There are so many people in the world who enjoy photography as a hobby and maybe have made a bit of cash doing it here and there. And they’re all wondering could I do this for a living?
The answer is yes! Of course you can, if that’s what you really want to do and are prepared to work your ass off.
Here is our step-by-step guide for how to make the leap from doing photography for fun, to being a pro photographer and doing as a career!
- Get off the forums!
If you enjoy your photography, and enjoy talking about it, then you’ve probably interacted with a photography forum somewhere on the Internet. You may even have done what so many before you have done and asked for advice on a forum about whether or not you should become a pro… and you will almost certainly have regretted asking!
In 99% of cases asking the question “should I become a pro photographer”, or even “how do I become a pro photographer” will have resulted in a barrage of abuse, people telling you that you need to be an assistant for at least 10 years before you can even think about becoming a pro, or telling you that you don’t know enough to be a pro, or telling you that is not as easy as you think and not anyone can do it. They may even have been kind enough to tell you that you’re not good enough. People can be so sweet.
But think carefully about the source of this information… the people responding to your comments on the forum are likely to be either a) barely successful professionals, b) struggling professionals, c) other aspiring professionals, d) failed professionals, e) hobbyists, or f) just straight trolls with little knowledge of anything apart from how to be an asshole.
What you’re unlikely to get on there are really successful professional photographers because (and here’s a fact that you should consider when spending time on any forum) successful, hard working people just don’t have much time to spend on forums! (there’s always some guy on every forum with 5,000 posts, who is considered the oracle of pro photography… but seriously, where did you find the time to make 5,000 posts if you’re so busy being a photographer???)
A properly successful professional photographer either has absolutely no time to spare for anything like forums. Or maybe they’re incredibly successful and have a team of people doing all the admin and they have loads of free time… but realistically, if you’ve worked that hard to earn enough to take on staff, you’re really not going to spend that time you have free up knocking down other people and trashing hopes and dreams. Unless, again, you’re a total asshole, in which case you should question the validity of their advice anyway.
The real successful pros are confident and know their value, and more often than not will be supportive, helpful, inspiring and friendly. Why wouldn’t they be? Some guy looking for his first paid gig is not a threat to them!
I’ve seen so many people asked the question “should I become a pro, I did a job for my cousin and I wanna do this full-time…” and they get lambasted with an array of reasons why they can’t do it, reasons why they won’t succeed and reasons why they are SO stupid to ask the question in the first place. DUH.
It’s all bullshit. All of it. You want to be a pro photographer? Go be a pro. Don’t ask my permission, you don’t need it. Just go do it.
- Get a camera.
You’re starting a career as a pro photographer and you don’t have a camera?? I like you, you have balls of steel. You’ll go far.
I’m not going to do a buying guide here, we’ll do one of those somewhere else on the site. But here are a few things to have in mind when choosing:
Spare a thought for appearance… the appearance of your camera, the appearance of you, the appearance of your equipment, because this is important. Almost more important than the actual camera itself.
When someone hires a pro photographer, there’s a certain expectation of the sort of equipment that will be carrying when they show up. Even if you can take extraordinary photos, better than anyone else in the world, on a 10-year-old Canon Powershot point-and-shoot, if you’re working with a client to you’ve never worked with before, and you’re trying to instill confidence in your abilities as a pro, I would strongly recommend you turn up with something a bit bigger.
However, bigger is really all you need to think about. Very few people know the difference between a Canon 5D mark one and a Canon 5D markIV. All they see is a DSLR. Similarly they won’t know the difference between a Canon T60 I rebel and a Canon 5DSR. They see a DSLR and they think you have the right kit.
When choosing your camera, consider appearance and first impressions because if you make a bad first impression then your photography had better be mind blowing, or you are on the fast track to a very bad reputation.
We’ll do a full buying guide another time. We wrote an article on why expensive cameras, or rather huge megapixel counts, are not important and therefore cheap is fine… we are also doing our £500 ($650) budget equipment challenge to show that you don’t need to spend a fortune on camera equipment.
- Get a website.
There’s no getting around this one, in the modern world your website is your shopfront. I can’t imagine a situation where a photographer is hired for proper money without the client having seen a single frame of his past work. Don’t fret too much about your portfolio at this stage, it will grow. Just get your website up and running NOW. It will take so long for your website to become authoritative and rank in search engines that the sooner you start, the sooner you stand a chance of being found.
Don’t worry too much right now about the quality of your photographs – no one is going tobe finding your website organically for a good few months. And, frankly, people in general can be fairly undiscerning when it comes to true quality and photography.
Sure, that’s a bit of a generalisation, but realistically about 95% of the population know the difference between a really crap photograph and an okay photograph. About 4% know the different between okay and really good. And about 1% or less know the difference between really good and really really good.
