Beware the Used-To-Be Photographers

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I have no problem telling photographers, especially brand new to business photographers, beware of one certain source of advice, especially if you have to pay for that advice. That is advice from the Used-To-Be Photographer.

Professional courtesy is one of those givens in any industry. Colleagues get the benefit of the doubt because empathy is not just the newest marketing buzzword, it’s a real thing. We can cut one another some slack because we’ve “been there, done that” and ruined a few t-shirts. We can encourage and critique.

But when necessary, we can be critical, even to the point of brutality. Sometimes you just have to call shenanigans on a post, a practice, or a concept. From the very beginning, I claimed to be the tough love coach, because tough love is what’s needed for a tough industry. Encouragement and coddling are not the same thing. One I give freely, the other not at all.

That is why I have no problem telling photographers, especially brand new to business photographers, beware of one certain source of advice, especially if you have to pay for that advice. That is advice from the Used-To-Be Photographer (UTB).

Legends in their time, versus legends in their mind

Before anyone tosses their computer, phone, or other reading device across the room, let me qualify what I just wrote. I am not referring to the icons of our industry. Anyone who has gone through decades, produced a breathtaking portfolio and impressive career, is obviously not in the UTB category. These individuals should definitely be heard. Their experience and education can save beginners from a world of misery and fast track a new career.

In a previous article, I shared an observation that photographers in the digital age seem to go through an arc (Ten Year Time Capsule: What Happened to All the Photographers?). Not all, of course, but a sad number of those I had been following for quite a while. They go from new photographer, to educator, to marketer for that education, to gone. Sometimes it’s the changing seasons of life, sometimes it’s a loss of interest. Regardless, it is a failure of that photography business to have enough value to carry on. Plain and simple. Period.

Do as I say, not as I do

Whenever I come across a photographer’s blog, course, or education offer, I instinctively go into research mode. How long have they been a working photographer? Is their material an extension of their photography, or a replacement for it? Are they still a working photographer, and if not, is their offer more valuable to the student than to the educator?

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In other words, were (past tense) they a photographer who decided the photography industry was hard, and gullible students pay more than photography clients ever did?

Recently, a colleague summed up bluntly, “The photography education space is disproportionally filled with failed wedding photographers.”


Back into research mode I went. Before falling off the scene, what type of photography did the UTB offer? Sadly, answering this was not an easy task. Once a UTB scrubs their work from the world, we are often left with reading their material to try to piece together their actual photography experience. Sometimes we are lucky and the UTB refers to their work often as a validation of their expertise.

“When I did (weddings, newborns, portraits, etc)….”

I was able to neither prove nor disprove to my liking the accuracy of my colleague’s observation. I’m also hesitant to use the word “failed”, unless I consider giving up as failure, which I take on a case by case basis. Let’s face it, sometimes quitting is the right thing to do. If only more people in our industry accepted that earlier on, both they and the industry would be better for it.

That is, of course, unless they decide that someone will pay for their experience.

Let me be clear that education is a lifelong necessity. Neglecting education can cause your skills, systems, and business to wither. The right education can save time, treasure, and tears. The wrong education, however, has the same cost – time, treasure, tears – often many times over.

It has never been easier to access the education you want or need. Online resources are available for free or for a fee. It becomes easier every day to produce, package, and present information. It also becomes easier to buy, sell, and consume. There’s something for everyone. Even my appliance repairman recently noticed, “Everybody and his brother is out there making videos of what they do.” So maybe “everybody” is an exaggeration, but the perception is real.

I failed, so you don’t have to

That is exactly why I caution with regard to the Used-to-Be Photographer. There can be as many reasons for leaving a photography business as there are photographers who leave. These really only fall into a few categories, though: the time needs of family; health; disinterest; or money. One could argue that even time needs of family is related to money. If someone isn’t making enough money to justify the opportunity cost in family time, the decision to stop isn’t usually a difficult one.

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Be skeptical of any UTB that cites time as a reason for totally giving up their photography to offer education instead. It is very important to note that it takes every bit as much time and effort, if not more, to produce content and to engage as an educator, than it does to be a working photographer in a successful photography business.

Health and disinterest are seldom overcome enough to take up education instead. That basically leaves the reason as money. Financially viable photography businesses seldom close their doors to concentrate solely on education, unless this is a part of an exit strategy from the industry. Even then, this is at the waning phase of a successful career over many years.

The trend in online photography educators is turning up something else, though. The UTB with less than a decade of actual photography business experience, trading their camera and clients for a keyboard and students. They are enthusiastically selling “How to Be A Success” in one of the most oversaturated, undervalued industries there is. The vast majority of their students will end up trading in their cameras for something else as well.

When choosing to invest in education, either with money or time, we have all sorts of questions about the teacher. Two questions in particular, in my opinion, should definitely be asked. The first is whether or not the provider is still a working photographer or a Used-To-Be Photographer.

If he or she is the latter, you can then make yourself comfortable – or not – with the next rational question, “If this method is so successful, why are you no longer using it?”

Photo credit: Image by Alex Andrews from Pexels