How to Become a Professional Photographer

How to Become a Professional Photographer

Image by turkguy0319

Image by turkguy0319

Over in our forum area professional photographer Jim Bryant has put together a 3 part series of tips for those wanting to get into photography as a profession. The advice has helped quite a few of our forum members already so I thought it’d be worth promoting to the blog area of DPS so that others can benefit also. Of course there are many paths into photography but as a seasoned Pro I thought Jim’s advice might be helpful to some – enjoy. Thanks Jim for the time you put into gathering your thoughts on becoming a professional photographer.

“What’s the best way to become a professional photographer”? So… I’ve decided to take the time to write down my suggestions on perusing a career in commercial photography. I’m assuming that the person in questions is around 20 years old with no dependents, and is deciding his career path.

Step #1: Education

I would suggest that you get a four year education at a school like R.I.T. , Syracus, Missouri, Florida, Brooks or some other photographic program with a major in some aspect of photography. I’m not saying that you “must” get a four year education. I’m saying that I would suggest it.

There are four main reasons why I suggest getting a four year degree.

1. You’ll learn a whole bunch about the technical aspect of photography.

If you’re lucky, you’ll learn about the zone system and basics of how light and chemistry effect film. You can get this information by reading on your own, but there’s something to be said for becoming immersed in a subject along with a bunch of your peers. If you can’t swing the tuition of a four year school, there are a few two year programs of some value around the country. And if you can’t afford any school, fear not! In my opinion, Photography is something between a craft and an art. You need control over the technical aspect of your medium but you can learn “on the job” if you have to.

2. You’ll become a more well rounded business person.

There’s a whole lot more to the photography business than taking pictures, and it will greatly enhance your career if you know and use proper English. (you can probably tell that I only went to a two year school) If you do go to school, make sure that you take every class you can on marketing and sales. These two subjects will prove more valuable to you than many of your photography classes. Another subject that you should beef up on is “Art History” I know, it sounds dull, but it’s amazing what you can learn about light from the master painters of yester year.

3. You’ll meet life long friends that share a common interest.

Two of my best friends today are people that I met in school. The whole social aspect of going to school should not be overlooked. Besides friends, it’s amazing how many future clients I met in school.

4. You’ll find that sooner or later , depending on your peer group, the subject of “and where’d you go to school?” comes up.

“AHHHH… I went to AIP”. “Where the #### is AIP?” It’s a status thing. It may not be important to you now, but some day it may. Frankly, it’s probably the biggest reason that I’d go to a four year school if I had to do it over again.

Step # 2: Become a slave.

What? Are you crazy? I just spent thousands of dollars and two to four years getting a degree, and you want me to work for free? If you’re smart you will. Here’s why. At this point in your career, you don’t know anything. And not only that, you don’t know that you don’t know Jack! This is THE most important step in this whole process. Become a slave. The thing you have to be careful with, though, is in choosing your master. Here’s the thing. You graduate art school, get back from Florida, and now it’s time to get a job! You run out and knock on every photo studio door you can get your little grubby hands on. If the photographer isn’t too busy, he’ll be kind enough to look at your portfolio (he couldn’t give a crap what your book looks like) , he’ll say “pretty nice stuff” and send you along your way. The chances of you getting a job as an assistant photographer are very very very slim. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but almost. You see… Most photographers in today’s market hire “Freelance Assistants”. The are hired on a per day basis. The reason they do this is so that when they aren’t working, they don’t have to pay them. The number of full time assistants in the Pittsburgh market can be measured on one hand. Sure, they’d love to have someone around all the time, even when they’re slow for marketing and maintenance purposes, but they just can’t afford it. That’s where you come in.

A: How do you justify becoming a slave?

The income possibilities in this business are REALLY good. Trust me on this one. Which people make more money on average, people that only graduate high school, or people with a Masters Degree? Do you think that people with Masters Degrees make up the cost of the education? I would think for the most part that they do. The really great thing about slavery is that you get a great education but you don’t have to pay anyone for it! I suggest that you become a slave for two years (about the same time as a graduate degree would take).

Those two years of slavery will be the most valuable years of education in your career. If you must, cut two years off of your school, but don’t give up your slavery! This is basically a FREE Masters Degree in Photography! Not only do you not have to pay a school, but the Photographer will probably start feeling guilty and start paying you! You might say “why not just become a freelance assistant right out of school?” Well… If your lucky enough to get a job, what are the chances that it will be with the best shooter in your city (or the world)? But… If you approach your dream photographer and say that you’d love to work for him, mop his floor, run errands, anything he needs, and you don’t even want paid! Who in their right mind would turn down motivated, obviously ambitious , free assistant? I couldn’t! The result is a win – win for both of you. He gets free assisting and you get a free Masters of Commercial Photography Degree from the professor of your choice.

