Not everyone really wants to be a professional photographer. But just about everyone who picks up a camera dreams about it. That dream is more likely to involve being sent by National Geographic to hang out of a helicopter over the Serengeti or running around the Congo for Time shooting images that will move the world to end a war than lining up a wedding party for the formals. Whatever the dream, fantasy seems to come free with every first purchase of a DSLR.
For some enthusiasts though, making the leap from amateur to professional is more than a dream. It’s a career goal, and one that they do realistically hope to achieve.
Few do achieve it, and having tried, many are happy when they decide not to. The life of a professional photographer isn’t always an easy one. Competition is fierce and pay, especially for new professionals, is painfully low. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual earnings for a photographer in 2007 was just $34,010.
If that’s a salary you’re prepared to accept — at least to begin with — and if you’re prepared to put in the work necessary to become a professional then taking the leap from amateur photography isn’t impossible. If professional photography really is your goal, here are four steps you must take to get there faster.
1. Practice, Practice and Practice Some More
Every enthusiast takes some fantastic pictures sometimes. But every enthusiast also has room for improvement. That improvement only comes with practice, from talking to other photographers – even on Flickr — about why their images aren’t perfect and setting up new challenges that stretch their skills.
That’s harder than it sounds. When you shoot one great picture, it’s tempting to feel that you really do have all the talent and skills that you need to succeed. All of the images that didn’t work were just bad luck.
Professional photographers though can’t pass poor images off to bad luck, rotten weather or an uncooperative model. When the client is paying for the product, the photographer has to be able to deliver that product every time.
The first step to becoming a professional photographer then is to make sure that you can, in fact, shoot like one.
2. Build Clients
Many wedding photographers find themselves slipping into the business after first shooting events for friends and families. Word spreads, favors are asked, commissions come in and soon you’re filling your weeknights with weddings and your weekends with engagement parties and baptisms.
That’s the right way to start.
Before you tell your boss that you’re hanging up your suit and buying a vest with lots of pockets, you should be as certain as possible that you will have at least some money coming in.
And you can start doing that while still holding down the day job. Grace Chon might be a successful pet photographer with a magazine cover to her name, who takes bookings months in advance and charges up to $2,200 for a shoot, but she still has a first job with an advertising company.
Once you’ve got the skills you need to be a professional photographer, the next step is to start adding the clients.
3. Add Revenue Streams
These days though, having just one group of clients just isn’t going to be enough. Photographers who were dependent on their stock portfolios for their main source of income have seen their revenues plummet in the last few years as microstock began offering low-cost competition.
To succeed, professional photographers need to have multiple revenue streams that might range from event photography to stock photography, and from postcards to prints.
Again, this is something that can be started while still heading into the office every day. Start submitting to microstock sites on a regular basis, for example, and you could find that you’re generating a four-figure sum that’s only restricted by the time you have available. Coupled with a weekly or monthly wedding and some regular portraits with a company like LookBetterOnline.com, and you’d start to have the basis of a professional photography business.
4. Check the Figures
And the last step you need to take is probably the least exciting. You have to do the math – and do it properly.
When you’re shooting for fun, expenses aren’t really expenses and costs aren’t really costs. You were going to buy the lens anyway and time spent on post-production was fun, not working hours, so it doesn’t really count.
As a professional, all of these things count. If you have to spend hours fixing images whose light levels weren’t right, that’s going to lower your hourly rate and prevent you taking on more work. If you need to buy backgrounds and lighting equipment, those are costs that will come out of your profits. If you have to drive for three hours to reach a shoot, those are three hours you’re not earning and they need to be accounted for.
Before you take that last step and become a professional photographer, you need to be certain that you’ll have enough money coming in to pay your way – and you have to know how to count that money too.
Every year, thousands of camera-loving enthusiasts try their luck at professional photography. Many of them succeed and go on to have a career that’s rewarding and fulfilling. Whether that will happen to you too – if you want it to – will depend to a large extent on the preparations you make before you step up.