With the recent advances in digital photography and social media, interest in photography has exploded, both as a creative art form and as a career choice. The basics of becoming a photographer seem incredibly simple now: get yourself a camera, take some free online courses, create a website, and fill it with your friends and family's photos. Then customers should be knocking on your door, right?
However, the truth is that it is not that simple. Photography is a very competitive field that depends on your talent, skills, and marketing knowledge. A lot of discipline is also required to be able to make a name for yourself as a professional photographer.
Today's market is flooded with amateur photographers vying for a relatively small number of jobs in an already competitive field. Although anyone can technically call themselves a "photographer," in practical terms there's a huge difference in quality between photos taken by someone whose work you've come to know and trust over time, and photos that have been thrown together on a whim. The difference isn't just whether or not your friends and family like them; it's about actually being able to provide clients with clear, accurate images that they'll be happy to use again and again. In order to do this well enough for people to actually pay money for it, you need to learn how to be a professional photographer.
The Good News and The Bad News
First off, let me start by telling you the good news: it is possible for someone with enough talent and drive to become a professional photographer without ever having gone through any sort of traditional schooling or training program. Many people have begun their careers using only whatever cameras they could get their hands on, free online courses, and online tutorials. However, you need to understand the other side of the coin: being a professional photographer is not easy money. You have to be willing to put in a lot of time and effort into learning your craft before you'll start making any real income from it.
The education process never ends once you become a professional photographer; you're always going to feel like there's something new to learn about photography or digital technology because it changes so quickly. There are no shortcuts in becoming a professional photographer, even when it seems like there are (for example, when someone tries to sell you an expensive course that promises quick success). It will require hard work on your part - but if you stick with it, given enough time and dedication, you can become a skilled and successful photographer.
Choosing Your Focus: Portrait, People, Nature/Scenery, or Wedding Photography?
One of the first decisions you'll need to make as a professional photographer is what type of photography you want to focus on. While learning the basics and practicing your technique in each field will overlap to some degree (as they all involve using camera equipment), people tend to prefer one area over the others. See which of these areas seems most interesting or appealing to you.
- Portrait Photography
A good portrait photographer has an eye for how lighting works with people's faces, whether for creating flattering images or capturing expressions at just the right moment. Portrait photographers are often hired by families who want to capture their loved ones in a meaningful way, but they may also be able to parlay those skills into photographing actors or models as well.
- People Photography
Some people are very interested in photography as a way of documenting the lives of themselves and other people around them as they go about their daily activities. These photographers tend to focus on capturing moments from the ordinary, everyday things that happen around them, such as kids playing together or a couple sitting at a dinner table.
- Nature/Scenery Photography
While many amateur photographers take photographs of nature without even thinking about it, some people consider this field an art form all its own. Scenery photographers capture breathtaking photos of natural landscapes for use in magazines and advertising materials; if you love the outdoors and want to go into nature photography, you'll need to learn how to take stunning photos of landscapes and panoramas as well as capture the tiny details in flowers and other small objects.
- Wedding Photography
Weddings are a big event for most couples who plan them; they can be an opportunity for lasting memories. Wedding photographers aim to capture those memories through their lens, photographing moments ranging from the groom's first look at his bride in her wedding dress to candid shots of guests enjoying themselves at the reception. Whether you prefer weddings or not, if you have an interest in photography it will be helpful when looking for paid work experience with which to complete your portfolio.
What it takes to become a successful photographer
In order to be successful, professional photographers need more than just talent, they also need to market themselves, plan long working hours and, due to the imbalance between supply and demand, compete hard and run their business as entrepreneurs.
When you're ready to go from a person with a camera to a professional with a career in photography, we have prepared the following guide to help you with your journey.
Steps to become a professional photographer
Have realistic expectations
Photography is indeed fun and inspiring, but getting paid to run it as a business is not easy. Most of your time will be spent finding customers and doing business. Don't expect to be a successful photographer overnight. It takes time to build up a customer base, and not everyone can make money from photography, so make sure you have financial support from somewhere else while building your career.
Also, becoming a professional photographer is very hard work if you want to earn good money for it. You will need lots of knowledge about the industry itself, different types of cameras, etc. You will need to understand how people's perception of photography is changing in this social media era and what they expect before they hire you for taking pictures in their special event or ceremony.
Make the right arrangements
Learn the pros and cons of part-time vs. full-time work, with a partner vs. alone. Before you quit your well-paying desk job and forego a steady income, consider working part-time and see if you enjoy doing that job as a regular job.
If you enjoy it, take the plunge and go full-time. If you don't, at least your financial needs are taken care of. When that well-paying desk job is no longer paying your bills then quitting is a smart move.
Know yourself and what you want
This may sound obvious but knowing what type of photography work excites you will dictate how much effort you have to put into learning the business side of things in order for it to be successful. If people matter most, wedding or event photography might suit you best. On the other hand, if grand landscapes inspire you more than portraits, nature/scenery photography might be right up your alley.
