How I Quit My Job for Photography: Sunrise on the Greenland Sea in Northern Iceland

Please bear in mind that not everything in this post may be what’s right for you. One of the biggest lessons I continually have to face in being self-employed is figuring out what works for me and what I want versus what works for other successful self-employed artists whom I look to for inspiration. I don’t doubt that I have a wicked ton in common with y’all, but we may not value the same things, or live the same lifestyle. For example, Chris and I still have a very “Going Dutch” relationship, despite being married for 5+ years. This works for us. Whether or not you share in the same kinds of ideals is going to determine whether or not this ridiculously long post will be of any help to you.

This is super text heavy — no photos, sorry guys! — and I felt a little like Suze Orman writing it. If you make it all the way through, you’re a champ. If not, well, I made sure to bold the good stuff. :)

I couldn’t think of a better time to post this than on the beginning of a new year. Here’s to a wonderful, thriving 2012 for all of us!

And without further ado, I present you with:


How I Quit My Job
in 10 Talking Points Or Less

(Hopefully Less)

SUPPORT GROUPS

— I’m going to go ahead and admit something here… I’m a pessimist. When I set out to quit my job I continually treated it as “an experiment.” I said to myself, I’m going to shoot for the stars, but I don’t want to fool myself on how long or hard it will be to get there. And then I made a “That’s what she said” joke because, let’s get real, I’m also a Michael Scott fan.

Chris, on the other hand, really is my biggest cheerleader. He tells me all the time that I’m never going to go back to a day job. He doesn’t say, “I don’t think…” or “You probably won’t…” He just says “You won’t.” This provides a huge and necessary balance for me, one that I realize I’m lucky to have. Whether or not I had the confidence and drive to go it alone, I truly believe that a great deal of my success is owed to those who have supported and encouraged me along the way.

But a good support system doesn’t always have to come from your spouse/partner or close family/friends. The people in my life totally rock, but sadly, not everyone is blessed with people who encourage them to follow their dreams. I recently joined up with a very small (but growing) community of photographers on Flickr. It’s our place to share thoughts, questions and get to know each other in a “snark-free zone.” Anyone can join, but it’s invite-only for discretion’s sake. We’ve just slapped together our first print exchange, and I can’t wait to see what other collaborations are on the horizon.

So there you have it: support groups. They’re not just for alcoholics! Find out who your biggest cheerleader is and listen to every word they say! And on the flip side of that, if there’s a Negative Nancy or two in your life, cut them out immediately. They’re doing you no good. Haters gonna hate; the rest of us are more than eager to cheer you on!

BE MONEY SMART

— With the exception of a brief stint in junior college (Helloooo, my first financial aid check!) I have always applied this to my life, but it’s even more imperative now that I’m self-employed. Being frivolous with money just isn’t an option anymore. That’s not to say I don’t have fun, or go out to eat, or indulge in a $9 cocktail now-and-then, but I absolutely do not live beyond my means, I do not own any credit cards and I have never lived paycheck-to-paycheck. I’ve always said that just because you have disposable income does not mean that it must be disposed. Tuck it away and SAVE! You’re gonna need it.

If you’re bad with money, consider tracking your income and expenses. There are many programs and services to help you do this — I’m an uber geek and do it manually with Excel spreadsheets. I make sure to include a generous estimate of what I will be paying in taxes so that I don’t fool myself into thinking I have more money than I really do. Accounting for taxes is one of the many pitfalls of being self-employed. To this day I still have friends who think I’m a millionaire because wedding photography is so expensive, but the sad truth is after it’s all said and done, the money we freelancers take home from a job is much less than you might think.

NUMBER CRUNCH

— This might seem like a no-brainer, but I spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what I need to survive. I gave myself leeway so I can still have fun, but tried to minimize unnecessary expenses. For months before I even put in my notice, I would make weekly lists of my expenses that were 100% necessary and decided I needed ~$600/mo to live a tight but comfortable life. I made sure I had saved up at least enough money to cover my bases for 6 months, in case this “experiment” didn’t work out.

Obviously for a lot of people this is easier said than done, especially depending on what kind of city you live in. I come from a town where it’s nigh on impossible to get around without a car (I have more than one friend back home who has been egged or similarly harassed while on their bike!), and summers are so grueling they’re spent indoors watching TV and blasting the AC.

Re-locating to Portland 2 1/2 years ago allowed us to live the dream of a simple life. Since moving here we’ve cut a lot out of our budget. For example, we don’t pay for internet and we no longer own a car — we also don’t have smart phones or a TV. Those are a few biggies right there that save us at least $200 a month. At least.

