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My Personal Take On Life As A Workaholic Traveling Commercial Photographer

I’m driving a beautiful triple-black Aston Martin DB9 V12 down a florida highway. Its nose so long that the sun striking it practically blinds me. AC/DC is blasting on the radio and the car’s 12 cylinders roar at the slightest touch to the throttle. One client has loaned me his beautiful British exotic so I could drive 90 minutes away to briefly meet another private client about photographing his multi-million dollar Bugatti supercar collection. Surreal, right? This sort of experience has become sort of commonplace for me recently, but it never becomes any less mind-blowing. Sometimes I just sit and wonder: how did I even get here? This is just crazy.

My home base is the Washington DC area, but I was flown to central Florida for a last minute newborn baby portrait job. What the heck? I don’t even DO baby portraits. Although, when a regular corporate client calls you 8am on a Friday morning and wants you to fly to Florida immediately, you do it. It’s the nature of this job career … no… lifestyle.

There is no job security. I feel like no matter how far I advance in my career, I will ALWAYS worry that the jobs will one day dry up. It’s that thought process alone that drives me to work 7 days a week, and at least 50 hours a week spent at my computer, over 100k miles a year on a plane, and 40k+ miles spent behind the wheel.

Being a commercial photographer can be incredibly rewarding and thrilling. Every day can be a new adventure. The effort you put in to your work can be directly proportional to the money/success you make. There’s the amazing reward of working for yourself and seeing your hard creative work come together in print (or computer screen or tv or billboard). You also find yourself in surreal places with equally if not more surreal individuals. Some examples: one, two, three, four, five.

I’ve met some of my favorite heroes, partied in amazing places, driven extremely rare and awesome vehicles, fired [probably illegal] weapons, hung out of helicopters while buzzing the Mexican military, played with white tigers, get flown around in private jets (sometimes), and get the deep pleasure of seeing my work get published and [hopefully] appreciated. At times my life borders on the line between absurd and ridiculous. This is what photography has given me.

Although, with the excitement and personal rewards also comes the hardship. To succeed in this business you need to give your 150%. Sometimes that means compromising a normal personal life. When my friends want to socialize, I often duck out to go back to work on a Friday night or holiday to meet deadlines. How about that financial risk? Oh yeah, that’s a big one. There’s the cameras, the computers, the lenses, software, and constant upgrading every few years. On top of that most photographers make poverty-like income because of the high expenses, but continue for the love of what they do. It takes constant hard work to keep on top of yourself and your career. Did I mention the hard decision to sell my prized 1966 red Mustang convertible with a V8 289 2 barrel carb and bench seat to pay for my early career? Sigh…

Sometimes my friends don’t understand why I can’t quit and meet for drinks after work hours. I value that they still try and hang out with me because I am always so busy or rarely home! For us commercial photographers, there are no “work hours.” Your mind is always turning… thinking of projects or cool shoots/concepts… its nearly impossible to turn it off. I remember in my early 20′s I was dating this great girl that had a 9-5ish corporate job. I think it literally drove her insane because I always wanted to talk about photography or the shoot I just did or was about to do. I started to think something was WRONG with me, despite being an otherwise fairly normal dude. Let me preface that she was an awesome girl, but it takes a LOT of patience to deal with the likes of a shooters like us with our wacky ideas and our long hours and busy travel schedule.

I feel like there was one day when I had to decide that my life would not be a traditional one. I would not be married by 30. I would not be home at least 60% of the year. I would throw all personal plans out the window and go wherever my career and adventure would lead me. Scary at first, I found it quite liberating. I was always the one to sweat the small stuff… to worry that my life wasn’t going the path I had set, but when I submitted to it all, everything became more easy.

The bottom line? I love what I do. The prospect of failing at it terrifies me. I love the perks… the cars, the parties, the amazing people, (maybe the pretty girls too), etc, but the work I create has become the most important thing to me. I still get a huge charge when I walk off a set knowing I “got the shot.” You can’t be in this career for the perks. It was a great photographer, Kwaku Alston, that warned me not to get caught up in the glamour of the business because if you do, you’ll find yourself lost way off-track. He was right. It took me awhile to see it, but after doing this for nearly 10 years, I do. When you take your eyes off from where you are going with your work and your career, you will careen into a ditch. Focus on the things that are most important to you like the work you want to create and your loved ones, and well, the rest is just cake…. or frosting… or whatever the analogy is.

