The Real Poop
"Smile for the birdie…." Snap. Ahhh Phrank dreamed as a kid that he would be hiking in Yosemite or far-away regions of East Africa shooting surreal sunsets and lions playing poker. He took that adventure—but just couldn’t get paid for it. He ended up in a Sears store shooting bratty kids for $15 an hour. But he still dreams.
Photography is a creatively rewarding endeavor. In a fraction of a second, a perspective is rendered and blam!—there is insight. The shot conveys "peace," "love," the ravages of war. The right picture really can be worth a thousand words. Or more. Because of the emotional renderings, photography as a career is a perennially popular field for those who don’t understand how hard it is to make a living doing it and who think they are "the one" with true talent (meaning that someone will pay them for their art). Who hasn't snapped a photo in their day and maybe in a 1,000 pictures had a few great ones?
But a couple of great ones in a roll does not a career make, and 99% of all photographers don’t shoot art—they shoot cereal boxes and lug nut wrenches and bratty kids at Sears. The business of being a photographer has oh so much more to it than just pointing a camera at something and pushing a button. (We have seen some of your pictures, and most of you haven't even mastered the pointing part.)
Even if you just want this gig as a semi-professional hobby (i.e., you're an accountant by day but get paid to shoot weddings and Bar Mitzvahs), you will need to stay abreast (giggle, giggle) of the latest technology, understand the inner and outer workings of a complicated high-end camera and how to use all of its functions, master Photoshop, and inspire "cheese!" You should also be prepared to struggle and starve for your art, as it isn't an easy living. You're looking at weird hours and picky clients, and that camera constantly hanging around your neck is eventually going to start feeling like a lump of Kryptonite. So it's no cake walk. And getting paid for doing it is a feat in itself.
There is also a wide range of careers in the art. You could go it alone, taking artsy pictures of plastic bags in alleyways and hoping someone finds them "profound" (and will pay you for said profundity). You could snap portraits of three-year-olds in photography studios à la Sears. You could become a paparazzo and spend your whole life annoying celebrities (and you would have to be able to live with yourself after causing one of them to steer into oncoming traffic just to avoid you). Or you could head to Milan or Kenya to take photos for your fashion or political magazine, respectively. (Not to say that Kenyans aren't fashionable.)
Because there is such a wide range in photography career paths, there is obviously also a wide range in the type of places that will pay you to snap your little pictures. You could be salaried by a photography studio, paid per shot by a gossip mag (big bucks if you can catch Miley Cyrus on a secret date with a U.S. senator, small bucks if you catch her wearing her hair differently than usual), or you could develop and frame your own work and see if anyone is willing to pay more than 20 bucks for it. For some, that kind of diversity is overwhelming; others thrive on it. You really can't afford to be picky. If an opportunity lands in your lap, you'd better pet it and give it tuna treats before it runs away. (We might be thinking of a cat.)
For most photographers, the hours are not at all bad, especially if you are the "artist" type who works on his own schedule, i.e. wakes up at noon, takes a few photos of the birds outside his window, and goes back to sleep. One of the things creative types love about a job such as this one is that very freedom—the fact that you are not chained to a desk for eight hours a day or made to feel like another cog in the machine. But with that freedom comes responsibility—the responsibility of having to find a way to make rent, to maintain any semblance of a social life when you can't afford to go anywhere or do anything, to contribute to society in some meaningful way. These two aspects of an artist's life are generally at odds, but if you can find a way to make it work for you, more power to you.
Being a photographer isn't the easiest way to make a living, but you probably already knew that. If you are at peace with the prospect of taking a less glamorous photography job should you turn out not to be the next Ansel Adams, you're in better shape than most. And if you really are that one in a million whose photographs will sell for millions, our hats off to you. You truly must see life through a different lens.