Ed. Note: Two years after writing this I finally crawled out of the dark ages and bought an iPhone, effectively doubling my phone bill. The important thing is that I didn’t give in to social pressures and shell out simply because everyone said I needed one. Instead I waited until I knew the time was right for me and my budget.

I realize getting rid of your car is unrealistic for a lot of people, but even taking the challenge to drive less will help save a good chunk of change every month. And no, I won’t get on a high horse about how much healthier you’ll feel when you stop driving everywhere, either (But wait, didn’t you just… Shhhhh!).

CUT BACK

— Instead of just outright quitting my job, I started reducing the amount of hours I was working so that I could hit the ground running once I was ready to put all my chips on the table. I went from full-time, to part-time, to the point where most of my coworkers weren’t even sure if I still worked there anymore. I filled in the gaps with freelance jobs and waited until the energy spent on my day job was not worth the amount of money I was making. I had a 2-year run at Safeway, but my last 3 or 4 months I was making just enough the scrape by — ~$400/month (my half of rent) — while I worked on building up my business.

It was hard to kiss that cushion goodbye. After all, aside from food and utilities, up until that point all the money I made from photography went straight into the bank. But I was positive that my time could be better spent, and it was because I had been consistently SAVING money that I felt safe enough to quit.

NETWORK

— As you might’ve already guessed, building friendships and networking will put you on the fast track to success. It is entirely possible to go it alone, but I wouldn’t suggest it. Paid advertising can only get you so far, but most people aren’t going to overlook a beaming recommendation from a close friend or colleague.

Again, networking may seem like an obvious one — but I’m going to linger on it for a moment longer. I can’t stress the importance enough of having like-minded friends who lead a creative life. Whether we just talk shop, or get more personal, it’s invaluable having friends who know where I’m coming from and understand the daily struggles of being an artist. We can swap stories, know-how and help each other out in a time of need. Need to borrow a flash? Need a second-shooter? Want to test-drive a lens before you buy it? I’m there for them, and vice versa. Extra points for those who live in the same city as me, because I gain a shooting buddy to boot!

Notice how I didn’t limit this to just photographers, though? There is much to gain from anyone pursuing a creative lifestyle. For example, Chris has been working hard his whole life as a musician. He’s now part of a successful Portland band that I get to practice my band-photography chops on. While I have much to learn in this arena, I’m thrilled that our friendships with each other can be so mutually beneficial. I also recently scheduled a shoot with a friend who is kickstarting a jewelry business. The thing is, artists are in need of other artists just as much as the average person looking for a wedding or portrait photographer. And me? I love what my amazing and talented friends do, and am more than happy to help them on their path to success in whatever way I can.

You know how that old saying goes… Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Well, I personally get over-the-moon with warm fuzzies anytime a referral lands in my inbox from a fellow talented colleague. There’s nothing I love more than getting the chance to bestow said warm fuzzies on another pal, too. So share the wealth — of warm fuzzies, that is.

DO STUFF FOR FREE

— Or don’t. I know there’s a lot of debate about this particular topic when it comes to emerging photography businesses, and this sort of doubles up with the Networking point, but I honestly believe that money isn’t everything and that sometimes, the most important thing you have to gain from working with someone isn’t how much they’re paying you.

Part of what being a photographer means to me, personally, is being a service to the people around me. I mean, let’s face it! I love taking pictures. Of course, paid sessions come first — after all, I have a business to maintain — but if someone throws an idea out at me and it sounds like fun? Chances are, I’ll say yes. After all, it’s very likely that this person or someone they know might want to book a session in the future, and if I never make that connection, I’ll never get that referral.

Self-employment rides a lot on one’s ability to look far into the future. So break out your crystal ball and ask yourself, “Is this going to benefit me in the future? Could the exposure and networking I receive from this be equal to the money I might’ve spent on advertising?” Sometimes I like to throw in a “Does this sound like a boatload of fun?!” in for good measure. I like fun.

However! This is not an invitation to let people take advantage of you. There will always be people who will try to low-ball your livelihood, and that isn’t okay. As employee and owner of your business, it’s up to you to decide what’s worth it and what isn’t, and to be a good judge of character. You may not book that particular session if you refuse to lower your price, but your business isn’t going to survive in the long run if you always buckle to folks who don’t value what you’re worth, either. Remember, it’s all about finding your ideal client. “Kim Smith-Miller was really easy to haggle with!” isn’t really the kind of reputation — or client — I’m after.

