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The Ultimate Guide to Going Pro as a Photographer

Going pro is scary.

Let’s just say it. Now that we got that out of the way and we all agree that transitioning from being a hobbyist or a part-timer, into a full fledged professional photographer isn’t easy, let’s talk about how to do it.

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Let me start off by saying, YOU CAN DO THIS! It will be hard work but it’s NOT IMPOSSIBLE. Suspend disbelief for once in your life and let’s focus on how you can take the steps forward to going pro already!

I know this is going to be hard to believe, but I will ACTUALLY tell you what you need to do, right now. This guide will get you started properly and I’ll leave you with the next steps as well. I’m not going to waste your time telling you who I am, or giving you a typical backstory. I’m going to just give you the goods and then you can thank me later. Crazy right? Let’s jump right into it.

The Ultimate Guide to Going Pro in Eight Steps!

Step 1: Get your head right

Do you know how to compose a shot decently? Do you understand the concept of exposure and basic lighting? Are your shots in focus? If you answered YES to all three questions, then your skills are far ahead of most people that attempt to take a photo with a camera. That makes what you do, worth money. Granted, your skills are beyond this level but the point is you don’t need to be Chase Jarvis to start charging for your skills. You just need to be better than who’s hiring you.

Many people don’t ever go pro because they never feel they’re good enough to charge money for their skills. At the very least, your time doing any kind of work, is worth money. There are all kinds of budgets out there. Just get started. We’ll talk about your rates later on but if you haven’t charged for your skills as a photographer yet, DO IT NOW. I’m serious. Go to your local pizzeria and tell them you will shoot and edit 10 photos of them tossing pizzas, or whatever, for their website or Facebook page for 50 bucks. Just get it out of your system. That’s the last time you’ll charge $50 bucks by the way.

Step 2: Stop worrying about gear

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I live in New York City and pro photographers are everywhere. Want to hear something funny? Many of them don’t even own a camera. And you were worried about not having that Nikon Nikkor 200-400mm lens you might need for the odd chance you’ll need to shoot wildebeest migrating in Tanzania? As they say; it’s not the paintbrush, it’s the painter.

If you have great gear, awesome! If you don’t, it’s not a huge deal. You can always rent equipment and factor that cost into your prices. Got a great camera, but only have the kit lens? RENT. It’s not a problem. My partner and I shoot video for big clients and we have lots of gear but we still rent because we always need something different given the shoot.

Stop worrying that your gear isn’t “pro enough” and remember they are going to pay you on how well you capture moments – not how much gear you own.

Step 3: Put up a website. Have one already? Take another look.

Having an effective website is critical when going pro. The keyword here is EFFECTIVE. You need to clearly communicate who you are and what value you offer quickly and concisely. The most important thing about any website is the content – what and how you communicate to your audience. The job of design is to augment that message.

Make sure your opening headline on your website captures your visitor’s attention. If you are someone that is great with kids as a photographer say something like “Getting a decent photo of your kid can be torture. Let me put you out of your misery.”

If you are confused about the tech or the design side things and you’re on a limited budget, just go with a Squarespace site. Pick a clean and simple theme and start building.

If you already have a website, the above advice goes for you too. Take another look at your site and see if you are communicating effectively.

Step 4: Add value

On your website, you need to offer something your audience will enjoy and find valuable. That’s where your blog comes in.

Remember your visitors will be people who need photography services and the best way to show you are good at what you do is to share your experiences. Share a story about how you were able to capture a great graduation party even though the guest of honor was camera-shy.

Share tips on how you can hang great photos in your home or office. Explain the rational behind your advice.

By creating great content and sharing stories and tips, your visitors get to know you, like you and start to find reasons to hire you. If you’re worried about people finding you on the web, writing useful posts will also help you rank well on Google and other search engines, as others may be searching for topics you write about.

Step 5: Build a portfolio and get some testimonials

At first, if you have no work to display on your portfolio, you will need to approach 5-6 potential clients and offer your services for a heavily discounted price or even for free, to build your portfolio. This is also an opportunity to get feedback from clients on your process of working with them and how to improve it.

You can ask these clients for testimonials in exchange for this incredible deal. They can be written or even video testimonials which you can display on your website. Cool huh? This is just to get you started, you’ll get more testimonials as you take on more clients.

If you already have work to display, you’re good to go, but make sure you have some testimonials. If that means contacting previous clients, go ahead and do that.

Step 6: Set your rates

There are two basic ways to set your rates.

1. Use a market rate

Look at another business that has similar services and experience and use a similar rate. A rate can be an hourly rate or prices for service packages. List three businesses similar to yours and note down their rates.

2. Use your “need to make” rate

First, how many hours can you dedicate to your service-business every week? Divide that by 2. Half of your time will be spent on actually running, marketing and building your business. The other half will be dedicated to your actual service work. This may come as a shock to some – “half the time?!” But yes, you need to factor this in so that you are not setting your rates too low.

Second, how much money do you need to make a week to cover your personal expenses? Everyone is different. Your weekly number may be $1000, $800 or $700.

Third and finally, take your weekly amount of money needed and divide it by the number of service work hours a week. That’s your hourly rate. For Example: $1000 / 25 hours = $40 per hour

Step 7: Knowing how to deal with clients

Guide going pro clients

Client work is just like any relationship in life. After your first conversation, each party will have already formed an opinion about the other. The client already has imagined what working with you will be like, that’s just human nature.

