How to Become a Pro Photographer: Part 1

How to Become a Pro Photographer: Part 1

0Comments

Image by Romain Guy

As lovers of photography – we can all admit to dreaming of chucking in the day job and setting up shop as a professional photographer, but for many of us it can remain just that – a dream. But for those with the talent, support system and drive, becoming a freelance photographer can be realised! So what’s stopping you? To help you negotiate your way from using photography as a hobby to making a living from your work we have outlined a few helpful hints below. Obviously not everyone has the luxury of jacking in the job right away but with a little patience and preparation anything is possible!

Financing

Your first consideration has to be monetary. Can you afford to quit tomorrow? For most people this is probably unlikely. Most pros who give up a reliable stream of income to become self-employed suggest saving two to three months salary before even considering what they will write in their resignation.

Perhaps your spouse can afford to support you for a while or perhaps you already have some money invested in savings that can be used to pay the mortgage and bills before work starts to come in – everyone’s situation will be different. Whatever your own personal situation, it is worth sitting down and planning your income and expenditure for the first few months of being self-employed and work out how much you will need to sustain yourself and your family. It is also worth investigating whether you can secure a grant from your local authority, a charity, organisation or even the government.

Finally – there is of course the option of taking out a bank loan to get started, but this should be given a lot of thought before a commitment is made.

Location

Next decided where you want to ‘base’ yourself. Working from home has many obvious benefits but can become quite isolating if you live alone and depending on your strength of will – can also become quite distracting. Also if you are working from home, bear in mind that this may not be possible in some rented accommodation – so check with your landlord. What is more, regardless of whether you are a home owner or are renting – try to avoid dedicating one room solely to your business – for example a study or a home studio – if you do you could be asked to pay business rates.

Working in a collective studio with other photographers is a great way to bounce ideas of people, whilst making and maintaining friendships – however there will be another cost involved. Setting up a shop or your own studio is another option, but again if you start off with limited finance this may be something you can aspire to over time.

Equipment

Sure you have a camera but do you have all the other necessary bits and bobs that a professional could require such as: flash guns, reflectors, filters, shutter release, battery packs, a wealth of lens, tripod, memory cards etc? This will ultimately depend on what genre of photography you enter and so you may not need every accessory under the sun – just be prepared for what you will need. Furthermore just because you are turning pro – doesn’t mean you need ‘professional’ kit! It’s how you use it that counts.

Look online for second hand deals, visit camera exchange stores for bargains, and never forget January welcomes a month of sales!

In some countries, self-employed individuals can claim back certain ‘capital’ costs against their tax bill, so ensure you keep all receipts of new items. Also if you have remembered to keep the receipts of items you are ‘bringing into the business’ i.e. kit that you already own, you may also be able to claim back some of the value of these items back against your tax bill (more on this in part 2). Talk to your account or a tax advisor to discuss these matters further.

Work ethic

Once you have your business in place, equipment at the ready and a brand built, the next key element to put into place is your working style. It goes without saying that to succeed you will need to be reliable and efficient and always meet deadlines, but how will you operate and how will divide your working day? The benefit of being self-employed is being your own boss and thus you can set your own hours, however this could also mean working late or weekends to compensate. A disciplined and motivated approach will ultimately reap the most dividends, but be sure to factor in time to relax and recoup creative energy too. For those less disciplined, create a schedule carved into twenty-four hour portions; colour eight slices to represent sleep and eight or so hours dedicated to work. The remaining hours can then be labelled for relaxation, activities, personal photography projects, housework or non-business related errands. With time, this segmentation will flow more naturally but is a great boon to those who are easily distracted. But be honest with clients and decide a reasonable date when you can realistically deliver on your promises.

In this four part series we will explore everything you need to know from getting started to finding work. In the second part, posted in the next week, we will outline the legal concerns with getting your business up and running. Stay subscribed to dPS for the next installment of this series!

Read more from our category

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

Some Older Comments

  • exchanger107 October 18, 2011 09:59 pm

    the best part about Photography is that you can become an independent worker. i think this only thing is enough to shift from any other professions to Photography right?
    but the struggling period is very much hard. you have to struggle a lot. have to practice a lot. most of all you have to be dedicated to the profession. but taking photography as a hobby is also awesome dude. :)
    Online Photography courses

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer October 28, 2010 08:40 am

    We started our studio only after we had a steady stream of business and a good amount in savings. If you think business or funds are going to magically appear when you open the doors to your studio, think again. It's definitely best to build a name for yourself before you ever consider relying on income to pay the bills.

  • Arif Alamsah September 22, 2010 08:33 am

    thankyou for your tips, i am employe, but stil try to clean my garage for my photo studio.

