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The Case For Not Photographing What You Love

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It wasn’t my intention to start with an F-Stoppers-style clickbaity title but I didn’t know what else to call it.

Over the past year I – like plenty of other photographers – have had some time to reflect on where our photography journey has taken us throughout our lives. How our genres have changed, how our styles have changed, and our overall technique.

One thing that seems to fascinate people is how I seemed to transition from landscape photography to more documentary photography. As an avid backpacker and hiker, why am I no longer focusing on landscapes (pun intended)?

I wanted to spend some time here to share how my number one passion in life was almost destroyed by photography, and how you can avoid that same danger.

Reasons for Photographing Your Passion

There’s that saying that goes something like, “do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.” Eh, yes, partly true.

If you truly love your job, hopefully you go to work every day looking forward to it. There’s no worse way to start a morning than, “ugh, I have to work today, I hate my job, I want to quit but I need the money.”

I believe that those of us who have found a way to make that money with our cameras are quite lucky. It’s not often that you can earn a living (or part of one) through creative practices.

Create better work

When you love your job it shows in your work. Being truly passionate about something means that you’ll pour your heart and soul into it. The chances of finding success are higher because of this, because you include a piece of yourself in the final product.

If you love the outdoors, you probably have no problem braving a cold wind on a remote mountain pass to capture the sunset. If you’re not passionate about the outdoors, you’re probably not making it far from the trailhead.

Fin Dome in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, days away from any trailhead

Your knowledge about that topic also helps you create better work. Spending time hiking the mountains – if that’s your passion – you learn about weather patterns, for example. Which daytime conditions are prime for a colorful sunset? And when and where? This helps give you a knowledge advantage so you’re in the right place at the right time. The creative part is then up to you.

Same for wildlife photography. If you love warblers and know a lot about warblers, you’ll already be in a much better position to capture great warbler photos than someone who couldn’t pick a warbler out of a bird lineup.

Reasons for Not Photographing Your Passion

There’s also something wrong with that saying, “do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

It’s still work though. Photographers are, for the most part, self-employed individual proprietors with zero employees. We do everything ourselves. Marketing, finances, taxes, bookings…all the other administrivia that I’m willing to bet we hate.

Many photographers who have crossed the line from “enthusiast” to “professional” quickly notice a major shift in where they spend their time. Enthusiasts get to spend 90% of their free time with their camera and 10% of their time on admin. Once it’s a full-time job, however, now it’s only 10% photographing and 90% admin.

Mixing the dreadful business tasks with your passion can lead you to a falling-out with your passion.

And that’s what nearly happened to me.

The mountains are…no longer calling

I used to go hiking a few times a week and backpacking several times a summer. Hit the trail with my camera and grab some great vistas of my beloved Sierra Nevada mountains on the Nevada/California border.

Being outdoors was therapeutic for me, and important to my mental & physical well-being. Scientific studies have proven so, and I can offer excellent anecdotal evidence to support it.

Taking my camera on these outings was no problem. I was just photographing what I loved. I had a “real” job, as they say, so there was no pressure to create any photos that would pay my mortgage.

But then something unexpected happened as I started getting more and more serious about photography and less serious about “real” jobs.

I started to associate my passion – hiking through the mountains – with work.

Gotta get this certain photo today so I can pitch it to this editor, which means I won’t be able to do this side trail I’ve always wanted to do, there’s no time for that.

I better come back with something to post on the ‘gram, it’s been at least two days since I’ve posted anything. Gotta have something to keep the likes & follows coming.

Won’t be able to stay out for sunset tonight, even though it looks like it might be a good one. This client wants these photos tomorrow and I’ll need time for editing.

How fun does any of that sound?

We all need an escape. The mountains were mine. Once I started bringing work there, it was no longer an escape.

Now I dreaded putting on my hiking shoes because it meant that I had to do something while I was out there. Something other than just being there. And being there was my favorite part, what kept me going in life.

An Unexpected Turn for the Better

This story has come up in every podcast interview I’ve done, which you can listen to via links in my bio.

In short, I went from “I won’t create any photos that have people in them” to “I must create photos with people in them.”

I fell in love with doing documentary work for nonprofits while still considering myself a “landscape photographer.” This started with an accidental and unplanned sailing stop in Haiti, being introduced to a nonprofit there, and returning for a photodocumentary project.

One of my early “documentary” photos while helping with a project in Haiti…far different than my regular landscape photography.

I eventually did more and more of this kind of work both at home and around the globe. My other passion – helping people less fortunate live better lives – became my new focus (pun, again, intended).

But this time it was different.

Being outdoors was for my personal well-being. A medicine that I needed to take, if you will. The warning label should have read “do not operate a business while taking this product.” The side effects were severe.

No, doing documentary work for nonprofits was less about me and more about my desire to help others. Mixing in the business aspect of it did not make it any less enjoyable. It was just a part of it that naturally fit in. And it’s taken me to some pretty cool places, where I’ve met some pretty cool people I still keep in touch with.

This new love for visual storytelling would inspire me to do some other personal photography projects that I never would have dreamed up if I remained a “landscape” photographer. So it opened some other doors for me that I’m glad I went through.

Behind-the-scenes sneak peak at a new documentary project I’m working on about the Pony Express

Should You Photograph What You Love?

By no means am I saying, “don’t photograph your passion.” There are plenty of reasons for doing the opposite.

I’m just a dude with a personal story about how mixing business with something that I held dear almost ruined that thing for me.

Perhaps your passion is travel and you absolutely love photographing “travel” to make a living. I’m willing to bet there are a few people out there doing that (as in a few thousand).

Or maybe you’re not sure which genre or subject you want to photograph. Maybe you’ve already been photographing a certain genre or subject that you love and can’t figure out why it no longer brings you joy.

Take a minute to really analyze how mixing business with your passion might negatively affect your relationship with your passion. There are most certainly pressures and stressors that come out of turning that passion into profit.

As for me, it’s time to hit Publish and go for a hike. And leave my camera at home.

If anyone else has a similar personal story, please share it below for others to learn from.

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Monday 7th of June 2021

“We all need an escape. …. Once I started bringing work there, it was no longer an escape.” … this is so true, whether mountains or even just bringing work home. For me its taken a lot of discipline to just be present, for friends/family/nature/breathing. Thanks for sharing!

John Peltier

Tuesday 8th of June 2021

I know you've got the discipline :) I hope all is well!

Steve Shreve

Saturday 29th of May 2021

Thanks for this article. It will also resonate with anyone who is asked “Your photos are fantastic, why don’t you do this for a living?”.

As far as street, landscape, and nature photos are concerned, they are a reason for me to hike/walk for interesting places to shoot.

Photography makes me want to get outside more and likewise getting outside makes me want to shoot more.


John Peltier

Tuesday 1st of June 2021

Yeah the "for a living" aspect sure makes it different than the "for the love of it" aspect. They say photography is your passport to travel and do cool things, which is certainly true!

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