Over the years many have said they envy my career after seeing the kind of jobs I do or the trips I go on, but I felt it necessary to paint a realistic picture of what this career is all about. It certainly can be a blast, but it’s not all fun and games. It can bite you hard if you are not paying attention. I will say that I wake up practically every day (the days I do get a full night of sleep) thanking my lucky stars to be getting paid to do what I love to do. For that reason alone, I am willing to pay the price.

My particular experiences may not necessarily reflect that of other commercial photographers, but I hope my 2 cents gives you a better idea of what it’s like when you choose to commit your life to a photography career.

My personal motto: Work 1000x times harder than your competition, don’t be afraid to grow, try your best to be good to your fellow man…and the rest sort of irons itself out.

Thank you to my friends, family, and loved ones for being patient with me and my crazy schedule over the years.

A short little video with various clips from some of my photoshoots:


vimeo Direkt

15 thoughts on “My Personal Take On Life As A Workaholic Traveling Commercial Photographer”

  1. Wow, what an insightful account of your life as a commercial photographer. I often wonder what it might be like to go full-time, not knowing where your next job might come from (or if it will come at all), and whether or not you’ll have the opportunity to take part in things that “normal” people do. As you’ve so eloquently described, it’s a huge tradeoff between once-in-a-lifetime experiences and sheer solitude. I don’t deal particularly well with uncertainty and stress, so it’s probably best that I continue on the path that I’m on. Even though I often wish I could go out shooting every day and bring all of my crazy ideas to fruition, at least I know that I’ve got a guaranteed paycheck to keep food on the table and the lights on.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    -Russ

  2. When I read this, I can’t help but look at my own career in comparison. I work comparable hours to yours. I’m on call 24/7 and they make good use of it. Last Friday I had an 8:30am meeting and I sent in my final report for the week at 11:58pm. I spent Labor Day weekend organizing a response to a roof collapse at one of our facilities. I frequently talk to my boss while I’m in bed with my wife. I left my Dad’s birthday party to go meet the CEO at his hotel and go over a powerpoint for a meeting the next day.

    For basically the same investment, I get zero satisfaction, zero thrill, zero recognition. The money is good. But it’s eating my soul. Seeing you do what you do makes me wish I’d been more of a risk-taker when I was young and also that I could have looked beyond what was around me and reached further. Maybe I could have done better.

    It’s too late for me really. My daughter is 15 and I had a long talk with her recently about reaching and searching for what might be out there. Your name came up. I encouraged her to dream, take risks, and not settle. I told her about you selling your mustang and gambling on a dream. I hope she gives her dreams a chance. Yours is an inspiring story Doug. Thanks for letting us all have a peek.

    1. It’s never too late Sean! My father was a chemist for 30 years until he took up oil painting. He loves it…and you know what, he’s also great at it. Take a chance or your life might pass you by!

      Thanks for sharing Douglas :)

  3. Thanks for the great post Douglas,

    inspring! I am a fulltime professional photographer myself here in Germany. for three years working hard, trying to handle the punches coming my way and getting used to all the business side of things. It is hard, especially at the moment here in germany, photography is seen quite differently as in other countries, but I love what I do and with the start of video its even more fun.

    I am going to do what is necessary to get this to a place were it gets easier, as you said there is never going to be a guarantee or so. Still I think its a great thing that well known photographers like you are so straightforward and open about it. really means a lot and fires me up even more.

    have a good one!
    Teymur.

  4. Douglas,
    As a professional novelist, I absolutely identify with your choices and commitment to your passion. I love your personal motto. It’s exactly the same for the world of novel writing. Work harder than everyone else, be nice, keep learning– so worth it to be doing the thing I love most in the world. Thank you for sharing your experience, as well as this great essay, with us!

    Melissa Cutler

  5. Thanks for the awesome post Douglas! Totally with you here!
    My wife and I are about to make the jump into this full time…yeah, it’s a risk, but you know what? no risk = no reward (ok, let me get back to you on this in a year or two ;D).

  6. I can completely relate as I travel for my job and really don’t have a “normal” social life. It’s refreshing to see someone else so passionate about their work, although yours is way more interesting than mine! Your LS class last night was fabulous and left me wanting more ~ I’m bummed that the weekend of the expo is the one weekend I’m still out of town next month. Let me buy you a beer one night!

    You do amazing work and it was a pleasure to participate in your class.

    Lisa

  7. Simple, but straightforward question. How do you cope with the jobs that pop-up randomly? You mentioned the newborn baby, portrait job. What do you do if you have those particular days with a job and/or travelling to do for a job elsewhere. How do you talk to your client about it? Is it that easy to reschedule shoots in general being a solo photographer or do you literally have to decline and have it passed off to the next guy? Has it happened often enough to you to try to think of ways to please both clients simultaneously?

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