While many do go to school for professional photography, it seems most of the pros I’ve met came up through the school of hard knocks. I myself came in through the side, as a transfer from the related field of creative direction. I’d had a passion for the medium and fell squarely into the “advanced amateur” category for years. I’d hired a ton of pro photographers, but knew well the difference between what they could do and what I could do. Then, finally, I switched over. In some ways, I still am switching over. It takes time, and there’s a ton to learn outside the talent for shooting.
Most advice columns, YouTube videos and even master classes seem to work quite well if you have specific questions — how to charge for your work, how to white balance your Nikon, best converter to put M lenses on your Sony, great light set-up for corporate headshots, how to position your model, etc. Which is insane, by the way. When I was coming up, this kind of training was relegated completely to art schools, manuals, and apprenticeships with pro photographers. So, the idea of being able to get this kind of information at the ready blows my mind — and I was watching a great video on product photography just last night. However, I think the question still remains for a lot of people out there with tons of passion and great equipment: could I foray my love for photography into a professional career? And what’s that like? What do I need to know that’s different from what I can pull up on YouTube on my phone?
In this article, I’m just going to talk about being a pro. What it takes, what it’s like, what the mindset needs to be and how one goes about it. I’m not one of those people who thinks there’s too many photographers out there — it would be like a professional chef feeling like there are too many cooks in the world. Like cooking, love of photography is a beautiful thing that, thanks to all these advancements in equipment and training, is for everyone to enjoy. Going pro with it is only, as it sounds, stepping up to the demands of the market. For anyone thinking about making the leap, I encourage it, want to help — and, so, this one’s for you:
1. It Is Completely As Rewarding As You Think It Will Be
If you’re making some kind of big leap — and photography is about as big as you can get, this side of going into fine art — then you’re probably doing it specifically because you really enjoy it and derive some creative pleasure out of the process of making photographs. The big fear, of course, is that deriving an income off of it somehow lessens the joy of it. It really doesn’t. The things around it might frustrate you, like marketing and getting your equipment fixed, but the actual process of taking photos is an incredible high. You’re making something and it looks amazing. We’ll get into the details that surround the business of it, but let’s start here with the most important aspect of photography that you take on when you commit: it’s awesome.
Pro Tip: Fully embrace your new life as a professional photographer. Get business cards. Introduce yourself at parties as a professional photographer. Re-do your website. Immerse yourself in it and squeeze every last drop of juice out of the fruit. You’re a photographer now and you get to say you are. This identity shift is something to be celebrated and owned.
2. It Takes An Investment In Yourself
You’re a business now and businesses need investment. First and foremost, you need the tools and a camera is just the beginning. Make a checklist of what you’ll need, from that full-frame camera to the right set of lenses, lights and software to get any job done. But don’t stop there, there are a hundred other things that are going to ensure that you run like a business, not just a shooter. A good computer, hard drives, equipment cases, a marketing budget… these aren’t things to think about later, they are things that will help you do your job better tomorrow. So, do as businesses do — invest. Sure, you can be careful about it, but these are the tools of your trade and you cannot be a professional without them. The good news is that most professionals stick with these tools for many many years. In fact, as a pro, you can actually stop chasing the latest camera trend around and start to focus more on the simplicity inherent in most photo assignments. You’d be surprised at how many professionals have been using the same camera and same two lenses for over a decade.
Pro Tip: Consider the part of your work flow that is currently suffering the most and invest most-heavily in that. For example, say you can get great shots, but you are terribly slow at the organization and delivery of assets to clients. In this scenario, you want to spend more time on setting up your software, hard drives and cloud services. And perhaps even investing in a course in either Lightroom or Capture One so that the weakest part of your workflow gets better fastest.
Another tip: not everything needs to be owned. You can rent certain things for shoots — assuming there’s a camera rental shop near by. I have one light that travels with me — when I need a second one, I rent it and the client pays for it. So, in essence, my second light costs me nothing, or even makes me a bit of money.