  • Paul September 5, 2010 05:32 am

    Mandi, you should set a Facebook username for your page. http://www.facebook.com/username/

  • mandi September 5, 2010 03:35 am

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hagerman-ID/Andreasen-Photography/168213295825 think this one will work .. sorry about all the wasted posting...

  • mandi September 5, 2010 03:30 am

    try it again here http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Hagerman-ID/Andreasen-Photography/168213295825

  • Beth Partin September 4, 2010 09:41 am

    Mandi, your link to FB is not working, though I can get to your website by clicking on your name. But I can't get to your FB page from your website either!

  • Gareth Hector September 3, 2010 06:04 pm

    As one of the many trying to make it pro, the main limitation I am hitting right now is, time. I 've been in publishing for many years and have a good handle on business which has already paid dividends even in the way we are perceived. As has already been said, being good 'at business' is absolutely essential if you are going to be successful. You must be able to go out and get business, the "build it and they will come" attitude won't cut it.

    But, even with the greatest business plan in the world, you must be able to fulfil it so make sure it is realistic.

    Our business is logistically and operationally almost all set-up, raring to go, but as I'm having to keep the day job going to fund the new business I'm finding time is a real issue. I can do all the marketing and planning in the world but nothing will beat getting out in front of potential clients with a great portfolio. So to assist with this, I've made/am making partners with key businesses in my local area and getting them to recommend our business exclusively for photography.

    www.maxhector.com/partners

    This is no mean feat, but going in prepared with a great pitch and in a business frame of mind (park the creative for an hour ;) ) has made us good progress. It makes us different from other photographers as our 'partners' see value in our business ideas, planning and commitment and not just our creativity. This despite being new and with perhaps less experience than some others.

    With the world we are growing into, your marketing must relate to the type of business you are seeking to acquire. Social media is key for most and FaceBook can offer incredibly targeted advertising e.g. female, 20-30 years old, who have a status of 'engaged' - a dream target for wedding photographers!

  • Gareth Hector September 3, 2010 06:03 pm

    As one of the many trying to make it pro, the main limitation I am hitting right now is, time. I 've been in publishing for many years and have a good handle on business which has already paid dividends even in the way we are perceived. As has already been said, being good 'at business' is absolutely essential if you are going to be successful. You must be able to go out and get business, the "build it and they will come" attitude won't cut it.

    But, even with the greatest business plan in the world, you must be able to fulfil it so make sure it is realistic.

    Our business is logistically and operationally almost all set-up, raring to go, but as I'm having to keep the day job going to fund the new business I'm finding time is a real issue. I can do all the marketing and planning in the world but nothing will beat getting out in front of potential clients with a great portfolio. So to assist with this, I've made/am making partners with key businesses in my local area and getting them to recommend our business exclusively for photography.

    [eimg url='http://www.maxhector.com/MHPartnersGrab.jpg' title='MHPartnersGrab.jpg']

    This is no mean feat, but going in prepared with a great pitch and in a business frame of mind (park the creative for an hour ;) ) has made us good progress. It makes us different from other photographers as our 'partners' see value in our business ideas, planning and commitment and not just our creativity. This despite being new and with perhaps less experience than some others.

    With the world we are growing into, your marketing must relate to the type of business you are seeking to acquire. Social media is key for most and FaceBook can offer incredibly targeted advertising e.g. female, 20-30 years old, who have a status of 'engaged' - a dream target for wedding photographers!

  • Martin Soler HDR Photos September 3, 2010 04:08 pm

    Thanks a lot for the tips. there is a gradient to going 100% pro which is to start making money with photography as a side job. When it becomes a running concern and there is a regular flow of money coming in then going 100% pro becomes more doable.
    For example getting all the equipment financed by the sales of photography would be a good start. force one to sell enough to make a certain income.

  • Inquisigal September 3, 2010 11:16 am

    One point to correct from the article for those living in the United States: "try to avoid dedicating one room solely to your business – for example a study or a home studio – if you do you could be asked to pay business rates;" this is actually the opposite of what one should do. If you're a sole proprietor or self-employed, you're able to write off a portion of your rent or home on your federal taxes if you dedicate a separate room to use as your studio, within your home.

    To throw in my five cents to the conversation - I would say that having previous experience as a freelancer, independent business-person, or as a self-employed worker is extremely beneficial to becoming a self-employed photographer. I can't imagine having made the leap myself if I had not already spent 15 years as a freelance writer and filmmaker, learning how to manage my time, stay on budget, and figuring out ways to promote myself. Working this way is so, so different from working a 9-5 job for a company that pays your wages, vacations, and health insurance, and honestly, not everyone is suited to the constant need to hustle and rely only on yourself to get things accomplished and money made.

