People will tell you there are no shortcuts, but that is only true if you think a shortcut is a magic "Masterpiece" mode in your camera or a special action in Photoshop.
Going from point A to point B is the ultimate goal. If you have already reached your destination it doesn't matter how short or how long the path has been. You've made it! However, if you are at the beginning of your journey, it's good to know the shortcuts, because there are many other goals to achieve in this life than spending it only on one. The shortcut is the ability to focus only only on the things that truly matter and make a huge difference.
What Makes a Photographer Professional?
It's not the profile picture of a person with a camera covering one of their eyes. It's not the John Doe Photography free Facebook page. It's not the expensive camera. It's not the expensive logo one had paid for. It is the images in their portfolio. If the images look professional it doesn't matter if they have been commissioned, or if the person has a studio or owns a photography business. If one doesn't have a professional looking portfolio nothing else will make them look so. In this article I won't focus on marketing your professionalism, but only on the achieving a higher technical level, so you can create professional-looking images in a hopefully shorter term.
What's the Difference Between a Professional Image and a Non-Professional One?
A professional is capable of creating masterpieces consistently. The non-professional occasionally happens to create a great looking image, but they can hardly repeat the result, blaming gear, lighting conditions, subject behavior, post-processing skills. Judging if an image looks professional is subjective to a certain extent. Most common people think that a professional picture is the one that it's hard for them to create, but only a trained person can. In your journey to being a professional photographer you have to focus only on things that can greatly improve your work and workflow. The ones that make a small difference must be ignored as much as you can.
Buying a more expensive camera won't make your images better. Taking a shortcut with regards to your camera gear is buying a camera that works for the type of visuals you're going for. Resolution won't help you much unless you need to print frequently in large formats. If you are going to use artificial light, don't spend more on a camera that has an extraordinary low-light performance. That's what I did with the purchase of a Canon 40D when I started. This camera had a 10-megapixel crop sensor. It wasn't capable of shooting video. It didn't have a dual card slot. It wasn't a compact mirrorless. It didn't have a great low-light performance (ISO 800 was the usable limit), it wasn't a Sony either (I'm honest).
Light is light (unless it's a low-CRI LED). Use lights that work. Use light modifiers that work for your style. Buying a working used Alien Bee can take you a long way than scarcely getting a new Profoto and living from hand to mouth. It's the final images that matter, remember that. In the first four years I used two lights and one big softbox as a modifier. Most of my images were shot with one light using that softbox in different placements.
Computer and Monitor
Many will tell you that you can't do professional photography on laptops or on laptop monitors. While desktop monitors and desktop workstations provide a great amount of hardware juice, most of today's laptops will do the job for you. If you want to be a little bit more technically precise, get one with a monitor that has an IPS matrix (forgive me my technical ignorance if IPS is already an old technology). You don't need a fast graphic card for still images. You need more RAM and an SSD. Most processors today are plenty enough for image processing. I have been using the same laptop for eight years that had a 256 MB graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, 2,4 GHz i5 processor, and a 300 GB of hard drive (not SSD). Now I'm using almost the same configuration, but with a better graphics card, an SSD, and more RAM, because I'm working with video (yes, on a laptop).
When I started, I purchased Photoshop Elements which didn't have Curves adjustments, nor did it have masks. Despite that, I was able to work with paying clients. Today I'm working with the full version of Photoshop, but images processed with a cheaper software with less features than the free option GIMP has, are still in my portfolio and you can't guess which is which.
This is subjective, because with today's raw files anyone with good post-processing skills can make a mediocre (to a certain extent) image look good as colors and contrast enhancements. In my case I wanted to get it right in camera, so I didn't spent much time on learning how to do high-end magazine-style retouching or trying to constantly save an in-camera disaster and turn it into a masterpiece. However, I spent a considerable amount of time and money to learn how to make composites, because this is what I sometimes have to do. I've never spent time enhancing the image specifically for Facebook or for Instagram. I just export a 900 or 1000-pixel image at 72 ppi and publish it on my website and on the social networks. Sure, if I make it according to online tutorials it will (maybe) look better, but won't make a dramatic difference and it wouldn't be worth it.
What Matters the Most?
When you look at an image you basically see three things: story, composition, and lighting. If you want to become a professional photographer focus on learning these. They don't depend on your camera's resolution, lens flawlessness, your technique for cleaning skin imperfections, the speed of your computer, the cost of your software, or the brand name of your lights.
In the beginning I thought a good picture of a person was good only if the person looked good. Later I found that the beauty of the model is only a small part of the beauty of the image. Looking at the work of photographers such as Gregory Heisler, Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, Art Streiber, and others, I saw more than just nice portraits. I saw a story. Mastering that was and still is the most difficult part of my photography journey. The only way to advance in this area, in my opinion, is by watching more and more photographs. This makes you build a database of ideas and helps you form a certain taste and a vision.
Following the classic rules of composition will not make your images outdated. The classic rules are classic, because they are timeless. Many think the only way interesting ideas are born is when breaking the rules. If that's the only option for making a work interesting, it's a shot in the dark. You can make many new and interesting projects by standing on the classic solid ground of composition techniques like the rule of thirds, using guiding lines, balancing the elements in the frame, etc. I still stick to those, because I've seen the master painters using them to create a variety of beautiful masterpieces we adore today.
In the beginning I was fascinated by the fact I could illuminate someone with an off-camera flash during a sunny day. That was the first time I found that a professional will not capture every scene as it was, because it might not look pleasing, but they would work on shaping or changing the lighting. I realized that learning how light worked could help me be better at storytelling, because I would not be that much focused on figuring out the technical parts of the photoshoot.
An eye-opener for me was that everything you see with your eyes was lit one way or another. Even If it's the shadow side of an object and it's not absolutely black, it's lit by a light source. That can be a direct or an indirect (reflected) light. It is your judgment to decide what kind of light source illuminates certain areas: big soft ones or small hard lights. Having just one softbox was a great way to learn how light worked. I basically had two light qualities I experimented with: a hard light without the softbox and a soft light with the modifier on. I had to incorporate hardly-controllable natural light sources in my images, because of lack of more lights. Having limitations helps you to be more creative and to come up of solutions.
Another important milestone in my journey was learning how to light in a way it didn't look lit. This is much harder and sometimes doesn't look as cool as if you've lit it otherwise. Creating cool lit-looking images has its place in the universe, but when I started to make my images more naturally lit, this forced me to work more on the story in the frame and make the image about the subject and the environment rather than about me and my "cool lighting."
If you want to be a professional photographer, you have to know what makes a visual touching the senses of the viewer. Learn and master the three basic components of an image: story, composition, and lighting. This is your shortcut. Do not make your journey unnecessary long by focusing on other things that won't make a significant difference to your final image. If you are good at these three components nobody will be able to guess what kind of equipment you used. This will liberate you from being a slave to the tools of the craft, turning you into a master of the craft.