Should You Go Pro — or Keep Photography as a Hobby?

Like most of us, I’ve made career choices that haven’t worked out. Many years ago, I was recruited by Singapore Airlines, which trained me to be a pilot.

After my classmates and I received our commercial pilot licenses, we were told that our timing wasn’t good and that we would have to work as cabin attendants temporarily — just until our pilot jobs came open for us.

“Temporarily” became three years. I decided to pursue another course. But what?


Cabin crew days: Yours truly rushes to be front and center among the Singapore Girls after tripping the self-timer on my camera. I took the picture in the upper deck of a B747 circa 1982.

It Started as a Hobby

While serving coffee and tea on airplanes, I traveled extensively — so of course, I bought a camera to document my journeys. I enjoyed my hobby.

This is what gave me the idea to go back to school and study photojournalism. I graduated and landed a job at a fairly large daily newspaper in Southern California.

I had a good run there. Then, 22 years later, I hit another fork in the road.

Working conditions at the paper had become intolerable. How intolerable? I literally walked home after turning in my company-issued car along with all the photo gear in the trunk.

Saying adios or selamat tinggal (Malaysian or Indonesian for goodbye) to something I loved and went to college to study was, needless to say, very difficult.

Happy Memories

Before things went downhill for me (and many other newspaper photographers), I considered it a job I was fortunate to have. Newspaper photography was fun, exciting, and extremely competitive. Positions were highly sought-after.

The perks of the job were innumerable. The experiences I had on a day-to-day basis were priceless.

How many jobs are there where you get paid to photograph and listen live to Luciano Pavarotti during rehearsal in a large theater with only five other people around?

Or to sit on the court at a Lakers game in front of Jack Nicholson?

Or to enter areas closed to the public when there’s some sort of disaster like a wildland fire?

I can list countless other examples from my career — but then it might sound like bragging.

Advice for My Students

I still make my living from photography, as a freelancer. And I teach it part time now, too.

I find it fulfilling to influence how others use this art form. I use the term “influence” because that’s all I can ever hope to do. Motivate, hopefully inspire and guide.

So, what do I tell students who enjoy photography as a hobby, and are considering it as a career?

I tell them first that it is very difficult to find the kind of staff position I had. Those jobs are disappearing.

A staff position is a job where your employer pays you specifically to take pictures. Most of the time, you’re just the button pusher — except in the case of newspapers, where your job is to tell a story in pictures.

When you have a staff position, you can focus on taking pictures and don’t have to worry about finding clients. You collect a regular paycheck and receive benefits. In return, you work the days and hours your employer dictates.

Even if you can find a staff position, they are often not as fulfilling as they used to be. (If they were, I wouldn’t have walked home from mine, for good.) Staff photographers are more overworked, underpaid and underappreciated than ever.

Charting Your Own Path

The alternative to finding a staff position is to launch your own business, or freelance. That world is a tough one, too. It’s even tougher now that digital photography is within the means of everyone who has a computer and some photo-editing software.

So am I saying not to pursue a career in photography? No — but you need to think about how to carve out a career that will make you happy.

Your answer may be to find a good mix of editorial work, weddings and portraits, while never forgetting to shoot for yourself, too. Projects that mean something to you personally (like this one did for me) help keep your passion alive.

If you forget to nourish your passion, you will eventually burn out — spoiling what otherwise might have remained a wonderful hobby.

6 Responses to “Should You Go Pro — or Keep Photography as a Hobby?”

  1. I am very lucky to be able to exercise photography as a hobby ... or more of a passion actually. This has enabled me not to forget the projects that I shoot for myself, and for others, without direct, immediate, material compensation.

    I invite you to view what you can do for your soul when you're not worried about your wallet;

    "In Spite Of!" -

    "Malki's Legacy" -

    and currently working on in Jerusalem

    The rewards of shooting for yourself and for others are overwhelming!

  2. Nice story and well said. Professional photography has changed, and we all have to either change with it or be left behind.

    I wonder where all the PJ's are going to go, but I also know that the people still crave news / information / images that tell a story. I think that one door (newsprint) may close at some point, but a new one that may not as yet be imagined, will open.

    I just want us all to be ready.

  3. I am grateful you told your story, because it has deeply encouraged me. Eighteen months ago I was all but forced out of a career I had studied in college and that had meant a lot to me. It has been easy for me to think, "I am the only person this has happened to," but your story reminded me that is not the case. These things happen to many people, and we find ways to recover. Now I believe if you can build a meaningful career after being all but forced out of one, so can I.

  4. Nir,
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful and very important work.

    "Pet Photography"-
    "Teaching Kids"-

    Thanks for leaving your comment and reading. I don't think things are as bleak as they seem for PJs.

    PJs probably need to update their storytelling skills with video and other web publishing skills.

    If mainstream media indiscriminately uses "citizen journalists," it will have a problem with credibility.

    Thanks for reading and also sharing. I am hopeful things will sort themselves out in time.

  5. Ouch. Your touching story hurts, really.

    People like what we do, and they quickly get envious (for exactly the reasons you mentioned). What they all tend to forget is that "photography as a business" is not going anywhere soon (well, except downhill). With newspapers and magazines facing serious problems, with the advances in digital photography, and with further improvements of transmission speeds on the Internet, I honestly do not see a market that supports commercial photography like it used to.

    Sure, there WILL be a few commercial photographers around in the future, but not even remotely as many as there used to be. (Those who work for agencies like Reuters, AP, or Getty will have an advantage.)

    We -as photographers- will simply have to move on, maybe go into teaching the crowds what a good photo is, and how it can be taken? Maybe looking into fine-art prints?

  6. Hi Mark,
    Sorry I took my time about responding.

    As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side. I suppose if there is a teachable moment here, that would be that photographers, like everyone else these days need to be learning new skills especially with the advent of digital photography and all kinds of plug-ins in photoshop to easily create effects.

    There is no point in constantly looking over your shoulder and lamenting about the loss of business with the hordes of photographers offering their services on Craigs List for very little money.

    I think that even Reuters, AP and Getty are struggling as well. Since many amateurs are more than happy to upload their images to news sites as citizen journalist in exchange for being seen there, the picture agencies are also affected.

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