This is a first installment in a series appearing every Friday on SLR Lounge exploring how to move from hobbyist to professional.

quit day job

Path to Pro, part one: Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Photography is your love, your passion. And in your heart you know that you want to transition from being an amateur to pursuing your passion professionally. You’ve even gotten paid for a few jobs, so you are already doing some professional work. Nevertheless you may feel that you’re not a ‘real’ professional photographer because the photo jobs are on the side and you also have a day job.

You may feel like staying in your current job when you know you’d like to do photography full time is a betrayal of your dream. But actually, keeping your ‘day job’ a while longer can provide a quicker path to working as a successful professional photographer than jumping ship right away.

Here’s how. Your day job helps you to:

1. Protect your passion.

Keeping your day job allows you the freedom to shoot the type of work you want to do, not just the type of work that pays immediately.

If want to work seriously as a photographer, you need to find your individual vision and artistic voice. This is more important than ever in a crowded marketplace. Differentiating yourself is essential to professional survival. Your artistic voice will only emerge if you protect your passion and shoot what inspires you.

If you are depending on photography as your sole means of income right away, you may be tempted to take jobs that pay immediately. Often times, these are not what you are uniquely inspired to capture. Maybe you are passionate about landscape photography, but shooting little league team shots is the fast way to get paid. If you have a day job that keeps you afloat financially, you can say ‘no’ to jobs that you don’t want to do and that won’t support your portfolio.

2. Fund your own projects and be your own best client
The best way to be hired to do work you want to do is by first employing yourself first to do the work you’d like others to pay you to do. Shoot as if you were on assignment. You are! Your assignment is to build your portfolio. Take on personal projects that interest and challenge you. Let work that you admire inspire your projects. Experiment with new techniques. Tell a story. Shoot an assignment that scares you. A day job helps to fund these important personal assignments and allows you to hire yourself first to build your portfolio and attract the sort of clients you want to work with.

3. Invest in yourself and learn your craft. Education is ‘distilled experience’. Having the money from a day job to buy courses, books and workshops can give you a running start in your business and save you from ‘reinventing the wheel’ the first few years you are in business. Paying for education from those who have already taken a course in the school of hard knocks, can make your road to success a shorter and less bumpy ride.

4. Trade labor for learning. One of the best ways to become a better photographer and prepare to move toward a professional career is to watch and observe a professional studio in action. Offer to carry equipment. Assist. Most photographers welcome a second set of hands on projects. Having a day job allows you to volunteer with other photographers for the experience, rather than for the immediate payment. Having a job and presenting yourself to other pros as a student opens more doors than would be open to you as a pro with a competing studio.

5. Build your nest egg and equipment arsenal. The one thing that new enterprises need is capital, not only for camera equipment but the capital expenses needed to get started in business (advertising, accounting, rentals, logo design, assistants…) So be your own ‘angel investor’. Most small business lose money in the first three years. Your day job allows you to save strategically and build a cushion between you and the reality of lean times that will be ahead.


Use every means possible to both pursue and protect your passion, even if that’s a day job. Since the whole reason you want to turn pro is to do what you love, don’t let the pressure of making it your sole income kill the very passion that you are thinking of quitting your job to pursue. Once you are in business full-time you and feeling the pressure to try to turn a profit, it’s harder to take creative risks. You feel the pressure to know what you’re doing rather than having the freedom to learn and be a student of your craft. And you may feel pressure to take jobs just for the money rather than for the love (a dark irony discovered by many who quit their job to follow their passion only to trade it for another passionless ‘grind’ only behind a camera instead of at a desk.) With a stream of funding from a day job, you will have time to experiment, learn, risk in a way that it’s harder to do (not impossible, but harder) when you’re in business.

While it’s true, the day will come when you will have to let go of the side of the pool and go full-time, sink or swim. Keeping an alternative source of income going as long as you possibly can lead to long hours, but it can also be a strategic way to go farther once you do finally make the leap for good.

As long as you use it strategically, and stay focused on your ultimate goals, keeping your day job can be the fastest path to ultimately doing what you love. Next Friday: How to work for free (and still get paid).