Five Key Ways to Prepare for the Leap From Hobby Photographer to Professional

Five Key Ways to Prepare for the Leap From Hobby Photographer to Professional

My recent article focused on what skills you should focus on if you want to turn professional as a photographer. In this follow-up, I will discuss what I believe to be the next and crucial step before you make the leap: preparation. 

Knowing what skills to focus on that will serve you well in professional photography life is important, but you'll still find yourself in the same position as those who didn't focus on them. That is, at one point or another, you will be at the precipice of hobbyist looking across the gap between the cliff faces to professional pastures; you're going to have to jump like everyone else. So, how can you best have your affairs in order to sit neatly alongside your well-honed skill-set?

Looking back, I didn't have enough of these affairs in order. That is, I didn't have all the useful preparation in place, primarily because I wasn't sure what it all was. If I could give a list of things I ought to have done before I jumped into photography full-time to give to former me, this is what it would look like.

1. Financial Reserve

It seems counterintuitive, saving money so that you can comfortably try to make money, but it's correct. I've had a discussion on this topic several times with professional photographers, including publicly on Fstoppers. The motivation for the debate sparking so often is that I didn't build a nest egg before I went full-time. I stripped my outgoings to as low as humanly possible, committed to living like a hermit crab for a while, and decided that if I threw myself into the ocean without a life raft, I'd have to swim. I would have to swim. It motivated me, but it also nearly broke me.

The argument against this course of action is of course the relief of stress, and I wholeheartedly agree. I was at the edge of insanity many times in the first three years, and although the drive did open doors for me, I'm not sure it was the best path. The more financial stability I have, the better my business decisions are, I believe. For that reason, I would suggest that if you're in a position to build a financial reserve to float your photography turning into a small start-up business — which it is — then do so.

2. Education on Running a Small Business

On the topic of being a small business, education on running one is invaluable. Too often us, creatives have blind faith in the merit of talent and art winning out over all other facets of success, and it just doesn't work that way. Look for online courses on running a small business (Udemy, etc.); you'll be surprised how useful some of this information becomes. Speak to an accountant who specializes in small businesses, and ask for advice as well as a guide on how to best keep your accounts. Finally, if you can find someone who has done well in business, ask for a meeting with them or offer to buy them lunch to mine them for information and wisdom. This is one thing I did twice right at the start of my career and it served me well. In fact, one of them became somewhat of a sporadic mentor.

Image courtesy of Dusty Woodell.

3. Find a Mentor

Following on from a business mentor, is a photography mentor. This is something I discussed in my article that prompted this one, which is worth reading for some further information. I will quote a small section that is relevant again:

This is one I didn't learn from experience. I desperately wanted to have an experienced and talented mentor to help me through the early stages of my photography journey, but I could never find one, though I didn't exactly approach people either. I would always ask questions of how people achieved a certain look or style (definitely do this!), but no one took me under their wing. Over a decade ago I thought that would have been valuable, but now I think it would have been invaluable. The more I read on business and entrepreneurship, the more I realize the power of having someone guide you through territory they have personally chartered.

I have worked with spectacularly successful photographers since I started, albeit in the last two years or so. The little droplets of wisdom that, unbeknownst to them, fall from their brow, are priceless to photographers lower in the pecking order. By the simple act of helping them out, you can garner all sorts of important information on everything from business and networking, to composition and equipment.

4. Do Your Research

The next two tips are obvious to anyone who has looked into starting a business or venture and has completed their due diligence on the sector they wish to enter. However, us creatives can often bolt out of the gate without taking this vital step. I — for the most part — was one of those reckless folk. Ideally, you need to comprehensively research not only how a photography business works and what yours might look like, but the specialties you dream of dominating, who current dominates them, and what you're expected to produce. I went a more "learn by doing" approach that — without a dose of luck — is unambiguously the worse of the two strategies. Take your time to get the lay of the land.

5. Have a Plan and Set Targets

Once you have a better understanding of what your desired industry looks like and what sort of part you will play in it, it's time to plan and set targets. Really, this is two points. The planning phase is a direct extension of your research, where you set in place the direction you want to take your photography business right from the starter pistol. However, it has a symbiotic relationship with your targets. You will be planning how to effectively reach your targets, and your targets will be a mixture of short-term and long-term goals, with the former aiding your journey along your plan, and the latter being a metric with which to evaluate the success of your plan.

At the end of last year, I shared my goals template for 2019 for free, should you wish to use it.

