The Best Thing I Ever Did Was Quit Professional Photography

As a kid growing up in interior British Columbia, it is impossible not to fall in love with the great outdoors. Some of the best ski hills on the continent, endless hiking and biking opportunities, and lakes that stretch over the horizon. The endless opportunities outside my doorstep would often lead to long adventures in the mountains, and ultimately, a budding interest in photographing these places to share with others.

Using an old Pentax ME-50 Super, I captured images of mountains, glaciers, and sunsets on these outings. It was pretty hard to take a bad picture when the surroundings are so epic and naturally stunning, it was just a matter of visiting them.

I moved to Calgary for College near the Canadian Rockies, and I was forced to push outdoor pursuits to the backburner for a while. Packed schedules, lack of transportation, and lack of money made it difficult to get outside the city more than once every few months.

Both the outdoors and photography were never too far off my mind though. The mountains on the horizon west of Calgary were pulling at my nature-strings pretty hard, and after graduating, I began to take short day-trips to explore the Rockies that I had read so much about.

In 2005, I finally saved enough to purchase my first consumer DSLR (a Canon Rebel XT) to replace my aging Pentax. The Rebel opened up a new world to me. I began heading to the mountains at every opportunity to photograph waterfalls, mountains, anything and everything else I could snap a photo of. Through Flickr, I began to showcase some of my photos to friends, eventually earning enough praise to be asked to shoot some engagement and family sessions, earning enough extra money on the side to begin purchasing better equipment.

In 2008 I quit my full time career as a geomatics technologist to begin what would become one of the biggest roller coaster rides of my life as a ‘professional photographer’.

Professional photography is probably one of the most glamorized careers out there. With the proliferation of extremely high quality, cheap digital photo gear, the quantity of good photographers has shot through the roof, and despite what you might hear, people still hire photographers in vast numbers.

But the lure of easy money shooting weddings, families and engagement sessions turned out to be a death trap for me. My goal was to start out shooting “people” projects, meanwhile spending my newfound free time and money out in the mountains building a portfolio of adventure photos, eventually making the transition into outdoor adventure sports.

Sounds great right? Well, as it turns out, the reality of being a full time photographer turned out to be a lot different than I expected. While money was pretty good, the myth of “free time” as a self-employed business owner wasn’t quite as plentiful as expected. Spending my free time shooting personal work began to fade as the hours shooting weddings increased.

Now don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed shooting weddings and people, and was pretty good at it as well. I had invested in the best gear I could afford, and enjoyed working with clients and producing quality images for them. But one day while browsing through my 50,000+ photos, a really scary thought occurred to me: I don’t actually like any of my photos.

Despite having thousands of technically good photos of brides, mayoral candidates, engaged couples, and families, not a single photo represented the whole reason I had gotten into photography in the first place. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had picked up my 5DII for anything other than money-making purposes.

It was then that I had to make a call: quit photography professionally, or completely burn out and quit photography all together later on. I decided to choose the former, and within a few months, I had sold all my equipment on Kijiji, quit accepting new photography contracts, and gotten a more stable job working in development.

I spent all the money I gained from selling my camera gear to purchase full ski touring gear, climbing equipment and mountaineering equipment and spent the next 2 years seriously pursuing those avenues. Eventually I picked up a small Samsung EX1 to take with me, which allowed me to start taking a few photos again.

My photo gallery is a lot smaller these days, but there is something amazing about it: I absolutely love and am passionate about every single photo. Some of them aren’t even that great, but for the first time in years, they finally represent me.

Maybe someday I will shoot in a “professional” capacity again, but i’m in no rush to get there. For now, I just want to share my wild experiences with the world, and share in the experiences of others — something photography is perfectly suited to.

About the author: Jonathan Coe is a photographer, climber, and skier based in Rossland, British Columbia. He shares his mountain adventures on Instagram as @jonathan__c and on his website.

  • Lars

    who cares?

  • sierrarobba

    Dont care your life!

  • Rod Bergren

    I care, and this is precisely the reason I have never tried to make the jump to professional. I love my pictures but I do not want to be forced to take pictures I do not love.