3. You Have To Come Off As Legit
Becoming legit can encompass many things, so figure out what that means for you. But most professionals are real businesses — i.e. they have an LLC, a business bank account, business insurance, accounting software and an accountant who understands their business (and tax implications). Then there’s the marketing materials: business cards, website, maybe a printed book or promotional cards. And a lot of pros have reps. That’s a lot, I know — I spent much of the first six months of my transition just setting up that stuff and asking a lot of people how they deal with it. But you have to remember, being a professional is more than how you behave — it’s how you set up your business. Very quickly someone is going to ask you for your EIN (Employee Identification Number — you’ll get it when you form your business) as well as ACH information (which allows them to send money directly to your bank account). Be prepared.
Pro Tip: The good news is that there are plenty of services to help with all of this. I personally found LegalZoom to be an easy place to set up my LLC and FreshBooks to be a really good place to do all my accounting, from tracking expenses to creating estimates and invoices. Also, for what it’s worth, I have found Citi to be an excellent bank to set up my business account with. And, of course, CPAs are everywhere — ask your friends on Facebook for a recommendation. You’ll get 5 responses in a minute.
4. You Need To Understand Pre-Production
Professional photography has three parts to it: pre-production, shoot days and post-production/delivery. Most amateurs spend the majority of their energy in the latter two. Most pros spend their time on the first one, knowing that a shoot is almost entirely determined before the shooting starts, during this process.
In pre-production, you’re figuring out the idea for your shoot, the look and feel, location, talent, styling, hair and makeup, lighting, art direction, tech and any number of other things (even transportation). In smaller shoots, you’re handling all of that (and it’s a huge pain in the ass). In bigger shoots, you get to use another professional, called a Producer — and that is a godsend.
Your producer (who will have managed many photo shoots already, knows production companies, studio locations, location scouts, casting agents, caterers and more) will take a lot of things off your plate in pre-production and they will even create a “pre-pro book,” which, literally, keeps everyone on the same page; including maps to locations, call times, full cast and crew information, and a breakout of the day.
Pro Tip: Immediately find a photography producer near you and establish a relationship with them. Get someone who has done many photography shoots before and knows it well enough to be able to pick up slack when talent is scarce (i.e. can rent equipment or location scout, too). Pick their brain, learn the lingo and use them to get yourself up-to-speed on everything that pre-production entails.
5. You Become More Of A Director Than A Shooter
One of the big differences in professional photo shoots from your run-of-the-mill, go-out-and-shoot shoots is that your responsibility increases. Suddenly, as the photographer, many people are going to be asking you questions and looking to you to make decisions: What kind of location are we going to shoot at? What’s the casting spec? Do you like this sweater? How is this makeup? Do you want a silk on that light? And those are the easy questions. In fact, what people really want from you is to bring a vision to life, just like a director on a movie set. So, you not only need to answer technical questions, you need to answer them in relationship to the concept. To be able to talk about what you’re doing with lights, not just because you think it looks good, but because of how it helps elevate an idea or solve a problem… this is the real job of a pro.
Think like a director — have an idea and an approach to executing that idea. This platform will inform all the smaller decisions.
Pro Tip: Don’t skip over the process of establishing the concept of your shoot. Whether that’s mood boards, a treatment or even just a discussion — your skill as a pro is in understanding something in the abstract and then making it appear.
6. There’s a Very Real Physical Side To It
If this were just a hobby, then it wouldn’t matter what shape you were in. But being a professional photographer means lugging around a lot of equipment regularly and spending a good portion of your days on your feet, bending, laying down, getting back up, packing up your stuff, staying up late working on photos and then getting back out and doing it again the next day. Not to mention the hikes you take to get to certain locations. It’s labor intensive. If you’re struggling to keep up with the demands of the job, it cannot help but affect your work and your relationships with talent and clients.
