7 Signs That You Should be a Professional Photographer

The decision to move from talented amateur to professional photographer isn’t an easy one. There’s a big difference between shooting what you like, when you like it because you like it, and shooting what people tell you to shoot because you need to pay the bills.

The work can be hard, the clients difficult to find, and the commissions can leave less scope for creativity than you might want.

And then there’s the rising competition, the declining market, the falling prices and the capital outlay to consider.

And that’s before you reach the question of whether you really do have the skills and the talent to produce images that people will buy.

On the other hand, you’ll be making a living doing what you love to do in your spare time — and there’s no better job.

If you really love photography and can’t think of a better way to spend your day than taking pictures then maybe it’s a step you could consider taking.

Here are seven signs that show you should be a professional photographer:

1. You regularly sell pictures
The first photo sale is always a thrill. As a professional though, selling images happens every day so a good sign that you should be a professional photographer is that you’re doing it, you’re used to it and you know how to handle it.

Regular interest from buyers shows that you can produce images the market wants but it also shows that you know how to negotiate, can turn interest into a deal and win back satisfied buyers. It’s a good sign you can cut it.

2. You regularly win commissions
Many professional photographers start by shooting weddings and anniversaries for friends and family. Word spreads, more requests come in and people start offering money. Soon the photographer has a portfolio to show, starts asking for money — and receives it too.

If that’s happening to you, you’re just a short step from being a pro… and are being shown one more sign that you should make the jump.

3. You get a kick out of the marketing
Professional photography isn’t just about taking great commercial images. It’s also about finding buyers and bringing them in. That’s work but it can also be pleasurable too. It is possible to get a real kick out of setting yourself goals, saying that you shoot great pictures — and finding that people believe you.

4. You’re inspired by others’ images…
Sure, we all love looking at great photographs. When you’re a professional photographer, the work of other photographers isn’t just something to admire. It’s something to compete against and improve upon. That means recognizing what makes a great photograph great, understanding how the photograph was created and not being afraid to adopt some of those techniques in your own images.

If you’re accepting the challenges laid down by other photographers — and meeting them — then that’s another good sign that you could make your living from photography just like them.

5. But Add your Own Twist
Of course, anyone can copy an image; professionals have to produce something original and use the work of others to inspire them not just to take more pictures but to build up their own skills and contribute to the genre.

As a professional photographer, everything you create adds to the profession. That’s a responsibility you have to be prepared to shoulder. If you’re feeling that burden already, you’re well on the way.

6. You Understand the Technical Stuff
Making a success of professional photography means being creative with your images and smart with your marketing. But it also means getting the basics right. Professional photographers have to act professionally. They have to know how to get the lighting levels right, set exposures and create exactly the effects they want.

Hobbyists experiment; professionals get paid to produce — and they do it against the clock. You will need have a good grip of the numbers and science behind photography if you want it to pay your bills.

7. You Really, Really Want to Do it
Photography isn’t an easy way to make a living, especially at the beginning when incomes can be low, clients demanding and work hard to come by. What can get photographers through the tricky times though is the knowledge that they’re still getting paid to take pictures.

And there’s nothing better than that.

If that’s how you feel about photography, then maybe you should think about doing it all day too.

23 comments for this post.

  1. Ryan Said:

    I think it's interesting that you left out "you take good pictures." Not that I disagree with it being left out. It looks like your list could really apply to starting any business - "you look for ideas at other dry cleaners but work to make yours unique, you know how to get any stain out, you really want to start your own dry cleaning business."

  2. Azhar Said:

    I'm heading to SVA in NYC for my photo BFA, so I match some of the above, but not all, since being in school (in SCIENCE of all things) limits the amount of time you can spend on photography. That will change though.

    Good post 🙂

  3. R. Kneschke Said:

    @ Ryan,

    "taking good pictures" might been missing because in reality, it is only a fraction of your workload...

  4. Adam Nollmeyer - Phoenix Photographer Said:

    Good post!

    Along with "3. You get a kick out of the marketing" I would add.....

    You understand or are willing to LEARN business.

    I've seen many great photographers who have awesome photography, and maybe OK marketing, but they are position themselves wrong, or just aren't good at being profitable.

    @Ryan, yes taking (making) great photos is important, but I have seen some OK Photographers rocking their business and other OK photographers really struggling, because they don't get some of the other aspects.

    Also if you have an eye for composition, but suck at lighting, then you can learn lighting. Being Technical and / or a fast learner is great too, because how can you learn lighting, or anything well if you are non, technical or if a slow learner.

    ~Adam Nollmeyer
    Phoenix AZ
    AcmePhoto on flickr

  5. Ryan Said:

    R. Kneschke -
    I agree totally. I guess my point was that there are a lot of people who start up thinking "hey, I can take a good picture" and don't think about the other things that go into it.

  6. Charlie Said:

    You don't want to get rich! Here is a quote for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics "Median annual earnings of salaried photographers were $26,170 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $18,680 and $38,730. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,540, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $56,640. Median annual earnings in the industry employing the largest numbers of salaried photographers were $22,860 in the photographic services industry.

