This is an easy one… the answer is yes, of course you can. You can do anything you want.
If we define a “professional photographer” as someone who earns money from photography then becoming a pro is super easy! If, however, you define pro photographer as someone who earns a good, consistent income from photography… well that’s a little more difficult. But all you need to make it is determination.
What is a professional photographer?
The term professional is used to differentiate between someone who does something for free, or for fun (amateur), and someone who does something for money (professional).
In the case of photographers, most often the term “pro photographer” is used to describe someone who does photography all the time, with no other job. Getting someone to pay you for one photography job is pretty simple. Getting enough work from photography to pay all your bills is a LOT harder.
But I believe anyone out there can do anything, if you want it bad enough. I’ll run you through why I believe that, and I’ll run you through the basics of how you might achieve it.
Why I believe anyone can do it
Here are the things I believe you need to be a professional photographer:
- Ability to take good photographs
- Ability to win business
- Some sort of photography equipment
- Some sort of computer
- Determination to stick at it
Now, if you look closely at those you will hopefully spot that there is only really one thing on that list that you can’t go and get from somewhere else, and that is determination.
Getting a camera and a computer is something that you can work out how to achieve. You don’t have to spend a fortune on either. Check out our post on just how little you need to spend on a camera here. And check out our article on why you don’t need all the megapixels in the world here!
The two top ones on the list – the abilities – are things you can LEARN. You don’t necessarily need a natural gift. You can learn to take good photographs and you can learn to win business.
So it just comes down to how bad you want it.
Why you don’t need any natural ability to be a pro photographer
Here’s the thing… being a pro photographer is not about winning awards. It’s not about having your photographs approved and validated by the whole world in some kind of vote. It’s about just one thing – persuading people to pay you for your photos. You need clients, not validation. And guess who you clients are… people just like you and me.
Clients could be anyone. Literally anyone. From a marketing executive, to an entrepreneur, to a managing director, a project manager, a buyer whatever. Hell, I’ve been hired by personal assistants on several occasions. You would be amazed who rings me. Nine times out of ten it’s not someone in marketing!
Even if it was someone in marketing, the decision on whether you get hired will come down to lots of factors. The quality, or otherwise, of your photography is just one of them. And it is incredibly subjective.
I have won awards and I have a good list of happy and returning clients who enjoy my work. But I also know that a lot of people don’t like my work. And I mean A LOT.
So who decides if I’m good? Who decides if I have “natural ability”?
No one. No one cares. It comes down to me and the potential client. They either like what I do, or they don’t. And that’s what you get hired on.
Be yourself. Do what you want to do. Create images that you are proud of. There are 7.5 billion people in the world. Someone else will like what you like!
Now that we have got the stupid question of natural ability out of the way, let’s move on to how you get started.
Take the checklist above – before you go anywhere you’re going to need a camera. Check out our buyers guide here.
Then you’re going to need a computer. Check out our buyers guide for computers here.
You’re ready to get started. Time to go get your first paid photography job.
Getting your first paid photography job
This is the super easy part. Almost everyone knows someone that they can persuade to hand over a hundred bucks in exchange for some half decent photos. Maybe it’s your parents, or a family member, or neighbor. Whatever, there’s someone out there with $100 in their pocket who is useless with a camera.
You’re getting pretty good with your camera now, right? And your uncle owns a business that needs some photos of its products. Go to him, tell him you are starting a career in photography, and set a price that he can’t say no to. And congratulations, you have a pretty much risk-free, entry level job.
Just don’t screw it up!
At this stage of your life as a pro photographer, the biggest thing you want to be mindful of is not screwing it up. Make sure you deliver to that client, no matter who it is, a product that is worth more than $100 (or whatever price you set). That’s why you are starting so low in the money stakes, because it makes it much harder to screw up.
Just for reference – here’s what you get from a fully working professional photographer for $100… nothing. Well, maybe not nothing. I might sell you a crappy stock photo for $100. But that’s it. Any kind of commercial photography shoot starts at something like $1000, there really is no price point below that for me.
So your uncle can’t get his photography done for $100. If you screw up, he hasn’t really lost anything. He can still go out and hire a proper photographer, and the $100 will disappear into the real world costs.
Why do a low pay job first?
There are lots of reasons to start with a super low pay job, ideally for someone who you know. It minimizes the risks for the following reasons:
- You have no reputation to ruin when you screw it up.
- The “client” won’t try to sue you when you screw it up.
- Expectations from a family member are usually low, so you’ll struggle to disappoint!
