What is success?

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on July 11, 2013

in This is Art,This is Business,This is Life

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Many start-up photographers have an unrealistic vision of what success is for a professional.

This unrealistic vision is created, maintained, and promoted by professional organizations, photography vendors, and the ‘gurus’ of the photography industry who are all too happy to charge you $499, $999, or more to teach you how you can have a million dollar business just like theirs.

There is nothing the grognards enjoy more than telling aspiring photographers every way in which they’re not ‘real professionals.’

You don’t have enough megapixels.

You don’t have enough prime lenses.

You don’t have enough years as an unpaid apprentice.

You don’t derive 100-percent of your independent, full-time income from your photography.

And the vendors that serve the professional (and consumer, and prosumer) markets promote the same mentality – you never have enough pixels, dynamic range, ISO, frames per second, sharpness, clarity, power.

The gurus do it too – you never have enough talent, enough experience, enough resources, enough Photoshop actions, enough good ideas, enough professional training.

You are endlessly inadequate.

That’s the not-so-secret secret of most marketing: create a need, then fill it. Individuals and companies have been making fortunes this way since the dawn of commerce.

If you listen to the photography industry and those who make money from it, I can guarantee you will never be adequate. What you have will never be good enough. There will always be someone or something better that you have to have if you’re ever going to be successful.


What’s their definition of success?

Better, what’s yours?

And one better: what would your definition of success be if it weren’t influenced by all these voices telling you how inadequate you are?

There is nothing wrong with boutique photography; it’s the high-end of professional portraiture, not unlike Ferrari and Bugatti are at the high end of the auto industry.

How many folks do you know who drive a Veyron?

How many folks do you know who spend thousands of dollars a year on portraits for their home?

Of course this market exists – but to hear it told by the grognards and vendors and professional associations, there is only one vision of success: high-end, boutique photography. It’s luxury or nothing, as they tell it.

Aspiring to be the Kia, Ford, Toyota, or Honda of your market? That won’t do.

Your immediate goal is just to get started as the Zero Skateboard, Trek Bicycle, or Vespa Scooter of photography in your area? You’re ruining the industry!

Here you are trying to better learn your camera and land your first paying client, and they’re already convincing you you need more: more training, more apprenticeship, more DVDs, more webinars, more camera, more experience.

Striving to become the kind of photographer who books those $1,500-a-shoot clients on the regular is a great goal to have – but is it the only goal to have?

What do you want to do with your art? What do you want to do with your business? What purpose does your photography business serve in your life?

A creative outlet?

An opportunity to make money doing something you love?

An exit strategy to get you out of a day job you deplore?

A way to stay home with your kids but still contribute to your household income?

As Stephen Covey would, let’s step back, get some perspective, and start with the end in mind: what’s your vision of success? How do you want your photography business to change your life?

What do you want it to be tomorrow? What about in five years? Ten years?

What’s your vision of success? Stripped of all the outside influence, all the marketing hype – what do you really want your business to do for you?

“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” – Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham, How To Do What You Love

If you want more megapixels, big strobes, and a retail studio on Main Street – that’s a great vision! If you want to book one shoot a week and make enough money to take your kids and family on an amazing vacation every year – that’s a great vision, too. If you want to make art, make money, make better art, and make better money for it – that’s just as great.

There is no wrong answer. I just want you to look at your art, your business, and your vision of success with it, and define it with clarity and purity – away from the biased influence of vendors and gurus who make their money by making you feel never-good-enough.

And how you define success today may be completely different from how you define it next year, or even next month. Nothing is ever set in stone – that’s part of the beauty of owning your own business. No matter what anyone else thinks or says, you’re the boss. You are in charge.

What is success to me?

Being profitable.

Having zero debt.

Earning enough in-pocket money from each shoot to leave a big grin on my face.

Having fun working with clients I love.

Getting better, a little each day – as an artist, and as a business owner.

Blessing my clients with my best work for a fair price.