It’s not pro basketball, but being in “photography shape” is a real thing. Keep yourself healthy and ready to stay focused, inspired and able through long days. The key is not in having the physical energy to push a shutter release, it’s in not letting all the physical part distract you from the mental part. The better shape you’re in, the more you can just focus on your creativity.
Pro Tip: Stock nutrition bars that are low in sugar and always keep a water bottle with you. I have found bars I like at the gas station I use by my house, so I just make it a habit to pick up a pack of them every time I gas up.
7. You Must Protect The Butterfly
Let’s go back to #1 for a second: photography is rewarding work. One of the primary reasons it is so rewarding is that it is a creative expression for you. You can come up with an idea and go create it. That’s 100% completely amazing, but it all falls apart if you’re not inspired anymore. And so you must, at all costs, protect the part of you that feels, or gets, inspired by photography. Which is why I think of our inspirational and motivating thoughts as a sweet little butterfly.
There are forces around us who would dampen our enthusiasm and darken our spirits, sending us into self-doubt and, worse, jadedness toward the medium of photography. Sometimes it’s right in your face, with people who critique you or compete with you. And sometimes it’s subtle, with certain phrases or intonations that just kind of get you down. Any amount of it can rub the butterfly wings and keep it from flying. So, fight against all of it. Against the doubters and downers. Be vigilant over your ability to always find an idea from inside your creative spirit — protect the butterfly!
Personally, I consider my ability to keep myself inspired to be the single greatest reason you should hire me to do a shoot. I know exactly where inside me my enormous passion for photography sits, and I know how to tap into it at any time — no matter what terrible things are going on around me.
Pro Tip: Many professionals who must come up with ideas regularly have a routine or a formula for it. Mine involves coffee and a walk or bike ride through my neighborhood. Those things are a sure-fired way to get me in a good place, block out the news, connect with the community and, inevitably, the ideas start flowing within that routine. Find yours!
8. On Updating The Portfolio
Chances are, you’re reading this because you are ready to make that leap into professional photography. This usually means you have more talent and potential than you do actual, perfectly-finished sets of images to display. That’s, in fact, the conundrum of turning pro, isn’t it? Trying to look professional while having shot in a slightly less-than-professional setting for a while. But don’t fret, there’s a system for updating your work that can grow as you do — you just have to be ready to make these ongoing updates and be ready to let go of your past work, as much as you and others have loved it, as you replace it with new stuff.
First, build your own website with a portfolio-style template that you can access easily and quickly make changes to when needed (Wix and Squarespace both have great templates and offer tons of control for easy updating). Next, I suggest breaking your site into projects, so people can look at your work based on a specific shoot. It makes your work easy to digest, but it also helps them generate the ideas for their own shoot — which is often why people are visiting photography portfolios: they want to see if your style can bring their vision to life.
Now, as you do new shoots, you can look at shoots in the past that have a similar style to them and quickly replace them with your newer, hopefully better, images.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to make potential clients aware of your new work, too. Email out updates, update your Facebook and Instagram pages, too.
9. Establishing A Success-Oriented Routine
Nearly all professionals I know use the same camera and same few lenses for every shoot. And more often than not, it’s a full-frame Canon, Nikon or Sony with a 24–70mm and/or 70–200mm lens. Professional shoots are fast and furious affairs with not nearly the kind of relaxed, experimental vibe that amateur photography enjoys. Not that you won’t experiment on set, but first and foremost, you’ll want your workhorse equipment to be at the ready from the get-go.
Likewise, most professionals have a very streamlined post-process that gets their images in quickly, color-corrected quickly and off to clients efficiently.
Figure out which camera and set of lenses constitutes your “professional set-up” and don’t change it up until something seems to dictate that you need to. Then set up your importing, editing and outputting process in a way that works great for you and can be rote, year over year.
