How to become a professional photographer
As we’ve seen from our professional photographers’ survey, it’s not all about taking pictures. As well as talent and technical know-how, becoming a professional photographer takes drive, determination and a head for business. Here’s a guide to getting started.
It’s easy to convince yourself you’ll only create killer shots if you have the sleekest, newest gear. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is the curse of many a photographer. But any camera is only as good as the person using it.
Instead of blowing your budget, borrow or hire. You can rent the latest kit for jobs at a fraction of what it costs to buy. And it’s a great way to test what really works for you.
Make sure you have a backup body and lens, though. Yes, it’s a bore having to lug all that extra gear around but if your equipment jams in the middle of a client shoot – and it does – it’ll be worth it.
Know your f-stop
A photography degree can build your confidence, but you don’t necessarily need one to become a professional photographer. You do, however, need to know your stuff.
Anyone can learn how to push buttons on a camera to create a technically brilliant shot. Understanding light and working with it is what will make you stand out. ISO, aperture, shutter speed – know exposure inside and out. Switch to manual. Practice.
A stint as an assistant is a great way to learn ‘on the job’. You’ll soon find out if the life of a professional photographer is really for you, too. See if local studios are hiring or, if weddings are going to be your niche, ask if you can shadow a pro wedding photographer.
You might want to join a photographic association too. RPS, BIPP, MPA – there are several and some, like BANPAS, are niche. Many offer mentoring and critiquing services as well as courses, resources and competitions.
The marketplace is already saturated. When you become a professional photographer, find your niche and stick to it. You’ll get more client cred if you’re a specialist in one field. As an expert you can boost your income, too. Think workshops, tutorials and ‘how to’ books.
Marketing’s as important a skill to master as photography. Because no matter how talented you are, no one cares what you do unless you make them.
If customers can’t see your work, they can’t buy it, so a website’s a must. But you don’t need to hire a website designer. You’ll find plenty of easy to use, photography-friendly templates online – just remember that as well as your showcase and sales platform, your website’s a marketing tool.
Know much about SEO? If you want your site to show up in searches you’ll need to become a bit of an SEO buff. Use social media and blogging to boost your site’s visibility and your brand.
Work hard on referrals. Because people trust people more than they trust ads, word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing machine. Reward clients who get you more clients.
But if you really want to stand out from the ‘noise’, it’s not enough to say you’re a professional photographer, you have to be professional. That means operating in a business-like way. Reply to emails and enquiries promptly. Update your website, manage your portfolio and keep on top of social media. And, of course, deliver the service and work you promise.
The small print
A decent contract protects you. It should clearly state what clients can expect and define image usage rights. If in doubt, get legal advice on wording your standard contract. And if you’re going to use your images for marketing, you must have a release form.
Copyright is complicated. But in these digital days, it’s vital you realise your rights. If someone uses your images without permission, you need to know how to get them taken down or get paid.
Because getting paid for your work’s the point, right?
Point and click
It’s not just about clicking the shutter. To make sales you need to click with people. Meeting clients, showing your portfolio and closing the deal is one thing. Then once the shoot’s done, you have to sell the images.
Pricing is a challenge. If your work doesn’t reflect the prices you charge, you won’t get repeat business. But charging too little also puts people off – they think you’re no good.
There are lots of guides in blogs and books to help you. Read them. Do the maths. Then pick a starting point that makes you a profit and try to stick to it.
Digital photography has driven down prices, but don’t be tempted to do jobs below your cost of doing business. You’ll end up going out of business.
Adjusting your balance
There’s software to help you with bookkeeping but if you start regularly employing assistants or second shooters you may need an accountant. Have a strict system for invoices, receipts and running costs. It makes tax-return time less stressful.
And don’t forget to add insurance to your business running costs. It’s not just your gear you need to cover for damage and theft – as a professional photographer, you’ll want a package covering you for negligence claims as well as property damage and injury. For a useful guide to photographers’ insurance click here.