    I would say anyone who wants to do this needs to shoot a fair amount of professional-quality work for free in the beginning, in order to build your portfolio, and to make connections - especially in competitive cities or areas. In certain areas of photography, there are entry-level, part-time jobs to be had where you can get a steady paycheck, while honing your skills and trying to get your own clients (I work as a product photographer, and this is how I started). And even when you do finally "go pro," sometimes that means not being your own boss, and not getting to shoot work that is particularly creative, or in your favorite genre. For example, due to the bad economy, it got hard to get new clients where I live, in NYC (where there are also thousands of photographers), so last year I took a full-time, staff photography job photographing watches for a web retail business. It's not glamorous, it gets monotonous, and I miss shooting jobs where I can work with props, locations, and creative people, But like any career, being a photographer is a job that is supposed to pay your bills, and sometimes in order to do that, you have to be flexible, and change your plan when the need arises.

  • Josh September 3, 2010 09:51 am

    This is a fantastic post. I am trying to make a go of it as a photographer, but I find myself doing a lot of work for free. I keep telling myself I'm not good enough to charge "whatever price", but I also find myself starting to gain the confidence to say that maybe I am good enough.

    Thanks you for all the great advice. Come take a peek if you would like.

    Hope links are okay...

    I hate slutting out my work, but it's the only way to get it out there sometimes.

    http://www.slantlab.com/photography/rainy-day-road/

  • Tammy Snyder September 3, 2010 09:38 am

    My ultimate goal is to do humanitarian work.
    My problem is that many want it pro bono. Especially if you are new. They think you are both helping one another. Though that may be true, this is my career and I cannot feed myself, pay for gear and so on with pro bono work. It's nice to think about, in fact I have done some but, to make a living I need to be paid.

    Newspapers too...one wanted a picture I had but only for free. They didn't want to pay for it.

    I hope you address how to get work that pays. I want to work with a purpose in my life and look back and be proud of what I've done. But I need to live by some kind of means too.

    When you are competing with the "big boys" do you even stand a chance? Is making a difference only for the volunteers or acclaimed?

  • Paul September 3, 2010 07:50 am

    I think that was a very good initial article and I look forward to the rest of the series.

    @Karen - do not be discouraged by it and I agree with Darren_C that you are reading too much negative into it. Photography is a subjective art. One persons perfect shot is another persons crap. The trcik is to ensure that you produce images that your client loves. If that happens then they will refer you to others.

    As has been pointed out there are many successful photographers who produce "average" looking images but get paid very well for doing it because they are very good at marketing themselves.

  • mandi September 3, 2010 06:49 am

    I'm actually very small business photographer. I have one camera, tripod, three different lens, few props, and one small relector. i do outdoor portraits only, no weddings yet. i have been doing it this way for around five years now. i also have small kids at home so i like being part time photographer. I do all my advertising on facebook. you can see my work here http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kimberly-ID/Andreasen-Photography/168213295825?ref=sgm and become a fan if you like. it's ok to start small and move up when your ready... i cant wait for the next one as well, this is great advice, love it...

  • darren_c September 3, 2010 05:28 am

    @Karen - with all due respect, your interpretation is slanting to the negative side. Starting and running a business takes money, time, effort and it's not always glamous and there's risk involved. I think the original article and the follow up comments support this.

    However, there's nothing preventing anyone from starting a small photo business with 1 camera and 1 or 2 lenses and a small client base. Perhaps part-time while you're still working. Once you have established some clients who might refer your talents to others, and your small business grows, then maybe you need think more about leaviing your other day job. Earn some money and increase your gear bit by bit.

    If you're not the type to use social media to promote your business that's fine, but it has certain advantages. Not interested in networking and handing out business cards? Okay, then perhaps your good at creating an experience that will grow word of mouth referrals from happy clients, also a pretty good strategy. You still need to have more than just stellar photogrpaphy skills to pull that off. Eveyone will take a different approach; you still need a starting point

    I, too, am interested in Part 2 of this article. So let';s see what the future brings, shall we?

    DC

  • Vanessa September 3, 2010 05:04 am

    I don't think anyone is saying that you don't need to work on your skills, what they mean is that you can't JUST rely on photography skills, it has to be a blance of business, marketing and skill, yes it is a lot of work and some may find that discouraging, but I find it exciting, I'm barely starting my business and yes I do need to improve my skills on everything, I beleive any venture requires constant learning and improvement, but in this day and age networking and marketing are highly important.

