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The PRO-Files: Hold On Loosely...One Pro Photographer's Guide To Success

Photo by Chad Wadsworth

When I recently called acclaimed music photographer and Sony Artisan Chad Wadsworth for some business advice, I received an unexpected response. “I don’t approach photography as a business,” he told me. “If my goal was to just make money or gain followers, I would be burned out and would have quit years ago.”

Well, I thought, that’s surprising. “But it is a business for you, isn’t it?” I asked. “You have clients and you take assignments?” I pressed the subject with him, but I was completely missing the point. Yes, of course it’s functionally a business, but for Wadsworth the focus of his work isn’t about the business. And one might argue that he is successful precisely because he instead focuses on only doing the kind of work he wants to do. It’s like the old saying goes: if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

“If you're into photography and you get high off the creative aspect of doing your work, then you're going to want to do this forever. So keep that in mind and just really approach it as the marathon that it is.” -Chad Wadsworth

Do Something You’ll Want To Do Forever

“One lesson that I’ve learned over the years,” Wadsworth says, “you have to hold on loosely. I've seen so many photographers—young, old, whatever—especially when they're starting, who are just so hyped up, they're just wired, they're hungry, they're anxious about succeeding and wanting opportunities and they get frustrated if it's not happening right away. And they can't get the editorial assignment they want or they can't get this job… My advice is definitely to look at it as a marathon, not a sprint. It sounds cliché, but it really goes back to me looking at this less as a business and more as a creative endeavor. When I go out to a shoot, I get a high. When I'm creating—whether it be editing or shooting—it is a drug. And if it's not a drug for you, you're in the wrong business, right? Literally it's a body high, it's a mental high and you may come off it exhausted. Normally after a shoot I can't sleep. And photographers who are reading this will be nodding their heads. They get it. That's something you want to have your whole life, right?”

“If you're into photography and you get high off the creative aspect of doing your work,” he adds, “then you're going to want to do this forever. So keep that in mind and just really approach it as the marathon that it is. Because you can't do that every day.”

Go All In, Then Take Time To Recharge

Wadsworth explains his approach in rather zen-like fashion. If you focus entirely on following trends, or trying to figure out what clients want irrespective of your own interests, not only will your work suffer but you’ll suffer for it. It’s like a dog chasing its tail. You won’t get anywhere and you’ll just wear yourself out. Success as a pro photographer is all about achieving balance. “My mother, rest her soul,” he says, “she literally mailed me newspaper articles and all sorts of advice. But the only thing that really resonated with me was when she said, ‘everything in moderation.’ And you know, I've finally figured that out. That's sage advice. It's just another way of saying balance.”

“What's important to you?” he continues. “If being creative is important, you can't burn out on it. You have to have it as a steady diet. I'll do a shoot, come off of it high and need to recover. It's like a physical/mental thing. I have to kind of come down for a couple days and we can't always do that. For example, for me South by Southwest is always several days in a row of intense work. Music festivals are the same way. You are out there just cranking: you're shooting, you're editing, you're turning around work. You have to be so focused and physically and mentally on point. After a festival I book my massage and my acupuncture, whatever I need to physically and mentally recover.”

Be Willing To Say No

Wadsworth isn’t an idealist. He understands that, practically speaking, sometimes you have to accept assignments for less than ideal reasons. That’s OK, of course, so long as you don’t lose sight of your primary objective.

“Another component of this is being honest with yourself about what type of work you should be doing,” he says. “I'm a music photographer, but I have commercial clients, I've done product photography, architectural photography, weddings and events. Sometimes you do jobs because you're helping someone out, or it’s a former client, or you need some money (‘I don't want to turn down this opportunity’) and that's fine. You just have to kind of say, ‘OK, I'm going to compartmentalize this. I've got to do this because I need to send my kid to lacrosse camp, or to grow my business, or whatever it is I need money for.’ If you're doing work that is annoying you and isn’t complimentary to your creative desires, that's going to grind you down. I think photographers need to be very honest with themselves about when to say no and how to focus on the work they want to be doing.”

The Right Path Still Has Twists & Turns

“Going back to the marathon concept,” Wadsworth says, “I’m constantly evolving. Even after doing this for almost 15 years, I'm still trying to focus on where do I want to be next? What's right for me at this point? I'm not going to go on tour with bands 100 days out of the year, like some of my younger friends who are doing this. It doesn't fit me. But that doesn’t mean I can't be doing other music work. I did some album covers last year, and one of them was just a really fun, creative project. A very creative collaboration with a great artist. I was so rewarded personally by that, it was one of my favorite things I've ever done. You can't buy that. And you want to do more of it, you know?”

“I think you have to figure out what it is that really gets you excited about doing your work, doing your craft.” he says. “If you can do that and get paid for it, God bless you. You are on the right path. And we're all trying to find that path.”

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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