The truth about being a “full time” photographer


What’s in this post?

  • I’m telling a story that I’ve been hiding from most of my clients and photographer friends for YEARS.
  • If you’re a business owner who struggles with work-life balance or can’t decide if and when to “go full time”, I hope you learn from my story.
  • An exciting announcement 🥳💪

“Do you do this full time?”

That’s a question I get asked a lot. People who don’t work in the wedding industry or don’t own their own business ask this question partly out of curiosity and partly to judge my experience level and commitment to my craft. I understand it.

I’ve seen photographers get asked this question, and when their answer is “no”, a look of embarrassment falls over them. Whether truly being judged on their answer or not, the shame of admitting you’re not full time can be hard to accept. It’s a confidence hit that can make entrepreneurs simply give up and walk away from their businesses, seeing that goal as too distant and unreachable.

If you Google “list of questions to ask when hiring a wedding photographer”, you’ll find this question included. Some blogs will advise brides to only hire people who work for their business as a full time job and have no other distractions in their lives.

Training clients to see this as a deal-breaker is harmful to everyone. It causes great photographers to be overlooked and brides to not hire the photographer who’s best for them. Being “full time” has a lot more to do with your age, stage in life, the income your family needs, etc. There are endless factors, and some entrepreneurs never actually want to run their business more than a few hours per week. And that’s ok!

For the past several years, when I’ve been asked this question, I’ve said “yes”. Because yes, I work on my business (much) more than 40 hours per week. It’s been a full time job for years now. But yes, I’ve also had another full time job as well.

In college, my major was Electronic Media and Communication. This degree was super broad, and involved all of the things I was interested in – photography, videography, copywriting, graphic and web design, online communication, and marketing.

By age 18, I had already been a photographer for a couple years, and I planned to continue that and grow some type of business in the process. During college, I had a hard time picturing the exact career path I would follow. But, I figured that being open to multiple paths would be a good thing.

It turns out that I was right! When I left college, I quickly found myself with two internships (one in marketing, and one in graphic design), as well as a freelance position at a magazine and a job as an audio editor/ photographer for a radio show covering motorsports. Obviously, I hadn’t narrowed down my options AT ALL 😂.

At the end of my internships, I accepted a job working for a small company doing graphic design. 6 years later, I was still working for the same company, but had expanded my role to include shooting and editing video and producing Buzzfeed-style animated videos. 

By 2018, my photography business had grown significantly, and I had decided to specialize in weddings, proposals, and senior photos. Between my business and my full time job, I had two very time consuming jobs; one working for someone else from 9am-5pm, and one that occupied all of my spare evenings and weekends, but was completely mine.

It’s hard to look back and know exactly where things got out of control. 😬 It didn’t happen all at once, and it wasn’t too bad during every season. My husband Matt has a job that requires him to go above-and-beyond his job description. Sometimes, that means only coming home to sleep for a few hours and going back to work before the sun rises. With both of us working long hours, it became normal to have little free time to relax. During some weeks, our only time together was spent sitting in front of the TV, mentally and/or physically exhausted.

My new normal included working 7 days a week, often late into the night, without setting aside much or any time to see family and friends (or even to make new friends at all TBH).

On a rare weekend day off, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t relax. I’d end up sitting on the couch, watching TV with my computer on my lap, updating my website or blogging photos from a recent session. To avoid feeling lazy, I shared all of my free time with work. I know now that this type of “multi tasking” is a fake way to make yourself feel productive while also taking a break. In reality, I was doing neither.

From the outside, I appeared relatively successful and happy, but an uneasy feeling was growing inside me. All the time, it was becoming more clear that my photography business was where I wanted and needed to focus my attention. But my time was spread thin, and I felt a moral obligation to give my 9am-5pm time to the company that was paying me a salary during those hours.

