How To Know You Are Ready To Become A Professional Photographer

How To Know You Are Ready To Become A Professional Photographer

Many photography enthusiasts contact me because they want tips on how to make their dream of becoming a Professional Photographer a reality. I am a believer and an example that it is possible to make your life’s passion a profession. The key is to not just start a business, but rather, to sustain it by being profitable and happy. That is success!

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There are a multitude of books you can study and courses you can take about this very subject. Below is a short list of topline things you should consider based on my own experience. It will give you a starting point of things to think about and do. You are ready to make the leap from Aspiring to Professional when…

1. You know your equipment like the back of your hand.

You should be well versed in your camera settings, lenses, lighting equipment, etc. Getting a good image is about skill and experience, not luck. So know your stuff before you start charging for your services.

2. You know that being a Professional Photographer is much more than understanding how to take photographs.

When you make photography your business, you are actually only shooting a small percentage of the time.

At some point in your career, you can choose to outsource or hire staff to do some of these activities, but when you start out, a larger portion of your time will be filled with things like, communicating with clients and potential clients, culling and editing images, balancing your budget, selling products and services, marketing yourself and your business, fulfilling orders, and drafting client contracts.

Being a Professional Photographer means being an Artist and a Business Person.

Annie Tao Photography Bay Area East Bay lifestyle family photography family laughing on tree branch with sun flare

3. You have a Business Plan.

You’ve answered critical questions, such as: Who is your target client? How will you market yourself and your business to your target client? What is your pricing strategy for Year 1? Year 2? What products will you sell? What kinds of services will you provide? How will you differentiate your business from others in your area?

Do this before you start your business. It will be harder to shift business strategies later.

Annie Tao Photography East Bay lifestyle couple photography woman laughing while leading man with golden hour sun

4. You’ve built a portfolio that represents your style and shows consistency.

Once you start charging money for your services, you have to guarantee a certain level of quality and produce it consistently. A good portfolio would do most of the selling for you.

5. You have a means of sharing your work and contact info.

It’s plain and simple: if people can’t find you, you won’t get any business.

Before launching a website, make sure you’ve put thought into your brand identity and have optimized your site for searches (known as SEO or Search Engine Optimization). In addition to a website, there are a plethora of social media options to get your business and images noticed, such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr. You can protect your images by placing a watermark on them and limiting the file size and resolution.

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle family beach photography three sisters laughing under a blanket BxW

6. You have all your documents in order.

You’ve registered your business, gotten insurance, filed for a business license (ie, LLC, Sole Proprietorship, S-Corp), and have a contract ready to send your clients when they book your services. You have also spoken with a small business attorney and tax accountant, and have opened a separate bank account for your business.

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco lifestyle family photography mom and dad reading to baby in the livingroom BxW

7. You know who you are and what kind of photographer you are.

This may sound ridiculously simple, but it’s often overlooked.

Know what specialty you want to have before you start, so you won’t waste your efforts growing a side of your business that you do not love. Especially if you are in a saturated market, stick with your own style – whether it’s a style of shooting, processing, or photography – so you can differentiate yourself from others.

Do what you love, know your own strengths, and be yourself. This will help you attract the right clients for you. (The right client for Business A is not necessarily the right client for Business B.)

Starting and running a successful business takes a lot of resources — namely, your money, time, and energy. If you aren’t sure about something (ie, the quality of the images you’re producing, how to use your equipment, the profitability of a shoot), people will feel that uncertainty and won’t invest in you.

Make the necessary preparations before starting your business, so you can be confident when you do.

If you have additional tips for starting out Pros, feel free to share in the comment section.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Annie Tao is a Professional Lifestyle Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is best known for capturing genuine smiles, emotions and stories of her subjects. You can visit Annie Tao Photography for more tips or inspiration. Stay connected with her on her Facebook page

Some Older Comments

  • Allen June 14, 2013 04:36 am

    I was in photography part time several years back. Considering re-entry. Thanks for the focus on the business info in this article.

  • Conall O'B April 19, 2013 05:46 am

    I's like to reiterate what might have been said before, in that watermarking your photos is NOT enough to protect your images, you should register the images BEFORE publication with the Library of Congress ( American photographers) Good tutorial here...

  • Jeffrey March 27, 2013 07:30 am

    But now you are getting that unwanted attention. I agree, Go shoot and Be Happy!
    Also, sell sell sell and work less.
    and thats enough attention for me too.
    See ya

  • Diana March 27, 2013 06:49 am

    Joseph you made me cry:)Such good advice, thanks so much.

