How to Become a Photographer in 10 Easy Steps

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Wow, I’ve been doing this photography thing for 10 years next month. Crazy how time flies. It really makes you think and reflect and what you’ve done up until this point and what’s to follow. How did I go from getting a camera for my birthday while living in Hawaii to 10 years later sitting in a Starbucks in Anderson, SC typing out this blog post? It’s crazy that there’s 10 years between now and then. I feel like I’ve lived 3 different lives in that time period.

That brings me to my list. I’m semi-ripping off this great piece by Jerry Saltz called the 33 Rules for How to be an Artist (which is awesome, give it a read. I read it a while back and was reminded of it again on David Chang’s podcast)

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Everyone has a different path and different process. One could argue that the path to me finally jumping off the cliff into this truly idiotic under-taking of self-employment was a really really slow one. Looking back however, every year ended up being more important than the last, and I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I didn’t go down the weird road I went down.

Part of that delay was the fear of exposing myself to the world, fear of failure or screwing up (I’ve failed or screwed up at least 5 times since breakfast this morning), and just a desperate search for a voice. I just couldn’t figure out what made me different, therefore it was hard to be a good salesman for my work. (I remember back when I would just tell people on my blog and social media that I was just so different yet my work was just copies of other people’s work. Now my work is just copies of other people’s work, but I know why now.)

Here’s a great video from Simon Sinek about Why

Don’t follow my list. Make your own. However, if you are creating a clone of me and are planning to kill me and use my clone to replace me in my own life, follow this list precisely. (A programmed clone Will would probably be more effective and come to the realization that flawed, human Will is a total moron and could have made this easier on himself)

So, here’s how to become a photographer in 10 easy steps (or years, depending on your definition of steps) if you’re Will Malone. If you’re not Will Malone, then don’t do any of these things unless you want to become unhinged and a little nuts like me.

Oh and also, here’s another realization I’ve had today: 10 years really isn’t that long, especially if you’re trying to get really good at something. Guess what? I still have 10 more years of work ahead of me, so it’s up to me to cram as much as I possibly can in the next 10 years. (Maybe I’ll do a Before Sunset thing and make a new list every 10 years)

Also, this list wasn’t really written by me, but rather the voice in my head that tells me to do stuff. Think of me as a sort of meat suit that has to be driven around by a voice that constantly nags me day in and day out and makes me push myself. If it were up to me, I’d be sitting on the couch eating a pile of chips covered in Kraft Sharp Cheddar Shredded Cheese, freshly microwaved, as I watch Breaking Bad for the 18th time.

  1. Take a lot of photos. Like a lot. Like so many you go crazy and you have to buy hardrives monthly to hold them all. Fortunately, this isn’t 2009 and 250 GB hardrives don’t cost $200 anymore. 

  2. Use everything you find. You’re gonna need ideas for all these photos you’re taking, so you’re gonna need anything and everything in order to keep coming up with ideas. Use a broken cookie,  throw a water balloon at someone’s face, or half cook an over-easy egg so it looks like you’re baking it on the asphalt. 

  3. Get some crappy photo jobs. The photo industry is actually huge and goes beyond freelancing, just be part of it. Go work for a big school photography company (or as I like to call it, The Death Star of the photography world) and take photos for pennies. It may not be fun, but you’ll learn a lot and you’ll get better at taking photos on the spot under pressure. Wake up absurdly early, drive hundreds of miles in a day, and take the same photo over and over again. It builds character. (Or builds you into a storm trooper that can’t aim worth a damn) 

  4. Get some non-crappy photo jobs. Start shooting engagement photos for your own clients here and there. Shoot a wedding for almost free (see if you can get some gas or beer money at least. Remember, you’re never gonna make money as a photographer, in the sense that photography isn’t really a money-making business, so why start now?). Maybe assist for a commercial photographer who works for big clients. Remind yourself why you got into this in the first place by just doing good work again. 

  5. Get lucky and meet a mentor who brings you into his boutique photo lab/art reproduction/framing business and gives you immense freedom and responsibility. You’re gonna learn a lot and realize you can do things you didn’t know you can do. This job will change and reset your entire life. In addition to all the experience, you’ll gain lifelong friends. This is the most important step.

  6. Get out of your comfort zone daily. Yeah, so you may feel more comfortable taking portraits. Cool. Go buy and drone and start shooting real estate photos. Turn up the heat. How about video? It’s just like moving pictures, try that. You love movies, they inspire you to take photos so why not make a few movies yourself? Make a video every day for 300 days straight. They don’t have to be good, you may want to eradicate them from the internet afterward (and you will). Weird, now you have video editing and drone piloting in your tool belt. See, that wasn’t hard (other than the misery you felt daily for a year, and frustration your wife felt with the 4 to 5 hours a night you spent editing). Also, while you’re at it, try podcasting, that’ll be fun. 

  7. Keep your head down and keep working. Keep shooting photos. Remember that dream you had of becoming a freelance photographer and working on your own? Be patient. Keep working. Forget about that dream right now, you have work to do. Focus on business and how a business is grown. Absorb all the knowledge you can about running and maintaining any business. Remember that mentor? Keep learning from him and working with him daily.  

  8. Do any photo/video job that comes your way. Say yes to everything. Shoot drone footage for a dock company? Weird, but I like it. Make a Bourdain-esque tourism documentary about the sporting culture on the Gulf Coast of Alabama? Sure, you’re up for anything. Shoot a bunch more weddings because that work suddenly started coming out of nowhere? Heck yeah, shooting weddings is pretty fun and creatively satisfying. Shoot portraits for a someone’s dating profile? Rock and Roll. 

  9. Now it’s time to jump in on your own and feel a new kind of heat. Let’s up the difficulty. Not only is it time to go freelance, but you need to move to a new city too, just to make it a little harder. Also, you need to get good at a new set of skills: finance, sales, and marketing. You need to take a commercial remote pilot exam to fly your drone for your business? Cool, go learn about aviation and take the test. That’s business. Remember shooting a video every day and how hard that got? This is just like that, but way longer than 300 days. But you’ll get good at it, and you’ll get your flow down. Just work on it every. day. 

  10. Ah! So you made it to step 10! Great! Now begin the next 10 steps! Don’t know what they are? Write them. Time and work are the only things that makes things better and more interesting.   

The most shocking thing about doing the same thing for 10 years is how much you barely scratch the surface of what’s possible with that thing. Step 11 is probably, simply: Keep Chugging Along.

Like I said before, don’t follow my rules, they’ll make you crazy. You’d have be crazy to pursue this line of work. In fact, after reading this list over, I’m thinking I should just Marie Kondo my life and just work for an insurance company in a cubicle and just call it a day. That would certainly make my life easier. (Isn’t it funny how her method of only keeping things that bring joy end up actually sucking joy from your life by making you analyze your joy in an almost scientific fashion? It’s like every article about millennials I’ve ever read “How to Find Happiness By Doing These 5 Things Every Morning” or something like that. If big questions like that could be boiled down to simple math, I think we’d be living in some futuristic personality-less utopia, just like insert any communist dictator’s name here always wanted. You heard it here first: I think Marie Kondo is a communist. But I digress. )

Oh and heads up: I’m going to be traveling with Robert Schoolfield next week for his project “Special Delivery”. I’ll be shooting photos and video, documenting the trip. We’ll be hitting up DC, Philly, NYC, and Chicago, via a car. Kind of like another Power Tour of the US…. Should be a great time!

You can follow along with all the weird stuff I have going on via Instagram! Go follow @willmalone!