I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this. I mean, even if it’s in the past, who wants to admit to burnout? What will our clients think? What does that say about us? I don’t ever want anyone to feel like we gave them any less than our very best and we have a reputation to uphold after all! But ultimately, I decided this was worth writing because I see a lot of burnout out there. It’s all over the place and I feel like we owe it to our clients to work together to push through it and provide them with something awesome, regardless of how we personally feel. If our story can help someone else do that for their clients, that’s all that matters. If our story can encourage someone who is currently burned out – to help them see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, well – even better!
So here we go. This is the story of how we burned out, and the steps we took to find the fire again.
You know that feeling when you love a certain food so much that you just can’t get enough of it? You just keep eating and eating and then a funny thing happens: you get totally sick of that food you loved and suddenly you can’t even stand to look at it. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Well, somewhere along the way, Sean and I “ate” a little too much photography business and that same thing happened. Something we loved turned into something we didn’t even want to look at. What was once so rewarding turned into a J-O-B.
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason why it happened. It was a series of things that changed our life and our priorities.
I think our first problem was a complete lack of balance from the get-go. We jumped into this business head-first and got fully submerged in it. Everything we did or had was devoted to making McLellan Style better, more impressive and more successful. We were routinely working 80-120 hour weeks. There were no weekends, but we didn’t miss them. There was no time to see friends and family, but we didn’t notice. We lost ourselves in our work, but we were happy. We gained some recognition within our industry as speakers and leaders, we were at the top of the market in the Southeast, and we were delving into the destination market. We were doing it together and it was exciting. But here’s the thing: there was no balance of personal and work life – it was all work and nobody can sustain that forever.
Our world changed when we lost our first baby boy in an emergency C-Section at 38 weeks. Chasing all of the above “successes” suddenly lost its appeal. We focused inward and then, when our second son was born, we were so completely in love with him and with being a family. We didn’t want to work all the time anymore – to keep up the rigorous schedule that McLellan Style demanded. Our priorities had shifted, but we were trying to keep up with business as usual, despite our lack of enthusiasm for it. Fast forward two years. Our daughter joined our family. Wow, talk about feeling overwhelmed trying to juggle everything!
These personal factors played a role for us, but it was more than that. At the same time we were battling what every photographer (perhaps I should say every entrepreneur because I don’t think it’s limited to us) battles at some point – learning how to juggle all the other ‘hats’ that are associated with the ‘hat’ of being a professional photographer.
It’s interesting what the digital age and social media have done to our profession. Before they existed, a photographer was largely just that: a photographer. They were one of very few in their town, so work came relatively easily. A wedding photographer would interface with a client briefly before and after a wedding, but mainly their job was to shoot a wedding. And it wasn’t like shooting a wedding today – no this was before inspiration blogs and lists from bridal sites. So shooting was less complicated than it is today. After the wedding, most photographers sent film to someone else to process. When it returned, they delivered a proof book to the client. They placed some print orders, put together an album and then they were done.
Today a photographer must be an expert in many fields. They need to master branding, marketing, social media, developing and retouching digital imagery, graphic design, etc. There are so many photographers working today that you must stay on top of all of these things or you’ll fall behind. A photographer is torn in so many different directions that it can become far more than a full-time job. Photography used to be a life-long career, but now folks may move on after 5-7 years. I thought it was telling to look through photography-related sites (written by fellow photographers) that I bookmarked nearly 4 years ago. Half of them aren’t even active anymore. So many of us are tired and it’s no wonder.
So that’s how we got to a place where we didn’t even want to look at the photography “cake” anymore, but for so many of us, this is still our livelihood and we still have an obligation to the clients who hire us.
The real question is, when you find yourself feeling burned out, what do you do?
Even when we really weren’t “into it,” our work didn’t suffer and our clients continued to be very happy. There were several factors that helped us – and our business – survive the burnout phase until we were able to come out on the other side.
1) Keep the Client in Mind.
We are always mindful of the fact that this may just be another job to us, but it is a HUGE deal to our clients, be it a portrait session or a wedding. So we need to treat it like the huge deal that it is. Having that mindset forces you to bring your A-game, whether you feel like it or not.
Knowing that you must bring your A-game doesn’t make it magically appear in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a wedding day, so preparation is key. The more burned out we felt, the more pre-planning and pre-visualization we did to get ready for our shoot. We looked through magazines, made sketches, drew out comprehensive plans. We gave ourselves time to be creative before we were under pressure.
