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Nov 13, 2012

Should You Be A Professional Photographer?

There are many articles out there on how to become a professional photographer, this is not a how to guide. Becoming a professional photographer isn’t really that hard as long as you do list one (see below).  I am sure you could become a professional photographer if you wanted to, but the more important question is should you become one?

The Difference Between Could and Should

There is a big difference between enjoying photography and creating a photography business.  My mom loves baking pies, but the idea that she should open up a bakery and start selling them is ridiculous. Not saying that she would fail, but there is so much more to opening a business than producing a product. She would undoubtedly get caught up in doing all the things she doesn’t like and at the end of the day she would probably come to hate baking pies as well.

The truth of the matter is that just because you enjoy taking pictures does not mean that you will enjoy being a professional photographer. There is a lot more to the job than taking pictures, and that is what I want to outline here.  I have met so many young people who are sure they want to become professional photographers, but when they get a taste of what it really involves, they want out.

Let’s define what it means to be a professional photographer—you earn the majority of your income through taking pictures. This has nothing to do with skill level. You can most definitely become a wonderful photographer, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay the billz with your skillz.

To become a professional photographer for the most part means starting your own business. That is not the only way, but it is common and it is what we are talking about in this article.

List One

This is the list of things one must do to be a professional photographer.

  1. Identifying your market – who is going to pay you to take pictures and why?
  2. Prospecting – getting out of your house and finding those clients.
  3. Selling – convincing other people to give you money for your services
  4. Delivering – making sure your client gets what they paid for.
  5. Billing – collect your cheddar.
  6. Marketing – everyone and their dog should know who you are.
  7. Writing – most photographers spend more time writing emails than shooting.
  8. Sitting in front of a computer – for more hours than you can imagine.
  9. Budgeting – what happens when next month is slow?
  10. Planning – where will your company be in 5 years?
  11. Taxes – running a business means you are in charge of your own taxes.
  12. Legal services – keeping yourself from getting sued through well drafted contracts.
  13. Negotiating loans – if you have a studio, you will need to know what you are doing here.

If you read the top list and thought to yourself “Man that looks great, let’s get started!” you are going to enjoy being a professional photographer.

Think of a company like Coca-Cola. They have entire departments dedicated to doing each of these tasks. You do not. You have yourself. If all that looks horrible to you, you may want to think twice about running a photography business.

Can you become rich and famous and have a wildly successful photography business? Yes you can, but it will be a result of doing list one not list two.

List Two

Here is the list of things most photographers actually like to do.

  1. Shooting – taking the photos they want to take, how they want, when and where they want.
  2. Collecting gear – must have the new Canon 2D with a 85 1.0 USM L IS II (no these don’t exist but if they did you would want them.)

These things are part of the job for sure, but they are just a small percentage of what you will be doing.  If you are only interested in these things I don’t think you should become a professional photographer. It will be very hard to make it if you ignore list one.

Some of you are going to read this and say “My god, he’s right, I don’t want to become a professional photographer. I don’t want to run a business based on my hobby, I just want to take pictures because I enjoy doing so.”

What do you do if it turns out that you shouldn’t become a professional photographer? Nothing. Stay at your day job. Stay in school. Could you have become a professional photographer? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that you would enjoy it.

Most important of all continue shooting and loving photography. You have a new freedom that says all you have to ever get out of it is enjoyment. You will never be forced to pick up your camera to make rent. That is a great feeling, soak it up.

I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life.
-André Kertész

The Gray Area

I fall in the gray area, and I am guessing a lot of you will as well.

When I got my start I was only list two, I wanted nothing to do with list one. The idea of prospecting and negotiating loans sounded horrible to me. With time I had to do more of what was on list one to make it, then I realized that it wasn’t that bad. I love photography because I love solving creative problems. You can see business in the same way and it becomes a lot more fun.

If you are like me and not a natural “business guy”, you are like most photographers. Guess what, you can use that weakness to your advantage.

