Congratulations! It’s been 13 years since you’ve left the corporate world to become a freelancing entrepreneur. How have things changed for you since then? What lessons have you learned about photography and life since leaving Intel?
~Mom and Dad
Dear Mom and Dad:
Indeed, 13 years have passed since I walked skipped joyfully out of my corporate cage cubicle to become a full-time outdoor photographer. I left on February 28, 2007, a date I refer to as my personal Independence Day, one I celebrate like my birthday. It feels like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. What a ride it’s been!
My final goodbye email to my Intel colleagues concluded with a quote from John A. Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” At the time, I didn’t know if I was ready to sail my ship into unknown waters. I didn’t know whether I could make it as a photographer. I knew I couldn’t stay in Intel’s safe harbor any longer, though. I wasn’t built for it. The physical and mental toll of stress was killing me. My backup plan if the photography gig didn’t work out wasn’t to return to corporate life. It was to flip hamburgers at McDonald’s. I’m not kidding.
After finding my way out of the maze of cubes, I asked several mentors for advice on how to be a successful freelancer. I received some useful input. I also received an overwhelming amount of feedback suggesting I’d never make it as a full-time photographer for two reasons:
- The industry had changed so much over the last 30 years, and there were few opportunities to make a living in it.
- I was female and thus wouldn’t be able to hack traveling solo in the outdoors.
Not exactly what you want to hear when you’ve just pushed off shore from a six-figure salary, bonuses, and stock options… I listened to them, though. I changed my focus immediately upon leaving Intel to portrait, event, architecture, landscape architecture, and food photography. Even golf photography. I knew nothing about golf! I knew little about food too if we’re being honest. I said “yes” to any photography job that came my way. Even if I had no idea how to do it. (I’d figure it out, right?) In my free time, I dabbled in landscape/nature photography on the side, selling my images to editorial outlets (i.e. magazines, calendars, and postcards) and to private clients at art shows around Arizona.
For fun, I dug up my 2007 business plan. It shows I was still working on my technical skills and learning my equipment. I noted in my spreadsheet that I needed to “Determine if my Speedlights work as outdoor lights and understand limitations” and “Learn how digital differs from film/learn new digital camera” (after picking up my first Canon DSLR in the spring of 2007). It also shows a growing interest in leading photography workshops “someday.” Those three years after leaving Intel were full of growth, screw-ups, confusion, excitement, and everything in between. It was a time where I both feared and relished my newfound freedom. And then came 2010.
That summer, I had been invited to speak at the annual conference for the Outdoor Writers of America Association in Rochester, MN. There, I met hundreds of people sharing stories about the Great Outdoors successfully through photography, articles, books, radio programs, blogs, videos, and more. I thought, If they can do it, so can I! I had found the mothership for outdoor communicators. That conference changed everything for me and my career. It set me on the path I continue to walk run on today.
At the event, I picked up tips for self-publishing books, which led me to not only publish four books thus far (with four more in the works) but also establish my own publishing company, Analemma Press. I learned how to write a blog, and now own three (this one, Dear Bubbles, You Can Sleep When You’re Dead, and Wild in Arizona). I also gained supportive friends who understood the challenges of the freelancing industry and were willing to help me through them.
When I returned home, I dropped all of my commercial outlets except one (a friend’s business) to focus entirely on telling stories about the natural world through my lens and pens. I now love rivers, lakes, coasts, and of course, BUBBLES (which started with my first of three Artist-in-Residence in Acadia National Park in Maine, where I gained technical proficiency and started learning about creative visual expression). Best of all, I get to share outdoor adventures and photography learning’s with others through leading a full schedule of photography workshops. None of this was on my radar in 2007 when I left Intel, but it’s everything I could have ever hoped for in building the immensely fulfilling life I lead as a freelancer now.
Here we are, 13 years later. What have I learned about photography and life along the way? So much more than I could have ever imagined or ever capture in a single post. Here is a summary of my thoughts on this, though:
- Being a photographer is more than just making pretty pictures. One of the funniest things I heard from people at my art shows when I suggested I was a full-time photographer was “how great it must be to always be on vacation, visiting pretty places and photographing.” I’ll agree it’s a sweet gig. Being in your own business, though, means you run the entire circus. If you take a break, the show does not go on. There is no three-week paid vacation. On any given day, I’m a writer, a public speaker, a tour guide, an instructor, a publisher, an accountant, a webmaster, a coach, a fundraiser, an editor, an outfitter, a sales director, a board member, a committee member, a volunteer, a project manager, a psychologist, a graphics designer, and more. Sometimes all of this on the same day! I photograph much less as a freelancer than I did as a hobbyist because there are so many business-related tasks to juggle. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- Selling photography is more than just selling pretty pictures. It may sound harsh, but when it comes to selling images, it’s not about you and your pretty pictures. It’s all about the customer and their needs. If you can help solve their problems or at least reduce their pain, chances are good you’ll be hired. So instead of asking “Would you like to buy my pretty photo?” I now ask clients “What can I do for you to make life easier and better? How can I help you?” Sometimes it’s as easy as following submission guidelines to a T or turning a submission in on time. Sometimes it’s about taking on an impromptu assignment when another contributor failed to deliver. In a world where millions people are capable of making pretty pictures, being attentive, dependable, and pleasant to work with and consistently delivering quality work are ways to differentiate yourself.
