The Five Biggest Mistakes I Made as a Professional Photographer


(Being a freelancer can be quite a challenge. Like this little flower above, you can be battered and surrounded by those who didn’t make it, but you keep on blooming for as long as you can. Survival means making big mistakes and learning as much as you can from them.)

I enjoy sharing the experiences I had in over four decades as a professional photographer. I do this on my weekly workshop, “Project 52 PRO” and whenever someone asks for advice or guidance. From a very rich, and wildly diverse career in the photographic arts, there are some great highlights.

But, there are some things I did – specific things and general things – that were huge mistakes, ones that took time, assets and energy away from moving forward. In this self-employed landscape there are many hidden valleys and dark canyons that one can wander into if we are not paying attention. We will not be discussing the technical screwups that accompany most of us as we start out… ISO problems, no backup, loading film backwards, forgetting an assistant at roadside restaurant (yeah, it happens).

While I usually talk about the good times, great clients, and fun opportunities I had as a photographer, I think I should share these “not so highlight” moments from my personal reel.

Missing the Market

When I first got started in photography, my main interest was photographing girls. I wanted to make my mark as a fashion photographer and began buying every fashion magazine I could lay my hands on. From French Vogue to Italian Bazaar to obscure British mags with names I cannot even remember. I spent a fortune on them.

I wanted to be Arthur, Patrick, Peter, or Albert. I wanted to shoot fashion editorials in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Spain, and the jungles of South America. I wanted to know Polly Mellen and hang out with Christie and Kathy and the high-board girls from Ford.

I lived in Phoenix, Arizona.

Moving to NYC was not an option, and I wasted a decade or more trying to be someone that I simply could not living in the town I lived in. Sure there were boutique shoots, editorials, ‘back pages’ for regional and national magazines.

But no Paris, Africa, Brazil or Spain.

When I finally woke up to the fact that I would either have to move or change, I changed.

Well, I gave it a shot anyway…

Brand Madness

I had created the brand of a “fashion photographer” in a decidedly not fashion oriented town. (No, shooting OTR for department stores is not fashion… it’s catalog. There is a difference.)

So I stopped shooting fashion and began to change my portfolio. Since I was already doing some additional work in other genres (in a town like Phoenix, you better have more than one trick in your bag) I figured I would start to shoot more of that and people would see me in a new light.

I learned that it takes more than a different portfolio to change your brand in the mind of people who have known your brand for many years. I would show my book, full of table top, food and portraits and would hear things like;

“Nice book, you shoot fashion, right?”
“Wow, I didn’t know you shot still life. But we don’t do much fashion here.”
“Where did the girls go?”

I didn’t realize that in order to change my personal brand, it would take a few years and concerted efforts to do so. I expected a new portfolio would be all that was needed.

I was wrong. And since I had stepped away from the fashion work (department stores and boutiques) the void was already filled and I had a real hard couple of years before I got back.

I should have begun changing my brand BEFORE walking away from the work I was doing. Making a more gradual transition instead of the cliff dive method I chose.

Confusing A Job Description with Mystical Talent

Art Directors.

I thought of them as the most visually literate among us. I mean they were the cream of the visual arts crop. I would hold them up to amazing worship status. They knew about how to make ads great, and they would demand more from me than I had because of their greatness.

I was intimidated and emotionally fearful of those job titles. I let them treat me poorly, demand more than was fair, and in some cases pay less than they should have. I was in such awe of their “talent” that I figured they must always be right and if I got it wrong… well then I must suck, visually.

That held me back for years. This feeling that somehow I wasn’t up to that level of greatness I bestowed upon them. Because of a job title.

That changed one summer. A tough gig for a tough AD, and when that month was over I realized that this locally famous, top-notch AD was actually a wretched fraud who copied most everything he did from Dallas and Minneapolis designers.

Once that wall was down, I began to see how I actually did fit into the scheme of things. I realized that they were simply professionals doing what they do, and I was just as professional in what I do. That silly mysticism vanished and I found some confidence I really needed.

Letting a Competitor “Own” Me

Wow… letting it all out here… heh.

Yeah, I let another photographer ‘own’ my brain for a few years. He set up a second condo in there and everything I saw was through the prism of this other guy – and how I could best his work, and get even for all the transgressions he had committed against me and my work.

You have to understand that we did not know each other. We had a friendly “hey, how are you” relationship when we would meet at the lab, and everyone met at the lab at one time or another.

But HELL – that didn’t matter. When he got a gig, he “stole” it from me. When I got a gig, I “stole” it from him. His accomplishments were giant humiliations to me. My accomplishments were proof of my dominance over him.

