Becoming a professional photographer is not an easy choice. There is commitment for time, costs of equipment and a learning curve on top of pay starts out slow at first (if any at all in the beginning). Becoming a professional photographer takes a lot of dedication, but there is much opportunity, enjoyment and freedom for those who persevere.
Here are some pointers that I tell many photographers when they start out. Hopefully this will help you in your decision making process as to whether becoming a professional photographer or enthusiast is more suited for you.
First, not everyone should become a professional photographer. Lately there has been a surge in become a “professional” because an amateur photographer typically brings to mind cell phone images, posted to Instagram working for very little or nothing at all.
Fact is there are plenty of amateur photographers who as good, if not better than many of the “professionals” out there. The only real difference between a professional and a amateur is that most amateurs work other day jobs to pay the bills, whereas the professional only has their photography to earn from.
This alone is a large barrier that prevents many skilled photographers from becoming a professional photographer; using social media or image sharing sites to share their work, mostly because they love taking photos versus a professional who shares work for income, marketing or branding purposes.
Some people prefer guaranteed paychecks coming in, others prefer the freedom and the hustle.
Becoming a professional photographer means that a large percentage of your work has to be business related. You work as your own administrator, marketing expert, social media expert, support, secretary, bookkeeping and driver (that is unless you have a healthy savings and can hire some help when starting out).
As many independent contractors find out, the process is laborious, long and stressful. If you read this far that you know that these obstacles are small in comparison to the rewards – doing what you love to do… everyday!
Now that you have decided that becoming a professional photographer is for you your studio, equipment, especially the cameras, and everything else you use are all part of your business equipment.
Unless you absolutely purchased the highest end camera out there today, which should last you for a good while, sooner or later equipment will need replacing. Whether from damage, changes in technology, or any other reason the equipment in your studio will not stay with you indefinitely.
Granted there is the argument that it’s the skill of the photographer and not necessarily the equipment that makes the photos. To some extent I can agree with that, however, the equipment goes a long way in helping you tell a story with your photography.
There are many moments that are once in a lifetime. The first kiss at a wedding. A child’s first steps. Winning the big game. I could go on and on. But the fact of the matter is having updated equipment can help you not only adapt to each situation, whether it’s low lighting, noisy environment, or fast paced movement, you can be better prepared for almost any situation.
And as a professional, you are expected to not miss these moments and be ready for that moment when it comes. You get to focus on your subjects and the moment when the magic happens, instead of worrying about whether you have your gear setup properly to the right settings. As a professional you should learn your equipment inside and out while you have it.
Practice Makes Perfect
There’s nothing worse than being a professional but using automatic settings on your camera. You are essentially stating that everything you learned, experienced or know is irrelevant and that you would rather have the camera decide on shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance and all relevant settings.
There will be nothing magical about the images you take.
It will be hard to really master certain types of photography if you default to automatic settings all the time. So best grab our gear and do some experimenting with it. It’s all part of becoming a professional photographer.
Just like how a race car driver does practice laps around a course to learn the subtleties in their engine and car, you need do some practice to learn the little things about your gear that can take an excellent photo into a magnificent one.
If you want to learn more about using your camera, and understanding settings such as ISO, aperture or shutter speed, check out our post on tips and tricks.
Expand your Equipment
In addition to the gear you have you will need the proper software to work on your images in post. Post processing is an excellent way to give an exceptional touch up to your work. There are many different programs to choose from, some better than others, but it’s recommend to try each one if a free trial is available to see which ones you work with the best.
The two most common ones (that we use here in the studio at least) is Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom is a good basic program to have. It’ll help organize, add effects, correct and heal blemishes. There are other editing features, and if you don’t need to do very detailed and complex revisions, this is a good program that help you in post.
Photoshop gets a bit more serious in its capabilities and what it can do, which is pretty much almost anything. As far as I’m concerned, this is the only program to use for exceptional and detailed editing of your images. From color balance to completely replacing portions of an image, there is really nothing you can’t do.
Both Adobe products are now only available through their cloud subscription.
As you practice with your equipment, you will need to practice with your software and post process. You can perhaps open up Lightroom and Photoshop and get away with doing the minimum.
But to really add that special touch to your work, you will need to sit down and learn the tools of each software being used and the workflow process to accomplish various things, from color balance to filters or even masking.
There are many videos online, all of various qualities. If possible, take some classes as well where you can have a hands on experience and ask questions and interact with someone to help you through your specific needs. Many activity centers or community colleges offer courses which can be significantly cheaper and more flexible than enrolling in a university.
You can also hire a tutor, to help teach you the various steps. This has the benefit of a one on one session where you can ask away any questions you have and work directly on your process and methods. When I was starting out, I hired a tutor myself who helps teach me the basics of Photoshop and Lightroom.
