The Simple, Ridiculously Useful Guide to Earning a Living from Your Passion

by | 20 comments

Photography PassionThe personal development blog, Zen Habits, has over 237,000 readers.

And I'm one of them.

It has a massive following because its author, Leo Babauta, is a talented, passionate writer and his blog has a crystal clear message – simplify your life; do what you love.

Do What You Love

“I’m lucky — I’ve found my passion, and I’m living it. I can testify that it’s the most wonderful thing, to be able to make a living doing what you love.” – Leo Babauta

You and I are lucky too. We've found our passion in photography and now we simply need to find a way to earn a living from it.

In this post, I'm going to “take advantage” of Leo's open-source/uncopywrite policy and reference (read: copy/paste) one of his most popular articles from his blog to help guide you to the promised land – where you're earning a living from your passion.

The Simple, Ridiculously Useful Guide to Earning a Living from Your Photography Passion

The quotes that follow are from this Zen Habits article.  And under each section I provide my own commentary on how to action the advice for the more specific goal of becoming a successful part-time photographer.

Let's get started, shall we?

1. Learn. Read up on it [photography], from blogs to magazine articles online to books to ebooks. Look for the free stuff first. Don’t use this as an excuse to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most of the important stuff is available for free. Find a mentor, talk to others doing it, ask questions. Go on forums and ask questions there — from experienced people. Find others who are doing it well and study them closely.

The internet is your friend. Forums, blogs, eBooks, courses…

You just have to know where to look (google!), how to piece it all together, and apply the knowledge.

Here are some photography forums and resources that have helped me:

  • – Though some articles are a bit dated now, there are still many gems – like this series on wedding photography which I still refer to when I run into a new problem with my business.
  • – This forum is an off-shoot from the photo hosting company SmugMug (20% off link).  It is an extremely active, well moderated forum and covers everything from photography tips, gear, and even business advice. It's a passionate community.
  • – This is a personal blog, but Ken's information and insight (especially with respect to equipment) is awesome. I bought my Nikon 18-200mm VR because of his review.
  • – If you want to learn from the pros, you can't go wrong with Scott Kelby and his expert instructors. His books and online courses are a solid investment. My learning curve for Adobe Lightroom was reduced to hours instead of weeks because of his practical, and readable “how to” books.

The list goes on and on…

Obviously a lot of your learning to be a pro photographer will be done behind the viewfinder of your camera.  But if you're serious about becoming a successful business owner, don't forget to spend time learning about how to run a successful business. Learn about contracts, negotiation, working with clients, insurance, work-flow, marketing, etc. I'd start with The eMyth and go from there.

2. Do. Do not put this step off for months and months while you learn. You’ll learn most by doing. Start doing it for free. Do it for friends, family. Find clients who’ll pay a small amount. Start a blog and write about it. Put it online and let others try your products or service. As soon as possible, go public — you’ll learn the most this way. Continue to do step one as you’re doing this step.

I completely agree with Leo here. There is so much you can DO as you learn and as you grow.  For example:

  • DO – shoot a lot of photos. And remember that while it's fun to snap that perfect sunset photo, most part-time pros  make their money by shooting people – so learn how to shoot portraits.
  • DO – build a website (20% off SmugMug link) for your photos, and start right away with a professional looking site. Build a portfolio. Go public. Once you sell that first print online you'll be hooked and motivated to take your business to the next level.
  • DO – put yourself out there and look for gigs. It's fine if your services are free (at first). And it's fine to get gigs that are “low pressure” while you build up your skills and confidence. Don't be lured by the “big money” weddings before you're ready. I'd suggest focusing on family portraits, but really – shoot anything for anybody. And remember to shoot your best stuff – even if it's free. “Wow” everyone — good karma will come your way in the form of referrals.
  • DO – ask for feedback — tying into Step 1 in a continual quest to learn.
  • DO NOT – wait until you know everything to get started.
  • DO NOT – get distracted by too many shiny objects (toys, software, facebook, etc.)

3. Get amazing at it. This is just more doing and learning. Read this post for more.

Read that post above. Seriously, I'll wait – there's some great info in there.

For more on this you can read the 4 Stages of Competence which is a fascinating way to think about skill growth.

Before we move on to Step 4 I want to reinforce the need for you to Get Amazing At It. We're talking about a photography  business here. If you're not in this business to be GREAT, then I'd suggest you reconsider your career choice. At the same time don't get scared by the word “great” either. You don't have to be the greatest…just great in the eyes of your clients.

Lastly, “get amazing” is a verb (I think :)). So greatness should always be something we're striving for – not an end goal, but a process.

4. Start charging. As soon as you can do it well enough to charge, do so. You can start low — the main thing is to keep getting experience, and to get clients who can recommend you to others. You want to work hard to knock their socks off. Slowly raise your rates as your skills improve.

I couldn't have said this better myself. Each line in there is a gem of good advice. I'd suggest you go back and re-read that, write it down, stick it on your fridge, but just don't forget it.

It's the secret sauce to starting and growing your business.

Tip: The last part about slowly raising your rates is a good reason NOT to post your prices on your website. Each client is a new negotiation and a reason to go higher (and sometimes even lower) than your previous “set rate”.

5. Keep improving. Never stop learning, getting better. Use client or reader feedback to help.

Do you see a pattern here? Learning…doing…learning…doing…(leads to awesomeness)….(leads to more business)….(leads to increasing your rates)……learning…..doing….learning….doing…..

