To Succeed as a Pro Photographer, Stay Focused and Learn to Say “No”


It’s hard to turn down help in building your photography business, especially from friends and relatives. But a few years ago, I realized that the assistance I was receiving actually had become counterproductive. To grow my business, I had to learn to say “no.”

I had moved to a new city, where I was fortunate to have a number of friends and acquaintances. Knowing that I needed to establish a clientele in my new surroundings, several of my friends were kind enough to send work my way. Some of the jobs were corporate assignments; others were family portraits.

A Job’s a Job — or Is It?

The problem was, neither of those were my speciality. I focus on cultural photography, from traditional festivals and customs to modern, urban subcultures. So while I accepted some of the jobs sent my way at first, I ultimately decided that these assignments were preventing me from developing my business in my chosen field.

As soon as I started saying “no” and referring the portrait and corporate jobs to other photographers, I began unearthing opportunities in my own genre.

I know what you may be thinking: in today’s economy, a job’s a job — and it’s crazy to turn one down, especially from someone who cares about you. When you’re invited to photograph Cousin Ernie’s wedding, your natural instinct is to jump at the chance.

And why shouldn’t you?

The reason is that it can turn your photography business into a rudderless enterprise that veers from opportunity to opportunity without ever charting its own path. And that is a formula for financial failure — not to mention creative frustration.

So it’s OK to say “no,” even to friends and relatives, when an assignment isn’t a good fit. “No” is a very powerful word; it’s a word that offers you the freedom to succeed on your own terms.

Single-Minded Determination

I can count on one hand the photographers I know who are employed by someone else; the great majority of us are small business owners. And in a world where fewer than half of new businesses ever turn a profit, spending time, money and resources photographing something irrelevant to your business is simply not a smart move.

Especially when you are just starting out, you need a single-minded determination to establish yourself in your chosen genre. You need to shoot new work for your book; you need to create or otherwise source a database of prospective clients; and you need to develop a targeted marketing plan. And that’s just the beginning.

All of this takes time — time you lose if you spend it taking random jobs to make a quick buck.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter if everyone loves those baby photos you shot, if your goal is a career as an adventure photographer. It just becomes a distraction, pulling you further from your dreams.

Stay focused on your goals by learning to say “no.”


11 Responses to “To Succeed as a Pro Photographer, Stay Focused and Learn to Say “No””

  1. Hi Craig. Thanks for posting this. I find myself at a juncture at the moment where I need to start saying No to the type of work I no longer want to do. Your post has helped me realise why it is so important that I start doing this. Kelvin

  2. Craig, I too have been floating around the sea of just shoot anything for anybody many times dare I say it all the time for nothing than I found portrait photography to be my genre and now I have the power of no to landscape or any other thing which just leads to nothing, again thanks...

  3. Craig, like everyone else has said these are good words. I am starting out and trying to figure out what I want to do with my career. There has been a lot of great articles on this website, like yours, that is helping me find my path.

  4. The word "no" is easily one of the most important words of choice for a business owner. It also is one of the most difficult to master.
    A problem can arise when one is driven to change venues in order to survive as a viable business. There could come a time when the word "no" becomes a luxury and the ability to refuse a profitable gig does not exist.
    Using the word no at the correct time is not a skill we inherit at birth and requires some maturation in business savvy and financial survival awareness.

  5. Thanks Craig - Someone needed to say it, and I couldn't agree more. Now working on an unsuitable assignment, thanks to this enlightening encouragement, it will be the last...John

  6. very inspiring words, especially since I'm just starting out and was also offered jobs where I said No, cause they didn't match my style or qualification. sometimes I worry if that was the right decision, but you're right, the best decision is the one where I as a photographer feel comfortable with.

    the thing I'm thinking about now is what kind of photography I should say 'yes' to, in which direction I should be going...

  7. An interesting article and a philosophy I whole-heartedly endorse. I specialist in landscape and botanical photography. While I occasionally veer into other areas more to extend my own skill-set I don't get involved in say, portrait photographers and certainly never take on free or paid assignments in these areas. I have a network of photographers who specialise in areas I don't and they can truly provide an exceptional service and level of technical skill.

    It is also tempting to take on free or nearly free assignments on the back of a promise of something in the future. I can say from experience in my early days that these 'offers' never come to fruition and you never make money. It quite often turns out to be the client who gives you a small but decent order without promises of great riches that turn up trumps in the long-run.

    So stick to what you know guys and don't be afraid to be commercial - your living depends on it.

  8. Absolutely! I always say, know what you do and what you don't do.
    My photography was rock & roll 20 years ago - now its rare native wildflowers and native scenes, starting a new website about Postcards From The Woods and all the interesting things we see...but my roots are in marketing as you can see from my other website!

  9. Honestly, thanks for the insight. Craig -- I appreciate your words, and I'm not arbitrarily saying that.

  10. From time to time, I need to read something like this to remember what I do need to pursue my dreams. Getting distracted by jobs that can give you good money, but which aren't your "stuff", it's the most common way to lose our dreams.

  11. Thank you. I am still learning

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