10 Nifty, Excellent Excuses for Failing at Photography

10 Nifty, Excellent Excuses for Failing at Photography

After being actively involved with photographers of all types for quite a long time, I have met successful shooters and those who have not made it. There are a gazillion excuses for failing at this business. (And a few reasons as well. But excuses are different than reasons.) I have heard them all. Again and again.

I have decided that it would be easier to simply catalog all the great excuses photographers can use for failing at business. This list is intended to help you decide in advance which excuse will work for you. And that will save you time, and get you going. Having goals are important, and if you want to fail, I am here to help you establish some goals.

That’s me. Mr. Helpful.

If you haven’t figured out that I am tongue in cheek here, I am. I don’t want anyone to fail. I love success. I love it when other folks succeed. I want photographers to succeed. It’s good for the industry. It’s good for people.

Unfortunately, failure is most definitely something we all have to deal with. It is a competitive field. That’s a reality.

But there are things that photographers do that exacerbate the challenges we already have to face. We are going to look at 10 of them. If you recognize any that seem, well… recognizable, here is a chance for you to reverse the trend as they say.

NOTE: EDIT 9/17: One additional Nifty, Excellent Excuse added.

Workshop Information:
Minneapolis was a blast. This weekend is in Phoenix, then off to St. Louis (still have a few openings there) and after St. Louis is Mexico. If you haven’t heard about the Mexico workshop, take a look at Learn to Light for more information.

Next years workshop schedule is being worked on now. We should be scheduling through the year very soon. I hope if you are considering a workshop next year, that you take a look at Learn to Light and the Lighting Essentials Workshop.

I would like to invite you to email or call me anytime if you have any questions about the workshop, and if you like the new approach to the blog, let me know that as well.

So let’s get on with the 10 Nifty, Excellent Excuses to Fail at Photography.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #1:
“Crappy gear. I couldn’t afford the best gear.”

Believing that you have to have the best of the best to be a photographer is a sure fire way to head down a rabbit hole of self-doubt. Blaming the camera, the lenses, the tripod… whatever, for not being able to make a good photograph is a cop-out. There are many ways to make photographs with D90’s and Rebels and Sony’s and Oly’s… The ways are tried and true.

Make good photographs.

Concepts, lighting, execution, and the creation of a good photograph is something that can be done with the simplest equipment. Can’t afford the best strobe system… OK – well there is natural light and cheap EBay strobes and all kinds of things that can be used to make photographs. Good photographs.

6 years ago, ads were being shot on 10D’s. With no problems. Today, the forums will make you believe that you have to have a 5DMKII or a D3 to make good photographs. (Not a slam at those wonderful cameras, BTW.) And that simply isn’t true. Window light is free. A piece of white board is nearly free. I don’t think there is a modern camera out there that could not make an image fit for most local and regional advertising – with good lighting and good concept and good execution.

If you can’t make a photograph with the simplest of gear, you won’t do too much more with a studio full of the best.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #2:
“I am way too busy to take any time to market myself.”

Being really busy is a blessing these days. And I know how busy busy can be.


When someone tells me that they are too busy to do the things that will sustain them, I don’t want to hear it. Sorry… marketing is simply a fact of life.

Get up an hour earlier two days a week. Turn off the TV one hour a night. Airport wait times, hotel downtime, time in the air, even weekend mornings. Come on… don’t tell me you can’t do some marketing in those times. There is time to do something that is meaningful when you only have a few hours a week.

Start an email campaign, a blog or work on a PDF mailer or… look, there are tons of ways to market yourself in short bursts.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #3:
“I’m struggling to find work, I can’t market now.”

See above. Sort of a problem, eh? Either too busy to market or it’s too slow and marketing takes a backseat.

Got it. You just don’t want to market. Not a good plan. No marketing, no leads, no business.

Which leads us to why you are slow now. When things are slow, it is imperative to market your work. It is the most important thing you can do. You have to get your work out to the people who hire you. There are no excuses.

Sure you may be a little down. Maybe feeling a little depressed. OK. But you cannot be depressed and actively working hard at the same time. Action makes things happen. Inaction leads to no movement. Get busy to get busy.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #4:
“I just couldn’t handle the business part. I’m such an artist.”

Yeah, well… that’s pretty stupid.

You can get around the complexities of a D3, or make movies on your 5DMKII and you can’t figure out QuickBooks? Lighting a set with 6 lights, managing a crew of three and keeping 6 models, MUA’s and stylists on track to get the required shots done in the time allotted… that you can do. Figuring out how to bill for that stumps you?