All you need to do to start landing jobs is show that you can take okay photographs and 95% of potential clients are opened up to you. You don’t have to win awards, (and frankly, half the photos that win awards tend to be a bit shit anyway) you don’t need to have a name for yourself and a reputation in the industry before you can start charging.
Whatever your portfolio looks like, good or bad, you will need a website so that you can show people your work… and eventually be found without having to go hunting for new work.
- Set some goals.
This is an important one. You need to be clear, and honest with yourself, about what you are hoping to achieve in the first year, in the second year, in the third year. Your goals can be whatever you want them to be. Your goal for the first 12 months could be to get one single paying client. Or your goal could be to turn over $50,000.
My best advice on setting goals is be conservative at first. Set yourself goals that you can achieve. Because when you achieve them, it will be a milestone, a success. It will be something you can celebrate, and you can put a tick next to it and move onto the next goal. And at the end of your list of goals, you’ll be a pro photographer! Each time you reach a goal you stepped a bit closer.
The worst thing you can do is set unrealistic goals. If you give yourself a target of turning over $500,000 in year one, you are going to fail. You just are. I don’t think it’s ever been done. Maybe if Tom Cruise decided to become a portrait photographer, he may already have the PR clout to get those numbers of clients. But the people paying mega bucks still won’t hire him. Unless he is genuinely a talented photographer. Which he might be. I don’t know.
Set yourself realistic targets, and then start planning, step-by-step, how you’re gonna get there.
- Start shooting.
So, you’ve got your camera, your website is ready to fill with your best photographs, now what’s left is to get shooting.
There is a load of misinformation about what it takes to become a pro, what it takes to be good, how to be an award-winning photographer etc. But there is one thing that really is true and that is the more photographs you take, the more photographs you spend time trying to edit, the more photographs you polish to the point where you are happy to present them as your best work on your website, the better you will get.
I look at the photos that I took when I started my pro photographer career and they really are pretty terrible! At the time I thought they were amazing. I remember one photo in particular that I showed to family and friends because I was that proud of what I had achieved, and everybody told me it was amazing. It wasn’t. It was absolutely awful. I had taken a portrait in a studio, cut the subject out using photoshop and composited the subject and background. And I had done it very… very… badly.
But here’s the thing – firstly, I don’t think that all the friends and family that I showed it to were lying. I’m pretty sure that some of them were a little bit impressed. With my limited experience, I was pretty impressed, so I think we can be certain that at least a handful of them also thought it wasn’t too bad.
And secondly, the more experience you have the better you get, and the more aware you become of how good you are. I’ve found that, with time, I dislike my past work less and less. Photos that I was thrilled about five or six years ago I now hate. Photos that I was thrilled about four years ago I hate a tiny bit less. Anything from about three years ago onwards is actually pretty good, even when I look back now.
I actually find that I prefer some of the photos I took three years ago to some that I’m taking now. That in itself is an interesting lesson for me – what do I prefer about them? Why do I like them? I suspect that in my pursuit of technical perfection I have lost a bit of the passion and emotion that drove those earlier shoots. So that’s something I’m working on.
- Get your camera, get out and start taking photos.
Same as 5., but with a bit more focus… don’t just take any photos, try to concentrate on the sort of photographs that you want to get paid for. If you want to be a portrait photographer, get out there and take portraits. If you want to be an architectural photographer, get out there and shoot buildings.
One of the mistakes that I see regularly is the aspiring pro photographers spend their early years building a portfolio of street photography, and then try to use that to land jobs as a portrait photographer. In theory street photography is an easy win, you don’t need to set anything up you just get out there and photograph people in the real world.
But if I, as a businessman, I am looking to pay someone good money to do my staff headshots, or to take a portrait of me for an article in the local magazine, no matter how good your street photography, I am probably not going to pick you. There is likely to be someone else local with a more relevant portfolio.
So, focus your efforts, get out and shoot portraits if that’s your thing, whatever it is you’re going to do, start doing it today.
- Shoot more.
Get out of bed. Get your camera. Head out and shoot. Every day.
And when you’re done shooting come home load them onto your computer and edit those photos. Tweak them, tweak the colors, tweak the framing, crop them, get them ready for hypothetical delivery to a client. Only by doing that will you learn where you failed in the field and how you can do it better next time.
[That may actually be a step that we missed above, and that is editing. Always, always, always edit your photos. By that I don’t mean crop them if they don’t need cropping, I don’t mean tweak them if they don’t need tweaking, what I mean is take them all into Lightroom, at the very least, and assess whether they can be improved with editing. You will learn about your strengths and weaknesses SO fast! Is your horizon dead level? Is your framing on the nail straight out of the camera? If it is not this is your opportunity to improve, and also to do better on the next run.]
- Shoot even more.
Are you getting this yet? Yep, you guessed it, step 8 is to get out of bed, grab your camera and do it again. EVERY DAY.
Photograph your family, photograph your friends, photograph anyone you’re talking to who will sit still long enough.