Looking back on this time is painful. I cannot even imagine how many missed opportunities there were because of this stupid, nearly obsessive, one sided war. I am actually a bit ashamed of my behavior at that time, and I can say absolutely that it cost me money. Lots of money.

Most of the stupid things we do costs us money… maybe not directly, but indirectly it can be devastating.

I was having lunch downtown one day, when he came in alone. He saw me sitting there and asked if he could sit with me. We talked about the business, and he told me how much he liked my work, and how he was going through a rough patch. I told him if he needed anything, to let me know – and he that he could use my studio anytime if he needed to.

He moved out of my head that day, and later he actually moved away to another town where he did quite well. I was and am glad for him.

Never let someone else be in charge of your life. Lesson learned.

Putting ALL The Eggs In One Flimsy Basket

“I’ve got something for you…”

It started that way. A deal so big it was almost unbelievable. A shoot so enormous in scope that it could be the only client I needed. A deal so magnificent that I would never have to look for a client again, I would have all I wanted to shoot delivered to me and paying fees that were downright awesome each and every week.

Who could pass up a deal like that. Especially when you have $1270 in the bank and $76,000 in receivables. I was so tired of being a bank for my clients – waiting 60, 90, 120 days for payment after paying my vendors in thirty. Peter robbing Paul who had his hands in Peter’s back pocket.

So I embraced the big deal.

And it went great for nearly a year. Just enough time for me to get lazy about the portfolio, stop seeing clients I had nurtured for years, and to sort of be “dark” within the industry. I was making great money and shooting as much as I wanted.

I have not the time or the space here to tell you what happened. I am sure you already have figured out that it went south.


I lost a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of contacts. I was able to rebuild – once more. I will never put myself into one of those situations again. I am more astute of the world of business, and I have a well refined bullshit detector that has become a big part of my vetting process.

Yeah – I have a vetting process.

And never ever put all of your income stream into one “amazing” deal unless you have strong contingencies for the inevitable “too good to be true” awakening.

Above are some big mistakes that cost time, money and most importantly energy. Energy that should have been focused on creating more, but instead had to be utilized to ‘dig out’ or change course.

And yeah, it happens to a lot of us. I am grateful that none of them were able to take me down to the mat- although a few came close.

I will probably make other mistakes as I continue on. I hope that I have at least learned the lessons from above and make all brand new, shiny stupid mistakes in the future.

(I did not mention the disaster that taking on a partner cost me… both in business and money. Suffice it to say that I will NEVER have another partner, and in any case we will BOTH have to sign any check that is issued for anything. If you don’t follow that rule with your partner, you may wake up wishing you had.)

In Commercial Photography Some Things Change and Some Things Don’t

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

Some Things Change, and Some Things Stay the Same

The constant, and rapidly changing landscape of photography continues unabated. Some may think of this as a very scary time to be in this business. They may be right… for them.

For me it is nearly a miraculous time to be in the photography business. From amazing gear to incredible innovation, it surrounds us every day. Perhaps it has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it when it is staring us in the face.

Change, baby. Everywhere.

I just read an article about some wedding guy going with Micro 4/3 and giving up his Nikons. Another article on what looks like a very cool 300WS studio flash with TTL for under $300. One photographer is shooting on a massive camera on handmade paper, while another is exploring Iceland with nothing but an iPhone. Both of them are getting images that are amazing.

The business part is changing as well. A recent study by web folk who study this sort of thing found that people respond more to big photographs on web pages than they do small. They also found that the cheap, crappy stock image is worse for the site than if there were no image at all.


Photographs WORK? Photographs help sell stuff? Good photography matters?

Dang… who could have known?

Well, WE PHOTOGRAPHERS SURE AS HELL KNEW. Most competent ad agencies and graphic designers know. (Although there are a lot of graphic designers out there who have obviously bought into the free or dirt cheap RF stock junk. Too bad, losers.)

Now we are being backed up by non-photographers.

Our job now is to let our clients know how valuable a photograph is. Let them know that skimping on photography is a fast way to fewer sales and pointing them in the right direction is one of our purposes.

And we do that by doing the best work. Always the best work. No slacking, no hacking, no short cuts. We do the best work we can, and we do it over and over again.

We have to be able to show the client the difference between hack crap and good imagery. If we can’t, we may find that we are not making much headway.

I recently did a portfolio review with a photographer who was struggling a bit. He was having trouble connecting to his audience, and getting clients to say yes was becoming a very difficult endeavor. He was showing his book diligently, but getting no offers.