- Everything you do now pays off next year. Photographer Henry Holdsworth gave me this critical piece of business advice back in January 2007 while photographing star trails over Old Faithful under a crescent moon. It was maybe 5-degrees F. Magazines plan their editorial calendars 6-12 months in advanced minimally and typically pay upon publication. Stock companies producing calendars work up to 2 years in advanced. People book workshops well ahead of schedule to get the best deals on travel logistics. Your daily tasks may not see an immediate payoff financially. Plan accordingly.
- If an activity/task/project/job is fun, legal, and ethical, keep doing it. If it’s not fun, legal, and ethical, stop and find something else to do, preferably something fun, legal, and ethical. Life is too short and fleeting to waste your precious time doing things you don’t like to do. Balance “saying yes” to opportunities in line with your values and goals with “saying “no” to things that aren’t serving you well. Except taxes. You gotta pay your taxes even if it’s not fun. We must suffer for our art…
- The plan is the plan until the plan changes, and the plan changes often, so plan on it. I used to create a “shot list” for each location I visited. On a spreadsheet, I’d outline the exact photograph I wanted to make: composition, lighting conditions, tides, angle of the sun, you name it. When I arrived at a place and those external variables didn’t match my (unreasonable) internal expectations, it made me crazy. Visualizing helps build muscle memory so you can respond faster to situations in the field. Relying upon preconceived notions, though, as a blueprint for strict execution blinds you to the endless opportunities the present moment offers. Planning not only led to frustration for me, it also led to me miss out on so many things I might have loved. I’ve since learned that control is an illusion. The universe doesn’t owe you anything just because you took the time to write something down. Don’t get me wrong, I still love spreadsheets and business plans. I use them as a starting place now, though, not as the end-all-be-all. I make plans to chart my course through the world of chaos, but I also plan to not use my plans if something better comes along.
- The only constant is change. The photography industry, like all other industries, is constantly evolving. Yes, the opportunities for freelancing photographers and writers are different than 30 years ago, even 13 years ago, even 1 year ago. Yes, “everyone” is now a photographer in the digital age. No, it doesn’t mean careers in photography are dead end jobs. It means you have to create your own opportunities. As Milton Berle said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I no longer wait for external factors to come together. In fact, I don’t wait for anything or anyone. I’ve come to rely upon my own skillsets, knowledge, attitudes, talents, and awareness to create opportunities for myself and my clients. I literally make things up as I go, as I see things materialize. Embrace change as a way to usher in better, more fulfilling experiences. Which brings me to the next learning…
- Fear is a friend of perfection and an enemy of progress. In times of uncertainty, we tend to worry, often excessively, about all things that will go wrong instead of dreaming of what could go right. Too often, we erect barriers on our paths, which are usually based on senseless fears like “I’m not good enough” “I don’t have time,” or “I can’t do that.” If you wait until you have all the answers before you act on something, you’ll never get moving on anything. There’s simply too much to learn out there. Write down your fears to acknowledge them. Stare them down. Then record what actions you’ll take to avoid or overcome them.
- If you aren’t failing, you aren’t pushing hard enough. It’s unreasonable to believe everything will go smoothly, especially if you’re learning or trying something new. In fact, the way to growth is through failure. Rejection happens constantly in this business. Magazine editors pick one image out of 100 in a stock submission. Book agents reject manuscripts. People don’t like your photograph on social media. Rejection comes from a mismatch in what you offer and what others value. Just because one person doesn’t value your work doesn’t mean another won’t. It also doesn’t necessarily mean your work sucks. It’s just not what that one person needed or wanted. That fine. Try something different or move on to the next, but don’t dwell in your letdowns.
- Keep a beginner’s mind (“shoshin” in Zen Buddhism). As Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Approaching photography and life with a childlike curiosity has made photography and life way more fun. Never stop asking questions or learning. Discover. Play. Get excited about the magic of the world around you.
- Making a living and making a life are two different things. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” In 2009, I added an important line item in my business plan that has remained on every subsequent plan: “Make a difference in the world.” We all have reasons and motivations for doing what we do. Success can be defined in many different ways. My reasons for getting up in the morning and doing what I do every day goes beyond a desire for fame and fortune. Sure, I need to earn enough to eat and live. Beyond that, though, I hope, in some small way, I can make life and photography better and easier for the people in my community. That’s what I hope to continue doing for the rest of my life—I can’t imagine any better way to live. In fact, I know it’s what I’m built for.
As I look ahead, I’m excited to continue combining writing, photography, and adventures to inspire people to enjoy the Great Outdoors. Writing and publishing books & teaching photography workshops will remain at the forefront of my activities simply because I love everything about them. Who knows what the next 13 years will bring, though? In 2033, I’ll look back and probably laugh at this post. In the meantime, I’ll keep sailing my ship into unknown waters. Here’s hoping there’s lots and lots of bubbles ahead!
One thing’s for sure: leaving my corporate job was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I continue to feel so fortunate to have this chance to live this life now, then, and in the future. Sure, the freelancing life has been less “safe” than sitting at a cube at Intel collecting a paycheck. It also been infinitely more thrilling, fulfilling, and meaningful.
So now, I raise my glass of bubbly to you, Mom and Dad, and to everyone in my community who have supported and encouraged my dreams. You’ve made a difference in my life. Thank you! Here’s to the next 13 wild and amazing years—and beyond!
Be well, be wild,
Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at firstname.lastname@example.org to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.)