Being blessed by my clients for the work I do.

Making enough profit from my business to have a tangible effect on the comfort and happiness of my wife and children.

Earning enough to reinvest in my community – through donations, fundraisers, and volunteering.

Earning enough to ensure my overhead (including taxes and repairs) is covered without stress.

Employing the expertise of others to ensure my business is legal and stress-free, so I can focus on my photography and my clients.

Being in control of my time, my bookings, and with whom I work.

It’s a big picture. And, at least for me, it has nothing to do with glorious levels of fame or fortune. Success isn’t big cameras, big lenses, big billboards, or a big studio – unless you want it to be.

Because of the constant distractions of chasing dreams that weren’t mine, it took me over a decade to define what I truly wanted out of my art and my business. And since I gained that clarity, I’ve been able to focus and make incredible progress down the path that’s right for me.

My path isn’t your path, nor is yours mine. Nor is Vincent Laforet’s or Anne Geddes’ or James Nachtwey’s.

Said far better than I could, philosopher Alain de Botton: “One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” (from his 2009 TED talk; hat tip to BrainPickings)

It’s equal parts freeing and terrifying – to know that your success can be anything you want it to be, and you are solely in control of and responsible for that success.

But what a beautiful stress, no? It’s like seeing the prettiest girl in the park, knowing you just have to talk to her – and then doing it.

What happens next?

That’s up to you, my friends.

Next Steps

  • Click here: James@banderaoutlaw.com. Tell me what your (new?) vision of success is. Is it different than it was 15 minutes ago? What do you really want to do with your art and your business?
  • Brainstorm session: You just did it! Cut and paste your e-mail to me into your notepad, and file it away in your Brainstorms folder.
  • With your vision of success more purely defined, make a quick brainstorm checklist of steps you need to take to improve in each arena – your art, your business acumen, your marketing skills. Break these steps down as small and simple as you can; you’re drawing a road map to reach your vision of success. You’re going to take detours, have wrecks, and go off road both purposefully and accidentally on this journey, but give yourself a map to navigate by.
  • Look at your check list. What step can you take today? Lace up, and lean into it!
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Meghan July 12, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Another AWESOME article, James! Thanks again for writing from the heart and making so much sense, it’s so refreshing.


Breztech July 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

Great subject and post! I really enjoyed this and it’s inspiring as a part-time photographer. Look forward to your future posts.


Mary July 15, 2013 at 9:55 am

James, you’ve done it again! Written precisely what I needed to see, when I needed to see it. Love love love your website! Its so helpful to us vespa scooters just getting rolling! Thanks again!!


Kim Grace July 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Perfect timing for me as well. It’s really hard to see “your” vision of success these days! After reading this I have a clearer vision for “my” future! Thx James!


Erin July 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Again, what I needed to hear. Thanks so much, I’m brainstorming away!


Allen July 27, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Talk about hitting the nail squarely on the head – great post, Sir Outlaw. It speaks directly to me in this transitional stage – actually reopening an activity I did several years back and put it away for awhile. Thus I have the skills (they need a bit of sharpening, shouldn’t take long), got new/used gear (enough to get the job done). Now it’s down to business – literally. Time to get ‘busy’ sharpening those skills. Much appreciated. Glad to have found this sight (actually my wife did). Thanks again.


Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor May 25, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Thank you so much for your kind words and enthusiasm Allen! I’m excited to hear about your successes and adventures as a professional photographer – please do keep me posted!


mandy May 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Reading your posts have been such an inspiration for me. I “just did it” like you’ve said over and over to do. I’ve had two sessions and my first set of photos arrived today, I was on cloud nine that this is really happening for me…then i opened the package. I am less than thrilled with the prints and a set of the wallets actually cut off a small part of their head. Rookie mistake but I’m not sure how to proceed. I don’t know how to present the less than perfect photos and tonight I feel like this whole endeavor was a big mistake. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


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