Problem was that while his book was that of an emerging photographer, the work ranged from ‘meh’ to good, and a few ‘greats’ thrown in almost as an afterthought.

When I remarked on is truly impressive images, he would say something like “yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one.” And he was sure about the mundane boring stuff?

The reality is that he was nearly totally cut off from the world of commercial photography. He took his cue from Model Mayhem, 500PX and G+.

When I asked him about some commercial shooters in his town (Google is your friend), he didn’t know who they were or what they did. He didn’t look at magazines or online publications. He was in a vacuum, and nobody can hear you scream in space.

When you show your work, you will be judged on more than the individual images, you will be judged  by how well you understand the genre you are presenting. Is it within the genre of the client?

Wine bottles lit by umbrellas, ‘fashion models’ who are obviously 5’1”, car shots of last years models, food shots that look cold and stale, bad natural light still life work… all can lead to a single image bringing down the entire book.

The question becomes “why are they showing me this? Do they think this is cool? Can they not see it is horribly presented? How did they get all those other shots I wonder?”

Doubt. And doubt doesn’t close deals.

Free Selina Maitreya video series on becoming more than you ever thought possible.

Some truths about this highly competitive business:

  1. Showing 10 great shots is far better than showing those same ten great shots mixed in with 20 other turkeys.
  2. You cannot edit your own work (mostly). Find someone to help you. A mentor or good friend who you TRUST.
  3. Do not be defensive, but do be strong. If three people you trust say ‘take it out’ then I would consider that some strong indication that while you may love it, it doesn’t ‘fit’ in your portfolio. Perhaps you need more of that kind to give it some context
  4. Make no excuses. Yeah, it was a crazy day and the MUA was late and it rained and three rabid wolves chased off the stylist, but once the hail stopped you were able to get a few shots in before the lightning destroyed the set, they look pretty good, all things considered. Bucky… on one cares about the things considered. Your ‘masterpiece’ under fire is a dud.
  5. Always be shooting. You should be adding new work to your site weekly if you are emerging as a shooter. That’s the time you have to DO the shots you want. Once the ball gets rolling, it may be tougher to find the time to do them. And they are VITAL to the ‘warm fuzzies’ for art directors and designers who may be following along.

The business is changing rapidly, but there are some things that are not changing… and showing top notch work, developing a body of work and keeping your work in front of people who buy is still as important, if not more important, than it has ever been.

So enjoy your new “mirrorless” or MFT, and dig into that Medium Format with gusto. Grab those new strobes and tell us all about them on the various social media… but remember that the words won’t count as much as the images you create with them.

If your client is looking for a technical writer who knows everything about every lens ever made, you may get a shot at it. But if they are looking for a photographer, you better make sure your portfolio is up to snuff, full of new work, and ready to be shown

That much will stay the same for a while longer. I’m sure.
I would love to hear your comments on the ways you are working to keep your portfolio up. Add them in the comments.


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I have known Selina for many years. I have all of her books, and have trained with her. I consider her a mentor, coach and friend.

Selina has joined us here on Lighting Essentials many times, and each time is a delightful experience for me.

Selina was perhaps the first commercial photography rep in Boston (or perhaps anywhere) and she represented some of the biggest names in the business. Today she is working with photographers to help get them motivated, moving and most importantly… out of their own way.

I have known many photographers who have gone through here one on one’s and her portfolio rebuilding exercises, and all have benefitted greatly from the experience.

Now you have the opportunity to experience Selina’s approach to becoming all you can be for absolutely free.

Take some time to listen to these videos and open your mind to the possibilities that are all around you.

I am really enjoying these videos… I hope you do as well.

Register for the free video course here.

The Proof Is In The Pudding… Make Sure You Have a Killer Recipe

chi-redhead-4“The proof is in the pudding.”

Always wondered about that term, so I looked it up.

According to the Urban Dictionary;

“The original phrase is “The proof of the pudding is in the eating!”
Which means you have to eat the pudding to know what’s inside of it.

The modern version of ‘the proof is in the pudding’ implies that there “is a lot of evidence that I will not go through at this moment and you should take my word for it, or you could go through all of the evidence yourself.”


That is pretty much what I thought.


Check out these free videos from Selina Maitreya. Seriously good stuff!

Your portfolio is sort of like the pudding in question. It’s proof that you can do what you say you can do right there on page, screen, or tablet.

