Shifting Focus: Is It Time To Quit Photography?

By Kyle Wilson

We all know the story of the seasoned photographer who, after years behind the lens capturing everything from the grandeur of weddings to the subtleties of daily life, decides it's time to quit photography as a business. 

Some step away from a fulfilling career with grace, while others leave with bitterness towards the industry. 

When is the right moment to step away, and how do you pivot to a new chapter? Most importantly, how can you set yourself up to quit photography without hating the industry?

Drawing on my personal experience of pivoting from wedding photography to Narrative’s Head of Industry Insight & Education as well as observations made in my photography experience, here are some signs, decisions, and transitions that mark the path of photographers looking for a change.

Recognizing the Time for Change

It’s never an easy decision to change and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As the saying goes, change is painful, but nothing is worse than being stuck where you don’t belong. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if it’s time to move on or shift directions.

  • Does the stress outweigh the enjoyment you get?
  • Are you constantly comparing yourself to other photographers and never feeling ‘good enough’?
  • Is it no longer financially viable to continue?
  • Are you dragging yourself to shoots?
  • Are you forcing yourself to create?
  • Is it having a negative impact on your mental health?

Answering yes to these questions might mean it’s time to think about your next steps.

The Selfless vs. Selfish Dilemma

No matter your situation, quitting the photography industry involves a delicate balance of selfless and selfish decision-making. It's about recognizing when staying in the industry serves your needs more than your clients and making the hard choice to step away. Exiting can be selfish, but so can staying too long.

Wedding photography, in particular, demands a level of respect for the clients and the emotional significance of the day. Recognizing when you can no longer provide that respect is crucial. It's better to step back and reassess your commitment than to tarnish the memories of someone's special day with a lackluster attitude.

The Scale of the Photography Business 

Photography as a business is a scale. Knowing where you are on the scale can help you identify when you should intervene to avoid burnout and bitterness.

On one end of the scale, people do it for the art. On the other end, people do it for the money. 

In the middle are those who have built a successful brand and navigated the quirks and challenges of the industry. They have found a balance between making art and earning an income. These photographers have minimized the annoyances over their career, making the eventual transition out of the industry a smooth one. Leaving may be bittersweet, but it isn’t rife with bitterness for couples or clients.

Those who do it just for the money burn out faster because all they get out of it is cash. You know the one - the long-term wedding photographer who leaves saying they would never shoot a wedding again. They started because of the money appeal, but the grind of photographing weddings turned it into a chore - one they kept doing for far too long.

Then there are the "weekend warriors," juggling a 9-5 job during the week and shooting weddings over the weekend. They tend to exit the scene earlier, driven by the desire to reclaim their personal time and avoid growing resentful of a job that encroaches on their life outside work. 

Some photographers find themselves stuck in a cycle due to financial necessity. Perhaps they support a family or other financial responsibilities dependent on the income. This scenario often leads to burnout, especially if the photographer never truly loved the niche to begin with. If you’re feeling stuck, it might just be time to pivot.

Pivoting with Purpose: Leverage Your Skills

Are you wanting something new, not out of disdain but simply because you crave a different path? The transition must be a calculated and purposeful process. It involves methodically scaling down the parts of the business that are no longer necessary, finding ways to remain profitable while doing less, and strategically managing overhead costs while stepping into a new area.

The skills honed in wedding photography are invaluable in many other fields. Pivoting within the industry or even transitioning to roles where photography isn't the primary focus can offer a refreshing change of pace without leaving behind the essence of what made you passionate about photography in the first place.

Consider the skills you have that can transition to another role:

  • Adapting to changing environments
  • Engaging clients on an emotional level
  • Collaborating with other vendors
  • Meeting tight deadlines
  • Running a business

Wedding photographers Chris and Ruth are a fantastic example of pivoting while still loving what they’re doing. Their wedding photography business takes them around the globe. Meanwhile, they have also started a hat-making business. Check out our interview with them for the full story.

Pro tip: Start padding your bank account to easily exit in the next couple of years. Drum up print or album sales, shoot family photos instead of weddings, or sell stock photos. Or, if you just don’t want to be the person shooting the wedding but don’t mind the behind-the-scenes work, bring on an associate shooter. This can be a good option while you step back and figure out your next 18-24 months.

Refresh and Rebrand

Sometimes, all that's needed is a refresh. Revisit your enthusiasm. Remember one of our favorite quotes we’ve shared before from The Oatmeal: Creativity is like breathing. You can’t exhale forever; eventually, you have to breathe in.

Revisit your roots and why you choose to do this in the first place. Catch the problem before it becomes a runaway train of hating the job. 

Think back to where you sit on the scale. What do you need to get out of your photography business to remain in it? Can you outsource some areas? Do you need to change your clientele? Are you bored and need to rejig your brand and style?

Look through old galleries and edit them with a fresh eye to try and spark new creativity. Look at how you can market differently or what you could do to charge more. Examine areas of your business you may have become complacent in, like client education or your communications.

Changing your goals or reigniting your creative spark might be all you need.

How To Exit With Grace

Leaving behind a career in photography, especially one that has defined a significant part of your life, is a nuanced process. It's about dismantling your business without disrupting the flow, managing ongoing costs, and communicating changes to your clients carefully and professionally.

You’ve built a business that works for you; don’t take apart the airplane while it’s flying. Plan it out in advance and give yourself the space to ease out of your current path. 

Consider the weddings you have committed to and how to slowly exit without causing your current clients concern. Gradually stop taking on weddings and putting less of a face out there. Plan how and when you will communicate your exit publicly to have the least detrimental effect on current clients.

Dismantling your business is a whole other aspect that requires planning. You have contractual obligations to meet and overhead costs to manage as you exit, like your website costs, gallery hosting, and client management software. This isn’t something you can discard in a week or even a month. Define your contractual obligations and plan around them.

Remember, deciding to enter or exit the wedding photography industry is a long-term investment. In an industry where you may be booked out a year or more in advance, you need foresight and planning to transition smoothly and ensure that the legacy of your work remains positive. 

Embracing New Horizons

Changing lanes from a creative career can be bittersweet. Whether you quit photography or pivot in a new direction, do it with grace. Approach this transition with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to embrace new challenges.

To wrap it up:

  • Recognize when you need a change
  • Focus on making a selfless decision
  • Intercept your path before you resent the industry
  • Consider how you can leverage your skills into a new path
  • Try to reignite your spark
  • Plan your exit for a smooth transition

By following these steps, quitting photography can be a smooth transition to the next exciting chapter of your career. 

What new horizons could be waiting for you if you dared to embrace change?