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How to become a professional photographer


Becoming a photographer takes drive and a good business head as well as an eye for the perfect shot.

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 photographer takes drive, determination, and a head for business. Here’s a guide to getting started.

6 essentials for becoming a photographer

1. Gauge your gear

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 kit around but if something goes wrong with your equipment in the middle of a client shoot  – and it probably will at some point –  it’ll be worth it.

2. 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 great way to put your practice into action is to start out with some voluntary or part-time work. It could be for family, friends, or even local charities that need a hand. This can allow you to get some real-world experience, gain some confidence, and start getting your name out there.

A stint as an assistant is another 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.

3. Spread the word

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. Blogging is a great way to boost your site’s visibility and your brand.

You might not like social media, but it’s also an important marketing tool. For photographers, platforms like Instagram and TikTok are great for showcasing your work, building your brand, and offering behind the scenes sneak peaks for your clients.

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.

4. Dig into the detail

We’d like to tell you there’s no such thing as difficult clients. But we’d be lying. So, from the start, you need to get your head round contracts, release forms and copyright.

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?

5. Get the price right

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 might think you’re not very 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.

6. Run the figures

Keeping on top of your bookkeeping is tough, but it’s a vital part of your business. Make sure you have a strict system for invoices, receipts, and paying bills. The government’s Making Tax Digital scheme helps with this by making tax-returns a more structured process.

Read up on what you need to do and familiarise yourself with the software you’ll need to use for your business’ finances. As your business grows and you start hiring employees, you might need an accountant to help you out.

And don’t forget to add photographers' 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.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.

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