Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

EDIT: This blog has MOVED. You’re on the old, dead blog. Everything (including this post) has been migrated onboard my website. Here’s the direct link:

Update your bookmarks! See you there!

We now continue with our original programming….



If you had asked me, even a few months ago, how I felt about the state of my photography career, I would’ve given you the same answer I’d been using for years: “I’m still in my start-up phase.”

I like to think of myself as a newbie in photography. And, taking a long view, I suppose that’s still true. I expect to be shooting for at least another 30 years (hopefully much more), and the paltry amount of time I have under my belt right now will ultimately represent a small percentage of what I hope will be the total. The depth of my photographic ignorance is profound, and I will never have enough time on this earth to learn what I want, and need, to know about making photographs.

But lately, I’ve settled into an uneasy acceptance that in fact, I’ve “made it”, at least in financial terms. For the past several years, I’ve had enough money to do pretty much what I want; and my business grows year over year in pleasing amounts. It’s been a long time since I worried about having enough money next week (as I once did), or next month, or even next year. Better still, I’m getting the kind of work I really want to get; I find most of my shoots to be very fulfilling. I’m doing fine; I’ve “made it” as a photographer. Things could certainly go awry, and there is plenty of uncharted territory ahead; but I can no longer pretend that I’m a start-up.

So, yay! for me…but that’s caused me to think a lot about how exactly this has happened. How did I come to this place, where no rational person would have predicted I’d be? I occasionally get asked to speak on this topic, and I’ve always struggled to identify the characteristics and habits etc. that I felt were important…..other than to say that luck had absolutely NOTHING to do with it (on that score I’m quite sure).

I was frankly lucky to have gotten out of high school, though, and I literally flunked out of college (cumulative GPA: 1.8). When I “became” a photographer, I did not have the first clue about what I was getting into. I took no photography classes, read precious few books, did zero assisting. I had never actually met a professional photographer. The odds were so high against me that if I’d had any inkling of what my prospects were, I’d have been too scared to try. But, I didn’t know any better.

So what was the magic ingredient?


Before we go any further, let me just state for the record that I absolutely LOVE what I do for a living. I’m one of those  rare artists who actually does his “personal work” as a source of income. So while I’m about to go off on a long-winded spiel about the True Nature of Hard Work, let’s set as a baseline that I’m a very happy guy. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to replace the words “hard work” with the words “happy obsession” for the remainder of this essay.

I deal with a LOT of up-and-coming photographers, people who absolutely don’t think they’ve yet “made it”. They’re at the beginning of the journey, and it’s shocking how many never “get there”. I’ve stood in rooms filled with aspiring photographers and asked them a simple question: “How many people here are willing to work hard, to reach their goals?” Every hand in the room goes up, every time. And a lot of them roll their eyes at me, too. It’s a stupid question; who isn’t willing to work hard, to make their dreams come true?

Turns out, a lot of people aren’t. They say they are, but they aren’t. That, or they don’t know what I mean when I say “hard work”, and “sacrifice”, and “tenacity”. So today I’m going to try and explain this stuff.

A while ago, I was part of a video profile featuring 8 photographers, talking about the nature of success. There I am, blathering about how I still cold-call clients, but some of the biggest names in the industry (McNally, Heisler, Burnett) were talking about hard work. And “Hard Work” turns out to be surprisingly simple.

Since then I’ve had this conversation with a number of colleagues, all of whom have similarly “made it”, and it turns out we all agree: most people are simply un-willing to work hard enough to get where they say they want to be. I’m surrounded by startup and would-be photographers who insist that they intend to rise to the very top; but when push comes to shove, it always seems like there’s a different priority. They’re going camping. They have to visit their cousin. The big game is this weekend. Their friend is in from out of town. They have people over for dinner tonight. They’re attending a wedding.

These folks, by all appearances, have rich, full lives. I compare this with my life and see profound differences. I work a lot. Weekends don’t always mean much to me, because I work most of them. My photography has impacted my relationships (and not in a good way), has pushed aside pretty much every hobby or interest I had when I started, and dominates my social life (basically, all my friends are photographers). I do know photographers who are happily married and raising children….and frankly I’m in awe of them. I don’t know how they do it. One friend says, “A very understanding wife.”

I used to think that I was staying up until 1:00am because I was incompetent. “If I can’t out-shoot them,” I thought, “I’ll out-work them.” But it turns out, staying up late is how it’s done. Every successful photographer I know stays up late, and/or gets up early. Every one of them is pretty much monomaniacal about their photography. Happily Obsessed, you might say.


OK, so what the hell am I doing at 1:00am? Back when I was truly a start-up, that was a pretty legitimate question. When you don’t have any work, there’s not really a lot to do, right?