Pro Tip: Lighting is usually the thing that throws amateurs. Take time to dial in your lighting process, too. If you’re showing up somewhere on-site to do portraits and need to bring everything yourself, being able to set up in under an hour and breakdown even faster, is key in being efficient and consistently successful. If this is foreign territory for you, ask a pro what light they are using and why — they can and will usually be able to talk about this for hours.
10. Knowing Your Business
The simple truth about being a professional photographer is that you’re going into the business of photography. Most businesses are more complicated than simply what they do at the core. That is, the thing that drives your business is often not the most profitable part of your business. There’s usually a secondary economic issue that drives profits, too. For example, a movie theater makes under $3 on their ticket sales (their core business) after the studio takes their cut. But they make well over that on concessions. So there’s a secondary economic avenue in the food industry.
You will have secondary economic factors in your business that aren’t directly about taking photos. And what those are will rely entirely on what kind of photography you do. Some photographers make good money from how they structure usage rights into their deals. Others make money on prints, or in post work. Take a look not just at your subject of choice, but the industry that surrounds it. And then grow that part of your business, too.
Pro Tip: let your estimate do the hard work here. A good estimate breaks out all aspects of what you will provide. Add in line items and language that open the door to iterative work within any project, including an understanding that usage that extends past your agreement is a separate negotiation, as well as separate rates and hours for out-of-scope work, like retouching, animations, etc.
11. It’s A Lot Of Networking
I’m not, by nature, an extremely social person. I mean, I’m fine in a crowd and all that, but my preference is peaceful solitude. But I’ve had to really change my approach to my days since committing to photography. I schedule at least three meetings a week with different people: in person or on Skype. It’s not always a prospect, but it at the very least puts me in a position to meet someone. One of my more steady clients I met having breakfast with a close friend. This happens way more than you’d think.
Also, networking takes many forms and the most effective parts of it are always the in-person ones. Without it turning you into an annoying opportunist, you have to start looking at every outing as a potential lead for your next gig. Not by being aggressive about it, but simply by mentioning you have the ability should anyone need it — and handing out a business card. This happens everywhere: at dinners, shoots and in retail stores.
Pro Tip: Social media has become an enormous tool in this regard. While it’s not as good as in-person meetings, I’ve made many connections simply by getting tagged in other peoples’ posts. Much more than my own feed, being endorsed by someone else is an excellent way to find your next gig. Make sure your models, clients and crew are tagging you in their online stories and posts, if possible.
12: You Also Become An Expert In WHAT You Shoot
One of the most interesting shifts I experienced in becoming a professional photographer was how I changed my opinion of what I was an expert in. In my previous position, as a “really good amateur,” I felt my expertise was in equipment and framing shots. I followed along with updates in firmware, new camera models and every new technique and trend in photography. But when it really got serious, I found that that wasn’t what clients cared about. They care far more about how they, or their products, are being represented. And because I wanted to be able to converse with them in their language, I found myself becoming more of an expert in their business, and business needs, than in photography itself.
Automotive photography is a good example of this. While it’s not my thing, I know those who do it, and they are not just good photographers, they are experts in the field of automotive, as versed in the goings ons of the automotive world as their clients. And, in fact, they are more inclined to know the latest car model than camera model.
Pro Tip: Learn your industry, no matter which one it is. If you’re doing photojournalism, learn about journalism. If you’re doing portraits, learn about show business. Being well-rounded and versed in your clients’ business makes you more valuable and an easy recommendation for them to make to their peers.
13. On Doing Test Shoots
Soon after turning pro, you’ll lose a job to someone else. And this will be great, as you will now have someone else to compare your work to besides yourself. In most cases, the other photographer will simply have had a shoot in their portfolio that was more closely-related to the kind of images that the client had in mind. For example, maybe you do great portraits, but the client wanted a group lifestyle shot and went with a photographer who’d already done groups before. Typical. So, good — now you can go create some work like that so that next time you’re not overlooked. Creating that work that helps build your portfolio is called a “test shoot” and it’s, in fact, very common practice for photographers, models, stylists and hair and makeup artists.