In Closing

Although I couldn't offer any concrete statistics by way of evidence for this claim, I believe that most small startups will fail due to a lack of proper planning, research, and preparation. If you position yourself in such a way that you're ready and waiting for the inevitable challenge that comes with starting any new business, you stand a far better chance of withstanding them. If there's anything I haven't unpacked satisfactorily, or you have any questions, fire away in the comments. Similarly, those who have made the leap and have wisdom to share, please chime in too.

Lead image by energepic.com from Pexels

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5 Comments

Darren Loveland's picture

All solid points!

Keep your overhead low, do not invest in high end gear and go into debt, and network like there's no tomorrow. The more referrals you can get from a variety of other businesses and sources will drive your credibilty up and clients booking.
Join groups and organizations and make a ton of contacts.

JetCity Ninja's picture

speaking to the "do not invest in high end gear," it's paramount to learn to identify the difference between a want and a need. invest in what you need to conduct your business at the level you're targeting while avoiding unnecessary expenditures.

but don't expect to crack into fine art photography, for example, with a Canon Rebel SL2 and an Amazon Basics tripod. if you're in that position, maybe consider you're attempting to start your business too soon.

JetCity Ninja's picture

what i dont understand is why more people dont look into apprenticeships before venturing off into starting a small business. based not only on your list, but the tips often laid out by others, the word "mentorship" is often used but by the end of the list, most people seemingly describe an experience best resolved by an apprenticeship. formal education is often ineffective for businesses in the arts, or creative types tend to be less attracted to formal education; either way, seeking mentorship, especially in a further disconnected society, seems to me an inaccurate representation of what a newly minted, or ready to be pressed blank, professional photographer is truly seeking when they say they're looking for a "mentor."

expecting a person to offer themselves up to you as a mentor, with no outright request or attempt to establish a healthy line of communication with someone who is a capable mentor, is something that's commonly mentioned in lists aimed at photographers looking to go pro. diving under coattails just to wait for droplets of wisdom to fall upon your head seems counterproductive and your pointing that out is honest and pertinent.

but maybe actively pursuing an apprenticeship is the wiser move. to learn over a year or two all of the skills necessary to operate a small business and put all of these steps you've condensed into order. basically, allow oneself to work part-time in the business they intend to start of their own. not only to provide the necessary skills to run the business, but to provide a smoother transition from career to self-employment. you said you needed to learn to not just set goals and hit them, but to learn how to identify those goals, categorize them and learn why you've chosen them and when to attack them, from someone who's already been there.

maybe teaching others to again look at it more like a trade that can be learned through apprenticeship, rather than quietly seeking mentorship only to spend time waiting for the right people to come along and provide answers, is a more effective outlook and goal. multiple "mentors" can give contradictory and confusing advice, yet an apprenticeship, under ideal circumstances, should provide a clear path to initial success and reduce the chance for immediate failure through identifying the pitfalls during the learning process. could it simply be a more effective categorization to better define expectations? or is there another factor that's driven photography, as a career path, from being one that was once propagated through apprenticeships to one now pursued solo, guided by so-called mentorships?

a thought provoking post, at least for me, due to your personal experiences, outlook and candor that separates it from most other rehashes on this same topic.

Good list. But the vast majority of small businesses fail in 2-3 years due to lack of financing
1. Very few people do this, no one I know did. Some made it some ran out of money. A spouse with a good job is very handy to have.Usually photographers gradually get into business.
2. My accountant specializes in production companies and photographers. He knows our business pretty well. Most one man band photographers are pretty simple operations compared to other business who may have full time employees or a fleet of trucks needing to be taken care of, overseas or interstate taxes or tariff issues, bank loans and amortization schedules. As a sole photographer the idea is to make as much income with minimal outgo.
3. This used to be called assisting. That Is where you go work for some established photographer for 2 or 3 years to learn not only how to shoot stuff but how to deal with clients, vendors, paperwork and the day to day humdrum aspects of having a studio. "Mentors" and "internships" can be sketchy...and many photographers may not want to "mentor" some future competition.
4. Learning how a photography business runs is a wide target. Is the business one that shoots 1500 kids at a sporting event weekend, or a advertising studio that goes on the road for a month to 4 states and 3 countries, or shoots head shots or small products 9-5 5 days a week. All have different needs that may be transferable.
5. Mike Tyson said ... "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." That is how I look at the few photographers business plans that I have seen. It is great to have a road map type plan to refer to once in a while but be prepared for the punches in the mouth . Both good and bad. :)