    Now it is true that to the average person a picture is a picture and they might find it to be professional just with bokeh, even if composition and wb are off, but that shouldn't discourage you, it only means that you have to be better are selling your product and then when you see your efforts coming alive the excitement is undescribable, being able to see that you made a couple cry when you presented their wedding pics, it's the best feeling in the world, so please if you love photography don't hold yourself back because you don't think it's worth it, trust me, it is!

  • Karen Stuebing September 3, 2010 04:04 am

    After reading the article and the comments, this is what I am hearing.

    It takes six months to get started. Let's say you're frugal and need $1500 a month. That's $9000. AND you now have to buy extra equipment and factor that into your start up costs. So now we're looking at over a $10,000 investment.

    And if that doesn't discourage, you soon learn from the comments, that your customers don't even know a good photo from a bad one so I'd say you can't charge very much or they'll be at the Walmart portrait studio.

    On the plus side, you never have to spend time trying to improve your photographic skills. Since you're spending all your time on FaceBook spamming people who eventually block you (I have) and running around handing out business cards to everyone you meet, you won't have to worry about being a decent photographer. Just a good business person.

    Somehow that just sounds very unappealing to me. It doesn't encourage me at all to want to go pro.

    Well, I'll wait for the next article. Maybe it will be more positive.

  • darren_c September 2, 2010 11:49 pm

    Great example Jason!

    @mei tang - I wouldn't use the word dificult as my comments and (I'm assuming) Jason's comments are not by any means meant to scare people away. This is the reality of running any sort of business regardless of what it is. As the original article mentioned, you need to have, and maintain, a certain level of discipline and motivation. You also need to look at your overall skills and find out which areas you need to develop in business to be successful. Choose one or two areas to develop and focus on those unitl you have a confort level with them, then move onto to another area. Slowly you will build up your skills and confidence.

    Remember that old addage..."Rome wasn't built in a day".

    Cheers!

    DC

  • Jason Collin Photography September 2, 2010 02:53 pm

    @darren c -- I'd say it might even be more advantageous to be a better business person than photographer. Once one really starts to look at the photos local pros are putting out, one may be surprised that they are not always impressive. Ditto for their websites. Yet they excel in marketing, networking and running a business. Most people have no idea what a good photograph (to the discerning eye of an experienced photographer) looks like. Any shot with bokeh could be dazzling. Being able to build customer relationships and sell, sell, sell yourself is really important.

    In the past year I have found myself in circles I never had before, with other small and medium business owners at networking events, business showcases, etc. Many of them have serious SKILLS at talking to people. They have no problem approaching people and saying hey take a look at this. It is against my nature to be so outgoing, but I try.

    For example, I was all packed up and leaving the event yesterday, maybe even had the gate halfway open and I thought should I go introduce myself to the band? (they had just gone on break) I did leave some business cards on a table, but that is anonymous and could be ignored. I made myself go back there and everyone was very friendly, shook hands with them and introduced myself. I said I'd have photographs of them (via the event client) ready soon. As even more of a followup I friended a couple of them on Facebook as well as became a fan of their band on their Facebook business page. Tomorrow I will post their photos on Facebook and tag them with their names and tag my watermark logo with my name.

    Today via Facebook I saw it was a client's son's birthday. As a present I sent them an antique black & white bonus family portrait. They are a loyal client, but I want to keep reinforcing that and keep present in their mind.

    They say photography is 80% business. I have to definitely agree. If you do not count editing photo time, business might even be 95%.

    But, if anyone is thinking of making the leap, I did without any savings built up and committed to the photography business full only in about March of this year (though started the business in June 2009). With my minimal business skills and shy personality, I have been able to earn enough each month to be ok and most months improve on the previous month's income. Plus I live in Florida, which might be hurt even more by the economy and also the oil spill. So if I can do it, you probably can too. One thing you will need though: CONFIDENCE I am very confident in my photography skills. I believe I produce better work than many of my competitors, and definitely better than others in my price ranges, so with that confidence foundation I can go out and seek clients knowing if I can just get them to choose me, I can deliver a product that will impress them.

  • Mary September 2, 2010 01:31 pm

    I would like to know how to sell photos to hotels, hospitals, medical offices, restaurants, etc. Anyone have any success doing this? I have seen lots of photo art in these types of facilities that could be something I can do.

  • Mei Teng September 2, 2010 01:02 pm

    Turning pro sounds more difficult than what I thought. Have to agree with Darren C. Marketing skills is important.