The key is in first figuring out exactly where the hole is in your portfolio. It’s no use creating new images that don’t help you. Know precisely what look you’re going for and go nail it. Normally, no money changes hands on test shoots as everyone is doing it to build their books, too.
Pro Tip: At every shoot you do, talk to your crew about whether they’re ever willing to do test shoots and build a database of people you can pull together when you’re ready.
14. You Still Get Hit Up For Free Work
I’m not quite as big a stickler as some about never doing work for free, but I’m also not a sucker. I can quickly size up someone’s intentions and I never work with bad people. But for good people, I will honestly do almost anything they need — especially if they are struggling. I’m all about creating more good karma in the world and 100% of the time I help someone good out, it helps me more. That’s just how the world works.
Get a good nose for the different kinds of clients out there and establish your own rules for how to charge all of them. Sometimes the work you do plants seeds for paid work further down the line, or with someone else. You can also treat a “free shoot” as a test shoot, if it helps fill that hole in your portfolio. And it’s not uncommon to do work for influential people in trade for introductions. I’m in L.A. where contacts are currency, but wherever you are you may find that the person who wants you to do their family photos has some friends in high places.
But don’t ever do free work for the promise of “exposure.” If the person telling you that really had the kind of exposure that mattered, they’d also have money to pay you.
Pro Tip: Try establishing a professional day rate and a “friends and family” day rate. Then, next time someone with “not a lot of money” comes asking around, and you’re feeling generous, offer them the discounted rate. Then you’re being both a friend and a professional.
15. Establishing Appropriate Rates and Doing Estimates
For your main gigs, you will need to deal with asking for money. This part of the business is complicated and there’s tons of opinions out there on what to charge (though photographers are reluctant to give up their exact rates).
My recommendation is to have general numbers already in mind for every type of shoot you do. Sure, you may go up or down when it’s all said and done, but the confidence of knowing your own rates and generally how much things cost creates confidence. “It depends” is a sure fire way for people to wonder if you really know the business. I know the rates of most headshot photographers in town. I also know the day rates of very high-end commercial photographers (I used to hire them). So, I’m very confident throwing out a number to someone as a general range, and it immediately puts the ball back in their court — which is where I always like the ball, during negotiations.
Pro Tip: Do some investigation. Find out what other photographers make. You can be direct about it, simply by saying you’re trying to start your own business and are assessing the market. Or you can be stealthy and ask as a potential client. All businesses know what the market value is of their proudct or service — no reason for you to be any different.
16. You’ll Re-Learn The Meaning Of Downtime
If you’re like me, photography was your downtime. Now that you’re a full-time pro, it’s not quite as relaxing to whip out the camera on a trip or on those quiet days. And that can mess with you. You might even start to question whether it’s a thing you love anymore. Don’t overthink it. You need downtime and time to turn off, no matter what your profession is. Even if you love it.
In some ways, if you can get your mind around it, this is in fact the sublime nature of being a photographer. You can finally stop having a hustle. You’ve turned your passion into a profession and now, when life gives you a little blind spot to play in — you can do it fully. Go watch the kid’s baseball game. Take a long walk in a beautiful place and don’t take a picture of it. Getting to live life fully-present is your reward for making it in a career that you love.
Pro Tip: Get a to-do app and really take control of your daily tasks. It’s easy to get in a state where it seems like you have to be always working. Finding your pace and setting do-able amounts of work for yourself each day will keep you sane and let you know when to turn off.
17. Ah Yes, Social Media
You knew this was coming. Social media is, now, an obviously important marketing tool for any photographer. Clients want to know that you walk the talk. That you can create content for your own social channels means you can create content for theirs — that you understand what works in that medium, how to create imagery that influences people to do something and is formatted for it. You’ll not only want to be good at creating for Instagram and Facebook, you’ll want to know how to deliver files in a way that works for those who are going to use your work for social, too.
