What it Takes to Give up the Day Job and Become a Professional Photographer


It’s never easy to swap a perfectly good salary for the much riskier life of a freelance photographer. It’s even harder when the job you’re ditching is as stable and in demand as a systems analyst — and the kind of photography you’re moving into is as challenging and unpredictable as freelance travel photography. And yet that’s exactly what UK-born tech worker and camera enthusiast Gavin Gough did. Now based in Bangkok, Gavin divides his time between assignment photography, stock photography and teaching. His work  has appeared in National Geographic, Geo, Vogue, The New York Times and The Guardian. His stock images have appeared on postage stamps, magazine covers and billboards, and he has been commissioned by clients as large as Sony, Vanity Fair and the Vietnamese Tourist Board. In short, he gets paid to travel around Asia, talk to locals and take beautiful pictures.

The desire to move from keen amateur to rising professional developed over a long period. Like many photographers, Gavin had first played around with photography as a child, took pictures in his spare time and attempted to study the work of professionals to understand both what made a photograph work and the sort of work that photography users were willing to buy. In the days before stock sites and online inventories, Gavin would call stock libraries and pretend to be a potential buyer so that he could look through their catalogues for ideas and examples.

“In those days stock library catalogues were big, beautifully produced books containing thousands of images,” Gavin recalls. “They were a wonderful source of inspiration and information. I studied them in order to learn what images would sell and to gain an appreciation for the style of travel photography the editors might be interested in.”

The switch itself came in 2003. Gavin took a year-long sabbatical from his job, bought a round-the-world ticket and headed off to South America. He crossed the South Pacific and passed through Southeast Asia to India and Nepal. His aim, apart from seeing the world, was to build a portfolio that would allow him to make stock sales. By the time he returned, Gavin had become so used to the traveling lifestyle that he could no longer see himself ending his sabbatical and going back to work in an office. At that point, he said, he had to make his new career work.

The first travel commissions, though, came in only with great difficulty.

“If I had known just how difficult it is to make a living as a freelance travel photographer I might never have considered it,” he recalls. “Let us just say that I had everything to learn.”

It Helps to Be Naïve… and Learn Fast

Naivete about the size of the challenge involved in winning jobs and making a living as a photographer helped, and a passion bordering on obsession was essential. It quickly became clear that without a complete commitment to photography as a way of life that affected everything he did so that talk of a work/life balance become irrelevant, Gavin’s new career wouldn’t take off.

But those years of looking through catalogues and thinking about photography from the buyer’s point of view played a big role too. Whether you’re pitching for a job for a magazine or an NGO, the role of the photographer isn’t to persuade an editor to take the pictures they want to shoot but to produce work that buyers want, says Gavin, and in a format that makes the editor’s job as easy as possible.

The secret, if you can call it that, is to think about doing an editor’s job for them. Editors are busy people and if you can provide them with a complete package, with tightly edited images in a style that is suitable for their particular publication together with words, at least in the form of comprehensive captions, then you are presenting them with a much more attractive proposition.”

With work coming in and stock sales taking place through Getty, Alamy and Lonely Planet among others, Gavin began teaching photography. After moving to Thailand he set up the Bangkok Photo School which offers field trips and workshops for photography enthusiasts. Over the last four years, Gavin has taught more than 300 students, mastering new techniques in order to teach them to others.

It all sounds like a perfect transition, a successful shift from a nine-to-five job at a keyboard to a life doing a job you love. It even contains variety. If shooting stock images of Thai markets and Cambodian dancers gets dull, the next job might be a more fun-packed shoot for a water NGO. And when that shoot’s done, Gavin could be leading a tour through a little-known part of Bangkok while talking shutter speeds and f-stops with a group of other camera enthusiasts.

Back to the Day Job

It’s an opportunity that takes a willingness to accept a great deal of risk, and not a small investment, to seize. Gavin recommends that anyone thinking of following in his footsteps should make sure that they’re debt-free and have enough money in the bank to support themselves for at least twelve months. And even if it does all work, so that after a year your new photography business is up, running and bringing in sales and commissions, you’re likely to still find that you need to live cheaply and work hard.

You’re also likely to find yourself doing work that’s not so different to the tasks you were doing before you quit the day job. While Gavin’s photography work is divided into three enjoyable fields, photography only takes up between 10 and 20 percent of his time. The rest is spent processing, marketing, developing networks, writing, applying for grants, answering emails, updating accounts, chasing invoices and doing all of the administrative tasks that are a necessary part of running a business.

“I’m not just a photographer,” warns Gavin. “I have to be a marketing expert, an IT guru, an administrative assistant, and much more besides.”

But he is also a photographer and a successful travel photographer at that. And, despite the difficulties and the risks, that’s still something that a lot of photography enthusiasts would like to say.

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