Like many creative careers, there is no single route to become a professional photographer. There is also no official qualification which you need to become a paid photographer.
This means that jumping into the photography business can be pretty easy, but actually earning a living as a photographer is a different story.
There’s a big difference between being a great photographer and running a successful photography business.
The aim of this article is to provide a simple formula to help you get started as a professional photographer without spending a fortune.
Becoming a professional photographer may seem like an impossible dream but with passion, dedication, talent in abundance, and the right business skills, achieving that goal is not as impossible as you think.
Before we begin, we’ll assume the following:
- You’ve selected your focus area/genre (portraits, sports, photojournalism, travel, street, landscape, adventure, etc)
- You own at least a basic entry-level camera and lenses (you can get started for less than $500 worth of gear)
- You have a few years experience under your belt and a solid foundation
Now ask yourself the following:
If I had millions of dollars in my bank account and I could do anything for the rest of my life, what would I do?
Stop and think about it…
If photography wasn’t your first answer then stick to what you’re currently doing and follow your true passion instead (whatever that may be).
The two most important days in your life are when you are born and when you find out why.Mark Twain
If you did answer photography then you’re ready to move on with the rest of the article.
Be Honest With Yourself
Owning a camera and taking good photos doesn’t mean you should quit your job and be a professional photographer. People might compliment your work but the problem is:
You can’t cash compliments at the bank.Bob Ragland
It’s okay to do something because you enjoy it – not every passion and hobby has to be a career.
There are a lot of people that love to cook, that doesn’t mean they should be working in a restaurant. Enjoying a glass of wine doesn’t automatically qualify you to be a wine connoisseur.
Are You a Maniac?
Next, read the following quote from Richard Avedon:
I believe in maniacs. I believe in type A’s. I believe that you’ve got to love your work so much that it is all you want to do. I believe you must betray your mistress for your work, you betray your wife for your work; I believe that she must betray you for her work. I believe that work is the one thing in the world that never betrays you, that lasts. If I were going to be a politician, if I were going to be a scientist, I would do it every day. I wouldn’t wait for Monday. I don’t believe in weekends. If you’re headed for a life that’s only involved with making money and that you hope for satisfaction somewhere else, you’re headed for a lot of trouble. And whatever replaces vodka when you’re 45 is what you’re going to be doing.Richard Avedon
Do you consider yourself a maniac? If yes, move on to the 3 Steps below. If you’re not a maniac, then return to the million-dollar question again. You have to eat, sleep, and breathe photography if this is to be your career.
Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.Confucius
3 Steps to Becoming a Professional Photographer
Step 1 – Walk Before You Run
Before you begin it’s important that you’ve already got some photos that you can add to your portfolio. If not, then use what you have and keep learning your craft before even considering a career as a photographer. Average won’t cut it.
You only have one chance to make a first impression. If you show shoddy work to begin with, that’s what you’ll be known for throughout your career.
Learning your Craft
The difference between a professional and an amateur is: A professional borrows from a master and an amateur borrows from an apprentice.Author Unknown
Forget learning from glorified amateur photographers on YouTube. The best professionals are busy out shooting, not on YouTube. Their tutorials are perfect for the beginner photographer and weekend warriors but not for you.
Learn from the best; the second-raters have nothing to offer.David Hurn
Determine your Niche
The best professional photographers have a look and feel that defines their work. In order to compete in today’s market, you must develop your own style (or product) and market aggressively.
For commercial clients, there is no value to a photographer who shoots many different types of photography with many different styles.
The problem with having no visual identity and focus is that anybody can do it. The chances are where you live there are at least dozen or more photographers that are average at shooting everything but excel at nothing.
They then complain that they can’t make a decent living off photography…
Niche will make you rich. All will make you poor.Unknown
These photographers are not your competition.
When looking for photographers, clients will select one whose visual approach matches an assignment.
You wouldn’t select the star striker in a Football (Soccer) team to play as a goalkeeper; it’s a waste of their talent. Your team will be 10-0 down before half-time. So why do people think it’s okay in professional photography?
Stick to what you’re good at (and what you love). Forget about being a jack of all trades and instead focus on one area only. Be the master of that niche.
Your Mastermind Group
Now select 3 master photographers who have a similar visual style and learn everything you can about their work, shooting technique, and career.
If you want to be the best you have to learn from the best.
Study their images in detail, learn how they light, read interviews, and watch documentaries and video clips about them. Fully immerse yourself in their work.
When looking at their photos ask youself:
- Why their photography appeals to you?
- How does the image make you feel?
- Why did they compose their shot a certain way?
- What’s the story? Purpose?
- Is there an interesting juxtaposition of objects or a visual joke?
- How have they framed or posed their subject?
- What colors have they used? Are they saturated or desaturated?
- How did they light it? Where’s the light coming from?
Their images are now your standard for good photography. Eventually, your own distinct style will emerge.