When my job required me to work later than 5pm, it always seemed to overlap with the busy seasons in my own business. Thankfully, there was usually a light at the end of the tunnel – some exact date I could point to on the calendar – when things would be less busy. This kept me sane, even if the date kept moving backwards, out of my grasp for months at a time. At some point, I looked up and realized that “busy season” included all parts of the year except 1 month during the summer and winter. 🤦🏼‍♀️

At this point, when someone would ask “Do you run your business full time?”, the answer was complicated and honestly, made me very sad. I would respond with “yes”, but it felt like a painful lie; something I wanted to be completely true, but just wasn’t. I was doing all I could to keep my two jobs separated, and I kept half of my life a secret from my clients.

So, why didn’t I just take the leap?

It’s also complicated. Usually, I have no problem making decisions. I constantly make decisions for my business, and I do it confidently. While I’m always growing as an entrepreneur, I’m not new at this. I had already been a photographer for 12 years. I’d run my current business for 5 years. I’ve worked to hone in my client experience, communication, and resources. I’ve invested thousands in education, equipment, and software. I have a running “ideas” Google Doc, listing ways to grow my business and better serve my clients. The document is 25 pages long and filled with ideas waiting to be acted upon.

My cautiousness wasn’t from a lack of knowledge or experience. It came mostly from fear. Fear that Covid-19 could damage the industry even more than it already has. Fear of drowning in the wave of competitors in my area. Fear that there’s not enough clients to go around. But these fears are NOT TRUE. It only took me years of reading Brene Brown books to finally let that fact sink in. And honestly, I’m not completely there yet. Fear of failure may always be a part of owning a business.

But that fear is nothing compared to the other emotions and bad quality of life that has weighed me down on a daily basis.

I’m a really easy going person, but over the past couple of years (especially the past 6 months), I’ve often been tense, anxiety ridden, and easily angered. I’ve been this way for so long now, that I was forced to consciously step back and notice how my personality has changed. I was at a tipping point, and I could either choose to get back to being myself, or I could become more tense and stressed out.

I’m sure my recent clients will be shocked to hear this. At least I HOPE I’ve done a good job of setting aside my stress during photo sessions. A photographer’s mood and personality has a huge affect on their clients’ experience. Bouncing back and forth between being an energetic + uplifting photographer and facing the reality of my workload was getting exhausting.

Here’s what my life has looked like lately:

  • Photographing a proposal every sunrise and sunset 3 days in a row, editing each gallery and delivering it fully in the same day… knowing that was my “weekend” before a long week ahead.
  • Answering emails at 1am because that was my only “free” time, but scheduling those emails to be sent at a more reasonable time the next morning.
  • Shooting a 10 hour wedding, working until 3am, sleeping for 1 hour, then getting up at 4am to catch 2 flights (praying that no flights would be delayed!), renting a car for a road trip across another state, rushing to get somewhere in time for an afternoon session…. which kicked off a weekend of shooting in that destination.
  • Doing these things back-to-back without any breaks in between.

Notice that this list does not include anything about my 9am-5pm job. It doesn’t include the texts and phone calls I received from my coworkers asking where I was anytime I tried to sneak away at 4pm to drive to a 5:30pm session during rush hour.

There have been weeks that I spent every waking hour working, straining to strategize how to best utilize each minute and struggling to prioritize my to-do list. Weeks that I ate every meal in front of my computer, or ate meals while driving 80mph to make it to a session on time… all while trying to mentally prepare myself to shift gears into the helpful and expert photographer that my clients need and expect me to be.

I’ve worked hard for YEARS to make my dream of being a destination photographer come true. Yet, I’ve stood in front of stunning mountain ranges and on beaches, crushed by anxiety, holding back tears, and feeling deeply unhappy about not being capable of enjoying the accomplishment of getting there. 

My to-do list seemed to get LONGER the more I checked things off of it. (Who can relate?? 🙋‍♀️) I set due dates for as late as possible, but still found myself in stressful, down to the wire situations, watching the clock as I rushed to edit a gallery that was due that day. I struggled to complete what I felt to be the bare minimum. I didn’t want to lower the high standards I’d set for myself.