Wrong. I didn’t have clients to take care of, but not having clients is no excuse for not shooting. There was a time, before I got my first digital camera, when I couldn’t even afford film and processing.  I would walk around Oakland with an empty Olympus 35mm SLR, shooting photos just as if there were film in the camera — trying to teach myself composition. I read horribly tedious books with titles like “Light, Science, and Magic” (not nearly as exciting as the title implies), and “The Art of RAW Conversion” (even more boring than the title sounds). I spent hours online, studying the work of other photographers. Later, I self-produced shots that I wanted to make, that I wanted in my portfolio (and I still do this today).

I had filing systems and bookkeeping systems and backup systems in place long before I really needed them, and most of the time they sucked and I had to re-work them once I actually had things to file, and back up, and deposit. But I learned from those mistakes – by the time I really needed to do it, it wasn’t my first time.

Today, hard work means a couple of things. When I’m shooting, it means getting up at 6:00am (or more like 4:00am, if there’s a pre-dawn call time), eating a truly crappy hotel breakfast (or no breakfast at all, see: “pre-dawn call time”, above) and then being on location at 7:30, shooting until 8:00pm, eating a burrito and then sitting on my hotel room bed until midnight, editing photos, typing out contracts (email doesn’t stop, even when you’re shooting), comparing calendars, and figuring out travel arrangements for the next gig.

When I’m not shooting, it means even more tedious stuff. Repairing and organizing gear, finding the burned-out light bulbs that broke thanks to TSA (I carry light bulbs to every shoot. File under: Hard Work for my assistant). It means having all my bookkeeping and files in order and staying on top of re-touching requests etc. so that when a client calls and needs me to be in LA tomorrow, I can do it and the rest of my business doesn’t fall apart.

This is true whether I’m excited about the gig, or not. And I think this is a really, really important point: you can’t scale your effort according to the relative merits of the project. I’m not suggesting that you lay out hard cash on resources that will drive you into the red on a particular job. But effort – how hard you work it – that should not be a budget item. Few things drive me to distraction more than listening to someone defending their mediocre photos by saying that if it had been a “high-end” gig, they’d have done this and that differently. Listen, buddy: if you want that “high-end” gig, you’d better be doing this, that and every other thing on ALL of your gigs. Starting now.


 “Hard Work” means always going balls-out on every job. Getting up early and skipping breakfast and working long hours (like I described above) is easy when the work is fun and exciting. But what about when the work sucks? What about when the client doesn’t really care one way or the other? Are you still willing to roll out of bed at Oh-Dark-Thirty? I once shot an interiors gig for a new client that was, from a design standpoint, utterly abysmal. They knew this; it was a utilitarian structure, and no one pretended otherwise. But the photography needed to be done, the place needed to look good, and they hired me. I knew from the moment I walked in the door that this was never going in my portfolio. The place was, frankly, depressing. But I took the project seriously. I worked damn hard, for two days, photographing it. I waited for the good light. I did things that were very nuanced, that probably no one but me would ever care about. I composed shots carefully, and lit them with all the skill I have. I could’ve just phoned it in, cashed my check, moved on. But I didn’t: I shot the crap out of that place.

So here is where I’m supposed to tell you that this client turned into the best client I ever had, and made me tons of money, etc. etc. But that didn’t happen. It was just a difficult 2-day shoot of a boring project, nothing more. So do I regret having put out the effort?

Absolutely not.

Why? Two reasons. First, I firmly believe that maintaining that disciplined attitude is crucial to success. They hired me based on my reputation and portfolio. What does it say to my next client if I don’t put my best work forward on today’s shoot? Secondly, it’s a form of autonomy. Whether or not I do good work is dependent 100% on me, not on external circumstance. Hire me, you get quality material…..period. The design might suck, but my photography won’t. My client might not care, but I will. Self-employment means I get to live life on my own terms, and I take advantage of that every chance I get.


Success isn’t easy – but at least it’s not complicated! For sure, there are multiple factors involved (brains, talent), but I think it’s clear that you only need two out of three… and it’s the work ethic that’s the must-have.

20 responses to “Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

  1. I love it!!! You’re totally right. When I shoot a crappy house it doesn’t change for one second how much effort I put into my shots. Good lighting is good lighting no matter the subject.

    Keep up the hard work. I among many TRULY appreciate it.

  2. Thank you Thank you Thank you!! 🙂

  3. I’m very proud of you and your success! And your *almost* accurate Star Wars quote.

  4. Great inspiration! Strangely, I find it’s the rare person who truly enjoys hard work. Oh well, more fun for us! Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  5. Charles Mackenzie-Hill

    Powerful Stuff. Enjoyed the video too. It is important to be reminded that a good work ethic will help you get to where you want to go!