B: How do you choose a master?

First you have to choose a area of photographic interest. Get the phone book and look up photography – commercial. Pick any ten names at random avoiding any names that seem too cute. Call the photographers and ask them if they could help you with a couple of questions. (most people love to help other people – if it’s not too much of a pain in the butt).

1. Who’s the best “insert photography subject here, lets say food” photographer in the city? Make a list.

2. Which are the best Art Directors and Designers in the city? The next step is to call the Art Directors and Designers and ask them if they could help. Ask them who the Best food photographer in the city. Be really nice to these Art Directors and Designers, they will be your clients some day. After this one hour exercise you should have a good feel for who the best food photographers are in your city. The top three people on you list should be your future masters. That’s write, masters. Why have just one teacher, when your can learn the techniques and secrets of three people? Why just three? You’ll need to stick around long enough to learn his secrets. He may not use a particularly cool technique over a short period of time, but in an eight month stretch, you’ll probably get to see most of his “good stuff”. Start your slave ship with the least of the three masters. That way when you move on to the very best guy, you’ll have a greater understanding of what the heck’s going on, and you’ll be able to absorb more from the better photographer.

A word of warning. If it were me, I wouldn’t go telling anyone my career plan here. I don’t lie, Or at least I try my hardest not to (my pet peeve)but I’d try my hardest not to bring up the subject and let the cat out of the bag. Some photographers are a little insecure. Sure, they know that you someday want to become a photographer, but they don’t expect you to run off and become an assistant to one of their biggest competitors.

How do you pay for being a slave? Any legal way you can. Live with your folks, mow lawns, flip burgers! Since this Master’s Degree isn’t at a school. you won’t be able to get financial aid for your living expenses. What ever it takes, that’s what you need to do.

Just keep reminding yourself about how the master’s degree pays off in the end and that you’re getting it all for free! Like I mentioned earlier, after awhile, your Master will probably feel a little guilty and will probably start paying you something. Then, after you become more valuable, he’ll most likely start paying you the going freelance assistant rate. ….probably. Even if he doesn’t pay you anything, always remember he is educating you for FREE. He’s giving to you something that others pay thousands and thousands of dollars for. Just be a happy little assistant and when things get tough, smile to yourself and think of all the money you’re saving!

How to be a good Assistant

Why is it photographers hire assistants? The answer is simple. Two people can get more done than one person. If you’re only adding 7% to the bottom line of the project and you can get 40% more work accomplished in the same amount of time, It makes a whole lot of sense… or should I say cents. Not only that, photographers hire assistants to do the things they really don’t want to do. The trash has to be taken out. The Dishes have to be washed. The phone has to be answered. Lunch must be ordered. In other words, the photographer hires and assistant so he can do all the fun stuff and so he doesn’t have to do all the “less pleasant things”.

That’s where you come in! On your very first day at work, ask your master what he expects of you. He won’t trust you with a whole lot at first, but as time go buy and you gain more and more of his confidence, he will give you more and more responsibilities. Here are a list of things I like to do and another list of things I prefer my assistant to take care of. I like to shoot, handle the important telephone calls, eat lunch, do estimates & invoices, and go on sales calls. I want my assistant to do everything else. Everything else in includes: Making coffee, sweeping up, ordering lunch, cleaning up after lunch, keeping film loaded, maintaining an inventory of all necessary materials (photographic and domestic), answering the phone and screening calls, cleaning up the studio, taking out the trash, delivering and picking up film at the lab, buying donuts in the morning, greeting the clients in the morning, hanging up their coats, offering the coffee, making clients comfortable, setting up the work areas, arranging for messengers, striking set at the end of shoots, moving lights when needed, turning on and off the overhead lights when needed, and everything else anyone can think of.

How hard can assisting be? Really hard! Depending on the type of photography your master does, Assisting can be physically demanding, emotionally straining, let me tell you, there can be some very difficult days. As far as I’m concerned, that’s OK. As a matter of fact, I think it’s the tough days, in a sick sort of way, make this profession exciting. I ‘ll never forget the 3:am mornings finishing up a “pain in the butt” Heinz 57 sauce shoot. It didn’t seem very amusing that day, but somehow time has a way of “sweetening” your memories. It’s almost like a badge of honor kink of thing. The day it happened you wanted to cry, now you just want to laugh.

