Architecture Versus Photography as a Profession:  5 Takeaways a Year After the Transition

Architecture Versus Photography as a Profession: 5 Takeaways a Year After the Transition

Architecture Business Commentary Opinion

A year after transitioning from architecture to architectural photography full-time, I wanted to share some initial thoughts comparing and contrasting the two professions.  Hopefully, this will resonate with others who have, or are considering, making a similar sort of career transition.  I love both professions and plan to write more extensively in the future about the similarities and differences between the two.  But for now, I will start with just a few high level observations after a year in the life of a photographer, as compared to my previous life as an architect.

One big caveat here is that my career as an architect was defined primarily by working for large-scale, international commercial firms.  Companies with a lot of people, endless resources, hierarchical personnel structures, and importantly, shared decision-making responsibilities.  I would imagine life as a sole proprietor architect would have a lot more in common with being an independent, architectural photographer.

The Pace and Rhythm of Work

Without a doubt, the single biggest reason I decided to move away from architecture to photography was to have more ownership of my time.  So far, the new profession hasn’t let me down on that front.  For me, architecture was all-consuming.  It is a grueling profession with long hours.  It demands patience.  Even when I was out of the office and not technically ‘working,’ I’d constantly be thinking about the job.  Family, friends, hobbies, passion projects were all sacrificed to some extent, some more than others.  

Being in control of your time is empowering.  If you’re good and in demand, you control how busy you want to be and how many shoots you want to take on.  Got a passion project that you want to pursue?  Plan ahead, leave a gap in your schedule, and go for it.  Prefer to push yourself and take on as many shoots as possible to maximum your income?  All good, you can do that too.  You are in the driver’s seat. 

Your day-to-day work rhythm also changes.  Shoot days are obviously more scheduled, but all your other time is yours to play with.  Being able to head to the gym in the middle of the typical workday is a beautiful thing and illustrates the point I am trying to make.  As long as the work gets done, you are free to break up your day in a way that suits you best. 

Having more time away from the desk is an added bonus – my aging neck/back certainly think so.

Consistency of Income

Let’s talk money.  Working as an architect in an established firm means that your income is going to be steady each and every month.  There is a lot of comfort in that.  You know how much money you’re going to make for the entire year and you can budget your life around that.

Income from photography on the other hand can be much more uncertain.  Even if you’ve got a steady lineup of jobs, actually getting paid adds another level of unpredictability to your cash flow.  This is especially true when you are just starting out.  I will refer you to Mike’s F-You Fund article for more on that.  The good news is that the aforementioned flexibility in your schedule should allow you to start incorporating other revenue streams to balance out the gaps.

Sense of Accomplishment

One area that I was concerned about when considering leaving architecture for photography was whether or not I could achieve the same sense of accomplishment from photographing buildings compared to designing them. 

Early in my career as an architect, oftentimes I would only work on a single project for the entire year.  Architectural design can be a long, arduous process, especially when working on large scale projects with multiple stakeholders and/or complex site conditions.  As I moved up in rank and took on more of a leadership position, I would split my time between multiple projects simultaneously.  Regardless of my specific role, the feeling of satisfaction architects gain from seeing their work built is truly indescribable. 

These two graphs sum up my experience in both professions:

I cannot say that the satisfaction one gets from wrapping up a photoshoot and delivering a set of beautifully crafted images to a client can compare with seeing one’s building finished. Seeing the built result of a year’s work (or two year’s, or five year’s!) is such an incredible payoff. Knowing that your hard work is going to enhance and enrich the lives of the project’s users for years to come is probably what draws people to the profession more than anything else. While no single photoshoot is going to get you that sort of high, I find that accrued over an entire year, you’re going to be getting a consistent sense of accomplishment which really helps keep you motivated for the next shoot.

Shared Responsibility v. Sole Responsibility

Financing, designing, and ultimately constructing a piece of architecture is an enormous undertaking, often requiring hundreds, if not thousands, of people all working toward a collective goal.  Despite being an incredibly demanding profession, it’s actually a slow burn to the finish line, as it requires the expertise of so many specialists to bring a building through to fruition.  There are a lot of checks and balances along the way, both from the professionals involved as well as from government regulations. Decisions are informed by everyone involved and made collectively.

On the other hand, with architectural photography it’s fast, time is of the essence, and it’s ultimately all on you.  You need to have the confidence to rely on your own skill and expertise to get the job done.  In the heat of the moment on a shoot, you don’t have the comfort of leaning on colleagues or collaborators who may have more experience or a complimentary skillset.  If you fuck up, it’s on you and you only.  Oftentimes, there is no tomorrow in this profession, so you need to be on your game each and every time.

A Collective v. An Individual Pursuit

More broadly, for me the fundamental difference between the two professions is that architecture is a collective pursuit, while architectural photography is an individual one. Being an introvert (as so many of us are), I’ve welcomed the more solitary aspects that photography provides. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes miss the comradery that life as an architect provides. Being able to lean on colleagues for support is a wonderful thing. Mentorship is another aspect of the profession that I miss. Architecture is such an expansive and varied profession and because of that, there is so much to learn from so many people. With architectural photography oftentimes I feel like I’m on an island with just me and YouTube to figure things out. It’s been encouraging to see more connection and collaboration within our profession with resources like the BAAM podcast, Shiftercom on Instagram, and last year’s ZoomedIn Festival. I do hope that’s a trend that continues.

These initial takeaways are based on my personal experience thus far. I would be very keen to know if any of them resonate with other photographers who previously worked as architects — if so, please drop a line in the comments below.

I'm an architect turned photographer based in Shanghai with a penchant for tall buildings.
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