  • Alexandre

    thanx for that. i know what you’ve been through as i had made pretty much the same experience. although i am still earning my money with photography.. but i’m not rushing things anymore..

  • Tavis Dunn

    i care too, and can directly relate and understand. Also i would like to add the Rossland in one of my favorite places on Earth.

  • Lisa

    You know, articles are written for people who may be interested in the topic being addressed. If you don’t care, either don’t read the article OR do read the article and resist the temptation to make a comment that you don’t care. I find the article interesting from the point of view for one photographer and helpful on a personal level.

    I’m tired of people posting disrespectful comments to everything under the sun.

  • Adam Gasson

    Sounds more like an issue of going into the wrong field of photography. Weddings are great for money but it’s not a way to shoot other areas as the time spent marketing, editing and shooting is too high. I’m glad Jonathon got out before coming to resent photography.

  • Adam Gasson

    Hopefully one person will read this and realise that shooting weddings won’t open doors to other fields of photography. That person will care.

  • Ardean Peters

    Great article and something I’ve been contemplating myself, as an aspiring pro/fulltime photographer.

  • Gregor

    Good job liking your own comment.
    Too obvious though.

  • Felipe_Paredes

    i care twat!

  • MarvinB7

    I can totally identify with this mindset. I had a love for photography at one point, then I went to college and got a degree in it. The flame began to flicker… 18 months ago my family relocated and I’ve not been able to establish stable photo work, but my personal work is going through the roof. I also have a portfolio of ‘good’ images, but I wouldn’t ever want to show them to anyone. Now my images are something I can proudly show to family and friends.

  • Melo

    I’m very protective of my photography passion. As both a professional visual media designer and photographer, I carefully select my photo projects so that I don’t grow to despise the process like I have come to bemoan the design dynamic. Art & commerce do not mesh easily.

    I completely understand why he quit. There are many ways to make money in this world. No amount of money is worth murdering your passion. Which for those of you who don’t earn your living as a creative, is very easy to do.

  • Burntout

    Thankyou so much for your honesty….it’s true that the life of a pro photographer is not what I expected it to be either…unlike you I came to the realization a little too late and after burning the candle at both ends for too long am now burnt out. I have beautiful children that I don’t want to take photographs of :(
    I have now changed my field of photography from people to commercial work and hopefully one day will enjoy photographing my kids again :)

  • MarvinB7

    Word. I NEVER used to take my camera anywhere for any reason. Now that I’ve have mostly left behind the J-O-B part of it, I take my camera everywhere I go. :)

  • Tim

    The word “amateur” means “for the love of”

  • Joe Santollini

    And I couldn’t care less for the fact you’re English language challenged…

  • Pod

    I can sympathize. I shoot special events, concerts, nightlife, and lately have been branching out into scenic works. Non-pros and pros alike have praised what I’ve done to the point of “wow, never in my wildest moments could I have pulled off that shot…”. However, I shoot what I love to shoot, and I charge money for what I do. However, that money doesn’t entirely cover my bases, so I do some web and IT work as well. Partially because of my self-admitted lack of business acumen. I’m not much of a marketer. Also, it’s gotten a bit crowded in my field, where there’s a lot of people doing the work for cheaper or free. Clients would rather get “OK” images for free than superb images for a cost. Some suggest I “get over myself” and shoot weddings or something more common.

    I shot a wedding two weeks ago for some close friends of mine who paid me. Now, I don’t do weddings, but I accepted the gig since they specifically sought me out on my skill and of course the level of trust. I had a blast doing it, but I did kind of realize it was because it was my friends getting married, and not the interest in wedding photography per se. It wasn’t a conventional wedding by any stretch. I’m not 100% sure I could deal with bridezillas and “Uncle Bob with the DSLR”. So, I’ve never marketed myself as a wedding shooter, even though I know I have the skill to do so. If I shot weddings, I could easily jump into “full-time-no-other-income-photographer” territory. I’d have to probably read a lot of Marketing 101 blogs and definitely get an agent of sorts, but I know I could make it happen.

    But I’d probably lose my enthusiasm for photography.