Assisting Secrets (what makes for a great assistant)

1. Anticipate! The best assistant I’ve ever worked with had this uncanny ability to anticipate what it was I needed next. He was amazing! I couldn’t count the times that I would look from behind the camera and say “Charles, I need a … There he was, standing with his arm stretched out, holding the very thing I was going to ask for. Some how he was able to know what it was that would be needed. That’s what makes for a good assistant.

2. Be really careful with the photographer’s stuff

3. Never never be late

4. Be absolutely honest

5. Be an optimist

6. Know when to be quite

7. Don’t eat too many donuts

8. Don’t hit on the models

9. Don’t hit on the clients

10. Never mention another photographer’s name

12. Know your place

13. have “lull projects”

14. Think of yourself as the studio manager

15. Watch the photographer’s money as if it were your own.

But what makes or breaks a photographer’s career is his vision. No, not his eyesight, his vision. I’ve seen plenty of photographers without much education in photography, make a real nice living in this business. I have two definitions of vision here, and I think they’re both needed for a successful career. The first definition is the ability to see the “Big Picture”, to know what’s important and what’s not. This is something we all have to some degree or another, but successful people have a whole lot more of it than other people. Unfortunately, you can’t teach vision. The other type of vision is known as “style”, a perspective, a way of looking at things, or even photographic tendencies.

Thanks again to Jim Bryant for putting this advice on becoming a professional photographer together. You can learn more about Jim at this site Jim Bryant Photography and see his work at Photoshelter.

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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+.

Some Older Comments

  • Kris Gironella October 29, 2010 06:04 pm

    Hi Darren,

    Love your article. I been into photography for few years but not as a professional photographer 'cause I have a full-time job as senior multi media designer and sometimes I apply my photography at work but not all the time and do BMX photography on the side for our own BMX website ( and product shots for the BMX online shop which of course is free (no fees). I still want to be a professional photographer. I have the necessary gears that I invested big time but don't know where to start. I need to strengthen my fashion / portraiture portfolio. I have my own personal photography projects but feels like it's not enough. Do you have any advice for me? BTW the slave thing I guess is not applicable on my case 'cause I have a family and bills to pay. Cheers!!!

    Best Regards,
    Kris Gironella

  • Trent Grasse September 11, 2010 07:20 pm

    being a slave gets you no where but being a slave. Charge money for work. If you aren't being paid you are not being taken seriously and fetching coffee does not a photographer make. Learn about being a freelance assistant if you want to work commercial. If you want to work portrait work at a portrait studio. this is tottally possible. I went to hallmark. it was good for me i totally recommend it. I

  • Jon Miller February 19, 2010 04:14 pm

    I'll say a lot of the information you presented here is so true. I got my start by being a "slave" to several photographers (fashion, commercial and a commercial/playboy photographer) and in each job I did the mandatory clean up the studio gig for weeks to a month before I got my promotion to 2nd assistant and then months would go by again until I got promoted to 1st assistant. In the meantime when I wasn't cleaning I was watching, listening and learning what was being said and done. I asked what I thought was the important questions and got good answers. There are a lot of things I'm sure you can learn in schools, but real world experience isn't one of them.

  • Marcos December 4, 2009 06:32 am

    I agree with this article. However what do you do if you already have your under grad in something different then photography? I have my under grad in graphic design, which is related, kinda, but I dont have the technical photography skills nor do I have a portfolio. I shoot alot, but for fun and most of the work is amatuerish. Is it worth it to go to Grad School for photography, or would it be smarter to go somewhere like the hallmark institute? What would be the difference? Im confused. Thanks.

  • cavale November 24, 2009 02:33 pm

    @avisioncame: i don't think you understand the word therefore.

  • avisioncame November 24, 2009 11:32 am

    I totally agree with this article. A lot of good information coming from what seems to be a good source. But I think college for artists is just of way of leading yourself on. If you refuse to take the time to self teach, and develop your skill and style on your own, you are therefore unable to become a true master.

  • Oren October 16, 2009 04:24 pm

    It's pretty big of Jim Bryant to tell you all to go and work for free for two years. Honestly, though. He kinda sucks. No joke. Check out his site. It's total crap. He couldn't even be bothered to edit down to his best photos. He includes entire series of shots. Paesant leaning. Paesant leaning slightly further. So, yeah. You might learn something from him after two years of fetching him coffee. You might learn how to be a ho-hum photographer.

    Seriously people. The education is out there. Figure it out yourselves. Don't allow these leeches to take advantage of you. This isn't 1983 anymore. Seriously.

  • Assistant October 15, 2009 08:22 pm

    As a assistant I have to say no f***ing way to much of this article. Some good points don't get me wrong but as for being a slave or working for free / very little money... that's not a good business is it?