    Salaried photographers—more of whom work full time—tend to earn more than those who are self-employed. Because most freelance and portrait photographers purchase their own equipment, they incur considerable expense acquiring and maintaining cameras and accessories. Unlike news and commercial photographers, few fine arts photographers are successful enough to support themselves solely through their art."

    And the entire report can be found at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos264.htm#earnings

    Now if you really want to be a professional photographer and ready to work hard go for it. Also make sure that you become a member of the professional organizations that reflect your specialty, ie ASMP, PPA, etc.

  7. alejandra Said:

    I'm 12 years old, and I want to be a photographer when I grow up. Unfortunately, I don't have a camera because I don't have the money to buy one. I'd really like to have one, because I can take really good pictures, I'm creative, as I said my dream is to be a photographer, and sometimes when I'm walking on the street, it's like..."woah! This could be a really nice picture!". What can I do to make my dream come true? I thought this article would help me, but...I'm just 12 and I don't have a camera, so....
    Where can I buy a reaaaaaally cheap camera?
    How can I improve my skills as a photographer?

  8. Stephanie Said:

    Hey Alejandra,
    It's great to see someone so young who is interested in photography! All I can really say is save up and invest in a camera. (There are always parents who may help to) Once you have your camera practice, practice, practice! There are so many websites where you can read about photography and I recommend reading as much as you possibly can. Good luck with the camera search and good luck with the photography!
    [email protected]

  9. Rosa Said:

    Hi Alejandra
    Try out the website http://digital-photography-school.com. It is an incredible useful and interesting website where you can learn a lot about photography. Good luck.

  10. ilovephotoblogs Said:

    Great list..but I think you need to add this one to your list..."You Understand How to Run a Business"...There is a big difference between a photographer and photo studio owner! Too many photographers make the mistake of giving away (low prices) their work. Since many photogs start out working from their homes,the mistake is made of gaining market share through low prices. These prices do not include the probability of having to move into a studio along with all the associated overhead costs; lease, backup equipment, taxes (fed, city, county), insurances, etc. Starting out by selling 8x10's for $5-10 makes the transition to a full-time profession very difficult. All the work to gain those initial customers is lost once you need to dramatically increase your costs to make a living. My suggestion is to think about the long term aspects of jumping into the field of professional photography and make all your efforts pay dividends down the road.

  11. Candi Said:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who've contributed to this article and have left comments. I never thought about a career until I started posting photos on my blog. People were asking to buy my prints and hence I created my etsy shop. While the shop has only been open a couple of weeks, I've sold quite a few photos as cards outside of the internet since then. I value your tips, and look forward to what the future holds. Thanks again!

  12. Deacon Tyler Said:

    One more to add:

    "You like working with people and have good communication skills". While the dream is to take pictures of old walls and have them sell for a mint, the reality of it is that a photographer is going to end up working with people.

    No matter how good your portraits are, you have to know how to put your clients at ease and build their confidence in you. That confidence and comfort will show up in every photo you take and award an 'ok' photographer with great people skills the jobs that a 'great' photographer won't get due to ego or lack of personality.

  13. Jesse Said:

    I agree with many aspects of this article. Especially your points on marketing. Photographers, especially those self-employed, really don't think about marketing. After the expenses incurred from purchasing equipment they cannot even think about paying for marketing. I have started a blog that discusses how to market a photography business online. Feel free to check it out HERE . It is a work in progress so check back as I add articles.

  14. usa1dss Said:

    alejandra: dont know if you will see this but here goes anyway, what you may do is this if you dont have a camera and dont really have any way to get one, do the next best thing, hang with someone that does have one, they could even let you shoot a few images or something perhaps? thing is you may even learn a few things from them also? good luck with your photography!

  15. Banderas Said:

    How does one begin to market their stock photography and photo services? (door to door??, cold calls?,) having a merchant website is one thing but how to you begin to develope clientel?

  16. Stephanie Said:

    I didn't like this list. Sure these are good examples for ways to sell photographs, but I think to be considered a professional you need to have the gift of taking something plain and turning it into beauty. A good photographer needs to love the thrill of being behind a camera. I want to be a photographer but I do not really care for the money that comes from it. All I want is for people to see my work and learn something from it or truly appreciate it. Just because you can go to school and get paid for your photography does NOT make you a professional. "Technically" it does but to be a true photographer it has to come from the heart.

  17. Denver Engagement Photographer Said:

    I think another important aspect besides the technical shooting, is knowing how to market yourself, and being equiped to do it. Now I know that most photogs aren't computer engineers but building an innovative, and attention grabbing website is key. If you can't figure out SEO enough to get into top 10s for the type of photography you want to get into, then you're going to have a very hard time starting out. Clients are looking to the internet more, and more, and expect to find the right photographer on the front page of search engines like google. I would suggest learning how to market yourself before you take the plunge. If someone finds 30 other photogs before they find you, chances are you have missed the sale.

