So You Want To Be A Professional Photographer?

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This is the first article in a series about what it takes to become a freelance professional photographer. It’s by no means the definitive guide and isn’t intended to be the complete guide to success. It is intended to make you think about what you need to do to make your dream of becoming a professional photographer come true. And don’t kid me, if you’re a serious photography hobbyist, you’ve thought about or dreamed about turning pro.

So you want to turn professional? You have two years left in college but the lure of big money is a siren song you can no longer resist. Hey, it’s really easy. It’s not like trying to make the NBA, NFL or MLB. All you have to do is say you’re a professional and you get paid for your photographs.

Okay, it’s not quite that easy. Calling yourself a professional doesn’t pay the bills. And, if you’re like me and have a huge photography equipment wish list, it doesn’t buy the equipment. To be a true photography professional you have to be able to convince your potential customers that they want to buy your photographs.

There’s a trap in the previous sentence. You really don’t want to depend on people buying your photographs. To be really successful, you want people to buy your photographic services. You know, commission your work. If you just want people to buy your photographs, you can try stock photography. Good luck with that. In stock photography you’re only competing with a few thousand photographers to get your image noticed and purchased. If you’re really talented enough to be extremely successful in that market, you won’t be depending on stock photography for long. You’ll be inundated with work.

You can print a few hundred of your best (favorite) photos, have them matted and framed (or do it yourself) and display all of them at various arts and crafts shows. If you like sitting on your butt for two or three days over the weekend, then this is the life for you. You won’t make tons of money, but you’ll get to travel a lot from show to show, sit around and visit with all the other folks displaying their work and maybe even make a few bucks in the process. If you’re lucky, you’ll even sell enough to cover your expenses including the rent on the space at the show. This is not the life for me but a lot of people do it and seem to really enjoy it. Great for them.

If what you want to be is a freelance photographer and to be paid for your services then there are a few things you need to do first. This is not intended to be all inclusive, in fact when I read this again I’ll probably think of something else, but here are some things you must think about and answer for yourself.

1. What kind of freelance work do you want to do – wedding photography, portrait photography, event photography, commercial photography, etc., or a combination?

2. What do you have to do to differentiate yourself? I see a lot of people out there getting paid to photograph people and events. Some of them are very good, outstanding in fact. Others produce crap and they’re still getting paid. I attended an event this past weekend where the photographers were taking numerous photos and selling 4×6 photos for $20 apiece. At least that’s what they were asking. I don’t know how many they sold but many of them I would have deleted. They’ll make money but eventually the marginal work will catch up with them. If you want to be really successful you have to view your work as being a reflection of you. If you want to be successful you have to strive to do excellent work, not just get by. If you want to be successful, you have to work hard to get a reputation as an excellent photographer.

3. How do you know when you’re getting that reputation? Don’t worry, you’ll know. It’ll go something like this. Last week I had a woman say to me, “You are really talented. You take incredible photos. I want you to photograph me.” I’m getting closer. I’ll never think I’m there but when more than one person starts saying that to you, you’re getting close.

4. Without having seen my work the woman wouldn’t have had any idea what kind of photos I take or if I just had a lot of money to spend on fancy cameras. How did she see my work? If you want to be a successful freelance professional photographer, you really, really need to create and have available to show potential clients a portfolio of your work. How to create a portfolio is the subject of the next article in this series.

These are just a few things to think about if you have designs on becoming a professional photographer. I could write a book on the subject but for now, I just want to get you thinking about what it takes to be successful in this endeavor. The absolute key to success is hard work and to never, ever be completely satisfied with your work. Always strive to improve.

Photo Credit:

Snapping Lovers by mtsofan on Flickr Creative Commons

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  • Anonymous

    Nice article, I look forward to the follow-ups. I have a friend who makes a living, a good one, on stock photography alone. He will do other shoots now and then but his bread and butter is stock photography and he works, works hard. Personally stock photography does not appeal to me but for some it works out very well.

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  • Kevin

    I like your spin on the industry “convince your potential customers that they want to buy your photographs” basicly how it brakes down.
    Bookmarked you blog I’ll be back.

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    Definitely. I often take photographs from my digital camera. I have so much interests to build career as a professional photographer. There are many people who wants that kind of useful guidance.