So You Want to Become a Professional Photographer. How?

Dream job, right. You can be the most gifted photographer and still fail. It takes so much more than good photography to be a photographer who makes money. Many of those who succeed in the industry aren’t necessarily the best photographers. But they are determined, have entrepreneurial skills and the right strategy. You’re already halfway there if master the tools and are confident about your style of photography. But again, that’s only a small part of being a photographer who makes a living from shoots. Here’s the how-to that might save you a lot of headaches.

So you want to become a professional photographer. Got what it takes? How to stand out from the crowd? It’s not good enough to be a good photographer. | David Bean
This article is not about stock photography, for more on this topic you better read our article Real Rights or Royalty Free Photography: How to Make Money With Stock Agencies. Here we’re talking about becoming an independent photographer, with you as your own boss. To begin with, forget about being a paid street photographer. That’s a passion and labor of love.

You sell a few images a year. If you’re very lucky. Well you can always mix street with fashion. But that demands another set of skills. And models. And they don’t just want to be your friends because you’re a cool guy shooting great images. It’s all about money. And you can hardly produce any of it.

Point is, everyone’s a photographer these days. Photos have become a cheap commodity in the era of digital mass photography. There are so many photogs coming into the market charging practically nothing and then giving their work away for free. Stealing your bread and butter.

True, it’s easy to succumb to the fallacy of the pride in being a starving artist. But then again, it can happen to the best of us. As photographer James Madelin recently pointed out in his article Should You Become a Professional Photographer?:

There can be few other careers where you regularly work for the world’s largest companies like the New York Times and TIME Magazine, are at the pinnacle of your career, yet don’t earn enough to make a living.

Madelin notes that New York Times and Corbis photographer Samuel Aranda was telephoned and told he’d just won one of the world’s most prestigious photography awards, the 2012 World Press Photo Award. He was sitting at his computer trying to work out how he was going to afford his month’s rent.

“At that exact moment,” Aranda told the British Journal of Photography, “I was checking my bank account because I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent this month. I was crunching numbers to make it work.”

Make no mistake. Photography is as tempting as the alluring sirene. Everything looks great on paper and on your screen. You’re proud of your work and convinced you have your price. But the young upstart with the new gear and great dreams does the same work for nearly nothing. And soon there’s another young upstart, and soon the former young upstart is crunching the numbers trying to pay the bills. You have to be really really good at what you’re trying to do. Or better even: be wise enough and keep photography as your hobby.

It’s not good enough to just be a good photographer. You also have to be a good salesman and a good retailer. You have to be good at marketing and selling yourself and your work. Sounds dire, but key to a career in photography is not so much your talent and not so much your gear, but marketing, promotion and sales.

Professional photography is more about running a business than about creating art, but false pride can easily ruins dreams. You may have talent, but win a job in price only. Then it’s time to move on to a nine-to-five job. Because if you’re only negotiating on price, there’s always someone cheaper and you do deserve bottom dollar. Make sure that your work stands out and gets the better dollar without having to stand up for it.

But that’s dreaming again. You have to play it safe. Keep a real job and do photography on your own time before giving it all up for your career dreams that might easily turn into nightmares when you’re facing the bills you ring up, not to mention health insurance, retirement fund or a vacation you hadn’t had in a long time. Forget about free weekends. Right, photography is great fun, but at great cost. It pays poorly. It’s like doing what you love doing best: golfing, skiing, kiting. But who pays you for doing it?

Fact is, the job of the photographer is not really important. There are too many already. That’s why even big newspapers have only a few photographers on staff. That’s a few jobs in cities of millions.

Right, some schools offer photography degrees with high incomes in the future. But it’s way tougher to make a living as a photographer than what glossy brochures promise. People who can afford to attend those schools can afford not to work.

Still can’t resist the urge, trying to defy reason? So be it. If you’re not open to being convinced otherwise, here are your options:

First and foremost, engage yourself, be proactive. Enter contests, participate in blogs, do social and other networking, try to sell images to local newspapers or even a magazines — and take good pictures. Practice, practice, practice.