Photograph yourself, self-portraits are tricky to get right and a great learning experience. Take your camera to every party or a family gathering, be shameless. People love photos, so if you take your camera and take photos, you can give those photos to the party host, or whatever.
In those early days I had a few occasions when people got a bit funny with me always snapping away, but everyone was always thrilled to get those photos. Especially if they’re not a load of crap. Which they won’t be, because you’re learning fast!
Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot. Then shoot some more. Then shoot some more.
- Do some stuff for free
I’m hiding under my desk right now, waiting for the backlash… this is another monster no-no on the forums. On those photography forums, if you suggest doing a job for free, your get a tirade of crap saying you’re devaluing everyone’s work, and being accused of being some rich kid with a camera who doesn’t need to get paid.
Here’s my message for those keyboard warriors who berate you for doing free jobs – screw you! If you’re not good enough to get jobs and get paid, maybe it is you who shouldn’t be a pro photographer.
Putting myself in the shoes of a businessman, again, maybe I’m not thinking of paying a pro photographer, maybe I don’t have plans for any high-value photo shoots. But then some guy building a portfolio comes along and offers to do some work for free, and I think “sure, why the hell not.”
You’re not stealing business from an established pro, you are targeting a completely different marketplace.
A top level businessman, or senior marketer, with a budget and a plan and a real need for quality photography on a deadline, is not going to risk taking a punt on a freebee from a new starter.
I am an established pro, I don’t work for free. I also don’t work for clients who are willing to get their job done for free!
You want to do photography jobs for free, go nuts! That’s how you’re going to make it in this world and guess what… you do five jobs for free, and suddenly you’re getting quite a big body of work under your belt!
For every free job you land, ask what else you can do… they want a corporate headshot, ask if you can throw in some marketing shots, also for free. They’re already making time for you in the schedule, why would they say no? All of a sudden you walk away with 5 to 10 head shots for the website, and 5 to 10 marketing shots for the website. You haven’t made any money yet, but this isn’t forever.
It is a no-brainer, get on the phone, get it set up. Get out there and… You guessed it… shoot.
Oh, and when you’re done with that, shoot some more. (did I say that already?)
- Do some stuff for cut price.
Once you’ve done some stuff free, then start running some photo shoots for significantly less than the competition.
Yep, another big no-no in the world of photography forums! Once again, the insecure pseudo-pros will be up in arms, claiming you’re devaluing their precious industry, but once again, they’re idiots. And the “industry” is not theirs, it’s yours, so do whatever you want with it.
Any potential customer who is happy to pay cut-price in exchange for a photographer with less experience, is not a great customer for an established pro. So they can shut up.
My prices are high, some people want to pay them, some people don’t. And that’s okay. I’m absolutely fine with you going out there and quoting 10% of what I’m quoting for the same job. You may even deliver the same quality that I’m offering, but the clients know that they’re taking a risk on you.
What I am offering with my high prices is not just quality, but also reliability, accountability, reputation and track record. I offer my customers a guarantee that they will get the exact same quality that I show on my website every single time, without fail. If those are not things that the client values, and are willing to pay for, no problem! We’re not the right fit. But they’re a great fit for you.
If that client is willing to take a risk, pay a much smaller fee, and risk getting terrible, or no photos, then they are a great for you when you’re just starting out as a pro photographer.
By the time you’ve done a handful of free jobs, and a handful of low paid jobs, all of a sudden your website is starting to look pretty healthy!
Gradually increase the fees.
Another fairly obvious step – once you’ve established yourself as somebody with a good number of professional quality photographs behind them, then you can start to crank up the fees. For a full explanation on how to price photo jobs, click here.
This will then become a constant process throughout the rest of your life. You gradually crank up the fees over the course of 2 to 3 years, eventually reaching a point where you start to get turned down from jobs. Then you drop it back down a little bit until you’re landing as many gigs as you were before you raised it, stay at that point for a few months and then start to crank it up little by little again.
And that is it, that’s your way in to pro photography.
Follow that plan for the next three or four years and you should find yourself looking back and realising that in fact, when you weren’t looking, when you were busy tweaking the website, pushing the marketing, chasing sales, generating leads, planning shoots, doing shoots, doing your accounts, buying kit, selling kit… you became a successful, established pro photographer!
In amongst all that there is the small business of taking good photos, but I figure that if you’re already here, then you either have shown some natural talent and have enjoyed the positive feedback from people viewing your photos, or you decided that the life of a pro photographer something that appeals to you, and are willing to work your ass off until you make the grade. Either of those is fine. Either of those routes will lead to success.
What won’t lead to success, is believing that after taking a couple of hundred photographs, you’re the bees’ knees, and the world owes you five figures per shoot. You’re an asshole, go sign up to a photography forum and be a dick on there.
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Have a great day, from the BudgetProPhoto team.