Want to get a huge leg up on all of your competition? Start day one of being a professional photographer embracing list one. You are going to have to do it anyway, might as well enjoy it. While all of your competition is avoiding these tasks you will be zooming by them with a big smile on your face. Photographers are for the most part completely disorganized and scatterbrained, all you have to do is beat the rest of them.

You don’t have the be the fastest runner in the world to survive a lion attack, you just have to be faster than the guy next to you.

What Type of Photographer Should You Become?

After we have decided whether or not you should become a professional photographer, you will need to choose a more specific path. Some people are going to be well suited at one type of photography and horrible at others.

I will use myself as an example. I would make the world’s worst documentary photographer. This is because of one simple fact–I don’t like taking pictures of people without their permission. I want my subjects to be just as into the photo shoot as I am. I also love to deal with the intricacies of human emotion, so being a product photographer wasn’t an option for me. I love my shoots to be well planned so weddings don’t fit with that model. Now I know that sounds like I am being very picky, but I would encourage you to be picky as well.

I know what type of photography I enjoy doing, and I don’t shoot anything else. That is the only way to stay in love with photography for a long period of time.

Look inside yourself and figure out what you love to do, and do just that. Just don’t ignore all of the other stuff that comes along with the job. At the very least, hire other people to do it for you!

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16 Comments


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    Amelia Allen

    I have to say that list article is pretty accurate. I’m taking my first business courses along my photo ones this semester, and I can’t be more excited. That said, I do feel like alot of people don’t understand that its more than shooting. (As much as I love it.0

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    Robert Houseman

    This is an amazing article. I am currently a Fine arts student in Charlotte, NC and just last year decided “the heck with med school, I’m taking amazing pictures from now on!” and haven’t looked back since… well except for the parts where finding a job in the future will be near impossible compared to other education routes.

    Lately I have found myself moving more and more towards starting my own business and doing “my own thing”. Thats where this article has really helped.

    This whole company, and as a result, community has helped me so much! I used to only use lightroom and before that ,IPhoto, Blegh and dreaded having to entertain the idea of opening up photoshop and using it. Mainly because I always got so overwhelmed by all the things I knew I do to an image but not knowing the first thing about getting started. Not I have no problem throwing an image into photoshop and letting my imagination run wild. In the event I find myself baffled or frustrated with not being able to figure something out I immediately turn to Aaron Nace and his AMAZING tutorials on photoshop to help me make my vision come true!

    Thank You so much Aaron and everyone on the Phlearn team!

    P.S. I would love to intern with you guys!

    Robert Houseman

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    Kevin Geary

    I just found Phlearn through the F-Network show. I’m addicted already. And this article intrigued me because I literally just started my journey to doing photography full time and leaving my day job. I’m blogging every step of the process and progress at http://prophotodiary.com in order to hold myself accountable.

    Fortunately, I’m not afraid of the first list. The second is way more fun, but the first list doesn’t scare me. Hopefully that’s a good sign!

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    GaryDChapman

    Great article.
    I don’t work professionally as a photographer but my long term goal is to do so. Like you the only work I want to do professionly is the genre I love to do. I have no interest in weddings, or landscapes or documentary.
    I have however started to do family/child portraits on the side of my full time job, it’s totally uninspiring but there is plenty of work out there and the extra money is nice. I just really don’t want to be known as that local guy who’s not bad at photography but his works dated because he’s only ever done the same old white background stuff.
    My partner and I already have 1 business, she’s a self employed beauty theropist so we know all the crappy stuff you have to deal with to have the freedom to do what you love on your own terms. But as you say, it’s not for everyone. At least if she was employed the rent would be guarenteed to be payed every month! Fortunatley shes very talented and made a success of it, hopefully one day I can do the same!