Learn about commercial trends
In any city, there are commercial trends in terms of the type of photography that's used for advertising purposes. You can learn about these trends by paying close attention to billboards, posters, and other forms of advertisements. For example, lately, there are more photos being taken of people working on laptops in cafes rather than people working in offices. This means business owners are looking for trendy images to market their products/services with.
Make a portfolio
The best way to show off your talent is through a professional-looking portfolio website where you can display your latest projects as well as other work samples from previous jobs. There are many websites offering free hosting space nowadays so this shouldn't be an issue if portability is important to you. If you aren't good at creating websites consider hiring someone else who can create one for you.
Make it easy for clients to reach you
After you've finished your portfolio website, make sure you let everyone know about it. Make flyers and post them in places where potential customers can see them or include a small QR code with your web address that people can scan with their smartphones to quickly go to your site. Also, register yourself on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter so that prospective customers can easily find out more about you through your profile page.
Create marketing materials
If even the best photographers are struggling to stay afloat nowadays, how do regular ones do it? Before jumping into this industry full-time, consider what type of marketing materials (for example business cards) would help attract new customers.
Choose the right photography education
You do not need a 2-year master's degree. Learn from professionals with plenty of hands-on experience, not academics who only talk about theory. The first step is to understand your budget and be realistic about it. Most towns have public colleges that offer some courses on photography so check out what they have to offer before choosing a private education.
Take part in online communities
There are many forums on the web where people talk about their experiences as photographers, ask questions, seek advice or even chat with others just for fun. Many of these are moderated by professional photographers who share tips and tricks on how to improve one's technique, which equipment to buy etc. Taking part in such communities can quickly open your eyes to what works best within this industry based on practicalities rather than theory alone.
Closely monitor local laws
It's important you check the legal requirements of operating as a photographer in your area. Some cities require potential photographers to obtain licenses, while others don't. Even if you're not physically charging money for the service, if local authorities catch wind of you taking photos in public places they might ask you to stop what you're doing or even confiscate any equipment used so please keep this in mind.
Obtain and familiarize yourself with the correct camera and equipment
You don't need an expensive camera, but you do need decent lenses and accessories. Read our referral article to see our favorite cameras, lenses, and photo accessories.
Network, network, and then network some more
Most successful photographers owe their success to personal referrals. If your work is good enough, there's a high chance that people you know might need your services and be willing to recommend you to others if they're happy with the work you've done for them.
Don't offer freebies or discounts to friends and family
If you want to build a successful business, don't be afraid to say no when your family and friends ask you to do something for them for free. As much as you love them in the long run they're only going to hurt your reputation.
Charge what your services are worth
Going above and beyond to give customers a great product doesn't mean that they'll automatically pay more than what it's worth. Find out what rates professional photographers in your area charge before setting any price then add a simple markup just for good measure.
Learn the post-processing
Start with Lightroom to sort your photos and do most of the basic edits, then learn Photoshop to master advanced edits.
Organize your workflow
There's a certain order to things that you need to follow in order to stay organized. First, check the weather because you don't want to end up with overexposed shots, then take some test shots at different angles depending on what you're photographing, transfer them to the computer, and edit the ones that are worth keeping before exporting them as JPEGs for sharing or storage purposes.
Export your photos accordingly
Before posting anything online make sure you resize your images properly. The minimum resolution required by most photo-sharing sites is 720p so never share files bigger than 2MB each without resizing them first. Keep this number in mind when designing business cards too - stick to smaller sizes unless you have higher printing resolutions available to you.
Find your focus
Whether it's by sticking to one niche or specializing in a certain type of photography, make sure you give your work the attention it deserves before trying to diversify. If you want to take great pictures, learn how first then go from there.
Don't work alone - assistants and shoot managers are your friends
If you're working with models, talent agents, and local businesses they'll most likely provide their own assistants for pretty much every photo shoot; if they didn't ask them beforehand make sure they do next time around. Otherwise you can always look into getting a hold of someone who might be able to lend a hand through online forums like Craigslist and similar websites.
Get of what works best for you
Some photographers shoot in RAW, others prefer JPEG. Some edit their photos manually, others prefer presets. There are thousands of different ways to take great pictures so don't be afraid to experiment with what works best for you.
Stick with the basics
Just learning how to use your camera is enough to give you an advantage over most amateur photographers out there - once you have a firm grasp on things consider learning more about composition and general photography rules so that your work will stand out even more!
Take lots of photos
It's one thing to get lucky every now and then but it's another thing entirely when everything just comes together perfectly thanks to lots of practice - never stop taking pictures because they might come in handy some day. Just make sure you're shooting properly first.
Find your passion genres and decide on your niche
Narrow down the types of photography you want to focus on and make a list of potential genres. Consider if you want to go with a niche early on, it will prevent you from spending time and money chasing the wrong things.
There's nothing stopping you from offering multiple services but take note that many of the world's top photographers only do one thing really well. For example, if someone needs an image of the Eiffel Tower taken at night go onto Google Images and find out who has produced such photos before contacting them.
