how to become a professional photographer

How To Become A Professional Photographer—Do You Have The Skills?

It’s no secret that photography is expensive. With professional lenses and bodies costing thousands of pounds each, it’s no surprise so many photographers would like to know how to make money with photography.

Plus, if you can do something you love as a profession then you’re on the way to a happy life. But understanding how to become a professional photographer and do it successfully takes grit and determination.

Photography is increasingly popular, and that means more and more people are wanting to become full-time photographers. With so many individuals offering their services commercially, the market is undoubtedly becoming saturated. This is one of the biggest barriers you’ll face–standing out from the pack and being unique in your profession is a massive challenge.

When I took this image, wide-angle wildlife photography was a fairly new trend and got this picture noticed.
When I took this image, wide-angle wildlife photography was a fairly new trend and got this picture noticed.

How To Become A Professional Photographer

There’s no point sugar-coating it: many people won’t manage to turn full-time. However, there is definitely scope for working, even if just initially, as a part-time photographer alongside your day job. This article may be a bit of a reality check, but it should also inspire those who relish a challenge and have the real drive and persistence required to turn full-time.

I’ve been lucky enough to work as a full-time photographer for a number of years now. I used a fairly major competition win at the age of 14 to launch my career and started building my business in my teens. Taking advantage of an injection of publicity like this will help you lift your head above the crowds and get noticed. Without any thought about how you are going to market yourself, it can be like shouting aloud in a vacuum and hoping someone can hear you.

The Reality Of The Industry

Whatever genre of photography you’re trying to break into, it’s going to be competitive. As a nature photographer, there are a lot of hobbyists that wish to make it as a professional. There is also a decreasing demand for premium photographs. The expectation of free, or very cheap, photos are becoming more commonplace now thanks to the willingness of amateur photographers to give their photos away for free in return for briefly seeing their name in lights.

Photography is a competitive market. Fighting for position is something you're going to have to do.
Photography is a competitive market. Fighting for a position is something you’re going to have to do.

Perhaps you’re looking to be an event photographer or a wedding photographer. You’re going to face a very similar problem. There are swathes of people trying to undercut each other, bringing down photography pricing for everyone..

You’ve probably heard about, or even experienced, the expression of shock on many clients’ faces when they are quoted thousands of dollars to photograph a wedding. This is often followed with something like “my friend said he’d do it for $200”. Great, but your friend probably hasn’t spent thousands on equipment, or bags of time improving technical and post-production skills. Even so, this is something you have to deal with and it means there is, on the whole, less work available for everyone.

The first award-winning image I took built the foundation for my career as a wildlife photographer.
The first award-winning image I took built the foundation for my career as a wildlife photographer.

With such a saturated market you need to think about what you can bring to the table, and offer what others can’t. This is usually to do with your style of photography. Study the work of other photographers and look at what makes their images stand out.

Think about your own work and what makes you different. This may seem rather daunting at first, but your style and expertise will develop with time. You don’t need to have a solid answer to this immediately to be successful.

When Should You Become a Professional Photographer?

The great thing about keeping another job running whilst you try and turn professional is you can do it gradually. No one is stopping you from trying to monetize revenue streams straight away. Plus, you don’t need to label yourself as a professional to do it either. If you keep your normal job going simultaneously, you have a safety net to fall back on. If you get one big order or booking, don’t send in your resignation just because of this. One big order doesn’t mean it’s going to be plain sailing from then on.

The safest way to approach this is to take it slow. Start selling prints to friends and family, and then expand your customer base to the general public. You can sell in cafés, galleries, or small retail shops. Not only will you start to make money with minimal risk, but you’ll learn a lot from the experience before investing larger sums of money in your business later on.

Related Article: Best Online Photo Printing Services

how to become a professional photographer
Want to know how to become a professional photographer? A good start is by showing your photos in local cafes and galleries.

Everyone seems to have their own definition of what ‘professional’ means. Some people say you need to be able to pay a mortgage off with it. Some people say you have to earn all of your income from that source. Others say you just have to earn some money from it.

Personally, I think if you’re earning a decent amount of your income (50% or up) you are ‘classed’ as a professional. It’s totally personal preference, though, and the label doesn’t matter. There’s no right or wrong–do what you like! Just think about the connotations that come with the title of ‘professional photographer’ and what is expected of you in your conduct and quality of work.

Do You Have What It Takes?

There’s no point pretending that anyone can do it. You need to be a good photographer to make a successful career in photography. But that’s not to say some people will never make it. After all, practice makes perfect. If you’ve only recently picked up a camera for the first time, odds are you won’t be ready just yet. Perhaps it’ll take a year or two for you to get to a standard where you can make a real stab at the industry. But there’s no harm trying to make sales from day one. It can be done in a way where there are no upfront costs if you take orders rather than stockpile products like I have outlined previously.

'Pretty' photos can still make money, but diversifying your approach gives you the best chance at success if you want to learn how to become a professional photographer.
‘Pretty’ photos can still make money, but diversifying your approach gives you the best chance at success.

Ultimately, everyone starts somewhere. I am a great fan of a quote I have heard, although I can’t remember the source, which said you must spend at least 10,000 hours on something to become an expert. It’s a pretty good estimation, but even the best photographers will say they never stop learning. No one can know absolutely everything about any situation they may find themselves in. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t give up. The idea of charging people hard cash for your photography products or services can be a daunting one. You have to be confident in yourself and know what you are charging, and why it’s justified.

Diversifying Your Approach

If you’re serious about making money from your photography, you’ll want to look at alternative ways you can monetize your work. With so much competition, simply snapping images for cash or selling prints can be really challenging. Instead, consider other ways you can use your skill set to put food on the table.

For example, you may consider running workshops or masterclasses. With so many photographers, that means there are more people wanting to learn photography. Organize a day of tutorials–perhaps a walk through a local nature reserve teaching different aspects of photography along the way. This is in high demand at the moment and lots of photographers are seeing a significant proportion of their income coming from workshops, particularly in the nature photography circles.

how to become a professional photographer
Consider teaching workshops is another way to diversify your income. Photo by sbtlneet

Rather than just discovering how to become a professional photographer, go one step further. Some photographers have looked into creating services or products that other photographers can use. A friend of mine has set up a company which sells camera trapping equipment to photographers. This is some serious diversification, for sure. But it’s that kind of mindset that will allow you to fish in more spacious waters.

If you have a head for business, or like the idea of being an entrepreneur, you’re more likely to succeed above and beyond the general throng of photographers jostling for position. It’s being different that gets you noticed, and whilst you can still do that through photographic prowess and style, you’ll go far with a genuinely good business idea.

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About the author

Will Nicholls

Will is a professional wildlife photographer from the United Kingdom. He has been behind the camera since 2007, and is also a trained zoologist. Will runs photography blog Nature TTL alongside his full-time business as a freelance photographer & cameraman.

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