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Turnaround Times for Photographers and Avoiding Burnout: A Guest Blog by Bryce at Image Salon

There are no wrong turnaround times for photographers. Except for the ones you can’t keep.

Bryce from Image Salon here, to talk about how personally, I’ve been having a hard time staying true to my promised turnaround times. Which, honestly, isn’t like me. I’ve always prided myself on being a hard worker; being able to bite down and grind through the stressful overwhelming times. 

Lately, I don’t know though. Any sort of creative work—editing a photo, writing an article, replying to an email—feels like a herculean task. Which then has me daydreaming about dropping out of the creative industry and moving back to Edmonton to cut grass for the city. I’m finding that as my passion for photography and writing has transitioned from a hobby to a full-time career, my approach to timelines needs to change. 

A latte and camera sitting on wood desk beside a laptop with photo editing software open for someone trying to decide on the best turnaround times for photographers.

It doesn’t seem like I’m alone in this sentiment—well, I might be alone in the moving to Edmonton part—because a lot of the photographers I rub shoulders with are finding themselves in a similar boat. Feeling overwhelmed, edging towards burnout, stretched too thin, over-promising, under-delivering.

I’m starting to think that what might be causing these feelings of being overworked is an inability to set realistic turnaround times for my photos, as well as a lack of systems to help meet deadlines. I mean, after all, raw determination will only get you so far. 

So being the OuTsTaNdInG ScHoLaR of photography that I am, I loaded myself up on caffeine and set out to find an approach to setting and achieving turnaround times for photographers that wouldn’t lead to everybody’s self-demise.

The Arms Race of Photography Turnaround Times for Images 

In high school, they peer-pressured me to smoke cigarettes. Now, they are peer-pressuring me to answer emails at 11pm on a Sunday and to turn around a photography session within 24 hours. I’ve had enough! It feels like there is a breakneck arms race to make turnaround times for photographers ungodly fast. Personally, it’s a race I want no part of. But when it comes to setting our photo turnaround times, where do we start? I figured some good old fashion market research was the place.

A tattooed photographer sitting at a desk working on a laptop, editing images to try to meet a photography deadline for a client.

Now I believe in collaboration over competition as much as the next oat milk latte-sipping photographer, but until capitalism is torn down, we still need to operate within a competitive marketplace. In that case, a good place to start would be to find out what other photographers within our market are setting their image turnaround times at. Once you have a grasp on what the average turnaround time is within your area, UNDERCUT IT! You got to hustle to the top bb! No pain, no gain!

I mean, that seems to be the current conventional wisdom, But hold on Buckaroo—before we start racing off in that direction, there are two questions we probably need to ask ourselves. Two questions we often forget as photographers!

Question one: Who do I seek to serve? 

Question two: What does my ideal client place value upon? 

Too often as photographers, we’ll give in to the chain-smoking, do-it-faster peer pressure, without ever stopping to ask—what do my clients actually want?

We give in to the current trends of the industry. We slash our turnaround times for images, write rambling blog articles, start dancing on the TikTok, buy the latest, cleanest, crispest lens, and those weirdo smoke bombs. We never pause to reflect on whether or not our ideal clients would actually appreciate our sweet, smoke-filled moonwalk dance videos. 

A photographer sitting at a desk with a laptop and camera, trying to meet a photo editing deadline.

Stopping to ask ourselves, “Who do I seek to serve and what do they value?” must be considered when setting our turnaround times. If not—to use a bad analogy—we might find ourselves attempting to serve fast-food hamburgers to raw vegans who want a culinary experience. 

All the while having a personality crisis over our lack of ideal client bookings.

If the people we seek to serve do place a high value upon fast turnaround times then yes, we should go all in. Become the fastest photographer in the West. Make our warp-speed delivery our competitive edge. However, this effort needs to come with the warning that someone else will also be able to turn it out faster. 

In the wise words of Seth Godin:

“This type of competition is a race to the bottom.”

Perhaps it’s time to finally step away from the turnaround times arms race, and start running another race completely.

It’s Time for Photographers to Step Away from the Turnaround Times Arms Race

If it feels like work, you’re going too hard.

I have an older brother. He used to be a weed-smoking, kickflipping, pepperoni-pizza chomping, teenage heartthrob. It still boggles my mind how he turned into a loving, compassionate father of two who runs ultramarathons.