There are mentors out there. Small business accountants. Community Colleges, online resources, family members and more, ready to help you sit down and figure out what you need to do to keep the wheels under you. It really isn’t that hard.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #5:
“I never got my portfolio together.”

So you were too busy… uh… what? Shooting? That makes no sense. That means you have pictures. What I hear is that there is no commitment to those pictures, no commitment to the portfolio.

You must ask yourself what it is you are doing? Are you a photographer for the thrill of the shoot? Or a photographer for the thrill of the work? If all that interests you is the physicality of the shoot… the cameras and the lights and the models, it may be of no interest to see what all that culminates in.

Let me explain it this way. There are some shooters who never get the images to the models they shot. I hear it all the time from models who did a test shoot (TFP for MM’ers) and never got the shots. The photographer says he/she is too busy and will get to them when they can.

Those photographers are enamored with the act of shooting. The finished image is of no interest to them… they only want to keep shooting.


An equally bad behavior is the photographer who simply puts all of their images on a DVD and gives it to the model. No thought to how their image is going to be represented to the world when the model gives it to a friend who post-processes it badly. Again… all that was interesting to them was the shoot itself, not the product from the shoot.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #6:
“I spent too much on gear I didn’t use.”

Yeah. Great.

Before you go out and buy that 1.2 lens, ask yourself if you need it or want it. Needing a piece of equipment is way different than wanting a new and shiny gizmo.

Look – I am not aiming this at the hobbyist who finds it delightful to have a bag-full-o-L-lenses. Or even the emerging photographer who already has this stuff and is starting out in the business.

I am talking about the emerging photographer who starts spending every dollar they get on new this and that and whatever. There are things you need and there are things you want. But in commercial photography you must have reserve funds to get you through the times when clients take a bit too long to pay, or for emergencies.

And these days, getting bank loans and lines of credit are a hell of a lot harder to do. So you need to adapt to the modern times of not being able to float credit to get through tough times. Just as clients are getting leaner and meaner, photographers must as well.

You must decide if it is something you simply think would be cool to have, or absolutely necessary. Absolutely. Necessary.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #7:
“I just couldn’t get my pricing up to a profitable level.”

That one is easy. Your pricing should have been at a profitable level when you started.


Business cannot be started by taking a loss on every sale but making it up in volume? You have to begin making money (profit or near profit) from the start.

That means that you have to know what it takes to be in business, and what you will need to sustain that business as you grow that business. If that sounds daunting, see number 4 above.

Here is a sobering thought. If you have built a good portfolio, gotten that work in front of a ton of people, received a lot of RFP’s and not gotten a single one… maybe there is something else going on. Perhaps outside eyes are needed. You cannot sustain this business if you cannot land a gig.

If you are too high, you may not get the job because they think you are pricing yourself at a level above where their confidence in you lies. Not devastating to your ability to keep seeing them to build that confidence.

If you are too low, you decrease their confidence level at a precipitous rate because you are demonstrating that you are NOT capable of doing the shoot. Did you miss items in the bid that others have lined out? Was your fee totally out of the range of the real value of the job?

In order to know, you have to research and be involved. APA, ASMP and other groups exist to help understand what it costs to do what we do.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #8:
“I tried, really I did. but I couldn’t make what I was making at my other job so I sold my stuff and went back to work after 8 months.”

Eight Whole Months, eh. What… you thought it was easy? Or maybe you were seduced by all the comments you got on your Flickr pics? Or was the belief that you had all the top glass and top bodies and top lights so how could you lose enough to drive you from your 9-5? If you had done your research, planned your move and been prepared… well. We may never know.

I don’t want to sound rude here, but this business is not ‘easy’ nor is it a slam dunk no matter what gear you have. It takes a totally dedicated, calculated, and smart approach to get to the first rungs on the ladder. And it takes discipline, self motivation and a thick skin to adversity to keep the climb going.

I think it takes about 2 years to get to a solid base point, and about 7-8 years to get to a place where the work is beginning to get you the attention you deserve (if indeed you deserve it). There is usually no fast track. And there is usually no short cuts. There are the occasional ‘rock stars’ who come out of nowhere with meteoric rise. That is nice when it happens. It should not be a part of your business plan.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #9:
“I tried everything, but I couldn’t get anything going…”

If your website navigation looked something like this:

> on location
> in studio
> kids
> adults
> babies
> couples
> families
> products
> still life
> jewelry
> tech
> prepared
> raw
> beverages
real estate

Well… you get the idea…

You cannot be all things to all people. Especially starting out. Define and refine. Create a style that transcends the actual category and delivers a cohesive look to what you shoot. And even then, try to keep it to only a few genres.

