From Amateur Photographer to Professional Photographer in 4 Easy Steps

Photography: jpmatth

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, 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.

20 comments for this post.

  1. bygbaby Said:

    Great article! And I am happy to know that I am not the only one who has fantasies of being in exotic locations doing dangerous things for the love of photography.

    Your number one really spoke to me because I am constantly challenging myself to do better & work harder. Practicing & learning from my mistakes has really helped me develop.


  2. HDex Said:

    Nice and to the point. It is fun dipping your feet into the industry, but while I am learning, you couldn't be more right. Stick with the day job and continue to improve your craft while building depth and breadth of the client list.

  3. genaro Said:

    Nice post.Lately, more than ever, I have wanted to venture into professional photography. Your posts have always been a great resource for me to consider on this trip to making money from my hobby.

  4. Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images Said:

    I am a professional photographer, and I'll say only two things to support this post.

    First, Be Professional. That mean how you show your work, how you communicate with people, how you handle invoices and billings. It also means keeping your commitments, and if you make a mistake, own up to it and correct it.

    Second, value your work, and value your time. If you don't value it, no one else will. Don't worry about trying to be the cheapest on the block, or giving stuff away for free all the time. If people like and want your work, be confident enough to ask for real money that you can take to the bank. Credit lines in magazines and on web sites don't pay for food, gas, or the electric bill.

  5. Hameem Said:

    hi there

    thanks for sharing the points with us. really helpful.

  6. seattle wedding photographer Said:

    This is one of the most truthful and realistic blogs out there. I would like to second what Gary Crab says about value you time and work. that is almost always the first mistake people make when they start to do photography for money. they undervalue themselves and wind up bring the whole field down too.

  7. Mike Said:

    Since you mentioned National Geographic, I'll add something. Historically, all of their photographers are university educated photojournalists, with years of award winning newspaper photography under their belts. The likelihood of working for them without some form of higher education is slim to none, and this is direct from their photo department (their website gives lots of info). If they didn't study photojournalism, they studied Biology, or Sociology, etc. Many have Master's degrees in their discipline. The reason for this, I was told, is because people who can commit to higher education are also more likely to have the discipline necessary to commit to a long term project (several weeks to sometimes months) and the ability to stay focused (no pun intended). Many people have this dream that the National Geographic photo department is going to cruies by their flickr site one day and offer them a job, giving them and endless budget, plane tickets, and a feature article. It ain't going to happen. One photographer I spoke with said it's actually easier to find work as an actor or musician than a photographer for National Geographic.

  8. Erick @ DSLRBlog Photo Business Blog Said:

    Alex, this is great post. My only thought is that "Step 2: Build Clients" is often the most difficult (seemingly insurmountable) for most would-be professionals. It's less like a step and more like a long, grueling process comprised of dozens or hundreds of steps. Getting clients is kind of like getting credit - if you don't have them, you can't get them; if you've got a lot, they're easy to get :).

    We recently posted a similar post on DSLRBlog,
    9 Steps to Start (or Jumpstart) Your Photography Business. In my view, it's the finding of clients and making of sales that ultimately makes an enthusiast into a professional.

  9. Rahul Pathak Said:

    Great post sir. I think #3 about diversifying revenue streams applies at all levels of the market, not just for photographers who are starting their journeys.

  10. Jason Grubb Said:

    Great post! -Build Clients: My 2 Cents... you build clients by building relationships with referral sources.

  11. cathy nelson Said:

    I have done this and it took a lot of grunge work making dupe slides and typing labels before computers were invented. I had hundreds of pictures in New Mexico Magazine just because I got off my couch and traveled all over the state shooting. I got one assignment from the NY Times, one from the Dallas paper and one from the Denver paper. I had the same shot (Taos Pueblo Woman) in a book published three times overseas by National Geograpic. Dreams come true, you just have to START! What are you afraid of? JUST START. Digital cameras and websites/email make it a million times easier than it was in 1986. JUST START. Take the first step of the marathon. It is fun to be successful.

  12. cathy nelson Said:

    National Geographic, sorry. Always proof your own stuff, haha.

  13. cathy nelson Said:

    In case destiny brings anyone to this thread, I only made $100 shooting to sell in 1986 and it was for four cat pictures in Cats Magazine, which does not exist anymore. But all my expenses were tax-deductible in 1986 and still are to the present time. START!

  14. Denver Photographer Said:

    I think moving into "professional photography" takes a lot more than preparation. Of course you need that too, but I think few photographers realize how much they are going to have to "sell out" and create images that appeal to the larger audience. That's something I think everyone who wants to get into pro photography should be ready for as well.

  15. Eric P. Martin Said:

    I've decided to take the plunge to being an amateur to professional. I came across your blog post doing my research on the subject. My question is, does uploading your pictures to Flickr really have any benefit other than getting feedback?

  16. Life with Kaishon Said:

    Really, really great post. Thanks for this wisdom!

  17. Paul Said:

    Hmm. Outright disappointed with this post, way too general.

    Let's see:
    1. Practise? Yes, whatever you aim to work with professionally, you'll need to practise.

    2. Clients. Yes, you need to network with peers to be successful. Who wants to be a professional photographer with no contact with other photographers, no feedback on their portfolio, no means of access into new publications via contacts/clients...?

    3. Diversify. Adding more revenue streams. Okay, this I agree with. More to the point. More info could be added though..

    4. Checking figures. Budget. Well yes, I'd never try a profession or venture with having calculated possible income and expenses.

    I usually really enjoy your posts here! This one however, not so much. 🙂

  18. Paul Said:

    Correction, #4:
    "I'd never try a profession or venture WITHOUT having calculated possible income and expenses."

  19. pogomcl Said:

    why bother with microstock when you can do editorially controlled RM/RF stock at a reputable agency that will give you much greater respect. Sure it's probably harder, but when you see your work in a very tightly controlled collection, it makes you smile and offers good reference point.

  20. Andrew Said:

    Nice article and incredibly supportive and constructive if this is what you are trying to do. What needs to be emphasised is how long it takes to get a strong client base and the incredible value that they can offer in terms of referral and repeat business

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