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Saying NO Will Make You a Better Photographer

  • 6 min read



Published by Nicole York from PRO EDU

Cartoon of a therapy session

"The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet


If there is one thing that can tank a photographer's career, it’s lack of focus. There are so many things to make, so many people to work with, projects to start, events to attend, and an endless pile of new ideas to sift through. With so many important things to do and so many great ideas to consider, how does a photographer know when to say no?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control when there is so much to get done. From customer service to post-production and emails to advertising, the list is endless. When you add to that list all the creative ideas for new photographs, it’s easy to lose track of time and spiral out of control. One of the best ways to regain that control is learning to say no.

Sometimes we must say no to people who request things of us: mentorship, extra edits, charity shoots, coffee shop meetups, or business partnerships. Sometimes we must say no to ourselves, like when that shiny new idea tries to beckon us away from the personal project we haven’t finished.

No matter who we are saying no to, the benefits of protecting our time and energy will directly result in a healthier emotional and psychological life, as well as stronger photography. And the importance is not just in who we say no to, but what we say no to and why.

"Saying no isn't easy, but it's a required skill if you wish to have any degree of focus in your life. If you say yes too often, you'll likely fall into the common trap of saying yes to the good while simultaneously saying no to the best!"




Time is the most precious resource we have and choosing how we spend time, what we spend it on, and with whom, could be the most important choice we make every day. There are a host of things that demand our time and attention and we must decide how to divide that time. Skill acquisition and maintenance, personal growth, marketing, time with loved ones, rest, networking, all those things are valuable ways to spend our time.

But when we have no filter through which to judge how we spend our time, we could end up wasting it by taking on projects that don’t help our careers, with people who don’t lift us up, or on tasks that don’t serve us.

Saying yes to things that waste our time for little or no return out of a misplaced sense of obligation can leave us with little time to spend on the things that matter. Saying no to things that don’t contribute to our vision of the life we want to live gives us more time to focus on the things that do.


When we learn to say no, we become more selective about the projects we take on. Not every photography project will have equal value to us, either in the value gained through execution or through sales. Saying no to projects that don’t meet our minimum criteria means we have more time to dive into projects that will advance our careers, expose us to new opportunities, and help us become stronger photographers.

Think of it like reverse culling. Rather than selecting what we want to show after we’ve shot it, we’re selecting what to spend our blood, sweat, and tears on before we ever shoot it. This way, only the very best ideas making it past our filters and into our portfolios.

Woman stressed out over work


No matter what stage you’re in as a photographer, there will always be people who have a demand on your time. Friends and loved ones, mentees, business partnerships, and everyone else in our network either has something we need or something they need from us. It can be hard to say no, especially if you're a people pleaser. But not all of those needs weigh equally, and when we learn to prioritize where we spend our time, we can apportion the correct amount of time to the right people.

Spending time with the right people is just as important as any other self-care we do and contributes to our emotional, psychological, and social health.


Now that we know a few of the ways saying no can benefit us, the big question remains: how do we do it? It’s difficult to say no to people when you want to be of service to them, and it’s difficult to say no to yourself when you’re bursting with ideas that sound like so much fun. But the guidelines below can help us determine how we handle the rough task of saying no.


Knowing who you are, what motivates you to feel and act a certain way, and why you chose photography, can go a long way in helping you say no. Some of these motivations reach back to our life from childhood and require some reflection to understand.

If you became a photographer because working with people makes you happy, and someone wants you to photograph a series of still lives over a year, that request could contradict the very reason you picked up a camera.

Some of us are motivated by acclaim, others by accomplishment, and others still by being of service. There is no wrong answer to what motivates us, but understanding our inner workings will give us a compass to help us navigate the sea of possibilities. As long as we are pointing toward the things we really care about, we can’t go far astray.


If knowing your motivation is like having a compass, establishing your principles is like marking stops on a road map. You know you can do any number of things as long as you hit those markers.

An example of guiding principles might be: if it’s good for my business if it helps others, and if it builds relationships.

There are no wrong answers when it comes to identifying or choosing what principles you will use to help guide you. As long as they matter to you and contribute to the life you want to live, they’re useful. You may have just one, or many. But if you take time to consider what you want your life to look like and who you want to be as a person, that will help you identify what principles to use.


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Your mental health is important, not just when you're hustling to make your career a success, but at every stage of life. Relaxation isn’t a privilege or benefit, it's a requirement for a healthy and happy life. The emotional and psychological importance of being able to decompress are manifold and cover everything from lessening depression, helping you handle stress, regulating hunger, and preventing anxiety, to increasing your productivity. Many mental health problems are caused by overwork.

You need to refill your gas tank to get where you want to go. When you’re considering whether to say no to something, keep in mind the importance of your downtime, and make sure you protect it. That doesn’t mean there won’t ever be a reason to encroach upon that time, but don’t make those decisions lightly.

frustrated woman


Everyone needs to know what lines they will not cross. What we will not do is as important a part of our identity and self-respect as what we choose to do, and each person will have a different set of non-negotiables.

What this looks like is entirely dependent on each person, but an example might be, “I will never accept a gig without a contract,” or, “I will not alter my client’s bodies in post-production.” Remember, there are no wrong answers here. As long as these non-negotiables line up with your motivation and your principles, you’re in the clear.

Knowing what you will and will not accept becomes clear lines that will help you say no to the things that don’t serve you.


Saying no is as important as saying yes. Saying no protects your ability to say yes to the right things. When you use your motivation, your principles, your downtime, and your non-negotiables as filters, you’ll find it much easier to say no to the things that won’t get you where you want to go, so you can jump on board with the projects, relationships, and ideas that will help you live the life you want for yourself.

And don't forget, there's no need to feel guilty when you say no because it's the "no" that allows you to be the best version of yourself for the people and tasks that are important to you.

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