- For such a low fee, no fancy equipment would be expected.
- $100 is pretty easy to write off on the business books, so the decision for the client is quick and easy.
And now the positive reasons why taking a low paid job for a family friend is a good idea:
- It gives you a chance to get a taste of what working for a client feels like.
- It gives you a chance to build a bit of a portfolio.
- You don’t have the pressure of expectation to grind you down.
- The client knows your background and you can talk to them openly about the job.
“Never do low paid jobs”
If you have toyed with the idea of becoming a pro photographer then you will have heard this, or read this already.
All the wonderful internet advice-givers will tell you NEVER take a low paid job. Their reasons are, sadly, all self-centered and short sighted:
- It’s impossible to bump up prices for that client after the first job (this is BS).
- You are undervaluing yourself (aka you’re undercutting me).
- You’re undermining the profession (aka you’re undercutting everyone).
It is perfectly possible to bump up prices. Of course it is. Otherwise everyone would still be earning what they did when they first started.
What a load of cr@p!!
You do one job as a “taster”, and you lay it out in plain English that you’ll be planning to charge full price if they come back. So the first one is BS.
Undervaluing yourself?? This is your first job in photography. I’m sorry my friend, but you have no value. That’s like someone going on Shark Tank and claiming that their yet-to-launch business is worth $10 million. Based on what?? You can’t undervalue yourself until you have a value. Once you have a value, definitely don’t do jobs for free. But until you have a value, go nuts, do whatever you want.
And undermining the profession? Dude, if you think a new-starter is stealing business away from you by doing low-paid jobs, the problem is you, not them. If your clients would happily jump ship and drop you in favor of someone charging $100, then you’re already screwed.
So, you’ve done your first paid photography gig. It went well, your uncle was thrilled, he paid you your $100 in cash, and you splashed out on a Happy Meal. Congratulations. You’re on your way.
As I mentioned above, that was the easy bit. Now comes the really hard part. Because what you need to do now is not just land one more client, but land 30.
How many clients do you need? A never-ending stream. An infinite amount. You will never complete your business-winning mission. Because as soon as you’ve done one job, you need another one.
There are some salaried pro photographer jobs, but not many, and they do NOT pay well. You could get a job for a studio, and it could be a good learning process, but you’ll get bored of it pretty quickly. Repetitive work, plus low pay, plus watching someone else get rich on your work gets old pretty quickly.
The most likely outcome of all this, if you persevere and are successful, is that you will become a freelance photographer.
The life of a freelance photographer
This is the tough element of all this. It’s not the work, it’s not the prep, or the photography or the post production on the images, it’s the freelance lifestyle.
Look around. Almost everyone you view as successful will likely have a salary and a permanent job. They get paid $70,000 per year, paid to them in packages of $5,833 at the end of every month.
The world is set up for people with salaries – car repayments are monthly, rental payments are monthly, mortgage payments are monthly. So despite your inconsistent, sporadic freelance income, you are going to need to pay your bills monthly.
Which brings us back to the business-winning and the need for a constant stream of clients.
Let’s assume that you’re getting clients, and you’re winning business and jobs. You’re making money. And that’s great. But your bills are coming out monthly and your income isn’t coming in monthly.
I’m going to give you a sample of my income and how it came in across the year. I think it will be super helpful to understand what you’re up against.
I’ve taken a look at my accounts for a few years ago. I don’t want to share my most recent accounts, because that’s a little private. I’ve chosen accounts for 2015, partly because it’s far enough back that I don’t mind sharing, partly because it’s quite an extreme year, and so makes a good example of what I’m trying to explain (that the money comes in in chunks, and there ain’t a huge amount you can do about it!)
That calendar year my accounts show that I took in $48,256. This is how the money that came in each month of the year. Income only, no outgoings, but just think about your outgoings and how you might deal with this:
So you see… a kinda slow start to the year, then two completely dry months, then a good finish. I took in 75% of my annual earnings in the second 6 months of the year (34% in the last two months of the year).
Monthly bills and keeping a roof over your head
To explain those to zeros, I did work in those months, but the invoices took a while to get paid, and there were some issues with a client digging his heels in and taking ages to pay. It happens. And you are totally screwed when it does. Almost nothing you can do about it.
So, going back to the turnover sheet – if you’re just out of college, these probably look like healthy numbers, and maybe you don’t have a huge amount of concern with paying the bills. If you’re in your twenties, or even your thirties, with a salaried permanent job, then those two big zeros should have you quaking in your boots.
