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10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Becoming a Professional Photographer

A Guest Post by Kimberly Gauthier, Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier

When I had the opportunity to check out the Going Pro Kit, I appreciated first hand the value. It brought me back to my humble beginnings. One day in 2009, I woke up and shouted “Hello World – I’m going to be a Kick Ass Pet Photographer!!!”

Well, not really, but one day, back in 2009, I was excited about starting a pet photography business after seeing a gorgeous image of a bunny. I didn’t let the lack of knowledge about dogs, pet photography, running a business, or my camera get in my way. I was going to take over the world with my gorgeous images of puppies and kittens.

My Qualifications:

10 plus years experience shooting with a point & shoot camera, an appreciation of and love for photography and animals, I grew up with dogs, and I lived with cats for years.

My business crashed and burned slowly. I wasn’t aware of the catastrophe that was slowing growing around me and that failure was looming down the road. Now I look back and I can see the mistakes I made and the things that I wish I knew about becoming a professional photographer.

If you are considering going pro, then here are 10 lessons I learned that may help you on your path.

  1. Learn to use your camera. You may be light years ahead of me, making this “lesson” pointless for you. Sadly, I took my new Sony Alpha DSLR out of the box and used it like a point & shoot for a year. The pictures I took, which I thought were great at the time, make me cringe today, but this “lesson” inspired my photography blog so all wasn’t lost. I encourage everyone to join a photography forum, seek feedback, ask questions, take workshops – learn how to use your camera.
  2. Come up with a plan. It’s so important to have a business plan; this will shape the direction you take your business, how you market yourself, your branding, and your budget, among other things. I know first hand how daunting it is to create a business plan. To give you a quick reality check, I suggest checking out Creating Your One Page Business Plan and Path To Profit by The Suitcase Entrepreneur. Following these steps was a huge wake up call and helped me to reshape and redirect the plans I have for my current business. I also read Business Plan in a Day, a book by Rhonda Abrams, to help me organize my plans for my current business. This book is well organized and gives you sections to fill out and when you finish, you’ll have a 1st draft of your business plan.
  3. Create a budget. I started out using my own money and credit cards to fund my business. Not a good idea if you don’t have the plan mentioned above. I can’t tell you how much money I tossed away without knowing if it was a good idea or not (at the time, it everything seemed brilliant). And I won’t tell you how much I racked up on credit cards to fund my dream. Developing a budget will help you control spending. And then you should…
  4. Keep your money separate. Back then, I was comingling funds and at the end of the year it was difficult to separate business from personal. I was STUNNED by how much I had spent. I now have separate business accounts; I opened them at a separate bank. That part is probably overkill, but there’s a true divide between personal and business now.
  5. Research the specialty that has caught your eye. I know some people out there are tackling a little of everything while others like to focus on one or two specialties. Regardless of which camp you’re in, do the research. I should have taken the time to study the business, the industry, and dog breeds (like how to best deal with aggressive or shy dogs).
  6. Connect with a local professional photographer. This can be a little intimidating, so I connect with people online (Facebook, Twitter, and photography forums) and build a relationship from there. Invite them to coffee when they have time. Some photographers charge for mentorships, because their time and knowledge has value. Others may be willing to meet you for a coffee or lunch to answer your questions and give you feedback.
  7. Find out the pros and cons of your business set up: sole proprietorship or limited liability company (LLC). Find out what you can and cannot write off. And understand that write offs are just an offset to the taxes you owe to the government, not a reimbursement request. I’m an accountant and didn’t know this one; duhhhhh.
  8. Get insured. I have a home photography studio, handy when I want to take portraits without leaving the comfort of home. What I didn’t know was that home owner’s insurance won’t cover the medical costs when your client twists their ankle after becoming tangled in the backdrop. If a client is on your property for business purposes, then your home owners insurance doesn’t apply. Currently, I have a policy with CNA that covers things like accidents, my camera gear and photography equipment (which my homeowner’s policy won’t cover since it’s for business), contract disputes, and lost images (due to memory card malfunctions).
  9. Get a membership to a professional organization. And don’t just join the one you hear about the most; take the time to find out which one is right for you. I joined Professional Photographers of America (PPA), because I liked what I read about them and they offer a two year newbie membership rate while you’re growing your business and you can pay the membership monthly. By the way, Professional Photographers of America offers discounted insurance coverage to members.
  10. Don’t Offer Free Photography. I know that there are different opinions about free photography. I’m not talking about donating your services to a charity; I mean offering free photography to gain experience and build a portfolio. I offered free photography and filled my calendar with sessions. I gave away up to 15 full resolution images on a CD (this is where connecting with a local photographer would have helped). Some people didn’t show up, the ones that did wanted 10x more than I was offering, and since I was valuing myself at $0, everyone else did too. For me, this wasn’t the path to a portfolio or referrals; but I did learn that people respect a fee.

There were many more lessons that I learned, but these were the main ones that still stand out today. I’d love to hear the lessons you’ve learned and what you’d advice you’d offer to anyone looking to go pro.

Kimberly Gauthier is the writer behind the photography blog Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier; blog written for amateur photographers who didn’t read their manual.

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Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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