For client feedback consider using a tool like SurveyMonkey or keep it simple and send a pre-written email (for consistency). And remember to ask for and keep testimonials from happy clients which you can use as social proof on your website.

6. Build income streams. This is where the money starts coming in. You can start this step at any time — don’t wait until you’ve done all the other steps.

Here Leo goes into “Internet Business” type income streams, but let's stick with Part-time Photography.  Here are some income stream examples for us photographers:

  • Wedding Gigs – The big pay-day and a pretty obvious income stream at that.
  • Other Portrait Sessions – Families, Seniors, Baby's, Bands, Events, etc
  • Fine Art – Partner with a coffee shop or try selling prints at local markets
  • Albums – could be sold in a package upfront, or on the back-end, weeks, months or even years after a photo shoot. Lots of options for book creating and publishing out there – but if you want to know what I use, it's Blurb.
  • Prints – again, prints could be sold in a package, or sold on the back-end. When shopping for a good photo hosting website to be the “home” of your business, make sure the offer hassle free, amazing prints and products. All part of the amazing service you offer your clients.
  • Slideshows – I use Animoto (10% off link) for my slideshows cause it's fast and clients love them.  (Hint: For the slideshow music, use something personal to your client. We're going for tears of joy here people! :))

Back to Leo on this one:

There are, of course, many other types of services and products you can offer. Each income stream might only bring in a portion of what you need to survive, but if you continually build more income streams, you can eventually live off your passion. Congratulations.

And some final thoughts from Leo:

Equipment and office? For most passions, you can probably do it from your home with minimal equipment (often just a computer). Avoid having to pay for office space or having any overhead that will make it difficult to start up or put you in debt. Start small, expand only as your income expands. Buy as little equipment as you can get away with at first.

This one is tough for photographers – but not impossible. Though there are a million and one opinions on what equipment a pro photographer “needs”, I'd suggest the following:

  • dSLR – Nikon, Canon, whatever feels good in your hands. This is your primary tool. Know it, Love it. If you have a dSLR already, you're good to go. If you're in the market, don't go for the most expensive or the cheapest. One up from the entry level dSLR is good enough to get started. Upgrade as you get more paying gigs. That would be called an “investment” in your business.
  • Lenses – Don't yell at me — but I only use 2 lenses (at the time of writing this post), an 18-200mm VR and 50mm f/1.8. When I shoot a wedding, my 18-200mm is pretty much stuck on my Nikon D90 the entire day. Works for me.
  • Other Gear – External flash is a must, tripod is a nice-to-have.
  • Computer – Use what you have, upgrade to what you enjoy at a later date. I started with a Dell, and it was a gratifying day when I was able to purchase my new Mac from income earned from my part-time photography business.
  • Software – Lightroom is 95% of my workflow; Photoshop when needed.
  • Online Tools – SmugMug (20% off link), Gmail, WaveAccounting, Animoto (10% off link)

A good rule of thumb is to use what you already own to get to the “DO” step as quickly as you can. You're probably already there.

Beyond that, create your wishlist and prioritize new purchases by what's going to make your business easier or more profitable. “Invest” in those things as you get gigs and income. Try your hardest to keep your overhead as low as possible for as long as possible.

Quit your job? If you can possibly afford it, yes. This might mean living on savings for a few months, or living off your spouse’s income, and cutting back on expenses. If this isn’t a possibility, make time to pursue your passion — before work, after work, on weekends.

Congrats. You've chosen a wonderful “side business” to your 9-5 day job! Most of your work with clients will be on weekends, and you can edit and do all the other stuff before and after work during the week.

I'd suggest you keep your day job until you've crunched the numbers and you know you can cut ties from your 9-5 and support your life solely from your photography business.

I still have my day-job and I'm happy for it. I'm able to grow my business slow and steady while keeping the stress to myself and my family to a minimal.

Closing Thoughts

The formula is simple.

Learn. Do. Earn.

Making a living doing almost anything is rarely easy.

And to get great at something you don't love is nearly impossible.

So fuel your passion, put in the time, and reap a lifetime of rewards.

 “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucius

A Word of Thanks

Thanks to Leo Babauta for being a wonderful teacher and role model.

And thanks to you for your support of P.O.T.S.

Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and by choosing to click on them to purchase products and services, you are supporting my work on this website. So thank you for that. My hope is that I repay you 10x in value with my growing blog articles and video tutorials.

Please let me know what you think of this article by leaving a comment below.

Forget What's In the Bag, What IS the Bag?

Camera gear is a touchy subject. Google "Nikon vs Canon" and you get over 52,000,000 results. So I'm not going to even attempt to lay out the dozens of bag options, give a long list of features to compare and analyze until you're blue in the face. If...

1000 Humans

Inspiration doesn't usually come from thin-air. At least, it rarely does for me. My latest photography adventure/challenge is coming directly from one of my new "mentors", Brandon Stanton, the creator of the very popular Street Photography blog Humans of...

Equipment Matters – A Camera Buying Guide For Sane People

It always irks me when I hear people say that camera equipment doesn't matter. That "good" artists can use any disposable camera to shoot a great wedding or take their next masterpiece. Then why don't we ever see that?! Pros always use the best equipment...