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    Danny Fitz

    “be prepared to site in front of a computer for more hours than you could imagine” how very true! (having just spent the last 38 out of 48 hours sitting in front of mine)

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    Braxton Klavins

    This article can go with anything, list one is a list for anybody trying to run their own business in anything.
    Hard work pays the bills, and hard work is done best by doing what you love and everything that comes with it. Sure you will not love EVERYTHING (taxes) but you have to decide if IT is worth it. Is all this time you are putting in to support your business contributing to how happy you are? If now, find something else, because when people are not happy, performance is bad, and when performance is bad, everything is just DOWNHILL.

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    Eddie Sebastian

    Great article… I feel that , Fear of failure, plays a major part in the decisions of becoming a professional photographer.

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    Serge Neri

    I love this article because it’s so right on man! The internet has done a great job at making better photographers but not good business men/ women. There’s shoot and burners putting all they learned from phlearn and strobist into a $500 wedding package. It’s great and inspiring to see people like Chase Jarvis or Vincent Laforet going out there, doing good work and getting paid. However those people are rock stars and not really a great avenue for putting a business plan together. I think articles like this are what’s going to bring balance to this industry and turning those shoot and burners into successful business owners.
    BTW I wrote this comment while taking a break from working on my business plan over at the SBA website. Thanks for the much needed break!

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    Ryan Cooper

    I think a few things to keep in mind are:

    A) In order to be a pro photographer you technically don’t need own your own business.

    Sure a lot of the industry is filled with photographers running their own business but if you just want to shoot for a living there are companies out there that hire staff photographers. While your earning potential will likely be lower your hours will be more reasonable and you will be being paid just to shoot. (Although your creative freedom will also be severely limited)

    B) The first list applies to nearly all businesses. No matter what career you choose, 80-90% of your time is going to be doing something that you likely do not necessarily enjoy. This is not something that is respective to just Photographers. For example, by day I am a web developer that works at a digital agency. There are maybe 1, perhaps 2 projects per YEAR that interest me and that I enjoy. The rest are the same set of menial tasks over and over that I loathe. The key is to REALLY enjoy that other 10-20% so that it makes the tedium worthwhile. (Which is why I am making a move towards photography)

    C) Success in the Photo business, like any other business is more tied to your skill at business than at the given field’s skill. The photographers with the most extreme talent generally aren’t the ones getting rich. The effort and skill required to run a successful business pretty much guarantees you will not have enough time to keep up with those who focus solely on their skill. While there are always exceptions to every rule there is a reason why legendarily talented photographers like Joe McNally are living a comfortable, but middle class, lifestyle while guys like Scott Bourne have a fleet of sports cars. Is Scott a proficient Photographer? Absolutely, though, Joe shoots circles around him. But Scott is an amazing business man so riches come to him.

    This is true of almost every career there is, if you have business skill you succeed. It is annoying that a very specific set of skills determine success in any field but it is a reality that we face. It is no coincidence that Mick Jagger graduated at the top of his class from the London School of Economics.

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      Nick Bedford

      Some great points, Ryan.

      If you ask Joe McNally, he’ll tell you that he’s just a generalist. He can take something and shoot it and produce something decent, but will admit that he wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of a particular genre. Great respect for him and I’ve learnt a heap from watching him photograph. He’s simply proficient at photographing.

      Being a generalist is one way of tackling the business side of things, though you also want to be and be able to be generalist too, I suppose :)

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    Moe Pike

    Both my dad and my older brother are photographers so I have been influenced by photography a lot. And at one time, I thought about becoming a photographer but instead I became a digital artist. I still work in photography field a lot though. It’s really fascinating how photography works!

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    Oliver Asis

    Great article Aaron! Becoming a photographer in general wasn’t an easy task. Like yourself I fall into the grey area. But I have found that figuring out what I like to do and doing them well has help. I have also gained a great respect for working photographers, like yourself, for the amount of work that they do. The road to becoming a professional is not easy but one that if you put your time and effort into it, it can be accomplished. Thank you for sharing this post and your perspective on this sometimes much talked about and debated topic. Keep up the great work. I appreciate everything you and the crew do for all photographers! :)