How to Become a Pro Photographer: Part 1- Making the Jump

Posted on 10/5/2010 by Daniel H. Bailey | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I got laid off from my day job as a scanning and imaging tech at a digital photo lab. Never mind that I was actually the second guy to be let go that week and that I didn’t have much respect for my boss, I was still devastated. No matter what the circumstances, it sucks to get fired.

I cleaned out the area around my Kodak PCD workstation, mostly music CDs and a few of my own climbing photos that I had scanned and printed, said goodbye to my office mates and rode my bike home, feeling utterly dejected and wondering what the heck I was going to do for money. Serendipitously, my landlord had just started re-roofing the house I was living in and since he was doing the job alone, I easily convinced him to hire me.

A week of manual labor in the sun gave me plenty of time to consider my options and that’s when I decided to try to become a pro photographer. I had already sold a few photos and had worked for a year as a stock agency photo editor, so I had a working knowledge of what I needed to do to get started.

I figured that the worst thing that could happen is that I’d find that it wasn’t for me and move on to something else. I was right.

Here it is, fifteen years later and I’m still going strong. Am I the most successful outdoor adventure and travel photographer around? No. Am I living my own dream? Yes. Is it easy? By all means, no, but to me it’s worth everything and I wouldn’t trade my career for anything.

Photography Today - The Realities

The photo industry looks a whole lot different today than when I first started out. The global economy has gone from boom to bust to it’s current state of terrified trepidation as it inches forward towards a slow recovery.

Like just about every other business model, photography has been severely affected. Photo and advertising budgets have been slashed. Print publications have shed many staff photographer positions. Competition is fierce. Internet commerce has caused a dramatic increase in content.

Put these factors together and you have a textbook example of the basic laws of supply and demand. In photography, this has meant dramatic decreases in some pricing structures, which has left many photographers struggling to keep their businesses afloat.

Put simply, it’s a tough time to try and be a photographer.

That said, photography has always been a highly competitive field, and there is almost no business model that hasn’t been hit hard by the recession. If you’re one of millions of people who has lost their job, you know this as well as anyone. Putting your professional destiny in your own hands may very well be an attractive option for you.

And, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, it’s actually a very exciting time to be a pro photographer. Digital imaging technology, the internet and an enormous media appetite for images have created more opportunities to photographers than at any other time in history. However, those opportunities don’t come easy, by any means, you still have to work just as hard, if not harder to find them.

Being a self employed creative type - Do you have what it takes?

Deciding that you want to be a professional photographer is the easy part.  Creating a successful photo career is a lifelong, never ending process that will continuously require a great deal of creativity, mental energy, tenacity, and incredible perseverance.

Like any self employed venture, building a career as a freelance photographer takes a great deal of risk, sacrifice, a sense of adventure, a dedicated and unwavering belief in yourself and, more than anything, the tenacity and willingness to stick with it, even through the most challenging times.

It also requires a no-nonsense evaluation of your own skills, your own acceptable level of risk and an incredibly strong creative drive. You have to be willing to put yourself out there in the world with enough confidence to say “I can do that,” and enough skill to back it up.

You need to have, what I like to call, the “It’s all about me” gene. Being a self employed creative type means that you are your business. There is no clocking out and forgetting about it until the next day or week, it’s always on your mind and you never stop thinking of new ways to advance your creativity and your business.

Plus there’s overtime. Lots of it. As much as you want, in fact. And you’ll gladly put in the time, because you love what you do, and because all the other shooters out there love it and work just as hard, if not harder than you will to create innovate new imagery and get ahead. More than anything, you must love it enough that you’re willing to stay up late editing, captioning and processing images, or working on your website or portfolio, or writing the copy for your your next promotional piece. You don’t always have to work at  it 24-7, but you must want to.

You must also have support from your family if you’re not single or living alone, because IT WILL CONSUME YOU. At the same time, you must be smart enough to realize that the entire world doesn’t actually revolve around your photography (hard for people like us to imagine!) You will need to learn how to find that balance with the other people in your life, because any additional stress it causes you is energy that you’re not spending on your photography business.

Making the Jump from Amateur to Pro - Are you ready?

The first thing you need to do is to give it some serious thought and make an honest evaluation of the following:

Your talent and skills: Are you work good enough? As I pointed out, photography is an extremely competitive field and if you’re not able to produce quality imagery, then forget about trying to trying to make a living at it. That doesn’t mean that you have to be as good as the top pros in the field right off the bat, but your work has to be worthy of charging money for it or putting it up against your competition.