  • Joseph March 27, 2013 05:23 am

    No no. I don't 'mentor' for money or attention. I shoot. I spent too many years working for people who think that life has some sort of 'rulebook' and that you have to follow it. I earn enough money (I work about three -four days a week, sometimes more), to pay my bills and I work 9 months out of the year so that I can spend a month with my family out of state, aging parents, growing nieces and nephews and the rest of the time relaxing and traveling. My goal next year is to increase prices and get less work.

    I did everything wrong. Everything. And for the first time in my life, I'm super happy about it. Even if it means I have to eat pancakes and top ramen next week. I might not be rich, but I spend three hours every day at the park with my dog. Just go and shoot and be happy. That's all the advice I have for you...

  • Jeffrey March 27, 2013 05:03 am

    Well said Joseph,
    But I disagree with you.
    Aspiring Pros should listen to you and you posted online!!!

  • Joseph March 27, 2013 04:38 am

    I did all of that wrong, apparently. I pay my bills from being a photographer. I'm a far better business/sales person than I am a photographer. 15 years in Sales and Marketing. I sell photography because I'm good at selling. And I'm good at presenting my work. And I don't have to rely on being 'afraid' that somebody is going to take all of my business. If someone is taking your business, then you better look in the mirror for assistance. If you're good at what you do (that is, all aspects of having a business) then you don't need to worry. You will always have work.

    Just go and shoot. And don't let anybody tell you you can't do anything. As long as what you are doing is legal, go and do it. And DO NOT follow other professional photographers around online or otherwise. They're the absolute, total worst mentors you could possibly ever have as a group. I submit AGP's comment as evidence.

  • Marco March 26, 2013 05:04 am

    Geoff -- Having followed the link you provided, I have a few problems with it. The chart mentions that some magazine bought a cover photo for $ 33 while claiming that was a $3000 value. The problem is who decided that it was worth $3000? Before the internet and digital photography, it may have been worth that much but today a magazine editor can have someone troll the internet with all of the photo sharing sites and search by key word to find thousands of images that fit their needs. If they can reliably find photos for a certain price point, then that is the new market value!!! I have heard of one magazine in the country living category that has never paid for photos as they run photo contests constantly that gives them rights to all of the submissions, so their going rate for cover photos is zero dollars!!! I am not condoning these operations, but facts are facts. Your chart ends with the new cheap photographers going out of business, but there being thousands of newbies to replace them and unfortunately that keeps the going rate low. Hanging around griping about this does not change the facts and it may be time to move on. I personally believe that there is still a market for a good reliable professional as top flight magazines will never use these methods to obtain photography as it is too hit-and-miss for them. However there will be fewer slots for a good photo pro. I did watch a similar cycle happen in a rural county a while back with live music. The bar owners got together and put a maximum price that they were willing to pay for bands. It didn't take long for the good bands to quit playing for the bars in that county. Over time there were fewer and fewer bands coming along since there was no money to be made playing live events. The bar owners were crying because of the low quality and that it was so hard to find any band to play!! It wasn't long before they were using DJs and even those gave up because of low pay so they ended up with karaoke. Now they cannot even find someone to run that for them!!! They killed the golden goose!!!! Most of those bars have gone out of business today. So no this is not sustainable, but it is nearly impossible to educate the greedy customers!!! However many of the good bands from this area are still around as they just moved to higher paying markets and continued their growth, while the bar owners went broke!!! The same can happen for photographers if they focus on the upscale customers who don't mind paying for good service!

  • James L Dekker March 26, 2013 01:43 am

    Great reading.

  • Jeffrey March 26, 2013 12:09 am

    Well said Marco,
    If we go out and market our work it will speak for itself! If we are quoting on jobs that just take low price tailor
    your work and pricing for that. Target markets that allow you to make a profit. This is all pretty basic business stuff, if that turns you off consider working for a company. That brings up a good point that there is many different types of Pro Photographers.
    Business Owner
    Freelance Contractor
    Company Employee
    etc., etc.
    They all have there own unique descriptions and type of work!

  • Photography by james March 25, 2013 07:09 pm

    Marco - very well said, my thoughts exactly. These articles seem to bring out a lot of insecurities in what are probably very average pro photographers as soon as one gives so much as a hint of encouragement to anybody who might be thinking of joining their ranks.