The good news is that you are in control of how that all happens. The bad news is that YOU are in control of how it all happens – not a typo. Here are your FOUR MUST DO’s when dealing with clients:

Must do #1: Discuss why they are hiring You

Sometimes clients forget when they hire you, that they are not your boss, and you are not their employee. You are a business owner offering a service they need.

Let me state that again. They need you. That’s why they are speaking with you. They are not a photographer, you are. That’s why they took the time to find out about you, and contact you. Whether they actually state it or not, they probably need you badly.

Setting the tone of the nature of your relationship doesn’t have to be mean or condescending but it does need to be done. Here is an example conversation:

  • Client: I really need this these photos for my website to look professional and to show what we are all about.
  • You: I completely understand and you’re completely right. As a business owner myself, I know how important it is to convey my brand. Your reputation is at stake.
  • Client: Exactly! It’s essential.
  • You: That’s why I like to take the time to understand you and your business very well before I begin work. My clients don’t work with me only because I’m a great photographer. They hire me mainly because I know how to communicate their message to their audience creatively.
  • Client: That sounds exactly like what I need.

The point of this whole conversation is to do a few things:

  1. You establish the nature of your relationship. You have something they need. Not the other way around.
  2. You are not just a technician that can operate a camera. You possess skills and talents they don’t, some they might not even comprehend.
  3. It communicates you know your stuff.
  4. It’s understood you’re not an employee. You’re a business owner just like them.

Must do #2: State Your rates or decide on a budget

At some point in your first conversation you have to talk about money. You may prefer to save that until the end of the conversation but it needs to be done. Delaying this will not only potentially waste your time, it also conveys to your potential client, your not sought after and you have no real qualifiers.

If you’re a photographer that will work on any project, of any size, for any given amount of time, for any price, it basically means that you are cool with slavery. I’m not trying to be dramatic here but even Ralph, the $10 barber down my street has rates clearly stated. Ever hired anyone and not know how much they cost?

It’s only fair to both parties. Some clients will try to milk you, and try to get 2-3 meetings out of you. They will attempt to discuss their plans for dominating their market and the world in the near future (writing this out of experience) before even discussing money. You are in the services business. Your time IS money. It’s your responsibility to have this conversation with them. State your rates or decide on a budget they are OK with before you move on to meeting number two.

Must do #3: Only start work with a deposit

Unless you have worked with a client in the past and you had a great experience with them, you have no evidence they are committed to you in anyway without a deposit. That’s just reality speaking, not me. A deposit can be whatever you agree on – 25, 50, 60 percent, whatever. Some money needs be put on the table before you roll up your sleeves. Beginning work without a deposit is just flat out asking for trouble. TRUST ME! I didn’t get my grey hair for nothing. A deposit is standard and it’s what professionals do.

Must do #4: Agree on a timeline

You are running a service-based business so time is money for you. So agreeing on a timeline early on is essential. They are looking to you for guidance on this one, so propose a timeline. This timeline includes any payment schedules as well as any given revision cycles if applicable.

Make sure you frame this conversation in a way they know you are doing this to make sure everything is transparent and they know when, and what to expect. This also makes things a whole lot easier for you. This is especially important when it comes to work that needs approval during the process. Make sure clients know there is a deadline for that too.

Another benefit of setting a timeline is it lets your clients know, you’ve got other clients and you’re not just working with them. You are happy to be working with each other but you are a sought after talent.

Step 8: Getting your first clients

In the beginning you just need to get the ball rolling. Here are some tips to get your first regular clients:

1. Make sure everyone and their cat knows you are now offering professional photography services. Contact everyone on your contact list and in your social media circles. You can even offer a referral fee for friends and family.

2. Go to some local shops you frequent and tell them what you can offer them. Let them know their photos will be displayed on your website and their business’s website or Yelp link will be hyperlinked. What business doesn’t like free marketing?

Guide going pro photography local business

3. You can also use some freelance online services like these to get some clients:

4. Team up with someone that shares your audience and agree to have them refer clients to you. For example, you may want to approach a web designer. They’ll have clients that need great photos to showcase on the new website.

5. Go where the action is! Go on Eventbrite or sites like it and find out what local events are going on in your area and email the organizer of the event to see if they need a solid photographer to capture their event. If it’s a regular event, they’ll need great photos to market next year’s event.

Let’s Wrap This Up

I’m here to say your art, your craft, can be your business. Your actual livelihood. With that said, understanding and doing business properly is probably going to be the defining factor in your success in going pro. That’s just the truth. But just like you’ve learned how to capture an image properly, you can learn how to run your business properly as well. This guide doesn’t cover every single aspect of building your business, but these are ultimately, the essentials to get you started. You can learn the rest as you build. The point is to start TODAY.

Wow! You made it to end of this post. You are obviously serious about going pro and starting a business around your love for photography so I don’t want your learning to end here. You can click here to get free access to our Building a Service-Based Business course and workbook inside The $100 MBA. It’s my way of saying thank you for letting me share what I love, showing others that business is not rocket science and that you can do this!

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Omar Zenhom
Omar Zenhom

is an entrepreneur and educator. He’s the Founder of Business Republic, where he, and his partner Nicole, started an alternative business education called The $100 MBA – a culmination of his years in business and education. They also now offer daily free 10 minute business lessons with their podcast The $100 MBA Show. As a special bonus for dPS readers sign up and get a FREE course and workbook to help you start your business!

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