Going Pro: Photography as a Career

Posted on 7/21/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

More and more people are producing pictures of a quality sufficient to satisfy the needs of many who want to use pictures. Thanks to the Internet—and to a great extent microstock—it is now much easier than in the past for people to earn a little money from the images they have produced and to make contact with customers who might want to use them.

Many of my regular readers who have established careers in producing and marketing photography hate that this has happened. They want to go back to the good old days—but there is no stopping this trend. The best those with successful photography businesses can do is figure out how to live with where photography is headed. A number of professionals have been able to adapt and are doing quite well despite industry-wide changes, but for many others, it remains a difficult transition.

The “Going Pro” series of articles targets not the successful professional but the person just starting out, or the microstock photographer who has had some success producing images that sell and believes it is time to quit his or her day job and go into photography full time. What are the things they need to be aware of before taking the big plunge of trying to turn something that is a fun hobby into a career?

First, however, let’s address what “going pro” means. For me, a professional photographer is someone who is engaged full-time in producing and selling images and earns enough to support him or herself and family. This person does not have another job to which he of she devotes a significant part of the working week and which generates a significant part of the annual gross revenue.

There is nothing wrong with being a part-time photographer. In fact, by the time the photographer finishes reading this series of articles, he or she may conclude that doing photography part-time is preferable to full-time, even with the limitations it places on the photographer and what he or she can photograph.

Photographers dream of doing nothing but shooting what they want to shoot, when they want to shoot it, and make a living doing it. Taking pictures is fun. The job can be different every day. Taking pictures of what you want to shoot, when you want to shoot it can be extremely satisfying, particularly when someone is willing to pay you to do it. It is not that hard to do two of these three, but it is very rare for a photographer to be successful at all three.

When I use the word “professional” with reference to income generated, it in no way reflects on the quality of the work produced. Many amateurs produce images of “professional quality” that are certainly equal in every way, from an artistic point of view, to those produced by photographers who engage in the business as a profession. In fact, often the “professional photographer” may produce work that might be judged in any photo contest as not being all that good, or inferior to some of the work produced by amateurs. The professional produces his work because it is what the customer asked for and needed, and it was the best that could be produced given the parameters set by the customer. The professional’s first responsibility is to determine what the customer needs and produce it, not try to convince the customer that the photographer’s artistic vision is what the customer should want—although there is nothing wrong with presenting both options for the customer’s consideration.

There are an increasing number of photographers worldwide who are thinking about stepping out and trying to earn a full-time living as a still photographer. As a case in point, over 240,000 creators have submitted images to Shutterstock. While a large percentage of these images are on other microstock sites as well, there are probably in excess of 300,000 individuals trying to sell images on microstock sites. Most of these just want to sell a few images as a hobby, but a significant number of the more successful are either thinking about or have already begun producing images full-time—many, I believe, without a clear understanding of the amount of work required to generate a small amount of revenue.

In addition, we have the thousands of college, university and trade-school students with visions of a career in photography. They are told something along these lines: “Do you want a creative career that will allow you to branch out in many different directions and won’t have you doing the same old thing every day? A photography job could be a great fit. With photography training and a little determination, you can have the career you’ve always wanted.”

Most of these students are being taught all the skills they need to produce great pictures, but very little about the realities of the business they are about to enter. The “Going Pro” series should be of use to these individuals and help them anticipate and plan for some of the pitfalls they will encounter. Readers who are teaching photo business classes may want to use this series as a resource.

This series is not meant to dissuade anyone from entering the field of professional photography, but rather to give them a realistic understanding of the opportunities and risks that lie ahead. The next topic to be explored is the market for print images. In the meantime, we welcome reader feedback: What do you think those who are about to choose photography as a career should know?

The "Going Pro" series
Photography as a Career
State of the Print Market
State of the Internet Market
Image Oversupply
Demand by the Numbers
Of Doom And Gloom: Accepting Averages
Rise Of The Amateur
The Freelance Challenge
Are Great Images Enough?
Selling Fine Art
The Wedding Option
Top Pros Stop Shooting
Pros Stop Shooting: Point/Counterpoint

Copyright © Jim Pickerell. 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

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Jagdish Agarwal Posted Jul 22, 2010
    I regularly see portfolios of aspiring photographers who have a full time well paying job. My advice always is, not to leave their jobs, till the earnings from photography, is equal to their present salary. Otherwise, you will be neither here nor there.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jul 22, 2010
    1. They need to learn that they MUST be paid a rate for their work that is sufficient to live on. Microstock does not do that! Start the career in the right way and that is getting paid fairly for your work ----PERIOD!

    Good habits to start will give a lot better chance of survival if you want a full-time job as a photographer.

    2. Do not be afraid to say "No" to an assignment or stock request that pays very little.... they will see you as a professional and want to come back to you. Take this to the bank.... it DOES work! I do this whenever someone says they have no money, but want my work. My answer, "No." They then come back when they have a budget.


    3. Take as many BUSINESS classes as you can. Most people fail in photography not because of the picture taking ability, but they fail in the business side!


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