In case you missed the news, the photography business is a pretty tough one these days. To survive, our focus is directed to getting the next client in the door, getting the job shot, keeping the client happy and delivering work that lives up to our expectations. It’s not an easy gig, but who said that living out the dream is easy?
Funny thing happens though on the road to a happily-ever-after photography career. Along the way, we start working more and more for the client. Processing images, booking shoots, updating the websites, customer service and so on takes its toll. After a few years, the profession we dreamed about becomes one we feel locked into. An air of desperation sets in as we’re engaged in work that pays too well to leave but the thought of dealing with another client’s set of files is just frustrating beyond belief. Enthusiasm and the work begins to suffer.
Quietly and without notice, burnout has set in.
When we’re getting started in the business, we work long and hard for cheap. Money starts rolling in and prices go up somewhat. Everything is working – or so it seems. What happens with far too many photographers however is that the pace that’s required to stay profitable is not sustainable over the long run. In all the calculations for creating a life in photography, what it takes to succeed over the long haul is rarely considered.
But the long haul doesn’t take to long to get here. Burnout is a key limiting factor in the equation for success. What’s worse is that it’s difficult to discuss and rarely taken seriously. After all, you’re doing what you love aren’t you? You’ve made sacrifices and worked hard. How can you want to give up now? Most of us labor on in frustration and unhappy silence.
The last time I wrote about burn out, I received an outpouring of thankful emails and even a phone call from a tearful reader who was at the edge of her sanity. Because it’s a silent foe, many photographers don’t even know what they’re experiencing – much less how to combat it. So, as we’re all hopefully hard at work this summer season, I’m going to talk about what exactly causes burn out and how to avoid it.
Before I talk about the how and why, let me talk about who can suffer from burnout. Simply put, it can happen to anyone in the business – whether they’re at the top of the food chain or near the bottom. Whether you have all the talent in the world or just a little, it doesn’t matter.
One of my favorite wedding photographers, Greg Gibson, received two Pulitzer Prizes for photography during his illustrious career as a documentary photographer. After two decades of shooting, he couldn’t take it anymore and got out of the business. Complete and total burnout. He sold all of his camera gear except for a point and shoot. After a couple years, he fortunately discovered weddings and is now happy in his second photography career.
If burnout can bring down a photographer as talented and motivated as Greg Gibson, it can affect anyone.
Burnout is the result of feeling forced to do something day after day. Working hard isn’t the issue so much as it’s the feeling that you have no choice but to do the work you’re doing. I love chocolate brownies. They’re a special treat for me. But if I were forced to eat brownies every day, I’d quickly get sick of them.
That brings up a valuable point – It doesn’t matter how much you love what you do, if you feel like you lack options, burnout will eventually follow.
In real terms, what generally causes burnout is putting yourself into a box where you have to work nonstop to keep the doors open. For example, wedding photographers often charge rates that force them to book a bunch of weddings to survive. They then must do all the production and customer service work on their own because there’s no money left over for help. On top of that, the photographer is often spending countless hours in Photoshop retouching every image so that they’ll look perfect for the client.
The problem here is that the photographer is making enough to get by, but not enough to bring in help or outsource the work. The photographer might even be sick to death of shooting weddings, but there’s nothing else he or she can do that might pay as much – hence the feeling of being trapped.
If you feel like you’re in a rut, heading down the road to burnout or in a Get Me the Hell Out of This Mess! state, here are my suggestions for dealing with burnout.
1. Rethink your pricing. The way most photographers look at their gross profit per wedding is to subtract their hard expenses from the total amount that they charge. For example:
Wedding Package A $2,000
less Cost of Second Shooter – $300
less cost of prints for Album - $100
less cost of Album - $600
Gross Profit $1,000
What this model fails to consider is the labor spent to produce the final product. When you’re working in your business doing the production work, you’re working at a cost to your business. Instead of doing the marketing and new work to help your business grow, you’re editing files. That’s a cost and so you should place an hourly value on the labor you’re doing – based upon what it would take to hire/outsource someone to do the work – and then factor that into your profit calculations.
If you outsource your work, here’s what your numbers might look like (based upon a 1,000 image take sent to shootdotedit.com for editing, image processing and album design):
Wedding Package A $2,000
less Cost of Second Shooter - $300
less cost to edit 1,000 images – $80
less cost to process 400 images - $180
less cost to design album – $400
less cost of prints for Album – $100
less cost of Album – $600
Gross Profit $340
I’ll think we’ll all agree that $340 per wedding in gross profit is not enough to be successful in this business. Yet this is the reality of what’s going on with most wedding studios. Now if the photographer in this case wants to continue to earn a profit of $1,000, he or she needs to be charging an extra $640 per wedding. In so doing, the photographer will be able to outsource the tedious parts of the business to focus on the more important and high-value parts of the business.
The other outcome of raising in this scenario is that the photographer can shoot 50% fewer weddings while maintaining the same overall level of profitability. Fewer weddings means less stress and more time to focus on building the business.
Now you’re probably thinking that you can’t afford to raise your pricing. Well, that’s probably true if you keep doing what you’re doing now. But one benefit of outsourcing the tedious work or reducing the volume of shoots is that it frees you up to do what you should be doing and what you love to do: create more beautiful images.
2. Shoot personal work. When was the last time you went out and shot a project for yourself? I’m not talking about Instagram or photos for Facebook. I’m talking about photographing a model for your portfolio or a personal project of work that’s near and dear to your heart? The ultimate irony of most photographers careers is that once they make photography their profession, they stop shooting for the sheer joy of it.
When you’re out creating work you love, you’re no longer in the self-made jail of doing work because you have to and the way the client wants it. Not only that, but by creating new and interesting work that reflects your own personal style, you’re better able to market your work and charge the rates needed to thrive.
Just today I got a call from a client who wants to hire me based upon my personal photos of partying youths. She’s not looking for traditional wedding photography nor is she looking at any other photographers. Think of your personal and portfolio work as research and development. Imagine if Apple stopped doing R&D – the company would die a slow death. The same thing is true with you and your business.
One objection I hear to the notion of outsourcing the work is that “no one else can do the same job as me.” That’s true. But no one cares either. Clients certainly don’t. Every single image does not need to be retouched to perfection. Leave that for the handful of blog and Facebook images that you work on. Indeed, by putting aside the daily production grind, you’re freed up to do the marketing work that your business requires to grow.
I love telling the story of the fellow that I met at a PPA convention. In one breath, he was telling me about how he insisted upon retouching every single image himself and that there was no way that he’d allow anyone else to edit his images. In the next breath, he told me how was sick of all the production he was doing and that he was hoping to get out of the business. It amazed me that this guy was so unwilling to give up control of his work that he’d quit the business. The sad thing is that he’s far from alone.
When it comes to avoiding burnout, there’s no easy answers. Yes, a vacation or workshop will stave it off – for awhile. But ultimately the solution comes down to creating a healthy, sustainable business. Above all, never stop shooting what you love. Your personal work is the most important work you can do.