Predetermine your pricing structure
You can't expect customers to pay without knowing how much your services cost so work out an hourly rate based on industry standards and find the right balance between the amount of hours spent working and numbers of photos taken - don't cut yourself short but also try not to overwork yourself.
Start marketing your business locally
Once you've finalized everything you need to do before launching, start reaching out through email or any other direct communication method available. You can use social media as well but make sure you do it in moderation - putting too much effort those platforms at first might scare people away.
Choose a platform to start selling your work
Whether it's the local flea market, Etsy or any other online service you feel might be right for you; make sure you start small and give yourself enough time before moving on to larger projects. It's not like people will stop buying photos overnight so there isn't much risk involved with taking things slow at first.
Remain consistent and put careful planning and strategy into every project. If you're passionate about photography there is no end date in sight, as long as you plan well and do everything by the book chances are that one day your name will ring bells - even if it doesn't now!
Use a SWOT analysis to identify bad & good offers in your region
Find and analyze existing offers in your region, preferably in your field and then yourself. Find the intersection between your interests and the greatest opportunities. Fortunately for you, we have created a basic SWOT analysis template that you can use as a starting point:
You can download and edit the spreadsheet by clicking here. You may want to visit SWOTAnalysis.Tools or StrengthsFinder 2.0 websites to learn more about using this tool further.
Consider hiring one of these photographers as your mentor if available
If you happen to know someone who is very good at what they do and could guide you throughout the process of becoming their apprentice then it might be worth considering paying them for their services since mentors tend to provide invaluable help beyond simply teaching someone how to do something.
Do not go for too many hobbies at once unless you can handle it
While trying out new things is always healthy it might be wiser to focus on one thing at first so that you don't end up failing miserably in every other area of your life. For example, if you plan on becoming a wedding photographer then make sure that current engagements and functions are going well before even considering picking up something else - doing it any other way could lead to major problems eventually.
Learn how to sell yourself properly
In the photography world selling your work means actually getting paid for helping others capture their memories in a picture which is why building this skill should come first and foremost - the better able you are to attract clients the easier everything gets.
Take lessons from different photographers in your field
There are many people who have decided to go down the path of being a photographer, take lessons from all kinds of them, each one has something special that you can take away with you so try to learn as much as possible without spending too much time on this task at hand.
Do not go once in a while - try to follow some sort of routine
While it's certainly ideal to always take pictures just for fun or trying out new techniques it might be wiser to set up a specific schedule and stick to it. This way you will become more productive since there are less variables involved.
Maintain good relations with existing customers Once someone decides they want to hire you, do everything in your power to keep them happy. If they have a business or organization you can also include them in future projects so that the word gets around about your work even more - building an effective portfolio is a very important task and requires lots of resources to be done properly.
Be mindful of copyright issues
It might surprise some people but copyright law protects everyone's intellectual property, not just professional photographers which means that if you don't take the necessary steps then someone could easily claim that one of your photos belongs to them and consequently sue you for using it without their explicit permission. There are numerous examples out there where this has happened so make sure to never commit such an awful mistake
Create a portfolio specifically for this niche
Shoot, shoot, shoot until your portfolio looks great for this niche. If you fail to do this you are at a disadvantage.
If possible find someone who can mentor you on how to take photos for this industry.
It is difficult to make it in any given field without some sort of guidance. Continue your education online or go to workshops if possible.
There are many resources out there that provide valuable information on how to be successful at what you desire, use them properly!
Maintain good relations with existing customers
Selling yourself is key to being successful in any given niche, always try your best! Create a portfolio specifically for this niche
Many people underestimate the importance of creating a portfolio specifically tailored for their needs which is why it might be beneficial putting more time into learning about this topic so that you can be on the right track.
Explore potential niches
Photography is a popular profession these days which means that there are lots of different areas where you can focus your efforts; for example, if you want to become an established landscape photographer then the world is literally your oyster but it's important not to restrict yourself too much since doing this could end up backfiring in ways you cannot imagine (the competition is fierce for this type of work).
Stay updated with technology
Technology, especially in photography, changes at a rapid pace - this means that if you don't keep up with all the latest advancements and inventions then someone else will take your job eventually. It might sound like something out of a science fiction novel but it's the harsh reality of the world we live in so make sure to never let this happen to you.
Go out and explore potential niches
This is an important task since virtually every niche has its own set of characteristics that need to be taken into account before making a decision regarding the best course of action possible.
Build a professional-looking website
Take advantage of a service specializing in photography that allows you to sell your photos online and share albums with customers, preferably a multilingual album that is automatically linked to your Lightroom. Our recommendation is PhotoDeck.
Set your prices
Don't be too cheap, but avoid inflated prices. Focus on the value.
Start with marketing
Get to know free and paid marketing tools.
Learn how to pitch
Don't sell, but help. This is what distinguishes successful photographers from the average photographer, not just the quality of the photos.
Keep learning from the best
Keep attending workshops and following famous photographers from around the world on social media or visiting their exhibitions.
Photography should be your passion and love of photography that determines your decision as there are certainly easier ways to make more money with less effort.