That’s not fast enough for you? Start with portraiture. But you have to provide “affordable” photography, starting at $100 a session. That’s a fraction of what an established photographer would asks for. But he’s probably already out of business. For a photo shoot of a group of six or more you may ask for $200.

People will doubt your skills and ask, “Are you for real?” You will run into the fact that because your prices are so low you’re not taken seriously. But you take your clients seriously, and that’s a good start.

Specialize in the boring stuff. Family, senior and baby portraits. It can pay off handsomely, is nevertheless creative work and you can totally love what you do.

Or you’re looking for a more serious market entry?

Try the documentary photojournalist. That’s a line of work that covers many styles of photography. Photojournalism prepares you for better wedding and portraiture photography. Because good photography is all about telling stories without using words, but images. Photojournalism and wedding photography make great mates. Check out Jeff Ascough and Otto Schulze, celebrating wedding photography as a stunning art.

Right, you’re not there yet. Good that you kept your day job, because wedding photography is the easiest way to make money on weekends. And sell the bride and groom an all-inclusive package. When done, give them a CD with all the images and get ready for the next job. Don’t try to make money with selling single prints. That’s cheap profiteering. People hate that.

If wedding photography is not your favorite photographic pastime, then Joy Chakraborty from Image Source has some good pieces of advice. Any newcomer who wants to get the attention of paying customers, he says, might think about trying to get those difficult, more sensational images — as did my good friend Nick Nostitz when he started his career as a photographer. Death, sex and crime where is preferred playgrounds. He soon soon able to publish Patpong: Bangkok’s Twilight Zone, a book with 120 black-and-white photos that established his career as a respected photojournalist.

Joy Chakraborty recommends this:

As with any profession, employers will be more enthusiastic about hiring you if you have more experience in the area in question. Key is your ability to take a good picture in distinct circumstances. So as long as you are constantly working on your skill set then you are giving yourself options for the future.

Conflict, Crime and Medical Work

Plenty of photographers have started out working for the emergency services taking pictures as part of police crime scene investigations, while medical photography is another area in which there tends to be demand — nothing helps to clarify a complicated scientific concept like an appropriate picture.

When it comes to police photography there is less scope for being artistic, but there is no denying the importance of such photos; for example, a judge may decide that a case cannot go forward if a picture does not show something clearly enough. Clarity and attention to detail are essential.

Another strand of this area relates to the news in general, so your work could take you abroad to combat zones or into local neighbourhoods for shots of places where a crime was committed. But be warned, you’re under constant pressure. It’s an uphill battle to beat photo agencies. They’re fast and everywhere.

Moving away from the gravity of conflict, police and medical work, a photographer could get involved with covering more recreational events, which could be anything from conferences and weddings to sports competitions.

Naturally, the type of photograph that employers are looking for will be different — they will probably want something more evocative and less cold. More popular events will see you competing with other snappers for the best shot, so if you decide you want to cover top-level sport or celebrity-filled occasions then you might have a battle on your hands sometimes.

Teaching and Art

And there’s always art and teaching. What some photographers forget is that they do not only have the choice of covering tragic events or recreational activities, they can also sidestep this choice completely by moving into teaching photography.

This will take a very different skill set to what would be expected in other areas of the profession, as your ability to communicate and explain is brought to the fore. It still involves knowing your onions, but there is greater emphasis on bringing out the best in others, rather than controlling your own performance.

Another option for creative-minded photographers is to try to make money by making photographic art work, although this is admittedly hard and getting more difficult now that digital photography has become so accessible to the unskilled public — or in more polite terms: now that every another such lousy image has the potential to morph into a post-processed winner.

How can you stand out from the crowd?

That’s not the point.

Do what you love to do without putting all eggs in one basket.

Things that are meant to happen will happen just fine.