Your bank account: Photography is a very expensive hobby. It’s even more expensive as a profession. Besides the camera and computer equipment that you’ll need to buy and continually upgrade, it costs money to market yourself, and, of course, it costs money to actually go out and produce those images. Plus, if you’re self employed, you’ll need to have enough money saved up, a supportive partner or a wallet full of credit cards to get you by until you actually start making money. That means, food, gas, rent, bills, health insurance, beer and whatever else you need to survive.

Your photography niche: Before starting out, you should have be able to define the style of photography you’re good at. That doesn’t mean that your style won’t probably evolve along the way, in fact it probably will, but you need a place to start. What is your niche? What do you love to shoot? Portraits? Travel? Landscapes? Industrial? Conceptual? Adventure? Sports? It’s often said, shoot what you love, and so usually, what you love and what you’re good at end up being one and the same.

Your marketing niche: You’ve defined your style, How do you intend to sell it to the marketplace? Open up a portrait studio? Sell stock? Shoot for commercial advertising clients? Shoot for editorial publications? Do event photography? There are, of course, many more options, and you may choose to do more than one. In fact, the more tracks that you can follow, the more successful you’ll be.

Your acceptable level of risk: Are you ready and willing to give up certain luxuries in life in order to finance and weather the economic realities of a photography career, which may or may not produce much, or any income for quite awhile? Are you ready and willing to put your heart and soul into your profession, even through the difficult times? And if things do get tough, how long are you willing to stick it out? (Remember, failure is simply quitting too soon!) Are you willing to quit your job and try to make a go of it?

Don’t worry, the great thing about photography is that you can do it as full or as part time as you want. For whatever reason, maybe you’re not ready to quit your job and give up a steady income. Maybe you just want to try and earn enough money just to help pay for some of your gear. That’s ok. Be honest with yourself. Photography is a wonderful hobby and a great creative outlet, and even if you never earn a dime from your work, so what? Does that mean that you love making photographs any less than I do because I make a living at it? No, it just means that being a full time pro photographer is not for you, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s your life and it can be whatever you want it to be.

If, after considering all of these things, you do decide that it’s the right job for you and that you’re ready to make the jump, start the process of envisioning exactly what your photography business will look like. Where do you want it to go and what will you do in order to get there. Get yourself a little notebook and carry it with you so that you can start writing down your ideas whenever they come to you.

Write down everything- equipment you think you’ll need, potential clients and customers, locations, subjects, proposed self assignments, portfolio and marketing ideas. If you want to, start writing up a business plan. Not everyone feels the need to do that, I never wrote up a formal business plan, but it was all in my mind. Some people find it helpful to plan things out to the letter. Do what works for you.

Finally, start reading books on running a photography business. There are a lot of titles on the market. I haven’t read all of them and some are better than others- check out the reviews and see what other people have found helpful.
One book that I have read and that I highly recommend is Fast Track Photographer, by Dane Sanders. This is a really great book that helps establish success by focusing on your most important resource- you. He shows you how to identify your personal and creative strengths in order to help you carve out your own niche and build a successful photography brand, how to avoid common mistakes, and how to shape your business style so that fits the way you want to live your life. Whether you’re first starting out or whether you’ve been in the game for years, this motivating book will help you take a fresh look at your photography business and how to move it forward in today’s market.

Dane also a has a companion book called The Fast Track Photographer Business Plan, in which he helps you actually shows you how to build a modern day, successful photography business that supports your creative vision. Where some photo business books are out of date with the rapidly changing industry, this one is brand new and very relevant. I’d recommend them both.
Also, Vik Oreinstein recently released an updated edition of his book The Photographer’s Guide to Building Your Photography Business. This book covers some very useful info about how to build find your niche, build your business, establish a marketing plan and find clients and how to price your work whether you shoot nature, weddings, studio portraits, commercial work or stock.

This new, 2nd edition was released in February of 2010, so it’s fully up to date with current industry trends and digital imaging.
Another up-to-date book that gets high reviews is 99 Ways to Make Money from Your Photos by the editors of Photopreneur. It’s filled with honest and realistic tips on what to shoot, how to break into the market and how to make money from a wide variety of photography styles and methods.

There are many great resources for finding information on how to be a pro photographer and how to make money from selling your photos. Use every one that you can get your hands and eyes on. Read books. Talk to other photographers. Follow lots of photographers on Twitter. Ask questions on the discussion forums around the web. Read other web sites on how to become a professional photographer, there are certainly enough of them out there with that title! Heck I just found out that Digital Photography School ran a series with the exact same title earlier this month! They’re all worth checking out, though, because everyone has different information, experience and advice.

So, buy a notebook (mine’s a little red Moleskine), do your homework and, if you have time, go out and make some photographs today. Then, when you’ve had some time to mull all this over, come back tomorrow for the next installment in the series.

Copyright © 2010 Daniel H. Bailey. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


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