It was all a one-job-at-a-time snowball effect -- my career happened in extreme slow-motion. I couldn't figure out how to kickstart it, make it go faster.
Basically I spent a decade shooting my own stuff since I was 16, went to film school when I was 26, shot a lot for other students, then after graduation, started shooting for fellow graduates, one low-budget feature at a time. Some years I'd be lucky to make $6000 or $10000 total. I just kept at it, supported by my understanding wife. It helped being in Los Angeles around a lot of non-union low-budget feature filmmaking. But the pay was terrible, not really something that could support me for a long time.
I got out of film school in 1991. By 1998, I had shot a dozen low-budget features. I then shot "Twin Falls Idaho" for the Polish Brothers, 1/2-mil 35mm feature made in 17 days. It got into Sundance, it got me an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and it got me an agent. It also was the first film I shot to get a theatrical release. In 2002, I shot "Northfork" for them (my 23th feature I think, my third with the Polish Brothers) and that got me another Spirit Award nomination, and it paved the way for me to get invited to join the ASC. It also became time to join the union because now I was interviewing for 3-mil union features instead of under 1-mil non-union features.
So basically after a decade of shooting low-budget features, I got into the union and started shooting medium-budget studio features. That and the union rates made a big difference in my income, up to something respectable.