are familiar with our work and website

7) Meeting aspiring photographers.  They are very kind and complimentary towards me and the way they perceive we run our business.

8) Moments of rewarding financial success.  We have registered 3-4 months in the last 2.5 years where we have had gross profits greater than $12,000 in one month.  That's a small feat considering how many photographers are just trying to survive.

9) Ability to expand equipment beyond just a couple of cameras and lenses.  We're very blessed to shoot with a great selection of Pro Nikon DSLR bodies and glass, not to mention our investments in software, lighting, printing capabilities, and much more.

10) Fun, stimulating, and challenging.  Let's face it, not too many people in life get to do exactly what they want.  And although one has to battle to acquire financial success, it's a journey worth taking.

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