I would go home and practice what I learned and when I was comfortable enough, I paid for additional sessions to learn intermediary processes, then advanced operations. I also keep books handy as well as a personal cheat sheet when needed.
Even then I still refer to many videos and references when needed. Thankfully there is a multitude of videos online. I may, in the future, decide to create some as well to spread what I have learned.
As stated above, it is essential to keep learning and educating yourself on new techniques. Both on the gear you have, software you use or techniques in photography. Becoming a professional photographer doesn’t mean you made it and there’s nothing more to ever learn.
It’s actually quite the opposite. As a professional you will have to continually stay on the cutting edge of the field. Learn what is new and work under various circumstances.
Books, magazines and trade journals are vital in this regard. You can see the work others are publishing, as well as discussions on equipment, software, locations and other points of interest.
By becoming a professional photographer, your entire life will slowly revolve around your work. A trip to the store is no longer a trip to the store, but a learning opportunity to judge sun and weather, subject and themes, aperture and exposure.
Participate in forums in your community. There are many things that can be learned here as well that you may not find in publications; local areas of interest, call for images/call for photographers, or even others looking to hire, work for or provide essential services.
Explore locations where photography exists and learn the story the photographer was trying to tell. Museums, galleries and exhibitions are excellent for this.
Classes can teach you how to use your equipment, set it up, time it perfectly and work on it in post. However, sometimes it doesn’t tell us how to tell a story. This is more of an innate ability. An emotion, intuition perhaps, or even idea that each of us want to portray in our work.
Viewing others’ works can help you understand how a story is told, how emotion is conveyed and what makes it interesting. Other forms of visual art can do this too. From paintings to sculptures, they all hold a story waiting to be told. It is up to each one of us to decipher that story for ourselves.
Work on Your Portfolio
We won’t know what we can accomplish or our level of photography until we get out there and snap some photos. It will allow us to examine if everything we learned was retained, and also provide some muscle memory for those times when we need to swap out a lens or change settings quickly.
Having current work also allows yourself a chance to see how much you’ve developed over a given time frame. I continually take the same photo of a desk with a vase on top to see how much my work has progressed (or even regressed) in so many months. Have I learned how to frame the image and use the right settings?
Many times that photo you image you are taking will be significantly different than the one you discover on film (or memory card for that matter). Taking a “failed” photograph also helps us learn from an experience. Becoming a professional photographer means that we can learn from our mistakes (hopefully not while shooting for a client, but it will happen), and grow from it.
This is why it is vital to take as many photos as possible at any time. It is much easier to make a mistake shooting in your own home on your own time, then during a photo shoot.
If you really want to challenge yourself, practice with an old film camera, or take a smaller memory card with you. This forces you to choose your photos carefully as you don’t have the luxury of snapping away hundreds of photos, hoping that one of them is the one.
There are numerous associations, groups and clubs that are extremely beneficial to photographers, no matter the skill level. Others should never be seen as the competition, but rather peers that you can share and exchange knowledge with.
The American Photography Association is great organization to start. They are free to join and post upcoming events and call for photographers. They are open to photographers of any skill level as well, and could provide you the chance to pass on your knowledge to others.
You can also search for other groups and organization local to you as well. They can be extremely helpful for finding others. I spend an hour or so looking through available photographer gigs and opportunities. When searching through these, you have to read all the details to know whether a gig is worthwhile. Checking the price for the gig, potential work and amount of time you’ll be there and the work involved – are you just doing portrait shots or do you have to maneuver around people at an event to do photos? A great place for beginners is checking out Fiverr. It’ll help you expand your portfolio and experience when you’re just starting out.
Checking out local organizations can be helpful to, such as social groups, church groups, work groups and local businesses who may need photographers for one off events.
As you expand your portfolio you will want to be more selective of the work you do and the price you charge. Before moving your career forward you’ll need to work on getting your resume, CV (curriculum vitae) and portfolio up to date. There are many discussions on how to present these and what works best. Ultimately, it’s a case by case situation, just like photography.
From my past experiences, I keep all three separate. My resume has my work experiences and hard skills, similar to any resume you may have seen anywhere. My CV usually details where significant work has been shown, published or displayed (private collections, magazines/newspapers, exhibitions, etc). The resume shows off your skill sets while the CV shows where your skills have taken you. CFA has a great article on writing a CV for artists, as well as a section that posts calls for photographers for those that work in artistic photography. Finally the portfolio is self explanatory. I usually keep my portfolio to the last two years to prevent it becoming a mess and burdensome to go through. You just want recent highlights of your work – preferably work that has been published / printed, or purchased for a collection of exhibited in a collection.
Hopefully, this helps you get started on becoming a professional photographer. There are many helpful guides, videos and tutorials out there as well so don’t stop learning, don’t stop practicing and soon you can evolve your hobby for photo taking into an exciting career!