Pro Tip: Create customized crop settings in your software of choice so you can quickly save out 1:1, 4:5 and 16:9 vertical crops of all your images with ease — this way clients can post quickly to both feed and story.
Also, you’ll do well to get versed in the latest tools for animating your stills and even extending your skillset into video and editing.
18. Creating Your “Impossible World”
When you really look at very successful professional photographers’ work, they seem to have created an Impossible World; a world where light behaves differently, more perfectly. Where people look incredible, odd, surreal or beautiful. Where colors coordinate and motion is captured just so. These fictitious worlds become the owned territory of the photographer and, in fact, are often what they get hired for. Far more for that than for their technical skills.
Your subject may not force you into a constructed world as well-articulated as, say, a Stanley Kubrick movie, but it can still be your own. The way you see, the way you arrange, your certain way of capturing light or the human form — this all helps define that world of yours.
Pro Tip: Not all of this can be done through preset looks or look up tables — and, in fact, the more complicated and less-replicatable it is, the better for you. The most unique worlds are usually a combination of the light set-up, shooting perspective, casting, styling and post work. Work them all in combination to do something entirely your own. But then, own it. Know what your world is and be able to articulate it.
This is the part of professional photography that people complain about the most, but it’s necessary to constantly get your name out there. If people don’t hear from you for a while, they forget about you — or assume you moved on to something else. The best promoters seem to send out at least 3 or 4 pieces of communication a year, usually through email, to let you know about some new work they did. And the ones with reps get even more communications out there. A lot of creative directors, art directors and art buyers work in a kind of rote way — choosing the same reliable folks to do their photography for them. Breaking in can be a process, so you have to keep it up; showing them that you’re still here, doing great work and interested in working with them.
Pro Tip: Immediately start an email list with a service like Mail Chimp. This kind of email client will help keep track of your contacts, streamline the process, track results and give you tools to offer discounts and other promotional offers.
20. On Having Great Shoots
A lot of this advice is designed to help you nab a new client, but there’s one sure-fire way to get a client to re-hire you: give them a great experience. When I was a CD hiring photographers for shoots, I always looked forward to shoot day, because I worked with photographers who knew how to get everyone to enjoy the day. They made it a lively affair, often with music, good vibes, on-set creativity, amenability and confidence. If I had a great experience, you can bet that I’d be trying to get that photographer for the next gig. And, likewise, if they were prima donnas or stress cases, I’d cross them off my list. Life’s too short.
Think about how you will design the experience of your day and check in with clients throughout the day to make sure they’re having a good time. And if something goes awry, be the one to fix it. It’s a service business — you can gain the trust of people also by being a solution-person.
Pro Tip: People will take their cues from your demeanor — if you’re having fun, usually others will, too. Try to tone down your stress on shoot day and be lively, communicative and easy-going, even when it gets intense.
21. It’s Not As Much About The Genre As Who’s Hiring You
One of the most common pieces of advice on being professional in photography is choosing a genre or focus for your work. And while I wouldn’t argue the value of it, in professional photography, being good at your genre is far less of a factor than understanding your genre. This has much larger ramifications for you, long-term, than establishing your look and niche.
I look at it like an axis — on one side of it is fine art photography and on the other side is commercial photography. Between those two extremes are things like documentary photography, photojournalism and editorial. As you move from one end of the axis to the other, the people who are asking for photography completely change. As do their needs and motivations. For example, a photo editor at a fashion magazine has a different set of needs than someone writing an article for the NY Times. Different again for that product company that needs lifestyle shots with their product in it. Consider this, first and foremost, as this tends to influence what your life is like as a photographer.
Pro Tip: Talk to photographers from different areas and ask delving questions about their clients, their pay, their travel and even their lifestyle. You’ll see the chasms of difference from one type to another and you’ll be able to better choose your path.
Thanks for reading! Any questions or more thoughts on what it takes to be a pro these days, add a comment below! Everyone loves a good comment. And you can find me and my photography musings more over on Instagram.