Pre-photography, I spent the first 15 years of my adult life supporting people with special needs in various capacities. I loved what I did, and it was incredibly rewarding. I cared for my students and clients dearly, and they were an integral part of my life.
Eventually, I started to get burned out, both mentally and physically. Despite loving the people I worked with, I wanted a new challenge and I wanted to feel inspired about my work again.
Making the leap
Photography had become a passionate hobby of mine and I was starting to sell the odd print or stock image. While still holding down three other jobs, I decided to officially launch my own photography sole proprietorship. It was a quiet entrance to the business world, timid and unsure. The creation and publishing of a Facebook page declared my new status as a photographer. Because if it’s on Facebook, it’s official, right?
I didn’t fully quit my other jobs, but the idea was definitely circulating in the back of my mind. I started easing away from my care/teaching work and putting more time into photography. Visions of invigorating days in the field and fine-art gallery shows danced in my brain.
Taking it all on
It was at this point that I started taking any photography jobs that I could get (only accepting jobs that I thought I could perform competently). Desperate for both income and experience, I found myself saying yes to everything. With a background in landscape and nature photography, I was suddenly taking on jobs like shoe advertisements, small weddings and office headshots.
Eventually, a funny thing started to happen. I started dreading some of my photography work! How was this happening so early in my new career? Had I made a giant mistake in switching vocations midlife? Why was I experiencing these feelings so soon?
Over time, I began to understand the simple reason for this mental conundrum: I thought that I had to take on every job presented to me to be a versatile, thriving photographer. I am a people pleaser at heart and recoil at the thought of disappointing anyone. Desperate to be “successful” I wasn’t saying no to anyone.
If you’ve been in the industry for a while, you know that people hear the word “photographer” and tend to assume that you shoot everything from weddings to action sports. So instead of politely declining work that didn’t align with my passions and goals, I took them on, despite the feeling in my gut telling me not to.
Now don’t get me wrong, the range of jobs I took on provided me with invaluable experience. If I accepted a job in a new genre, I would study and practice before the shoot. I met new people and tried shooting new genres. It allowed me to see what I liked to photograph, and what I didn’t. I don’t regret doing any of it and I’m thankful to the people that took chances on me that early in my career.
Learning to say no
But at a certain point I realized that I had to start saying no. This can be hard to do when money is tight and your schedule has a lot of openings. But as soon as I started saying no to a few jobs, the relief I felt was immediate. After all, what was the point in changing careers to my supposed passion if it didn’t make me happy?
Of course, the reality is that I still take on some jobs that don’t spark absolute joy when I get the call. That’s life, and bills need to be paid. But for the genres of photography that I really don’t want to pursue, I feel confident in politely declining them now. In fact, it can feel empowering to make those decisions.
And as an upside, referring jobs to other local photographers is a great way to network and create relationships within your community.
So, if you’re just starting out with your photography business and feel like you need to take on the world, know that it’s OK to say no. If you aren’t proficient with a required technique or loathe a certain shooting genre, be confident enough to politely decline. Not only is it OK to do so, but it will become necessary as you continue to grow and find your niche within the industry.