    Is it a good idea for a photographer starting out to do jobs for free or very little to "get a foot in the door" and by doing so push down the value of photography so that ad agencies can say well we paid so and so $burger all to shoot this last week so we expect you to do a shoot for the same peanuts budget.

    I work hard to help produce outstanding images on shoots and if anyone be it a photographer, producer etc treats me like a slave that will be the last time I'm available when they call to book me.

  • Mike Steele October 5, 2009 08:48 am

    I disagree with a lot of the advice.
    My education was not in photography or anything related, I never worked as a photographers assistant and I am now a lead shooter for a news agency at the White House and have been published in over 100 different magazines and newspapers.
    Basically you have described how NOT to be a photographer but how to be a photographers assistant, the two are not the same and one does not really lead into the other.

  • James Conkle July 11, 2009 03:04 pm

    Hi thanks allot for the information! I just had a question and hoped someone here could answer it.
    I am 15 years old and have been photographing for 2 1/2 years and love it! I am the photography editor at my school and I think its great! But I was wondering how I can further my photography development? I would love to do this "slave thing" but there are child labor laws. So does anyone have any suggestions?

  • Jesse June 6, 2009 07:23 am

    Just FYI I think you meant "quiet" on #6 ;) ... or maybe "know when to be quite quiet" ;)

    6. Know when to be quite

  • cavale May 22, 2009 10:49 am

    when you say “Florida” are you referring to UofFL? FL State? UCF?

  • damask May 22, 2009 06:25 am

    I think one very important point that isn't mentioned in this article is keeping up with how to market yourself and your talents. This is a vital step and can take you a LONG way.

    And I'm not making coffee for anyone but me :) But thanks for the pointers.

  • grace May 21, 2009 11:13 pm

    great! photography is a PASSION.

  • David C. Cooper May 20, 2009 09:46 am

    This is a great article about how to become a Professional Photographer's Assistant (a.k.a. Photographer's Ass).
    I suggest you change the title or expound on how the reader is supposed to parlay your suggested training into actually landing work as a photographer.

  • photokunstler May 16, 2009 08:01 am

    I was expecting the pro blogger article, from the lead-in link in email.

    But this was a very good article - lots of good thoughts and opinions! I was an assistant once, not too long, and while I think there are lots of ways to get an education outside of the institutional area - some good tips generally!

    So - point us to the pro blogger article? :-)

  • Rachel May 15, 2009 05:11 pm

    - As a side note - my email told me this would be an article about becoming a professional Blogger... for a semi professional site I might suggest getting these things right.

  • Rachel May 15, 2009 05:09 pm

    Thanks for this article Jim. It was a good read (despite the spelling mistakes - should someone be proof reading these articles?). Interning is definitely something I'm working up the courage to try!

  • caem May 12, 2009 12:31 pm

    Great article. I do that like this all the times but hopeless my poor skill. It would be great helpful to me. Thank you for this post.

  • Melissa Rodwell May 12, 2009 12:38 am

    This is a great article! I graduated from Art Center College of Design in 1987 and embarked on a career as a fashion photographer. My education and experience at college prepared me not only technically, but in a business realm that I would not have gotten had I not gone to school. I also just have to say that you are spot on about taking art history classes because of the invaluable knowledge the classes will teach you about lighting. Thanks for these tips. You're helping so many people by being honest!

  • cavale May 11, 2009 02:15 pm

    please answer my question. =(

    when you say “Florida” are you referring to UofFL? FL State? UCF?

    Read more: "How to Become a Professional Photographer" -

  • David Langley May 11, 2009 09:36 am

    Wow, do I disagree. I just spent a year teaching at Hallmark Institute of Photography and I think photography schools are a complete and utter waste of time and money. It seems the only reason to get a degree in photography is so you can teach it. How 'bout that . Get a degree in something you never made a living at but can teach. No photographer in the history of the photography business ever got an assignment based on their degree. It's the portfolio that gets the jobs. I have had something around 300 assistants over the years and I lost count of those who came to me after a few weeks lamenting the time and money they wasted going to photo schools. Pratt, SVA, RIT, Brooks, Hallmark, they're all a huge scam. I bet 95% of the faculties in photography schools never made a living with a camera. Jim is right about the assisting thing. One year of assisting is worth 20 years of school. Unfortunately he's also right about the fact that it's almost impossible to get a full time job assisting these days. Freelance assisting does have it's advantages though. You get a chance to experience lots of different styles and techniques. It's just hard to find those jobs. Dave

  • Chris May 10, 2009 11:49 pm

    I'm going to have to disagree, but feel I learned a lot about BDSM masters and slaves while reading this article...

