Photography: Jofre Ferrer
Not everyone who picks up a camera and enjoys taking pictures wants to be a professional photographer. Many are happy with their day jobs and like the fact that they can spend the weekends shooting whatever they want. Unlike a professional, they don’t have to think about satisfying a client or pleasing a buyer, and they don’t have to be concerned about deadlines and commissions. If they were being paid for their photography, they might enjoy it less.
But almost every enthusiast has thought about getting paid to do what they currently pay to do at some time or another, especially when they feel they have as much talent, skills and techniques as the pros. Ability and camera skills though aren’t enough. You’re not ready to become a professional until you also have these elements of professional knowledge figured out:
1. You Know the Legal Stuff
Every industry has its own legal requirements. Doctors have to know what they can and can’t prescribe before they dole out the painkillers. Café owners have to understand employment law before they hire baristas. Even contractors need to understand what to do with piles of rubble and what might happen to them if they leave wiring exposed. So photographers too have to know when they need model releases, what permission they need to request from property owners, and what copyright law means for them — and for their clients.
It’s not terribly complicated, and it’s the kind of knowledge that’s often picked up as enthusiasts start selling images and bringing in income. But it’s also worth picking up a book and keeping a copy close so that you always know how the law protects photographers — and what it demands from them.
2. You Understand Licensing and Pricing
More complex, much harder to grasp and with no definitive correct answers are the issues surrounding licensing and pricing. Begin selling images and you’ll quickly become aware of the difference between Rights Managed images that are priced according to what the publisher intends to do with the pictures, and Royalty-Free images that allow the buyer to do anything he or she wants with the image (short of re-selling it) any number of times. While even a professional stock photographer won’t be able to recount every possible combination of uses to which a Rights-Managed image might be put, let alone price them (there’s software for that), they will have a broad idea of how usage affects pricing.
More importantly, they’ll also know when a photograph should be offered on a Rights-Managed basis and when it’s better to sell it Royalty-Free. That’s not something you’re going to find in a photographer’s handbook. It comes with experience and with a feel for the kinds of general, flexible images that buyers prefer on a Royalty-Free basis and the specific, often higher quality images that buyers expect to see Rights-Managed.
And while software can give a guide to current market rates, it’s only as valuable as Kelly Blue Book is to car sellers. It’s the start of a negotiation, something that professional photographers have to know how to do too.
3. You Have a Professional Attitude
Much of the difference between a talented enthusiast and someone who makes a living out of photography has nothing to do with professional knowledge. It has a lot to do with professional attitude.
One of the reasons that buyers still purchase images from stock and microstock sites, and a big part of the reason that Getty was able to make a deal with Flickr, is that professional buyers prefer to deal with professional companies than try to pick up images from amateurs. They know their email will be answered quickly. They know the photographer will have a way of sending them their picture and delivering it on time. They know the negotiation will be smooth, fair and swift. They know that when they make contact, the result will be the image they want in the format they need, at a price that’s right and in time for publication.
That isn’t the case when they approach an enthusiast. Buyers have complained about photographers who disappear when contacted, who respond too slowly or who don’t understand enough about formats to deliver images in a size and quality that they can use. What should be a smooth, professional exchange becomes a protracted process that costs the buyer time and money.
Turn professional and your ability to bring in regular income will depend as much on how you communicate and work with buyers as the products and services you deliver to them.
4. You’ve Built Contacts
It would be great to say that what you know and how you behave are all you need to make the move from keen enthusiast to professional photographer. But who you know will count too. How much it counts will depend on the branch of photography you’re trying to break into. If you’re hoping to become a wedding photographer, then familiarity with local wedding planners, hotel managers and even other event photographers will all help to bring in new business. But they’re not essential. Former clients might be more vital as they help to spread the word about your work and pass on recommendations. If you’re looking to break into commissioned jobs though, such as photojournalism or commercial photography, then editors and buyers will need to know who you are and what you shoot.
There are no shortcuts to building up those contacts. They come from being active in the same circles as the people you need to know, by being sociable and personable, and by staying in touch so that buyers remember you — and remember that they can trust you. It’s something that should happen naturally as you’re producing work that gets you noticed.
5. You Have a Reliable Income
Like any new business, a photography studio can take time to get up and running. In most industries, that’s time that eats up capital, destroys savings and scares the business owner. Photographers have an advantage. Because they can start selling before they turn professional, they can test the water without risking the house. If you’re making sales, if those sales are coming in on a regular basis, and if the income is starting to compete with your main salary, there’s a good chance that you’re ready to turn professional.