The Life of a Pro Photographer: Not Always Fun, But Mostly Fun

Climbing in the Bugaboo Range, British Columbia, Canada. Not a bad day at the office. Photo ©Mike Randolph

Yesterday I published a post on 5 reasons I regret becoming a pro photographer on the blog Digital Photography School. To balance out the picture, here’s the other side of the story.

So I told a friend I was writing a blog post about the five reasons I regret becoming a professional travel photographer.

“It’s a lot harder than people realize,” I told her.

I provided her with some illustrative examples. “Having dinner alone in a trattoria in Venice, when everyone else is on vacation with their spouse or their lover and having a great time…and you’re sitting there alone…okay, the Linguine Vongole is great, sure, but it’s not all that fun being on your own.”

I felt my honesty would elicit her sympathy. I could see that she understood that. With her usual caring, deep compassion, she said, “Awww, poor wittle baby.”

She can be quite eloquent at times, I have to admit.

Sheepishly, I acknowledged that I understood where she was coming from. Because I shouldn’t complain, I know. I have it pretty good. Actually, it’s probably even better than she thinks it is.

O Sole Mio: Venice is for lovers, but also for photographers, even if they’re by themselves. Photo ©Mike Randolph

I guess the thing to reflect on here is that it’s amazing what you can used to. Case in point, my desktop computer, for a long time now, has needed to go. I recently bought an Sony smartphone that has more ram than this computer. It became torture using the thing, so I bought the latest, greatest 27” iMac Retina desktop computer. I maxed out all the options, the fastest processor, the best graphics card, the most RAM (32 Gigs!), everything. The new computer is amazing, incredible, but you know what? After about a week of using it, it didn’t feel fast, it just felt normal.

I guess that can happen in life, too. You get used to it. But I don’t think I’ve become jaded about being a freelance writer and photographer, and all the experiences I’ve had because of it. In fact, a lot of the time, I sit back and think, man, I’m a very lucky guy.

I’ll never forget, when I was starting out in this business, a conversation I had with an experienced, professional photographer. I was maybe 20-years old, and full of optimism and drive. I mined him for whatever information I could. Whether it was useful or not didn’t even matter, I just wanted to talk with someone who had ‘made it’ because hearing details of the life of a pro photographer made me feel closer to my dream.

His response was something along the lines of, “Don’t waste your time, kid. It’s a crappy life. You’re better off doing something else.”

I was shocked, and also pissed off. The grouchy old bastard.

I don’t ever want to be that guy, warning people off their dreams. Because how can you be confident that that’s the best advice to give? Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for him, but what about me? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s like warning someone off of marriage just because you were unlucky and had a bad one. How can you know that their experience won’t be different?

I will say, though, that it’s a good thing to know what you should realistically expect. Because if that’s what you really want, it’s a great life.

Miguel Indurain, far right, wins the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées of Paris. Photo ©Mike Randolph

I’ve ridden on the back of motorcycles shooting the Tour de France, rock climbed with some of the world’s elite mountaineers, roamed through the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the world, taken pictures from the very end of the bow sprit of a tall ship under full sail.

Once, at the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, I got to shoot from the only spot on the entire course where the runners and the bulls have to make a 90-degree turn. That’s where everyone would like to shoot from if they could, because it’s plain and simple the best place to take pictures from on the entire course.

Sometimes, what you shoot just for the joy of it can make you money. And that is a pretty wonderful feeling. It’s happened quite a few times to me, but the one I remember most is when I made a sail for my kayak.

I spent an entire week, all-day long, every day, making a sail and a mast for my tandem Klepper Aerius Expedition kayak. I love that kayak. And I wanted to outfit it with a sail that would be worthy of the craft, so I worked hard on it. I think some of my friends felt as though I’d checked out of reality.

“He’s doing what?” a friend’s wife asked.

I took the sail and my kayak to a meet-up of like-minded kayak nuts. I was quite proud of the results, so naturally I wanted a photo of it in the water. I took a shot of my boat alongside everyone else’s.

On a whim, I sent that image to the editor at one of the stock-photo agencies I work for. She accepted it and later, that image sold for $3,000 to a major player in the financial sector. I was pretty happy about that. I’ve sold images for a lot more money, on one occasion more than ten times as much, but no sale was ever sweeter.

Every know and then, you come across a client with deep pockets. I once did an assignment in Australia with a company that was involved in promoting the famous Indy Car race on the Gold Coast. They set up a snorkelling tour of the Great Barrier Reef. A session of beach volleyball with the Australian Olympic team on Bondi Beach. I asked for 15 minutes in a helicopter to shoot aerials of the Indy Car race. They thought about it. And then they said, ‘Why don’t we rent it for a full hour instead.’ I was wined and dined and stayed at all the best hotels and resorts.

That happens every now and then.

I’ve landed at remote, airstrips in the Arctic on a 50-year-old DC-3, choppered into remote valleys in Canada’s Northwest Territories, swum with giant eels in the backcountry of New Zealand, fished for Atlantic salmon in some of the last wild rivers in Europe.

There are so many great moments to remember that I couldn’t possibly list them all here without boring you to death. The point is to say that the lifestyle of a professional travel photographer is hard to beat. There are downsides, of course, but that’s true with everything.

Running of the bulls, Pamplona, Spain. The place to go if you’re looking for motivation to run faster than you ever have before. Photo ©Mike Randolph

Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you—you’ve got to decide that for yourself. But for me it was the best thing. Sometimes, after hearing about some of the things my office-bound friends have to deal with, I think, well, that’s it—if the whole photography-and-writing gig doesn’t work out, I’m done, because I’m now basically unemployable. It’s too late now, I’ve tasted the good life and there’s no going back!

So if you’re thinking about choosing photography as a living, put all the good things and the bad things on opposite sides of a metaphorical scale, and weigh them out yourself. You’re the only one who can decide if it’s right for you. But you should know, that if you do decide to go for it, you can do it. Don’t let anybody tell you different.

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7 Responses to The Life of a Pro Photographer: Not Always Fun, But Mostly Fun

  1. walter 05/05/2015 at 10:44 pm #

    Thank you for that. I’m inspired!

  2. Mike Randolph 05/05/2015 at 10:55 pm #

    Good to hear it. Thanks for your comment, Walter.

  3. Adrien Patané 07/05/2015 at 7:01 pm #

    Thanks for this side of the story also Mike 😉 certainly recently i’ve read quite a few articles from photographers who don’t present both sides and appear a little jaded – but like you said its all relative, do what makes you happy and you cant go wrong imo 🙂

    • Mike Randolph 08/05/2015 at 6:20 pm #

      Adrien, thanks for your comment. Sounds like you’ve hit on the secret 😉

  4. Lillian Marie 08/05/2015 at 2:02 pm #

    Wow! what an amazing life!

    • Mike Randolph 08/05/2015 at 6:24 pm #

      It seems even better when I read about it, hehe. Thanks for stopping by Lillian.

  5. Crystal 04/11/2015 at 7:52 am #

    I just finished both your pros and cons. Thank you for your time and talent in writing these. I am an amateur who does a bit to supplement the families income… but I love doing it. Being in the perfect spot, at the right moment, and capturing the perfect spontaneous kiss or sinking sunset. And I want the money that goes with it…. but to be honest after reading your article and the amazing places you have been (that would be awesome to be part of) I can’t say it’s right for me and my family!! I’m surprised to say that and relieved at the same time haha I appreciate your time, talent and pictures 🙂 Thank you! This has been a good moment for me to discover where my passions truly are.

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