The message is this – the hardest part of being a freelance photographer is not the photography… it’s the money.
The freelance life is tough!
There are two ways of approaching the freelance financial issues – stashing and borrowing. I’m a stasher, because borrowing makes me panic. I don’t trust myself not to get into an unsolvable mess with it.
Borrowing is of course running up overdrafts to cover the tough months and paying it back in the good months. Stashing is the opposite – spending as little as is humanly possible in the good months to see you through the bad months.
Whichever way around you do it (and there is nothing wrong with the borrowing route, so long as you pay it back when you can and don’t let it run over) the fact is that your money needs to last the year, no matter when it arrives in your account.
Being a full time pro photographer
We all know what we want to do – we want to take great photos and maybe edit them and then give them to people and have those people tell us that they are the most amazing photos they’ve ever seen. That’s the dream right?
Well, you definitely get that dream. That is the job. And it’s great.
But you also have to keep looking for more business. And stay on top of your accounts. And that sucks.
I’ve actually got to stage now where I kind of look forward to doing my accounts. It’s a bit of mind-numbing repetitive work that becomes a relief from the mind-bending, exhausting constant creativity of the job. I’ll never get bored of the creativity, but I look forward to doing my accounts because it doesn’t require any creative decision making or visualization, or conversations about imagery and subconscious manipulation. It’s just numbers. 1+1=2… just that, over and over again.
Ok, maybe I don’t look forward to it. But it’s fine. Would I like it if I never had to think about accounts ever again? Yeah, I would.
But having said that, I also have times when I just don’t want to go shoot. I have definitely had a few days, mainly when I’ve got a low-end product shoot coming up, where I just can’t be bothered with it.
Because here’s the deal… and listen carefully to this, because it’s true… as soon as you start doing something for money, it becomes a job. And that kills some of the fun.
Anything you do for money is a job
This is a super important message for anyone considering a career as a photographer. Even if you love it right now, and you daydream of being a photographer every day of your life, I guarantee you that if you turn pro, you will have bad days. Days when you can’t stand the sight of that camera.
I am a full-time pro photographer now, but I have also worked as a TV cameraman, a TV producer, and a writer. All things that lawyers and call-center managers daydream about. So I am suitably qualified to tell you that, to some extent, doing anything for money takes some of the fun out of it.
I don’t want to ruin it for you but…
When I go to parties people ask me what I do, and I tell them I am a photographer. Or in the past I would tell them I’m a TV producer, or a writer, or all three. And they say “oh wow, that must be awesome”… and I try not to sound like a misery when I tell them that it’s a job. Just a job, like any other.
If I was just doing one job, or doing it funded by some sugar daddy who didn’t care about the outcome, then it would be SUPER fun. But that doesn’t happen. Whether you’re a film producer, or a helicopter pilot, or a writer or a professional skydiver, there will always be someone there to take the edge off the enjoyment – the client!
There is always a client
I used to mentor new starters in television production, and every single one had to go through this learning process. And it’s 100% relevant for photography as well.
Producers and directors in training would say to me “I think we should do it like this”, and I would reply “that’s not what the channel want”.
They would argue that it would be better if we did it their way, and if they were right, I would agree. And they would then struggle to get their head around why, if we both agree that it’s the best way to do it, we weren’t going to do it that way. To which I would answer:
“For every job you ever have, there will be a client. They are the ones putting up the money. They are paying for the work to be done. The client has chosen you to do the work, so you can safely assume that they value your creative input and experience, and therefore your opinion should be voiced. But ultimately they will decide how the job is done. And until you are fronting the cash to fund the production yourself, that client will always have the power to overrule you.”
Client is king!
This absolutely applies to the photography world as well. Even if you’re a wedding photographer. If the bride turns to you and says she wants a photo of her ass, then whether you consider yourself an ass photographer or not, you take the ass photo. If you don’t then your reputation is at risk. You’ll have an unhappy client on your hands. And an unhappy client is far more damaging than a random ass photo which you don’t have to include in your portfolio.
How to find clients
So, we’ve established that the hardest part of being a professional photographer is ensuring you have a steady stream of clients. Easy to say, but how do you do that?
The truth is that clients can come from literally anywhere. You did that first job for Uncle Bob, maybe Uncle Bob could turn into a long term client. Maybe Uncle Cletus hears about the work you did for Uncle Bob, hires you and then he becomes a long term client.
Advertising has always worked well for me, I advertise in some trade magazines and local magazines.
