What it Takes to Go Pro - Lessons from 10 Professional Photographers

What it Takes to Go Pro – Lessons from 10 Professional Photographers


Note: check out Kelly’s ‘Going Pro’ Kit if you want a comprehensive guide to making money from photography.

The decision to go pro with your photography business is a big step. It’s a time when the future is ripe with possibility and fears tend to run high. In what we call a “crisis of confidence,” you may find yourself comparing your work to other photographers and wondering, “am I really good enough?” or “will people give me a chance?”

When you begin experiencing these thoughts, take a deep breath and remember this; almost everyone feels this way before they begin a new journey – especially if their dreams are on the line. In fact, those super successful photographers you keep comparing yourself to likely experienced those same emotions when they decided to go pro themselves.

I asked 10 experienced professional photographers to reflect on the early days of their careers – from finding their first clients, to marketing strategies they used to establish their brands. Read on to see how each of them was able to find success as a professional photographer — and how you can, too.

It all starts with relationships

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Photo by Casey Kelbaugh

When you decide to offer your photography as a professional service, you’ll need to find a few clients who are willing to take a chance on you. For many photographers, this means starting with friends and family members who already like and trust them. “In my 15 years in the business, I have never gotten a job out of thin air,” NYC-based photographer Casey Kelbaugh said. “ Every single break, every assisting gig, every big campaign, every meat-and-potatoes job has come to me through some kind of relationship.”

Alfred Eisenstaedt, famous Life Magazine photographer said, “It’s more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” and “People hire you because of the quality of your work, but will hire you again and again because they enjoy your attitude and manner both on and off the set.” says landscape and commercial photographer Michael Zide.

Steve Hansen, a headshot photographer from Los Angeles also began his career by leveraging his personal network. “My first client was actually a friend who needed headshots,” he said. “He couldn’t afford some of the more pricey photographers, and I needed clients, so we struck a deal.”

According to photo and video educator Marlene Hielema, networking is also critically important. “You have to get out and meet people! People like to work with people they like, so you need to make connections with people who need the type of work you want to do. Have your elevator pitch ready, because I have met a lot of future clients at parties.”

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Photo by Marlene Hielema

When networking, Kelbaugh also recommends looking beyond photo editors and art directors, since they’re already being bombarded with photography pitches. “Clients can be found anywhere, so think about reaching out to your friends that work at startups, universities, law firms and restaurants” she said. “When building your clientele, try to think outside of the box.”

Speak up

In addition to utilizing the power of your existing network, don’t forget to take advantage of opportunities as they arise – no matter the time or place. Take Cappy Hotchkiss, a New York-based wedding photographer who met her first buyer at a dog run (a park where dogs can run off-leash). “I had photographed weddings for a few friends and absolutely loved it” Hotchkiss said. “Someone at the dog run overheard me talking about it and asked me to shoot her wedding. I still remember what a thrill it was – and how scary and fabulous it was.”

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Photo by Cappy Hotchkiss

Sports photographer Chris Marion had a similar experience when he happened to meet the editor of a local sports magazine. “I asked him if they had a need for additional photographers” Marion said. “He said yes and gave me what was most likely a test assignment. The assignment went well and it went on to become my first real sports job.”

Small wins lead to big ones

As your portfolio and word-of-mouth referrals begin to grow, so will the likelihood that you’ll land that one, great assignment. These assignments can be game changers for some professional photographers – leading to high-profile work and long-term relationships that ultimately lead to even bigger projects in the future. “I got my best client, Google, by landing a smaller event for them and delivering photos that they just loved” photographer Andrew Federman said. “Word spread and they asked me if I would come shoot the inaugural Google Science Fair out in Mountain View, California at Google HQ.”

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Photo by Andrew Federman

Marion landed his best client, the NBA, in a similar way. “My hometown of Springfield had an NBA development league and I was their team photographer for five years,” he said. “Through that experience I was able to capture the attention of the NBA, which then led to freelancing opportunities with Sports Illustrated, as well as others.”

Professionalism counts more than you realize

Sometimes that great assignment comes simply from being available. “One day I was at the library and got a phone call from a weird number,” said James Brosher, an editorial, commercial and wedding photographer in Bloomington, Indiana. “I answered, and I was glad that I did; it was a great job that paid my bills for an entire month. The client said he had called a couple other people but I got the job because I answered the phone. Ever since then, I’ve made a point to always answer my phone. You never know when a great client will call.”

Brosher has also landed several jobs because of his flexibility to take on last-minute projects. “One day I was on the couch and got a call from the Indianapolis Star needing an event covered in 15 minutes,” he said. “Being around, available, and being able to anticipate when a publication might need you goes a long way.”

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Photo by Marlene Hielema

According to Christina Van Dyke, the owner and founder of Van Dyke Design & Photography, something she’s found incredibly important is a focus on providing both great work and a great customer experience. “My best client found out about my photographic services from a word-of-mouth referral,” she said. “The lesson I’ve learned is to always treat each and every client as if they are your ONLY client. In return, your clients will reward you with wonderful referrals that keep your business growing and thriving.”

Play the long game

Hansen recommends focusing more on building your name, and less on your paycheck – at least in the beginning. “Don’t be afraid to take a pay cut in the early stages of building your business and name,” he said. “Yes, you may be worth a lot more, but having your work out there is invaluable to building a solid client list.”