Tip: Why not write an article about them? Send it to us and we’ll publish it and include a backlink to your website. Not only will it help you learn about their work but it’ll also improve the google ranking of your online portfolio at the same time.
Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.Warren G Bennis
Remember, you are your environment.
There are so many photographers out there today that it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. Do not copy your competition, otherwise, you’ll just be another hack photographer for hire fighting for scraps.
Collaborate with models, actors, businesses, bands (or whatever relates to your niche) and shoot for free (to begin with) and get those much-needed portfolio images.
Now, you’ve got some great photos that look different from the competition, it’s time to move on to Step 2.
Step 2 – Pick Up the Pace
So, you’ve completed Step 1 and have between 12 and 20 photos that show how talented you are and demonstrate your visual style. Before spending a fortune on photography gear, here’s what I would do next:
- Take 2 weeks off work (holiday/vacation leave)
- Rent gear for the 2-week period
- Schedule 2 photoshoots every day (total of 10-14) or set yourself 3 -5 mini photo assignments
- Ensure you have the correct insurance cover
- Return gear to the rental company
- Edit photos
- Upload only your best photos to your website (or Adobe Portfolio) and your Facebook Page
- Promote yourself as a Photographer
This will save you a lot of money. It will also help you identify what gear you need rather than what you think you need.
Step 3 – Going the Distance
If you start booking clients or get inquiries, then I suggest you continue to rent gear and factor in the cost of renting when providing quotes.
Professional photography is about making money from your work. Treat it like a business. Think about your return on your investment.
Rule No.1: Never lose money. Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1.Warren Buffet
Only upgrade your kit when it’s no longer financially worthwhile to keep renting, otherwise stick with what you’ve got.
Once you get to the stage when financially it makes sense to invest in your own gear for jobs then do it. You’ll know when that is.
The chances are at that stage, you would have built a reputation as a photographer and instead of dipping into your savings or paying on finance, you can go to the bank a get a business loan instead.
Don’t Confuse Price With Value
The biggest misconception is that you need to buy everything at once or because some other photographer has all this gear, you need it too. You don’t.
Many professional photographers own a simple kit and rent for larger jobs.
If you need to buy an expensive lens for your work and you use it daily (or even weekly) then you’re getting value out of it. If it’s sitting in your camera bag collecting dust, then you’re not getting value out it and that lens wasn’t a good investment.
The world is filled with individuals who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.Phillip Fisher
The Dream Bio
This is a wonderful exercise from the book How to Succeed in Commercial Photography by Selina Maitreya.
When Maitreya was teaching photography workshops, she would get her students to create their own dream bio. The exercise was designed to help them see what success looked like to them.
The exercise may sound simple but it’s incredibly effective.
Regardless of where you are in your career, the Dream Bio will help you identify your goals and where you want to be in the future. It will also help you determine whether you’re on the right track to success.
If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.Jim Rohn
What does success look like to you? Whatever you want it to be. Now lets get creating…
How to Write Your Dream Bio
Ensure you have a free hour or more with no interruptions. Find somewhere relaxing to sit which is free from distractions. Now imagine that you are living five years in the future:
- What does your professional life look like?
- What are you shooting? Who are your clients?
- Do you have a team or are you working alone?
- How much money are you making?
- Do you have a studio? What does it look like?
- How many days a week do you shoot on average?
- What has been your best experience? What has been your worst?
The most important thing when creating your bio is not to use your head. You are in your heart. Don’t think about the answers; sense them instead. Write them down as soon as they appear without any editing.
If you have been able to write your bio without judgment (no crossed out sentences), then you have created a dream bio that will give you all the information you need about moving forwards in the future.
Don’t bother reading through it or spell-checking the bio. Simply put it away and set yourself a review date two weeks later.
The Next Stage
After two weeks, pull out your dream bio. Take your time and read it with an open heart and forget what is attainable and what is not. You’ll most likely be surprised by what you you read.
Once you have read it, examine what you have written. Look to see where your priorities lie within your words. These priorities will begin to help you see what success looks like to you and where you should focus.
Was creativity your most important priority? Maybe recognition? Freedom? What part of your bio did you write about the most? As you read and examine your bio, resist the urge to edit.
Quiet the voice inside your head that tells you it’s all nonsense. Be open to the information that your answers have for you. These were your choices and they need to be heard.
When reviewing, do not disregard any parts of your dream bio that may seem like fantasy. It is all possible. You simply need to determine which of the goals mean the most to you in order to commit to the hard work and time needed to reach them.
Once you’re done reviewing and you’ve got as much information as possible from the bio, look at what you have written and begin to list what success looks like to you.
Got a success list? Great. Now compare it to your life as it is now, and evaluate the different areas of your business that need your attention.
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.Seneca
The next step is to set yourself goals and work backwards with small milestones. Eventually this will lead you to be where you want to be.
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