Give the buyer something to make of what you do so they can decide if you are right for the job. If you confuse them, then you are done. An art buyer is too busy to try to figure out what your message and offering is when there are others that are much simpler and easy to understand.

The problem may not have been your work, but the fact that you didn’t present it in a way that made sense. Wedding photographers usually are not food photographers. (I am sure there is an exception or two so please… hold your emails…) The two areas are fairly disparate.

Confusing to the art buyer as they wonder which you are REALLY good at.

Nifty Excellent Excuse #10:
“I didn’t Show Up.”

You have to show up. Period.

I am not talking about being on time to meetings… I am talking about being alive and being a photographer. Showing up means walking the walk and being the best you can be. It means ethical and positive interactions with clients and support people.

In Selina Maitreya’s excellent book on Freelancing (How to Succeed in Commercial Photography) she states that the most important thing an artist can do in this business is to show up. By the way, check out Selina’s brand new audio book on Commercial Photographers and survival in changing times.

Stay connected, involved and engaged with all you do. Understand what it means to be self-employed and the discipline that comes with it. Have a well balanced life with interests and believe in yourself. Gather support people around you and clear out the nay-sayers. Find ways to clear the mind and grow your creativity with self awareness and a positive energy.

And keep shooting.

Added 9/17
Nifty Excellent Excuse #11:

“How could I work with all the stupid AD’s and uncreative clients.”

Agreed. Must be terribly difficult to work with ignorant, self-centered and arrogant people. Your clients know first hand, right?

If you are one of those photographers who thinks that the clients you work with and the people who Art Direct you are stupid and not creative and the ‘enemy’, then get the hell out of the business.

Professional photographers – professional anyone – who constantly bemoan the people that hire them are out of touch with reality. Or over the top navel gazers. If no one really recognizes how incredibly talented you are, it probably says more about you than them.

Embrace the people you want to work with. Like them. Support them. Help them by showing up – and bringing the intelligence, awareness and communication skills to let them like you and support you. Treating the people who hire and work with you as the enemy… wow. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a full on intervention.

There are other ways to foil yourself, to create places of personal destruction and creative hell. We didn’t talk about specifics on what kind of work actually sells and how to create a totally negative creative image… we’ll have fun with that at another time.

Thanks for dropping by. I hope you take this information with the spirit intended. As I said… I am not interested in helping people fail. I love success.

I take an ice cold Corona and raise it to your success.

If you like this article, please tweet it or send it any one of the social networks you belong to. There is a cool little widget back top to the right to allow you to do just that. You can follow me on Twitter.

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  1. Great article Don!

    I’ve seen several or a few of these excuses and even caught myself thinking some of these in the past. Another good reason to have a good network to have peers to keep you accountable. Good stuff.


  2. Ouch! Thanks for the reality check!
    : )

  3. Great advice and a reminder to always beware these pitfalls! Especially nice for those of us trying to break into the industry and asking the question, “what’s it going to take to get there?”

  4. Great article. I believe the common thread here is self esteem or lack there of. Henry Ford said, “if you think you can or if you think you can’t, you are right” and this is so true with photography. It is the conversation that goes on in a person’s head that determines how successful they will be. A comment that was made at a workshop I ran yesterday (on management) was “Fake it til you make it”. Most people believe in the have, do, be principle. If I have all the things I need then I will do successful things and therefore I will be successful. The approach though is to be the person you want to be, that will result in you doing the things that a successful person does, then you will have success.

    Keep up the excellent work, I look forward to pearls of wisdom each week.

    • Great comment, sir.

  5. Managing a shoot and multiple light setups and… paperwork is the tricky beast? Kicking it in the rear, thanks for the reminders.

  6. Don ,

    After attending the Memphis workshop, I am taking the best pics of my life! No joke! Now I have the confidence in my images and my technical abilities as a photographer to feel like I could make a solid standing for myself among the competition in the area.

    The real fear of failure is starting to creep in every once in a while, but articles like this and the talks we had that during the workshop really help keep me on track.

    Where your lighting lessons gave me that shot in the arm that I needed to hit the next level with my images, lessons like these build the foundation of knowledge needed to survive on the business side of things. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how open you are with your experience on both sides of the business. You should have a workshop that is devoted to the specific vectors of attack that you can make on a market and potential clients. The brief discussions that we had in between tasks at the workshop were awesome and I could spend hours more discussing those kinds of topics.