  • Marco March 25, 2013 06:41 pm

    AGP -- A true professional would not be threatened by those you seem to want to silence. Beginner, intermediate and pro all have the same rights a authors of their work. If they chose to under value their work, they won't last long so how is that a threat to you? Yes, the legal matters are complex and hopefully anyone selling works should know these things, but they will never be large enough to matter if they fail to do this basic learning! A true professional would never be competing with these folks anyways. They would be able to show a portfolio and references that would justify their pricing and have the service reputation to go along with that. If you are still having troubles, maybe it is not the beginners that are the problem. Maybe it is the changing landscape of the profession. Customer needs are very different today for professional photography in this digitally connected world of social networking. Those who don't adapt will fall by the wayside in any field that has gone digital. The world of mp3s is way different than the days of vinyl. If you aren't offering some low res facebook versions, you might be missing the boat on weddings and family photos.

    Blake -- what you say is true to a degree, but maybe their photos are not average if the client will pay!!! Anyone who has a DSLR and shoots a photo owns the rights to that image. If they and another party come to agreeable terms, no one has anything to say about that. It is called capitalism and free market economy!!!

  • Laura March 25, 2013 12:26 pm

    Geoff- awesome and true! Thanks for posting this!

  • Geoff March 24, 2013 09:03 am

    Always such an interesting discussion. We actually created a infographic that might help address some of these issues. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Blake March 23, 2013 03:20 pm

    My tip is to avoid thinking that just because you've got an SLR and know how to add watermarks doesn't mean you can suddenly start charging people for your average photos.

  • Chyman March 23, 2013 01:30 pm

    Don't agree with timgay--- if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life

  • Bill Turley March 23, 2013 02:00 am

    If you are serious and have the basic/advanced skills you can try to get employed by a large company in your area of interest. For example if you are into Portraits, spending a year or two working as a photographer with LifeTouch. They fine tune your skills and support you as you learn and grow

  • AGP March 22, 2013 09:47 pm

    Please study the list above really carefully to see what it REALLY costs to be a professional. This does not only apply to wedding photographers, it applies to all who pay their bills out of photography.

    Also remember that if you want to remain an amateur you should not charge people money, and CLEARLY set their expectations regarding the quality they will receive. As a "friend/co-worker" etc., please have the decency to refer those who ask you to photograph their wedding or product to a professional. Keep in mind that ruining someone's memories can be devastating, and ruining someone's "product' photos can be devastating for their business. And please don't offer your "photography services" at your day job! Doing so sends me, the professional, the client that expects to receive "perpetual rights to the photos", a client that expects to get copyright flat out, and a client who disregards what a license is for.

    Here is more information on each; please familiarize yourself with it, because it is not OK for you to destroy our business, and our business models. When we do get in business we don't have the luxury of ignoring legal matters from terms and conditions forms, to licensing, and beyond.

    Please Respect Intellectual Property.

    "Who is an author?
    Under the copyright law, the creator of the original expression in a work is its author. The author is also the owner of copyright unless there is a written agreement by which the author assigns the copyright to another person or entity, such as a publisher. In cases of works made for hire, the employer or commissioning party is considered to be the author. See Circular 9, Work-Made-For-Hire Under the 1976 Copyright Act."

    "What is a work made for hire?
    Although the general rule is that the person who creates the work is its author, there is an exception to that principle. The exception is a work made for hire, which is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned in certain specified circumstances. When a work qualifies as a work made for hire, the employer, or commissioning party, is considered to be the author. See Circular 9, Work-Made-For-Hire Under the 1976 Copyright Act."

  • Mei Teng March 22, 2013 03:37 pm

    I agree with Tim's comments. Sometimes when you make a hobby your profession, you may not enjoy it as much. For now, it's a hobby for me.

  • Scottc March 22, 2013 10:10 am

    Forget about is too much fun. Why make a job out of it?

  • Marco March 22, 2013 07:42 am

    One of the biggest mistakes made by beginning pros is to get so time stretched that they fail to schedule time for personal projects. When I first ran a web business in the 90's I only booked enough business to fill 20-25 hours a week and spent the remaining hours on active learning to advance my skills. The same applies to photography - You must advance your skills or you will quickly become irrelevant. This is where personal projects or assignments come in. You say that working 20 hrs a week won't pay your bills? Then you are not charging enough!!! This field is such that if you stand still for a few months, you are losing ground rapidly! Maybe your skill level is such that you can change the ratio, but you must include education in your schedule today!!! Just some food for thought.

