Making your first sale is a big step. The second, third and fourth sales feel much easier and once they’re coming in regularly, you can soon find yourself wondering whether you shouldn’t be selling images for a living.
Surely it would just be a matter of stepping up the pace and producing more photos. In no time at all, you’d be able to swap the day job for full days of photography.
Not quite. There are a number of important differences between professional photographers and even semi-pro shooters.
You Have to Get the Job Done.
One of the most important is the commitment. Hobbyists and semi-pros shoot primarily for fun. That means if the weather’s bad, the kids are sick or there’s a big game on the telly, they can leave the camera in the garage and shoot another time.
Professionals don’t get to pick and choose the times they want to take pictures. Whatever the conditions, they have to take the shots and come back with a pile of images that the client can actually use.
“A pro photographer learns how to flip their switches and bring the heat to any assignment,” says Ron Houser, a semi-pro who applied his professional programming skills to creating FlickrLeech. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the white sky of death outside, if you are hired to nail the shot, then you just have to nail the shot. No excuses.”
You Spend Time Marketing
Shooting when you don’t feel like it might not be fun but in fact only a small percentage of a professional photographer’s time is spent behind the camera. Most of it is spent dealing with the logistics of a shoot, talking to clients and models, and yes, marketing too. Selling in particular requires a whole different set of skills and one that even many professionals find they lack.
In fact, it’s possible that amateur photographers with a good head for marketing can find moving prints easier than many professionals do. Brandy, a hobbyist who goes by the name “The Way You Look At Me” on Flickr spent time networking on Etsy.com to sell her first prints. She has since sold more than 80 photos by persuading café owners to display them on their walls.
That sort of marketing requires a dynamic personality and a skin thick enough to handle frequent rejection but marketing can be technical too. Josh McCulloch, a professional outdoor photographer, has invested in his website to supplement his word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s a strategy that requires either a certain amount of Web skills or the willingness to pay someone to do it for you. The result though is that if you put ‘BC Stock Photos’ or ‘Commercial Outdoor Photographer’ into Google Josh turns up in second and first place respectively – and he gets to sell his postcards and stock licenses.
You Count your Expenses
Marketing is an investment. But when hobbyists spend money on photography, they don’t expect to see that money back. It’s not an investment any more than a trip to the cinema or dinner in a fancy restaurant. The most important return is the pleasure of creating a good image. If that image happens to sell, that money is a bonus.
Professional photographers though do have to count the cost of their equipment – and that includes the use of their car to reach a shoot, their time on location, the software they need to edit the pictures, the hard drives they use to store and back up their images, and just about anything else that goes into creating commercial photos. Fail to take their real expenses into account, and they won’t be in business for long.
Of course, when you do have to factor in those costs, prices go up and sales become harder to win. And it’s something that every professional photographer has to contend with.
Yuri Arcurs, a leading microstock photographer based in Denmark, says that he spends between $10,000 and $11,000 a month on staff salaries alone.
“I try to reduce the expenses that I have, but since this is Scandinavia and people in Scandinavia really don’t want to do work for less than $20 an hour, it’s not easy to keep the expenses down,” he told us.
You Pay the Mortgage (and the Taxes too)
The biggest difference between professional photographers and those who hold down other jobs though is the knowledge that it’s your pictures that will pay the mortgage. As soon as your camera has to carry that burden, picking it up starts to feel very different.
When you have to take pictures every day rather than when you choose to do so, when you have to count every penny you spend on your photography rather than simply enjoying the purchase, when you know that a large chunk of your efforts will go to the Inland Revenue, and when you have to do all sorts of dull things to support your business and keep it afloat, photography can stop being fun.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the world’s top photographers such as Sacha Dean Biyan – a former engineer — have made the switch to professional photography without looking back.
It helps though to know where you’re heading first.