    Thanks for all you do for us up and comings! :) You rock!

    • Thanks Chris.

      Watch for something kinda cool coming up on LE. Just along the lines you are talking about.


  7. Great post! I’m a professional Realtor who enjoys taking a few pictures here & there, but your list applies to every industry – just need to tweak the wording to the audience. Equipment, marketing, too busy, not busy enough, etc.. Thought provoking & motivating – I’m going back to work now! 😉

  8. Don,

    Here recently there have been far to many days that I have not \\"shown up\\". Sure – I was there – but in a half assed way (for myself as a business not for an actual job). I try to stay on top of things when I am actually out shooting. Your blog helps remind me to strive to be just as on top of things when I am not shooting and just dealing with all that goes along with being a self-employed photographer. Thanks dude.

    Keith Taylor

  9. Are you calling my D90 crappy!!?? lol.

    great article!

  10. Hi,

    Ran into this post through Imaging Insider. Great post. As a hobbyist, it’s was a good read without feeling the sting of reality. However, I realized that this list isn’t just for photographers. This list will apply to anyone who is starting their own business, trying to work their way up the corporate ladder, or even college kids looking for that dream job. It really is about doing what needs to be done to get to the point where you want to be. Excuses are easy. We’ve all done it. But using it as a crutch will get you nowhere!

    Anyway, preaching to the choir here I know. Just wanted to say great article. Should be required reading to all college grads with a sense of entitlement. Seems like there’s a lot of them these days… That or I’m getting older and sounding like my dad… :)

  11. Great Article. I know there are a lot of people that get stuck even starting their own photography business. I listed a whole bunch of reasons recently. This is like the next step. Really helpful for someone like me trying to get going. it’s not easy but with hardwork I am sure it will happen for people

  12. Don,
    Just found this from a Tweet from a friend of mine.
    Totally awesome post!
    Elegantly sums up pretty much all the reasons I know of why Photographers could fail.

    Advanced common sense, thank you.

    Love your writing style too.


  13. What he said!

  14. Great post! Very, very helpful… :-)


  15. This is a great article. I have bookmarked it. Thanks for this! :)

  16. I am glad to say that I make absolutely no excuses….I push and prod wherever I can find to do it and will do whatever is necessary to make great photos….I recruit as many people as will let me and spread the word the best I know how……my problem is a simple lack of knowing HOW to market myself in my area. I am guilty of trying to be too many things to too many people because I’m afraid to narrow down my “specialties”. One of my specialties is my hardest to market even though I may be the only one in my not-tiny city that does it. I simply don’t know HOW to get the people in that particular market to loosen the purse strings (Real Estate Photography). Agent see it, the homes sell, they call to say they love it- but never move forward! Is it bad to call and email these people repeatedly to put my name in their heads?!

    I love this site…thanks so much for just being here!

  17. How about my personal favorite: Self sabotage/fear of success. Seems like every time I “get the ball rolling” and start seeing results, I invariably do something stupid to screw it up. Never fails :-)

  18. This article and “10 Pricing Challenges” are really great. These article help more than you know. Thanks.

  19. Thank you. It was the kick in the pants I needed.

  20. All very valid points and worthwhile reading. You won’t get anywhere as a photographer unless you take it seriously and show 110% commitment with no excuses.

  21. Ouch here, too. Needed that!

  22. Great list! As some of the other posters have pointed out, it is applicable to many other fields in addition to photography. I especially liked the description of people who like to shoot but do not follow through on the back-end – if you want to be successful, you have to recognize the importance of all phases of the business, not just the fun new stuff.

  23. Painfully real. Thanks for the list!

  24. I am JSO and happy that I couldn’t relate to any of those excuses!

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    The Daily Reviewer

  26. no excuse

  27. Simply too funny (and true, which makes it funnier).

  28. funny, i must admit to being guilty of a few of these in the past!

  29. Solid article and written in a way that is encouraging and not condemning. My point is not so much about the english, but as \’thanks\’, I needed some of that right now.

  30. Great article, I’ve been through many of these stages myself in the starting up of my business. It’s refreshing to see that I’m not alone.

    I’ll just be off to alter my portfolio titles…….

  31. Great post. It was just brought to my attention and I’m so glad it was. Some days it feels like all my efforts are fragmented and going into a black hole. But there really are NO EXCUSES. Thanks!


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