  18. kamor4 Said:

    I thing the questioned asked by the 12 yr old interested in photography was not answered very well.
    How to improve as a photographer with out a camera.
    1. Go to the local library and check out there selection of photo books. and read and study them.
    2. Look at images where ever you can find them and figure out why they work. Color, compisition, contrast, relationship between elements.
    3. Look for family or friends that have a camera or some experience.
    4.Is there a community center, a club at school a local photography club that might help you.
    5. At school, community center, library can you start learning some type of photo editing program (photoshop etc.)
    6. The internet has more information on photography, photographs, displaying, printing, editing than anyone can possible look at.
    7. Is there a program in your area (possible boys and girls clubs that might be able to find you a mentor that could help you reach your goals
    8. use the internet to go to as many photography studio website to continue looking at good images.
    I hope this helps.

  19. [email protected] Said:

    I think in retrospect it appears that there are more than 7 factors that would lead one to believe that he/she should become a successful professional photographer. Of course success means different things to different people and success in one market may not translate into success in a different market. I.E. You might be the best, most successful pro photographer in Laramie, Wyoming but in New York or LA or Miami, you wouldn’t even show on the radar. For some people success means that people like to look at your work whether or not they buy it. For others success is thought of in terms of financial rewards.

    The word "professional" seems to mean different things to different people. For some, it means you sell some of your work or that someone pays you to take pictures for them. For others it means that you earn more than 50% of your income from photography. For others it means you earn 100% of your income from photography.
    What would you rather be?
    A great photographer with no marketing skills = much great praise - little income
    An average photographer with awesome marketing skills= some praise- decent income
    An average photographer with average marketing skills= average praise - average income
    Great photographer with great marketing skills= much praise- above average income

    Specialization is another thing to consider. Some great nature photographers wouldn't be successful shooting weddings. Some great fashion photographers wouldn't cut it as a photo journalist. Some architectural photographers wouldn't make it as a sports photographer. And so on. In some markets, being a generalist would work just fine. In other markets you might need to specialize in order to stand out from the pack.

    The internet is a good marketing tool; I use it. I am on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube; there are hundreds or thousands of pages with my name or my studios name or samples of my work. (http://preview.tinyurl.com/PetPhotoLinks).About 10 years ago I decided to specialize in a small niche market, pet photography. Over time, I built a photography business that supports several employees across several states with almost no advertising. I have been relying on a great product, great customer service, great marketing, great communication skills and a GREAT attitude. As it turns out, pet photography in the US and even abroad has become one of the fastest growing segments of the photo industry.

    As I like to say "good things come to those that wait: great things come to those that go and make it happen".

    As much as I have come to use the power of the free internet marketing, I still believe that word of mouth will still drive more customers who are willing to spend more money. Repeat customers are one of the best marketing tools...your personal army of publicists. GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE SKILLS are key to any successful business but especially photography because a photographer will interact with every customer and potential customer.

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that becoming a successful professional photographer is far more involved than finding 7.

    Laurie has written a good article, I don't disagree with what she wrote but I think it is misnamed. Maybe a more appropriate name might be "7 of the 25 signs that you should be a professional photographer".

    I have been working full time as a professional photographer for 30 years very successfully. According to the information provided in a previous comment post by Charlie, my financial success as a photographer outs me in the top 5%.

    For the young person Alejandra, I some others made some good suggestions. ...DO ALL OF THEM! Make sure all your relatives know you would like a camera. Perhaps a few of them can join together to buy you a camera for your birthday or other holiday. Try Craig’s List to ask for a cheap or even free camera. (What state or country are you in?). Offer to volunteer to help in a camera store or photo studio as an intern. Start to read everything you can about photography.
    Keep chasing your dream and you will catch it.


  20. zach mathews Said:

    hello my name is zach mathews and im 18 years old iv been looking for any sign for me to go into photography but i have not know what has really been a sign but what u have said in this list everything is me i have looked into selling stock photography sold a few i have been hired as a photography 5 times in the last month and i just really love photography so thanks for all your input

  21. Renee Said:

    Well, Im 11 and I really want to become a Photogragher when I grow up. I have a camera, and but I'm saving up for a nicer one. I am very creative, and I take pictures alot. I have a Deviantart account, so thats a start and people really like my photos! <3

  22. Michael McGrath Said:

    Alejandre , there are disposable cameras for five dollars in your local stores downtown .
    Now don't tell me you can't get five dollars, even doing odd jobs ???
    A pro could take a better photo with a throwaway than someone else with a Nikon D3X .

    It took me six months working for no wages every week to pay back my employer for my cameras and gear , that's how I started out back in '69 here in Kilkenny , Ireland !

    So , Alejandre, as a Pro I am not listening to you , OK , you know what to do , having been given excellent advice here .

    Best Regards,
    Michael .

  23. Paul 'Spike' Reddington Said:

    Well, Alejandra the camera-less 12 year old photography enthusiast is now almost 15 and times have moved on. Wonder if she ever got her camera? All mobile phones (cellphones) come with fairly decent cameras now, some really quite good.

    No-one mentioned eBay - there's some bargains to be had there if you don't want the latest digital camera and film ones can be had for next to nothing. I have an old Canon 300 with a lens that I'd happily sell cheaply to a budding photographer to get them started.

    So there's no excuse if you want to get going with your photography - it's cheaper now than it's ever been.

    Nottingham, England

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