3) Attitude is Everything.
There have been times when we’ve been down as we drive to a shoot, but as soon as we’re there, it’s great. I truly believe happiness is a choice and we choose to get wrapped up in the happiness and excitement of our clients. Joy is contagious, but you have to be open to catching the bug.
As a husband-and-wife team, we have the luxury of handing off tasks that one of us doesn’t like/isn’t great at to the other person. However, if there’s just one of you, or even if there’s two but there’s a task that you both despise, passing along frustrating work to more qualified hands can make your job so more enjoyable. Don’t feel like you have to do everything – it will weigh you down. Make your work feel rewarding again by honing in on aspects that give you joy. Outsource the rest when possible. And if you can’t outsource it, assess whether the task is important or if it can be let go altogether. Not everything is a must-have.
5) Adapt, Change, Grow.
It was huge for us to realize that our business model for McLellan Style needed to change now that our lifestyle and priorities had changed. Just because you’ve always done business one way doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it that way. Making the adjustments needed to take McLellan Style from the type of business two workaholics would run to the type of business that would work well for two photographers with a young family has helped us enjoy it again.
6) Bring Balance.
We made time for us. Whereas before we just worked all the time without thinking about it, we now have clearly defined workdays and highly-protected days off. We’ve brought balance to our life and having down-time/family time/time for stuff besides photography has been essential in making us feel rested enough to give our clients what they deserve.
7) A Little Something For You.
You hear people encouraging you to shoot personal projects all the time. I think that’s great advice. For us, our personal project is photographing our family – documenting fleeting moments with our small kids while they change rapidly. I make a fusion piece at the end of every year with our favorite video clips and photos; it fills me with a new appreciation for what we do and what we’re able to give other people.
Spend time with people who are still on fire. The old adage says “like begets like” and I think passion and enthusiasm apply here. Go to workshops, conventions and local meet-ups. If getting out is hard, connect via online sources such as Facebook groups and google+ communities. Spend time with people who are excited about what you do. Exchange ideas, collaborate, develop a healthy competition. I know we feel so much more excited about diving in and tackling things again when we’ve been hanging out with others who are in neck deep and loving it!
Side note: Sean and I just started up a google+ community for photographers to facilitate video hangouts. This way we can get together and discuss ideas from the comfort of our own homes (read: when the children are sleeping ;P). We would love to have you join us! You can connect here.
9) Don’t Rush It.
As you go through these steps, know that it takes time. More than anything, I think sometimes it’s all about giving yourself time to breathe and knowing that’s ok. As with anything or anyone that you love, emotional highs are seasonal and cyclical. It’s ok to not be passionately on fire all the time, so long as you’re committed and are taking steps to bring the passion back.
And hey – good news! Things do turn around. If you work at it, if you want it, if you’re willing to let your business grow and change as you do, you absolutely will find that spark again. It won’t happen all at once – at least it didn’t for us, but over time we found ourselves enjoying photography again. We rediscovered a drive to pursue furthering our business again – because we found a way to integrate it into our new life and make it fulfilling rather than draining. I know you can too, and it is my hope that this post will help you get there.
About Melanie McLellan
Aside from spending time with my adorable kiddos and handsome husband, I can think of nothing I’d enjoy more than helping photographers succeed. Really. Ok maybe if we could help you achieve your dreams over chocolate I’d like that even more, but you get the idea. We are creatives, and wedding photography has been the medium we have applied ourselves to for the past 9 years. Over the course of our 8 years in business, we’ve come into our own with the way we approach photography, post-processing, sales, and the whole client-to-photographer experience. We’ve seen our industry change and have grown along with it. If you’re reading this, you are likely in the photography industry as well, or are someone who aspires to be, so I don’t have to tell you that at one time or another it has been rewarding, challenging, joyful, frustrating, all-consuming, and fulfilling. There’s so much to wade through on both the photography side and the business side and if you’re feeling like it’s often hard to know where to start, I completely understand! Sean and I have been so fortunate to be able to be a part of the wedding photography industry and be paid well to do it at the same time. The resources that have been made available to us over the years to help us get there have been incredible. We feel it’s only right that we give back and how cool is it that doing that can be just as fulfilling as the journey to achieving our own dreams was to begin with? That is the purpose of our RESOURCE site.