  • Timmy May 9, 2009 04:11 pm

    “The fastest, most efficient and usually the ONLY way to achieve amazing results is to model or be mentored by someone who has achieved an extraordinary level of success.”

    -Scott Robert

  • Melissa May 9, 2009 02:06 pm

    I thought this was a great article and it validated what I am doing right now. I am graduating with my BA in Anthropology in June and I do not intend on pursuing that field. My true love is photography, always has been, always will be. I was lucky enough to score an internship with the perfect photographer in my town who is willing to teach me all she knows. Now I feel like I really did the right thing by taking this unpaid internship over an MFA in Photography. She can teach me everything I need to know. Thanks for the tips on how to be a great assistant!

  • Scott May 9, 2009 10:44 am

    I'm going to disagree. That's a recipe for being poor.

    Yes, starving artist photographers, I'm going to bring up money. I'm doing so because "professional photographer" implies that your primary income source -- the source you use to house, feed, and clothe you and your family -- comes from your craft. You're competing against hundreds of others in your vicinity, thousands upon thousands across the country, and even nephew Timmy who just got a camera for his bar mitzvah. You get hired because you show up on time and deliver a quality product for a reasonable price.

    Your peers may care whether you went to college or where, and who you apprenticed with, but that doesn't pay the bills or even get you published. I'm writing this because I want you to succeed! It's a great way to earn a living, but I want you to earn a living!

  • Peter May 9, 2009 09:08 am

    Nice comments Jim...! when it comes down to's really all about being humble...and simply being willing to learn the's like anything is an art...and there is no substitute for experience...this business is not simply about having natural's all about 'the people'...the people make the business into an art... good food for thought...thanks a gain Jim!

  • Shadow Explorer May 9, 2009 08:56 am

    Wow, I disagree with this article completely. I did nothing of the mentioned things I was a paid photographer within 1 month after picking up a camera. And the word professional means doing something for money so yeah...

  • cavale May 9, 2009 05:24 am

    when you say "Florida" are you referring to UofFL? FL State? UCF?

  • Tanya Plonka May 9, 2009 05:03 am

    Fantastic article! Thank you for stressing you actually have to work and LEARN to be successful in this field, not just buy an SLR and read some articles as some people seem to think.

    I did the four year degree, but learned 80% of what I now know when I did the "slave" thing :)
    However, having a Fine Arts degree (the good ol' liberal education) makes you a more well-rounded thinker and better problem solver. I guess it totally depends on what school you go to and what classes you take.

  • potato May 9, 2009 04:02 am

    I really love this article!!!!!!!
    The best article I've read in the DPS

  • Dikar May 9, 2009 03:27 am

    Great article! I thought bout apprenticeship but wasn't sure if it's a good idea and how to approach master photographers + what to offer? Thanks alot, David!

  • Andre May 9, 2009 01:53 am

    Very nice and useful article. The whole assistant and slave theme doesn't resonate very well with me, but I see how that can benefit some people. I had my own take on How to become a professional photographer a couple of weeks ago. Its interesting how completely different we think :)

  • Marcy May 9, 2009 01:48 am

    A lot of great stuff. I will say ,however, that I think people put much more emphasis on school status than they need to. Studies show that motivated people are successful regardless of where they went to school (ivy league vs community college-- not much difference when you really get down to it and look at the long-term numbers). If you're talented and motivated, that will speak for itself. I doubt anyone will really care that they've never heard of the school you went to if you blow them away with your skills and personality.

  • Victor Augusteo May 9, 2009 01:25 am

    great article Darren. Although i want to argue about the part of getting 4year education. I've seen way too many photographer who are self taught, yet do really good job. Me, myself is also self taught (studying IT at uni) and i like this way a lot.

    one more suggestion that you didnt put in the post is to : join your local photography club!

    Ever since I joined monash photography club, my knowledge has been expanded vastly. Learning together with like minded friends surely open yours eyes to how fun this can be. Plus the occasional photography workshop and visits/talks by pro photographer really helps. You can also learn alot from people, and you can build your portfolio slowly by shooting your uni friends. You get to know lots of people to build your network, which some day might land you a pretty nice job :)

    anyway, just my 2 cents.

    Victor Augusteo Photography

  • Graham May 9, 2009 01:01 am

    This is great advice for people who can take it, but what about for those people who are looking to move from another business into photography? Those of us who have families, bills to pay, responsibilities that prevent us from going back to University or taking jobs as assistants because we simply can't afford to do it. Is there any advice applicable us?