Can you light a wine bottle and show the wine and the label – and do it from an angle that makes remakes a simple shot into a real challenge? Can you be set up and waiting for the moment when the semi-celebrity who promised you 30 minutes comes in 27 minutes late and declares that he has no time, and to get on with it – and nail the shot with confidence? Can you bid a complex job so that there are no surprises, no glitches, and no “extra fees?”

That’s the pudding baby… and it is the proof you need to your prospective clients as well as yourself.Cause if you aren’t sure, they aren’t sure. And you will not be getting a PO.

That doesn’t require being cocky or arrogant. (OK, a little arrogance is fine, just don’t let it go to your head and forget where you came from… ) It means you are sure of your self, and your abilities, and know how to get the stuff done that must be done.

It also means being aware that there are occasions where it is simply not possible. Shooting fashion on the beach during a torrential rain is going to be a cancellation day, as is the afternoon the power grid goes out on a big location shoot at the clients offices.

Stuff happens.

But most of the time we can pull a rabbit out of a dingy, soon to be recycled old hat. It is, ahem, what we do.

We make crappy products look amazing.
We make mediocre food look appetizing and delicious.
We add new life and interest to a 56 year old townhouse.
We make OTR crap look ‘cool’ enough for someone to want to buy it.
We help people sell stuff, and we do it with skills and a vision and a surety of purpose that we know what we are doing.

The ‘proof’ is in the pudding… fine, but remember it’s OUR dang pudding. We know what went into it and how it should be served. We are the masters of our own vision.

If we let others mess with our work, without giving us a chance to do what we do – the way we do it, it can be both frustrating and bad for business. We are hired to do a job, and we should be willing to fight to do it right.

Our job is to make the VP of Finances smile by making images that grow sales beyond projections.
Our job is to make images that bring more people to the website than ever before.
Our job is to createiImages that help seal the brand idea with the visitor so that there is no doubt in their mind that THIS is the company they want to do business with.
Our job is to help business make more money by making a better visual product.

Professional commercial photography should be viewed as a profit center, bringing clarity, consistency and brand loyalty to the front of the mind of the viewer. Great images create great brands.

Think of our largest, premium brands… the ones that get to a level all their own.

Nieman Marcus. Gucci. Prada. Lamborghini. Cartier. Harley Davidson.

Do they scrimp on advertising? Nope.

Do they look for the cheapest photographer? Nope.

Do they understand that excellent imagery SELLS better than crappy stock or amateurish attempts?

Yes they do.

They know it.
We know it.

Now, how do we get our prospective client to know it? The guy who called and wanted your bid for some interiors, and reads from a script on what they are looking for – or the woman on the phone who doesn’t introduce herself, but simply blurts out “How much do you charge for a shot of a …”

Yeah… we get those calls. And part of us wants to jump on the bid right away. We are in the mindset of “we are right for every job that comes in and if we don’t get every job that comes in we are lower than the grub worms that crawl in the dirt because we NEED every job that comes in to validate our recent Broncolor system…” or whatever variation works for you.

Hey – guess what – you don’t really need the “howmuchayoucharge” crap. It will never pay you enough, and you will begin to doubt that you are worth more.

I get these calls as well… and I am always courteous, friendly and sincere. I ask them to hold up for a minute and begin to ask them questions about the possibilities of the gig. I ask outright how many other photographers are they calling and if they had seen my website.

If they are calling more than a couple and they have not seen my website, then I politely tell them I am probably not the right photographer for them. I do not try to ‘educate them’ nor do I ridicule their poor business sense. Too much water under that bridge. You can try if you want, but my experience is that their mindset is on ‘cheap’ and it covers more territory than just photography.

However, I will also ask for an email address so I can send them something that is indicative of what I do, and most of the time I get one. I want to give them a taste of the pudding, and reinforce why they should consider photography or design (especially mine) to be more than a line item on their budget.

I want them to realize that great photography and design MAKES more money than it costs.

We will get the kinds of clients that we look for.
We will get more of the kind of clients that we work for.
Whether they be cheapos or premium, the laws of attraction seem to work that way.

We also earn a reputation for what we do… and this is one terribly difficult thing to rebuild if we let ours slip.

Do we have a reputation of a premium shooter, who helps their clients create stunning work for stunning results? Does our portfolios say that we are problem solvers, and that our work makes a difference for our clients? Do we make careful, thoughtful, powerful images that produce results?

And can we articulate why professional photography, and ours in specific. can enhance their needs beyond a piece of flat art representation? Can we justify our photography as a revenue investment instead of a line item?

Or do we just take pictures?

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.