  6. yildirim enes

    This is a life time lecture to be read for anyone who wants to become best of what ever they do,it doesnt get any better than this,Thank you Mr Scoott

  7. “This is true whether I’m excited about the gig, or not. And I think this is a really, really important point: you can’t scale your effort according to the relative merits of the project. I’m not suggesting that you lay out hard cash on resources that will drive you into the red on a particular job. But effort – how hard you work it – that should not be a budget item. Few things drive me to distraction more than listening to someone defending their mediocre photos by saying that if it had been a “high-end” gig, they’d have done this and that differently. Listen, buddy: if you want that “high-end” gig, you’d better be doing this, that and every other thing on ALL of your gigs. Starting now.”

    Probably the most true thing I’ve ever read on the internet. It’s why I (shittily) light painted EVERY DAMN (shitty) real estate gig until I had that technique dialed, even though it took six hours to process every photo for peanuts. And now, three years later, I’m doing them all the time, for way, way more money, and I haven’t even shot real estate in about a year. Some people just don’t put in the hours!

    • “…the most true thing I’ve ever read on the internet….”
      That’s not really saying much, is it? 😀

      I notice you left your comment at about 12:30am — don’t think that reading my blog qualifies as “working”, Kelley!

  8. I too have “made it.” And . . . some of my success is from you Scott. I do work hard. But it was you sharing you techniques with me many years ago that I was able to establish myself as, “that tenacious realtor that always takes great pictures . . ..” So, THANK YOU for giving me one tool that has enabled me to get where I am today.

  9. Now I don’t feel so bad about staying up all night and having no friends to hang out with during my Christmas!

    On a more serious note, thank you for putting it out there and saying it as it is. There really is no shortcut. And happy congratulations on finding your happy obsession that will keep you motivated for the rest of your life! 🙂

  10. LOL Malia for calling out the Yoda quote! But all kidding aside, there is some great insight here. I think some people are just hard wired to always go at 100%. Ill be honest, I am not what you would call a ‘photographer’s photographer’. In those rare moments Im not doing photography for work, I hide the damn thing so I can remember what my life was like before I fell head long into this rabbit hole… But when it comes time to work, there is only one way to do it and that is the best I know how.

    Two things stood out for me here. One was the mentality of bringing your ‘A’ game to every project does lead to bigger and better things. I’ve always believed that and I would say that has a lot to do with my relative success in this niche. The other is the feeling that despite the success, it is possible one could still not be entirely satisfied knowing that there is still so much to learn and progress to make. I’ve learned that these beliefs are among the few that separate the over-achievers from the rest of the crowd. These are some of the qualities I look for when I choose to work with certain people therefore its not surprising that I make no exceptions for myself.

    Good stuff Scott, Thanks!

  11. Barry MacKenzie

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. Great post Scott. I’ve been following you now for a little over a year, watched your videos, studied your portfolio, and subscribe to your blog. This post however has been the most informative and productive one I’ve read thus far (not that your others weren’t). bettering your technique when you want to or experimenting when you want to is easy. Doing these things all the time even when you know the extra effort isn’t yielding portfolio work is difficult. I’ve been shooting real estate/ architecture as a contractor for a company now for 3 years and it amazes me still how some will just phone it in to get it done and move on and never think about it again and then complain that they never get to photograph the cool properties, and for some reason don’t piece it together why that is.

    This posting is definitely a good reminder if not a good warning about getting complacent which many of us even myself have fallen victim too at one time or another. Hard work is definitely the deciding factor between success and failure. Thanks again Scott.

  13. Well said. Reminds me of Pressfield’s writing on the subject. And West Point Cadet Maxim’s mantra that – Excellence is achieved through risking more than others think is safe, caring more than others think is wise, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible.

  14. Thank you, Scott for your insightful words. I realize it’s not the point of your post, but as a happily married mother of two small children and a photographer, I’ve come to place where I realize that we all must make priorities in our lives. The priorities we choose do not make our hard work any less respectable as long as we do indeed work hard at our highest priorities. For me, raising my two small children absolutely consumes the best of my energy and time, leaving very little left for photography these days. Being a mother has certainly slowed down my progress toward “making it,” but I work on my business and my photography with pretty much every other moment of time that isn’t spent caring for my family so I am confident that my efforts have lead to past successes and will lead to even better successes in the future. When I am changing poopy diapers and waking in the middle of the night to calm the cries of my teething baby, I would certainly rather be working on improving my photography business (I mean, who likes poopy diapers and screaming angry babies…). But I realize that this season will pass all too quickly. My children will get older and more independent needing far less of me. They will know that I held them in higher regard than my work and that they are loved deeply because I gave them the best of my time and energy when they needed it.

  15. So grateful to have found you early in my photography career. You have already helped me in soooo many ways! Thank you for sharing and posting and teaching!

  16. Nicely said! Being self-employed is hard work.

  17. Richard Hookway

    Excellent post Scott, an enjoyable read.