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Photo by Andrew Federman

“My advice for young photographers is to remember that it’s the photographs you actually deliver to your clients that set you apart – not how slick your website is, how many Instagram followers you have, or how many blog hits you get,” Federman said. “Marketing is important, but delivering photos that blow away your clients will generate a powerful word-of-mouth force.”

View the complete interviews on SlideShare (below)

Thanks to our contributing photographers:

Learn More about Going Pro

Get more great information to help you go pro with Kelly’s eBook and kit on the topic in the dPS eBook store.

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Kelly Kingman worked for a decade as a photo editor in New York City, where she worked for a scrappy startup newspaper, consumer glossies like Cigar Aficionado and the weekly news magazine, The Week. She is the author of the dPS guide "Going Pro: How to make money through your photography" which features Kelly's insider expertise as well as dozens of interviews with photographers and the people who buy photography of all kinds. The expanded 2nd edition includes practical, printable guides to building an online presence, sales and marketing basics and much, much more.

  • SylviaAJones

    ???????? that’s a full enjoy with digital-photography-school. Real Info Here


  • Elise Nicholes

    Thanks! I just took a deep breath and bought some props and backdrops that I can’t really afford but its what I need to do to motivate myself to get started. Let’s go!

  • My first sales experience before we went into the business of photography (1974) was selling encyclopedias, where we were prohibited from approaching relatives and friends. We were trained to do “cold calls” or because we were selling door to door, to do “cold knocking.” I approached the business of photography the same way – by picking up the Yellow Pages and doing cold calls. What I want to say is that either way is okay – you may start by calling on friends and relatives (your personal connections) or you could do cold calls. I tell young photographers that if they don’t HAVE “connections,” then they can MAKE the connections. Good luck to those who are turning pro.

  • Funny thing, the longer I do this, the less equipment I have 😀 Two-three years ago, when I still had a full time job and was shooting part time, I was like: I need this and I need that. A year ago I was convinced I also need my own studio space 😀 Not any more. Give me a camera body, some decent lens, 2-3 flashguns and I’m good to go 🙂
    Good luck Elise, but get rid of the props and backdrops and find what you need wherever you shoot. It’s all already there, you just have to look around 🙂

  • You know, some 17 years ago I had an episode of working as a financial adviser for a year or so. Basically, cold calling and direct sales. I never though that experience will prove useful ever again in my life. Until I needed to find first clients for my photography 🙂 Especially that I’ve been starting in a new city and with very few connections there…

  • Kelly Kingman

    Maybe it would be a fun goal to set for yourself — set out to make 2x as much as you spent on equipment? 🙂

  • Kelly Kingman

    Here, here! Cold calling gets a bad rap (aka spam) but targeted pitching of services to people who may need them (in a professional, personalized and non-spammy way) can work. Of course, people who already know, like and trust you (friends and contacts) are the best place to start.

  • We all need others to advance and succeed in this world… how weird is a performance with no audience? It’s akin to a one man wrestling match LOL. All the necessary ingredients need to come together to achieve recognition & success… the recipe includes all and more of those cited in this article. Talent alone is not enough… an important point to keep in mind. Thanks to the author of this useful & informative piece 🙂 Nik Catalina http://www.imajik.info

  • Kelly Kingman

    Thanks, Nik! 🙂

  • You’re very welcome Kelly… 🙂

  • There are some good points here. It’s a scary, big leap when your day job pays the mortgage though…

  • KC

    Maybe I “got lucky” getting into a studio/lab right out of school, but it wasn’t as a photographer. It was as a lab tech. Fortunately, I studied both. So, I got to work directly with the photographers and other production people before getting behind their cameras. My “break” came in the cliché “right place, right time” way. A big project came in, and the main photographer was not well. They second photographer was out. It was big, complex, had a tight deadline and they were scrambling. I stepped up and said “I can do this”. I looked at the layouts, described what had to be done, what equipment I’d need, and the entire workflow. That took them by surprise. The truth is, it was an opportunity I wouldn’t pass up. I shot the project, had the film processed, headed to the darkroom to make the proofs, met with the client, got the approvals, printed and retouched the finals, and sent them out. The client had the finals before the deadline. Form there I kept in touch with their production people until the images were displayed. The client asked for me on the next project. The owners were impressed.

    Granted their main photographers were a bit ticked off that “the kid” handled the project without drama. I think the owners liked having an “I can do that” person who knew their business well. Over time they would send the over the top, complex, projects to my desk for review and comment. They were curious to see how I’d solve the problems. Inevitably, I’d get the project.

    There’s really no great take away to that story other than be that person than can do it. Yes, it’s hard because you have to be resourceful, quick thinking and an opportunist. The technical side of photography is pretty well mapped out. The creative side may seem daunting, but odds are someone has already shot something similar and described how they did it. You just have to adapt the workflow to fit your needs.

    Yes, over the years there were projects I wouldn’t take on. Maybe the time/cost ratio wasn’t worth it. You will run into potential clients who shop a project for the lowest cost. Once you “go there” you’ve set the bar low and it’s hard to get more lucrative projects from the client.

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