Social media is often touted as a good source of business, but I have yet to see any movement from my limited involvement.
Networking and networking events are a great business winner if you’re targeting commercial clients. Although in my experience the challenge there is finding a networking group that doesn’t already have a photographer slamming it week in week out.
The fact is that clients can come from literally anywhere. And that means two things:
- Your reputation is crucial.
- You are always selling.
Reputation is so important. I would estimate that maybe 50% of my work comes from unsolicited, unheard (by me) word of mouth. A client tells someone else about me, I get a call, I write a quote and give the sales pitch, I win the business.
Therefore having positive talk going around about you is invaluable.
If you screw up a job, the cost to you is not just a lost client, but lost extended future business. You will get no more work from that client, but you also won’t get any of the extended word of mouth jobs that may a happy client may have generated.
So getting every job right, and putting 110% into every job really is part and parcel of this business.
This is one you get used to, and it gets easier and better with age. You are always selling.
I don’t mean that every room you walk into you should be handing out fliers. What I mean is that your ears need to be trained to listen for opportunities. You need to be able to be part of any conversation and never miss a moment that could lead to you finding a client.
Even if you’re in a bar on a Friday night, if someone starts talking about marketing, PR, advertising, sales etc., your ears should prick up and be on the lookout for whether a photographer might be needed and if one is already booked.
Obviously don’t grill people in that bar, when people are trying to relax, but make a note of the situation, the company, the people involved, and make a note to follow it up on Monday.
Your chances of picking up a job are 1000% better if you already know that the company you’re ringing are in the market for a photographer. 99% of failed cold calls to companies (excluding the ones who just won’t talk to you) are a result of simply calling at the wrong time, when hiring a photographer just isn’t on their radar.
This is a huge one. Unless you’re a wedding photographer, for whom presumably repeat clients are hard to come by…
For any sort of commercial photography you are absolutely hoping for and working towards setting up long term clients.
Getting clients and getting jobs is hard work. It’s time consuming. If every job you get is a new client then there is a crazy amount of work involved in keeping the money flowing in. But, there is a much easier way… and that is doing several jobs for the same client.
I have maybe 20 clients on my books who give me regular, repeat business. They are my best clients, they bring in the most money and they are actually the most fun to deal with.
Repeat clients = fewer sales required!
I had originally thought that repeat business might be tedious and repetitive, but my long term clients are actually the ones who give me the most creative work. They tend to be the ones who value high quality photography, and that means they have a home for it in their business model, they have channels for distributing it, and they believe it contributes to their revenue.
That in itself is a great lesson for how to look for clients. You’re looking for people who fit the above description. The best clients are the ones who know what they will be doing with the photography you provide, they know that it will positively impact their revenues, and therefore they make sure they can separate cash in their yearly budget.
And to sum it all up…
The answer to the original question is that you CAN become a professional photographer. But the challenges will not be what you expect. And it won’t be all fun and games. It will be hard work in areas that you probably aren’t all too excited about, like accounting, business winning, paperwork etc.
Eventually of course you’ll be able to hire other people to do that stuff. But looking at the financial figures above, just imagine how much business you need to be doing, and of what sort of value, to be able to drop $10k per year on an accountant.
You could outsource the sales and business-winning side of things, but at what cost? Do you take on a full time sales person? And sales people generally expect not just a salary, but a cut of whatever business they win. So you’re looking at something like $35k basic, plus maybe 2-5% of sales.
Those damn numbers
A long time ago I looked at setting up a family photography studio. My thinking at the time was that I could have the studio covered by the family portrait business and use the space to be doing commercial work, which would bring in huge profits.
I looked into it, ran some numbers, and quickly worked out that the quantity of sales I would need to make to keep the family portrait business afloat made it almost not worth considering.
I’ve got a family portrait studio near me that are constantly, aggressively selling their services in every shopping mall. I took my family to one when I was researching a family portrait business, to see what their business model was like. They charge super low fees to get you in the door, and then CRAZY prices for any prints or products.
I thought they were ripping people off. I thought there was a gap in the market for an honest family portrait studio in the area. But after I ran the numbers, I realized I was wrong.
They are charging what they need to charge to turn a decent profit. And that’s the bottom line.
You can become a professional photographer
Just don’t expect to be a millionaire overnight. As with any business, you’re going to start by doing it all yourself, and that means long, long hours and a lot of soul destroying ups and downs.
But if you’re ready for that, then the life of a professional photographer is yours for the taking.
Is being a pro photographer your dream? If it is, then go get it. It’s all yours.
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