    I see this a lot actually. There’s talented people out there, for whatever reason, never make the transition to “full-time-photographer”. I think half of it is the risk, especially in the US where we don’t have state health care. There’s a guy on the beach I know who is superbly talented with his photos of women, erotica, travel, and society. He even drove across the country and back on a scooter and documented the journey. However, last time I checked, he does food deliveries to make ends meet, since he’s in the same boat a lot of us are, in that he doesn’t want to turn something he loves into “work”. There’s scads of blog entries on here and elsewhere, where it’s plainly documented that you’ll only spend about 20 percent of your time actually shooting (or less), if you choose do do photo work full time. It’s actually quite common in the creative field. In some cases you can tie in your creative pursuit into a “daytime” gig, i.e. a fine art designer can do corporate graphic work during the day, a jazz musician can work in a music store or a studio, etc. Heck, it used to be a lot of photographers would work in photo labs. I did for a long time. But when the market fell apart on photo labs, that kind of went away.

    Though sometimes, for the fortunate few, the ship does come in, and for those that it does, they get paid rather well for just doing what they like to do.

  • Elijah Alcantara

    Interesting read, I guess landscapes and people photography are entirely different. I once started at landscapes but became bored later on, what sparked the new love for photography is when I took my first portrait. I do not know if I ever will enjoy events or weddings but I guess it depends on the person taking the photo.

  • andrewleduc

    change the name of this article please to “The Best Thing I Ever Did Was Quit Professional WEDDING Photography”

  • Bruno Willian

    I wonder what Jonathan Coe is doing to earn money since he quieted his job. I am glad he could do that, but there are many people that don’t know other way to keep the same standards without been a photographer.

  • guest

    isn’t that experience synonymous with every artistic profession under the sun? those passionate about performing music, have pipedreams of becoming a musician even if they never take a step in that direction–etc.

    some people are meant to enjoy it as a hobby, and some can make it their full-time career. being a hobbyist doesn’t mean you love it any less.

  • guest

    well, he was a ‘geomatics technologist’, so I guess he probably fell back onto that.

    I don’t mean to spark outrage, but in an economy like this and in a profession like photography, young people should try and get a more well-rounded education before attempting to become professional photographers. I have a friend who’s absolutely terrible at design but wants to become a jewelry designer. her specific education won’t help her when she can’t find a job.

  • Eziz

    As a professional software developer, I used to enjoy coding, that is before going pro and working on other people’s shitcode for heavy-duty bank systems.
    I think it’s similar in every prof. field, you start losing your fire.

  • Ioli Tripodaki D

    the whole point is work hard but not too hard .. i also love outdoor sports, mountains and everything that has to do with nature and whenever i see my face in pictures with that kind of backgrounds my smile is filled with happiness and possitive energy!

  • jOH!

    Yes I quit also. Now I shoot the way I want to, and i get people who want to pay e for it too..

  • Sunil B

    That’s why I don’t prefer taking a camera with me when I’m with nature. We are so engrossed in taking pictures and showing it to our friends or putting it on FB, that we forget to enjoy our trip.

    So whenever I’m outdoors, I find a good spot where I can get a breath taking view, take a deep breath and close my eyes and my mind captures the pictures. And when I’m back at home or work, sitting at my desk, I close my eyes and relive the moments!

    By the way, I have utmost respect for photographers.

  • Nick Haskins

    Ya this is exactly why I stopped shooting professionally as well.

  • Tyleryyc

    An amazing story about doing things for the right reason!

    Thanks for sharing

  • fast eddie

    To say that wedding photography WON’T open doors is incorrect for the
    majority of photographers, but there are always cases that prove the
    opposite is also true.

    I work full time as a graphic designer, and supplement my income with
    photography work, but I shoot a decently wide range of subjects outside
    of wedding photography.

    Shooting weddings was my foray into paid photography work, which I get paid very well for.

    Shooting weddings taught me a lot about the business side of professional photography work, as well as the creative side of composition and post-processing side.

    The first few weddings were incredibly nerve wracking, and I almost quit doing it. But I realized that I was good at it, I enjoyed the interactions with people and appreciated the positive feedback my work generated. Moving into other areas of photography was easy and natural.