If you’re unsure, stick to doing favors for charities, local nonprofits or businesses/people that you personally would like to support.

GET YOUR BUSINESS LICENSE

— This will require some homework on your state’s requirements (that’s where Chris enters the picture. I always like to joke that I’m going to buy him a plastic visor and oversized calculator), but as soon as you become legit, you’ll be able to write-off everything you buy that benefits your business. That includes new gear, advertising and travel fees, film (!) and so forth.

Once all the nitty gritty details were taken care of I set up business Paypal and checking accounts. This way, when it comes time to do taxes, it’s much easier to track where my money went and there aren’t any mix-ups with my personal debit card.

Depending on your state / living situation, you may even be able to write off a portion of your rent, too. Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify for this under Oregon’s laws regarding home offices.

Until that happens…

USE WHAT YOU GOT

— I drool as much as the next person over new gear, but I shot my very first wedding with a Nikon D50 and a 50mm f/1.8 lens and some of my favorite moments were captured that day. I continued to use that combo for another year, until I upgraded to a D300. And then I finally got legit at the beginning of 2011 and used that as an excuse to buy a D700.

I still don’t own a high-power zoom lens, or any f/1.4 lenses (sans a Sigma 30mm I don’t use anymore), but at this point I’ve become so accustomed to using what I’ve got that I don’t feel deprived or like I “need” them in order to accomplish a job. Would I love to own a 70-200mm f/2.8? Absolutely. But all in due time, and until then, I’m doing just fine.

The same goes for studio/office spaces. I would love to have a place where I could get out of the house, meet clients, or just edit photos somewhere that isn’t my couch. But it is such an unnecessary expense that would put me into such a tight spot and serve no more of a purpose than ooh-ing and ahh-ing my potential clients with what I have instead of what I do.

And, if you know me, you know that I’m not all that big on pretense. There’s nothing wrong with meeting clients at coffee shops, or editing photos from your couch. Just be sure to go for a walk every now and then. ;) Again, if a client doesn’t want to hire me based largely off the fact that I’m not covered in bling from head to toe, we probably weren’t a good fit to begin with.

EXPAND & DIVERSIFY

— Expanding your services is a great way to keep business steady until you’re rich and famous enough to only do what you want. That’s not to say I take on clients or jobs that aren’t a good fit for me, but I try to think of what other areas of photography my skills or interests might work well in. Last year I took on a few food-and-drink gigs, and this summer I ended a 10-month run as a contributing photographer to Foodily, all of which were pretty much born out of my obsession with taking photos of what I eat.

And then there’s your income which, in my humble opinion, if you’re self-employed it shouldn’t all be riding on one horse. The great thing about photography is that there are many different income-generating avenues you can wander to maintain your business while building your brand. Within the last couple years I became obsessed with creative post-processing and started making and selling Photoshop Actions as well as licensing my photos through the Flickr+Getty partnership. We’ve been slacking on this front, but for a limited time you could even find my own Irvington Cats greeting cards on the shelf of Broadway Books! Some areas pull more financial weight than others, but at this point I couldn’t’ve quit my job if I had just relied on one specific area.

TOOLS vs BEACONS

— When I set out to become a full-time photographer, I didn’t have any dreams of becoming rich and famous. My love for this art runs deep, and I was tired of having to work a job I didn’t like in order to support myself and my passion. My time and money were spread thin. Now, my business serves to support me in my exploration of photography, and that’s all I ever really wanted in the first place. Having lavish amounts of money doesn’t mean anything to me if I’m too focused on making bank instead of making photographs and being creative.

In short, I viewed money as a tool, not a beacon — I need money to pay my rent, eat and for my personal indulgence and education in photography. I don’t need money to be happy. As a result of this thinking, I’ve already accomplished my goal. Had I gone the other way, I don’t think there would be an end to the madness.

This is an area where you and I may not agree, and that’s okay. If your aim is to make pantloads of money, that’s great! Rock on. But I probably don’t have any helpful advice to give you. And if you made it all the way to the end here, only to realize that you were taking business advice from a stinkin’ hippy… Well, I’m sorry. :)

Once again, I want to wish each and every one of you a happy new year. I’m so incredibly thankful for everyone who has put their faith in me, my business and my art. I hope the candle that lights 2012 burns long and bright for all of us and I hope that this isn’t the last of any photography tips I have to share.

Happy New Year!