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.
This is the list of things one must do to be a professional photographer.
- Identifying your market – who is going to pay you to take pictures and why?
- Prospecting – getting out of your house and finding those clients.
- Selling – convincing other people to give you money for your services
- Delivering – making sure your client gets what they paid for.
- Billing – collect your cheddar.
- Marketing – everyone and their dog should know who you are.
- Writing – most photographers spend more time writing emails than shooting.
- Sitting in front of a computer – for more hours than you can imagine.
- Budgeting – what happens when next month is slow?
- Planning – where will your company be in 5 years?
- Taxes – running a business means you are in charge of your own taxes.
- Legal services – keeping yourself from getting sued through well drafted contracts.
- 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.
Here is the list of things most photographers actually like to do.
- Shooting – taking the photos they want to take, how they want, when and where they want.
- 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.
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!
We have compiled a great list of books to help you out with photography and business, check them out here.