  • tiredofit123

    I think you’ve touched on why I decided to never go professional, even though I have lots of people tell me my photos look great and I’d make money off of them. But it is a business; and I have no real inclination or skills for being self employed. I’m very attached to the idea of a steady income and would see myself quickly burning out on what has become my main creative outlet. So my choices are either go freelance and hope taking the photos I like would somehow be bought, or accepting I’ll do the photography I like and may never make a dime off of it but in the end I still like doing it.

  • Ross Jukes

    I would love to be in your position (then again, I’d love to be asked to do a wedding!) – very inspirational and a great set of photos!

  • Matt

    Take some photos of your kids! IMO that is the best way to get back to loving photography. Get a different camera maybe and a different workflow maybe, those changes might be what you need.

  • Adam

    Whiner– working as pro means satisfying you customer’s needs. You provide a service, they pay you, we are all happy. Who ever said a job has to be enjoyable? Man up, do your work, go home and shut up. Oh, and the fact he took TWO YEARS off to go climb some rocks shows he is not a worker, but a man who wants it easy to go out and play. And his pics are way overdone– lay off the PS crutch, please.

  • Anthony Burokas

    Well said. And a cogent message for all creatives.

  • Niels Bo Nielsen

    I can relate. I have been working long hours and when you come home tried from work. The last thing on your mind is picking up a camera. I take time off and shoot like hell in my holidays.

    Also i kinda don’t feel inspired by my home country. I not really exotic and it sort of rain a lot. Plus no mountains.

  • t_linn

    Interesting story. Awesome images!

  • R. G.

    I too faced that decision and quit pro work to return to my beloved roots, my camera, me with mother nature. Congradulations!

  • Nick

    As a professional musician who is currently retraining, I can absolutely relate to this. Good on you for quitting and finding your love for creativity again.

  • Salar

    Thank you for sharing your story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and started following your work on Instagram. However, as a dormant photographer who is currently facing the same predicament you described above, I truly hope to hear a sequel to your story with a happy ending. Financial success & creative freedom in photography need not be mutually exclusive.

  • Jose Luis Zapata

    Great article and GREAT photos! Do what you LOVE…LOVE what you do :)

  • Luis

    Nice story, but the images are full of nasty halos. Good eye, terrible processing.

  • Marc Weintraub

    Maybe I’m young enough and still early into my software dev career (6 years in as a dev and 14 years in IT/SW) but I still enjoy programming at home. Of course it’s for projects I enjoy.

  • Marc Weintraub

    I like your “get a different camera” approach. I have many cameras (and only one digital). Right now I’m shooting digital professionally, but shoot film for fun. I plan on shooting more film professionally when time is not of the essense.

  • joe

    You seem overly focused on equipment as proof of competence, with no mention of any kind of vision or actual passion for photography beyond some myth of the lifestyle. It sounds like you’ve made the right choice. The world needs geomatics technologists and professional skiers too.

  • Tom

    This post is a good example of what is really WRONG with professional photography. Fly-by-nighters who decide to become “professional photographers” as a flight of fancy after leaving a good job with some savings in their bank account knowing full well they can return to that lucrative job if it doesn’t pan out. It’s bad for the art. It’s like a leave of absence from work. Newsflash: You don’t have to take photos that you don’t like to make a living. You will succeed ONLY if you take photos that you like, hence, that is why you failed. One could also question why you felt the need to write an article and why you have a website? I thought photography was just “for you” again? Or are considering a return to photography after re-styling yourself as an “adventure photographer” and this is all part of the promotional aspect?

  • Mauli Mishra

    such a tale …seems like one out of d wonderful pictures …but d reality is really bitter….things done jst for our soul is different wn done keeping others in mind….many like the truth but only few dare to speak out …. :)..really gudone dude eye opener for many others..

  • Isac Galvão

    Nice story, magnificent photos.

  • Michael Andrew Broughton

    um, there’s no such thing as a pentax me-50 super.

  • Kasey

    Okay that made me laugh out loud. “Uncle Bob with the DSLR”.