Anyways, one time I was accompanying him out for an early morning long training run. After what felt like the billionth mile, with weak legs and sweat dripping from all over, I wheezed out, “How. Do. You. Do. This?”

A photographer's desk full of plants and art, along with a laptop with edited photos on the screen.

He stopped briefly and replied, “If it feels like work, you’re going too hard.” He then promptly galloped away like some sort of magnificent gazelle. I, on the other hand, threw up in my mouth and dropped to the gravel road in the fetal position.

As I feel myself approaching the photographer’s equivalent of what runners refer to as THE WALL, I’ve been thinking a lot about this brotherly piece of wisdom and the importance of setting a sustainable pace for the long haul.

Where we often go wrong as  photographers is that we make bookings when we are not shooting. We commit to deliverables when we are feeling strong and fresh. Yes, of course we can bite down and grind through it, but for how long? How many completely soul-sucking exhausting seasons can we grind through before we crumble and hang up our camera for good? 

It’s easy to forget that building a career in photography isn’t a short sprint. Yes, there will be times when we need to step into a higher gear. However, we need to set a regular work rate that we can maintain, day after day and year after year.

Consistency in a photography business? Not without systems and workflows.

As 2021 turned into 2022, my social media was abuzz with pals making bold declarations that 2022 was the year of consistency. No more procrastinating. No more start and stop habits. No more. Only consistency.

I hopped on that bandwagon too, like a non-basketball fan supporting the Toronto Raptors during their 2019 playoff run. I was all in.

Now, a few months into 2022, I find myself a weeping puddle of a human, rueing the day I committed to consistency. Here’s the thing I’ve come to learn; consistency requires systems. Hitting deadlines constantly needs a finely tuned workflow, not a mad dash scramble for every single task, including turnaround times for my images. I might know this, but I still resist it. 

a photographer editing images on her laptop while on in transit to try to meet a photography turnaround time.

For a long time, I’ve been afraid that implementing such systems for myself would take away my creative edge. So instead, I rely upon a workflow that is a Mickey Mouse contraption held together by rubber bands, duct tape, and spit, powered by caffeine and curse words. But I’m now coming to terms that this haphazard workflow is holding me back.

Through working at Image Salon, I’ve seen the positive impact that our finely tuned internal systems have. I’ve spent time interviewing kick-butt photographers for the Image Salon Podcast, and have received an insider look at the meticulous systems they have in place from booking a client all the way through to final delivery. It is their systems and workflows that allow their businesses to flourish. 

Systems and workflows are what allow us to hit our promised image turnaround times without blowing a gasket.

You don’t have to do it all.

Yesterday morning, I was thumbing through Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, a short, punchy read about overcoming creative resistance. I landed upon this passage: “A professional recognizes her limitations. She gets an agent, she gets a lawyer, she gets an accountant. She knows she can only be a professional at one thing. She brings in other pros and treats them with respect.”

Before starting to work at Image Salon, I was under the belief that as a photographer, we had to do it all. Every part of the process had to be intensely hands-on or it would be cheating. If I wasn’t the one handling every single micro detail then it wouldn’t be my art. But as Oli Sansom has expressed in his kick-ass newsletter: “Our artistry is in how we make people feel, not how we fine-tune Lightroom sliders.”

By recognizing our limitations and bringing in help, we can do more by grinding less. Instead of being the hard-working grunt of our business, we can step up and be the creative directors of our photography business. Bringing in resources, implementing tools, and outsourcing the tedious repetitive tasks will all allow us to dedicate ourselves fully to doing the deeply meaningful work of creating art and connecting with our clients.

We are all just creative kids who want to make art and leave an impact.

We got into photography because, at the heart of it, we are all just creative kids who want to make art and leave an impact. Giving into the industry pressure of faster turnaround times by photographers and grinding until you shine has backed many of us into unstainable, mentally exhausting work conditions. By setting unrealistic turnaround times without the proper workflow in place, we are allowing ourselves to be the catalyst of our own demise.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can step away from competing on the things that don’t matter to our ideal clients. We can focus more on having a meaningful impact. We can bring in help. We can achieve our turnaround times while still being the creative director of our photography business.

And as always, if you are looking for help with your editing, Image Salon is here for you. 

This blog was written by Bryce Charlie, Writer and Community Manager at The Image Salon.

Image by Daniel Esteban