Making the Switch – Becoming a Professional Photographer

Photography: JR Geoffrion

It might not be everyone’s goal but just about anyone who has ever sold an image will have considered it at least briefly. Once you discover that your camera can be a cash machine, the thought of trading in the nine-to-five for days of professional shooting is never far behind.

After all, you’d be getting paid to do something that you currently do for pleasure.

But there’s a big difference, of course, between photographing for fun — and enjoying the odd income from it — and relying on your camera to pay the mortgage and feed the family. Starting any new business is hard, demands some very specific knowledge and often includes an expensive on-the-job education. That’s especially true of professional photography which now has plenty of tempting roads leading in but is harder than ever to stay in full-time.

Only 10 Percent of your Time is Spent Behind the Camera
JR Geoffrion, for example, became a professional photographer after completing an MBA and spending several years in management consultancy. As an engineering student at the University of Toronto, he had been the photographer for the athletic center, shooting sports events, summer camps and even weddings. When his first child was born he drew on that experience to swap a life of constant travel for a job that gave him more time with his family.

“[I]t was the perfect job for someone that takes care of kids during the weekdays as the weddings are on week-ends,” he told us. “[T]hat was all the push I needed to start.”

That was in 2001, a time when digital photography was far less developed than it is today. There was little information and few resources to help him create his wedding photography business, JR says, and what he could find was often inaccurate.

His background helped. As an engineer, JR was able to master the technical aspects of digital photography and his business degree enabled him to think about the bottom line as much as the images — an important consideration once he discovered that photography accounted for less than 10 percent of his time as a professional photographer.

The biggest challenge JR found though wasn’t the little time he had to spend behind the camera but the speed with which the environment seemed to change. Not only is the technology constantly improving but so is the number and skill levels of competitors, forcing JR to continuously re-invent his business.

“It’s… a very dynamic market with many new entrants due to the decreasing cost of digital camera (and increasing quality),” he warned. “It’s a changing world.”

Everyone Thinks They’re a Photographer
That’s an observation with which Tovis Bratsburg is likely to agree. A former website designer, a job which sometimes included occasional product shots, Tovis took up professional photography after creating sites for other photographers. The design work gave him a network of experienced professionals he could contact for advice and inspiration, and what he saw on their sites introduced him to the business and post-production aspects of photography.

Photography: Tovis Bratsburg

Perhaps most importantly though, as a Web designer Tovis had a headstart in online marketing. Like JR, Tovis relies on both word-of-mouth and his website to show off his portfolio and win sales. His site has a Google page rank of 3, he says, and is at the top of most search engines. He has also combined recommendations with the Web’s affiliate model, paying clients and friends 10 percent of a job’s fee for referrals to new customers.

It was only when Tovis started shooting professionally though, that he realized just how competitive the industry had become.

“What surprised me the most was the fact that these days everybody claims to be a photographer,” he says.

Not everyone has the skills to be a professional photographer though, and over time, Tovis became more discerning, noticing flaws in images that he had once found impressive.

“I became pickier and noticed things like aesthetics, color, tone quality, and elements of design,” he told us. “The photos I thought were awesome suddenly had horrible shadows, unacceptable color, and poor composition.”

That sounds like the growth of a professional photographer’s eye and to develop it even further, Tovis went back to school to add a college degree to his experience. He also kept his feet on the ground by holding onto a second job as a printer, work he says that he also loves.

Despite the challenges, neither JR nor Tovis say they have any regrets about their decision to choose a career in photography. For Tovis, it’s a path to becoming not just a photographer but a photography teacher too one day; for JR it’s way of working with great clients, enjoying photography and being with his children instead of on the road.

“This morning, my youngest, Pierre-Andre, said: ‘Hold you tight’ and gave me a huge hug. When we returned from school at lunch time, my oldest, Jacques-Charles, held my hand while walking home, and my little girl, Natalie-Soleil gave me the cutest wink you can imagine and sat on my lap at my computer. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

3 comments for this post.

  1. zulfadhli Said:

    yup, that's right. photography is one of the jobs that looks like a part time job but with a full time income. i have friends in my college doing part time wedding photography and they are making good money with it.

  2. Steve Said:

    "Not everyone has the skills to be a professional photographer though, and over time, Tovis became more discerning, noticing flaws in images that he had once found impressive." This statement is complete nonsense. Unless you're shooting commercially, most of your clients are not as critical of your images as you are. Becoming a successful pro does require skill but skills that anyone can learn and develop over time. The biggest key to the business is effective marketing.

  3. James Said:

    I am just starting out with my own buisness after working in the industry for 7 years (Digital Retoucher, Studio Manager and Production Manager)I am finding that the advertising side at least for now is the most important step in the process.

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