  • James March 22, 2013 07:05 am

    Re point 1, not just your equipment but your software as well. The top photographers pre-digital could make a silk purse out of a cow's ear in the darkroom and you should be able to do the same on your computer.

  • Valerie Jardin March 22, 2013 06:28 am

    The secret to being a successful photographer and not lose the passion for the craft is to constantly work on personal projects. Make the time to shoot what you love for yourself and your passion will grow. At the same time your confidence as a professional will also grow. This is true for any hobby that becomes a business.

  • gnslngr45 March 22, 2013 05:58 am

    The last point is the most important IF you decide to go pro (which I have resisted due to points 2 & 3 - business).
    Timgray is actually incorrect. If you do your business correctly, you won't ever really have to bend to a client (unless they incredibly overpay and you decide the extra pay is worth the hassle). You advertise what you do (your passion), and when someone comes in liking your ability and not your style - you turn them away. You tell them "THIS is what I do, if you don't like what I do, then you should try pro photographer X because their style fits what you want. I ONLY do this style because if I relent, my passion will leave and my photos will suffer."
    In the end, you will obtain more loyal customers and therefore better profits because you refused to water down your business.


  • Cramer Imaging March 22, 2013 05:37 am

    Being a professional photographer is very much about customer service. I've worked in many different types of customer service and photography is no different in this regard. If you aren't good with customers, you had better get someone who is to handle people or professional photography may not be for you. People skills must be developed before turning pro or your business will suffer from bad word of mouth and poor online reviews early on. It's one thing to start with no reputation, which is a chore of its own, but it's entirely different trying to make up for a terrible reputation. Customer service skills are also often overlooked in starting a business of any kind.

  • Subhadip Sarkar March 22, 2013 04:42 am

    I think Timgray is right. when hobbies become profession , we stop enoying it.

  • Subhadip Sarkar March 22, 2013 04:41 am

    I think Timgray is right.

  • Darnell Jackson March 22, 2013 03:24 am

    I have always like photography but the difference between taking good photos and making money from it is all about business fundamentals right?

    Isn't this why the most popular photographer in town is rarely the best one?

  • Tom Feazel March 22, 2013 03:17 am

    Do you understand that taking great pictures is the MINIMUM requirement to be a pro, and that a GREAT picture for each and every assignment. is going to be expected of you.
    Sales, marketing (two different things) and client relations are what makes a successful pro.

  • timgray March 22, 2013 03:11 am

    8 - You like photography so much that you want to add an element that makes you really hate it. When a hobby becomes a job, you stop enjoying it. Almost no professional photographers are allowed to be creative. Most are forced to do exactly what the client wants, even when it's wrong and makes you not want your name on the photograph.

  • Jeffrey March 22, 2013 03:08 am

    I just want to repeat a couple of things Annie said. Find your specialty and identify what makes your work stand out from all your competition in that specialty. The most important one and also the hardest for alot of us artists, go out and sell your strengths to the decision makers(buyers) in that specialty.
    Do these whether you have your own business or want to work for a company.
    Sell your work and most important yourself! If you have the confidence to do that you are ready to try to go "Pro". There is lots of help for you if your work does not sell or you cant get a job but if you do not have the confidence to go out and sell your work or yourself you probably wont make it "Pro".

  • Don March 22, 2013 02:28 am

    You got to have a business plan and you got to love people. If you don't, stick to wildlife stock photography. I had 6 months of Business class with my Photography Degree and most of us were bored stiff (no shooting, lots of math), but the truth is, I wish I would of paid more attention, so I learned the hard way. What also is true about this article is the amount of time spent shooting vs Post Production (Lightroom, Photoshop), Marketing, follow up and taking care of your personal self. It's a great thing when you get paid to do what you love, you never stop learning/getting better and there is really no reason to retire unless you want to. :-)

  • deborah March 22, 2013 01:38 am

    #2 is interesting. I know people who are better businesspeople than photographers, and they are doing very well as pro photographers. I have put a lot more time and effort into improving my photography than some of them, and I'd probably do a better job at shoots than they do, but the business angle of photography stresses me out.

    So they are getting the jobs, and I'm not, and I'm okay with that. That's why I mainly focus on stock and editorial photography -- working for companies means I don't have to pay so much attention to the business side. I've thought perhaps I should go take a business course, but I think the problem for me isn't just lack of knowledge -- it's that I really don't enjoy that at all.