The case for the committed part-timer

Our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.” – Emerson

Most every successful professional photographer I know is a part-timer.

… and if they aren’t, I say they might want to rethink their strategy.

Let me go one step further:
I don’t think the “part-timer” category is a meaningful distinction anymore. It feels more like the residue from a bygone era meant to cajole people into responsibilities they no longer need to keep.

We need a new way to understand the people (part-time or not) who are flourishing so more can find their way.

Mapping a path to success by logging more time doing the same old thing, however, is no longer helpful. To create something new requires at least as much attention as emulating what everyone else is doing. We need to either dump the pejorative label or embrace those who are doing it well.

Of course, the part-timer can come in many forms. Some of you have day jobs in other industries and care so much about your craft of choice that you wake up early and stay up late doing it. Others are committed to the industry but do multiple tasks within it. Regardless, very few are doing nothing but shooting.

It’s time we call part-timing what it is. Anything otherwise is out-of-line with our times and the nature of what we do as creative professionals. How often we click one particular tool (our camera) is no longer sufficient to define one’s commitment.

I wonder if a better category for pro’s would be to note who are creatively committed and who are not.

One thing we can all agree on, even if you disagree with my claim, is that committing to do “it” more creatively is required of all of us (regardless of what “it” is). If more of us did, I’m confident we’d get a more satisfying result relative to our efforts.

Let me explain…

The new-school creatives who do photography part-time aren’t lazy. Far from it! They also don’t get to give up their commitment to the craft of photography. If you want to join them, you will have a LOT of work to do. But, taking pictures turns out to take a relatively small percentage of their time.

Case in point: I did a little informal survey of some of the most successful studios in the US and discovered that the principal photographer was only behind the lens between 10-12 hours per week. The resourceful question then has to be what are these success stories doing with the rest of their week?

Consider the heroes in the field we admire: We know who they are because of their body of work, right? But that’s not all they do. So, what else are they up to? With rare exception, most diversify their offerings.

Witness the sea of successful photographers creating overtly outside their photo genre (commercial shooters doing fine art), creating with tools unrelated to the camera (i.e., writing, illustration, inventions, start-ups), not to mention those expanding into the educational field.

On close inspection, these contributions are just the beginning of how these stand outs spend their time.

Because the act of creating doesn’t scale, entrepreneurial creatives find ways to embed their creativity in products that scale on their behalf. It’s why biz partners like our labs (manufacturing facilities really) are so important to us. It’s also why writers, musicians and film makers leverage Amazon and iTunes and Netflix.

Photographers aren’t alone.

Notice any actors planning weddings? Any athletes you know become coaches? How about musicians selling Harajuku perfume or making surf movies?

Even if you don’t like their hybrid-creations, you at least have to acknowledge that what they’re coming up with helps each to stand out from their usual crowd.

When people feel threatened by the idea that the part-timer now rules the world, I interpret that they’ve unfortunately bought into the belief that their identity is been placed in the wrong spot. Identity was never meant to be centered what we do: no one gets to “be” a professional photographer. Those who claim it exclusively are selling themselves short.

We aren’t what we do.

A functional view of identity breaks down pretty quick. What we do is meant to be an expression of who we are, not the source of who we are. Identity is bigger than that.

That said, I do understand why the suggestion that we take part-time photography seriously will seem offensive to some. How can someone be a pro and only do it part-time? Plus, if I’m spending 60 hours a week on my photo business right now, how is that not a full-time gig?

What I’m noticing is too many in our industry are adopting full time responsibilities that are decided for them… in what Emerson would call their parlour. The rugged battle – where your true and unique strength can be discovered – needs some time to be developed too.

Wouldn’t it be more resourceful then to reallocate our investment of time to include creating outside of the norm? I dare you to give it at least a part-time effort.

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3 comments
Darcy Moore
Darcy Moore

This is an encouraging post for any photographer - who others would call 'part-timer' and concerned by the tag of 'amateur' - as they work on their creative eye and skills. These issues of 'identity' are of endless interest and as a new reader of your blog am enjoying your POV greatly. PS Love the Emerson quotes. Many years ago I read a particularly good bio, The Mind on Fire, which is highly recommended for the opening chapter alone. @Darcy1968

Warren McCormack
Warren McCormack

Thought provoking read first thing this morning... When approached by local part-timers looking for advice and experience. I always say that they should charge a fee that is market value based on their skill set. A skill set is in large part their experience to date. It doesn't matter if you're part-time or full-time. It is when a part-timer charges a very low fee for their services and products that it dilutes the market. Mis-educating the consumer, who already feels the squeeze on their pocket in the current economy, that a cheaper solution will be a good fit. The hope is that their portfolio on show is going to be a good meter for any prospect to determine the quality and consistency of the studio's work. Unfortunately, it is so easy for anybody to photoshop an image for hours on end to get an image looking miles better than it every did before. This work on their images is perhaps work that wouldn't be done realistically on the images from every wedding they are hired to shoot because they'd be editing the images for weeks on end. Charging a low fee, whether part time or full time to undercut local studio's by half or more of their price just isn't right for many reasons. For example, their fee doesn't include many of the expenses involved within running and sustaining a business. In affect, their other activities, be it a full time job elsewhere is supporting their financial loss within their photography business. Subsidizing a couples portrait or wedding package. Does that make financial sense? It's absurd when you really look at the numbers. Personally working part-time for 3 years prior to going full time for the last 2.5 years. I can honestly say I have more commitment, loyalty and respect for anybody else doing this full time. Going full time during a recession has had it's own challenges. It is probably the most enjoyable and rewarding job I've had in my life. But equally the most stressful and hard going too.

Tamara Lackey
Tamara Lackey

another great piece, Dane. we are definitely not what we do, and i believe that talented individuals who better recognized that fact would find less themselves less frustrated by those who don't do things "the right way" and more intrigued by how differently we can all succeed.