Many times, I’ve been a bad friend and wife. The guilt of it eats away at me, but there were times that I didn’t have the capacity to do anything but push down the guilt when it burst up. Being in survival mode 24/7 forces you to block out everything and everyone not immediately necessary or relevant to your goals.

What does this look like? Texts from my best friend gone unanswered for days. Not looking up from my computer when my husband comes through the front door after work. Going 8 months without seeing my parents or siblings who only live 4 hours away.

I completely understand how adults lose their friendships and marriages because of jobs and ambitions that take over completely. I admit that I’m prone to the type of workaholic behavior that silently destroys relationships. I realize that this is not uncommon, and noticing that destructive pattern begin is the most painful part of all. 

It hurts to neglect people I care about, and it also hurts not running my business at the level that I know I can. I know what to do, but I’m not doing it.

Thankfully, I’ve found ways to make it (mostly) work, and I’m still very proud of the work I’ve done lately. I still receive amazing reviews and book weddings based on referrals from past clients who had a great experience. Hearing this good feedback has given me so much hope and motivation. THANK YOU for keeping me going!

Whew! That was heavy, wasn’t it?

I’m not writing this to complain (well, maybe a little 🙄). I know I was privileged to have two jobs, while some people can’t find one. But unhappiness is not sustainable, and really, there’s no reason to do that to myself. The old fashioned idea of working miserably your whole life, only looking forward to retirement should die. I’m shutting that down right now. It’s not for me.

After struggling with these thoughts for years, they need to be written down and moved on from. It’s time! ✌️

If you’ve made it this far…WOW. Thanks for reading my life story. 😅 If you relate to these struggles, know that you’re not alone, but that you can demand better for yourself. Even if you’re the only one standing in your way.

So… here it comes…

I’m excited to say that I’ve left my other job, and I’m now a photographer FULL FREAKIN’ TIME. 🎉🎉🎉 It’s been a long journey, but it feels like things are just getting started.

Starting NOW, my business and my amazing clients have ALL of me. That is, except for the parts that I will consciously give to my family and friends, and to MYSELF (I need a marathon of The Office to recover from writing this.)

What will this change look like for Lauren Garrison Photography and for me personally?

  • Faster and more thoughtful communication with my clients!
  • More time spent brainstorming ways to grow my business. This means tons of exciting new projects and resources for YOU.
  • Setting up more workflows in the backend of my business, so I can work smarter instead of harder.
  • A more focussed, present photographer for every couple and senior.
  • Prioritizing the destination part of my business and traveling even more!
  • Ya better believe we’re getting a dog SOON!
  • I’m also strangely excited to handle more of the everyday home tasks and to start pulling my own weight around the house! (This one’s for you, Matt)
  • Spending more time with my husband and visiting family.

Now, when people ask if I do this job full time, I’ll continue to say “yes”, but without any type of hesitation.

So, don’t ask people if they’re full time with their “side hustle” if your intentions are to judge them or write them off as an amateur. That question does little to help you understand someone’s skill or commitment to their business. Some people are really dang committed but take 2 days to respond to your email. Some people are able to respond in minutes. Give everyone a little more grace, because you never know what’s happening behind the scenes. 

– Lauren 😊

One last thing – I need to take a moment to thank Matt, who is the most supportive (yet very realistic) husband. When I’m stuck in my cave-like office editing in the dark for hours, he’s the one who takes over all of the cooking, yardwork, cleaning, housework, and generally runs our lives. Emerging from my cave to find that he’s made dinner is pretty much the best feeling ever. I know that my lifestyle hasn’t made me the easiest person to be married to, but I love and appreciate him so much.

comments +

  1. Alicia Rios says:

    This is an amazing story you’ve shared and so many points you’ve made really hit home! I have been there with so much of this and you’re right that being judged /questioned on being “full-time” is more nuanced than people make it! This is GREAT NEWS, hard-earned, and I’m sending you a great big congrats and hug, Lauren!

    • Lauren Garrison says:

      I’m so glad this resonated with you! You’re right that, like most things, being full time can be more complicated that it seems on the outside. Thanks for reading!!

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austin, Texas + ready to travel anywhere