  • darren_c September 2, 2010 11:40 am

    Great advice. I'll admit up front that I'm not a pro (I might make the leap one of these days) my background is on the business side. I think one of the other keys is to remember is that being a great photographer does not always translate to being a great business person. You have to have some skills with marketing, selling, planning, customer service, contracts just to name a few.

    Jason Collin reinforces this point above. He spent part his time on that last minute job networking with others and building relationships. It's not always about the photography sometimes.

    Just my 2 cents, though.

    Cheers!

  • John September 2, 2010 11:11 am

    As a pro photographer with over 10 years experience my advice would simple be "Don't do it!"

    The photographic industry is well and truly screwed thanks to dirt cheap microstock/royalty-free stock imagery and a ridiculous overabundance of photo school graduates and wannabe amateurs doing photography jobs for free to get 'exposure'.

    The editorial, music and fashion photography markets have already turned to custard. A vast number of clients in these markets have now come to expect photography for free, or for rates so low that they don't even cover a pro photographer's basic overheads.

    The chances of staying in business for more 3 years are now less than one in ten.

    If you already rich and you want to see your fortune dwindle away to nothing then by all means, become a 'pro photographer'. Otherwise I strongly suggest staying well away from the photographic business. It's circling the drain...

  • Jason Collin Photography September 2, 2010 05:16 am

    Managing your time for most efficient use, especially if you are home based like me, is a pretty big challenge. Even though I am disciplined and do not watch TV at all or anything like that during the day, I still find the distractions in my particular home setup to be great enough that I am now looking for cheap office space.

    Another challenge is adapting to the customer is always right philosophy if one has not worked with the public before. That and being on demand anytime. I got a call out of the blue yesterday to photograph an event that had already started! I did not have my gear with me and I was 36 miles away on the other side of Tampa Bay. I did not want to of course say no (this was a repeat client) so I adjusted my schedule so I could get there in time to still properly cover the event:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/9/1/mic-event-2010-at-treasure-island-yacht-tennis-club.html

    Even though I had to drive all the way back to Tampa today to finish what I was going to do yesterday, from a business standpoint it is not an inconvenience at all since I was well paid for the photo job and more importantly cemented my reliability with the major client (a yacht club/event center). Plus of course I did networking with the entertainment contractor for the event, the band playing, and even the magician walking around. I have their business cards and will be sending them hand written letters later today.

  • Romain Guy September 2, 2010 03:24 am

    It was a nice surprise to click the link "How to become a pro photographer" in my RSS reader and see one of my pictures used to illustrate the article :)

    Speaking of your article, you don't mention differences between various types of photography. Maybe you will talk about it in a later installment but is it still possible to make a living as a nature/landscape photographer for instance?

  • Frank Worth September 2, 2010 02:58 am

    A good first article the keys to success are discipline and motivation.

  • timgray September 2, 2010 02:40 am

    Nice article series It's a great primer for the new kids on the block, but PLEASE put in the most important aspect of how to become a pro photographer. It's not your location, gear, work ethic, creativity, or ability. It's how well you are a salesman/saleswoman and how hard you network and advertise yourself. No not 2 page ad's in the NYT advertising.

    How you get the $11000+ up jobs is by getting your face in front of the rich people. Get them to know you. If rich guy #1 uses you and tells rich guy #2 that you did a good job, then rich guy #2 will hire you. I finally got published after I started networking. Now my photos are on magazine covers... how? By talking to the right people and going to the right events. get known, be on their radar. I am an event photographer, I landed a major event by being a "freebie" on smaller events and then sending a few of my cherry picked images to magazines covering that event.. they got used instead of their photographers.. it then snowballed as bigger events saw MY NAME attached to a photo of another event in a big magazine.

    it's all about networking, getting to know people and getting people to know YOU. That's 90% of being a pro photographer. Gear and everything else is 10%. you can have the best gear on the planet and take photos that put everyone to shame..... if nobody knows about you.... you do not exist. Get in their face, make them see your name.

  • Tyler Wainright September 2, 2010 02:21 am

    I think the first step, saving up 3-6 months salary, is the hardest to do and to justify. That also ties in to the next two points as well.

  • Sasi Harsha September 2, 2010 02:05 am

    Dear DPS,

    Thanks a lot for such a nice article. This really helps. Waiting for your next installment :)

  • Regan September 2, 2010 01:38 am

    One of the points that needs to be mentioned is continuing professional development. It's part of work ethic. You will no doubt have more time to dedicate to improving your skills in photography and business management in the early days. The challenge is maintaining the discipline. I've known craftsmen that transitioned to independent business owners. They used the time when they weren't hustling up new clients and servicing existing ones, polishing their skills by building new cabinets and toolboxes that showcased their skills; redefining what they can provide the client.