Five Markers to Look out for Before Turning Pro

Five Markers to Look out for Before Turning Pro

For a lot of us, being able to spend all of our time taking photographs is very enticing. Here are five markers that suggest you are ready to make the leap from amateur to professional.

Turning pro is not everyone's goal. A lot of my friends are very happy not to have to deal with some of the more stressful scenarios that I find myself in as a professional photographer. They also enjoy the freedom to choose their projects without the nagging thought of rent in the back of their minds.

Most of us don’t leave college or university to go straight into being a full-time photographer. Or if we do, it’s probably on someone else's salary. Going out alone is a daunting task and I think it becomes more daunting the later that you leave it in life. I was 28 when I left full-time employment to chase my dreams as a professional photographer, but I was thinking about it from the age of 25. Choosing the right moment was very difficult. Hopefully these five pointers will help you along the way.

Have Savings to Cover You for at Least a Year

The chances of you leaving your day job and making enough in year one to pay the bills is very slim. I made hardly any money in my first year as a professional photographer. I also spent very little and had savings to fall back on, but not nearly as much as I wish I had of put aside. Knowing that you are covered for the next 12 months allows you to go out and get creative and to work on both your portfolio in a way that a part-time photographer never can, as well as taking on new clients. My biggest regret is having not put more money aside. It certainly stunted my growth as a photographer for the first couple of years until I caught up financially.

Own all the kit you will need for the next few years

This doesn’t mean that you need the latest Phase One camera and Broncolor lights. It does mean that you need to be in a position to get the job done regardless of what goes on. For 90% of my work I use three old full frame cameras circa 2005, and a selection of quality lenses that are all version one (some now have version three available). So rather than going out and buying one of the latest full frame bodies to start your career with, you would be better buying two second hand older generation cameras to see you through for the next 4-5 years. It’s also important to get on good terms with a rental company. For those odd ball jobs where you suddenly need a 45mm TSE lens for one day, renting is a great way to help your cash flow.

The equipment that you will need as a professional can be very small and simple in some genres, where as others can cost huge amounts to get into. It is also worth talking to long standing pros to work out exactly what equipment you need. It is unlikely that you need the latest camera, lens, or light out there. So having a good understanding of the demands of your future clients is key. Owning the kit that you are likely to need for the next few years also removes a lot of the financial burden that becoming a professional photographer brings. There is nothing worse than trying to make rent and find a spare few grand to cover the costs of equipment. 

Be Able to Say No to Bad Clients

When I started out I said yes to everything. As the years went on, I started to be able to guess when someone would be a troublesome client. I still said yes though. These clients usually took up a lot of extra time, and ended up with poor work and low pay. Being able to say no to these clients is a great asset as a professional. If you have the confidence to do this already, its a good indicator that you are well on your way to being ready to turn pro in photography.

If this is something that you know you will struggle with (like I do), then it is worth looking for representation. This can be in the form of a manager, an agent, or by employing someone either on salary or commission to deal with your sales. Taking on an agent is the single most important thing I have done. He now acts as a filter for bad clients as they assume they wont be able to pull the wool over his eyes (which they can’t).

Have a Clear Idea of Who You Are as a Photographer

As a new professional I was taking on every job that required a camera body. Video work, headshots, events, weddings, food shoots, product photography; you name it, I shot it. I think I even did some dog photos at one point. When you are starting out, it is easy to take every bit of money put in front of your nose. In hindsight, if I had of stuck to my guns and worked as a portrait and food photographer exclusively, I would be a lot further along in my career by now. It is far easier to pick up high paying jobs in high volumes when you are a specialist. No one wants to chance their shoot to a jack of all trades. Know what you are about and stick to your guns.

Know Your Finances Inside Out

This should really be a precursor to adult life. However, when I got a monthly pay cheque I knew it lasted a month and had a bit spare for emergencies and savings. Yet, there is no way I could have told you where the money went. Today, I can tell you my bank balance to the penny and exactly what money I have coming in and out. Understanding where your money is going is really important for the business and the pricing of your services. If this is something you take in your stride then you are going to find this side of the business a breeze. Lots of us creative types really struggle at this, so you will be at a great advantage.

What is stopping you from making the leap from amateur to professional?

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Anonymous's picture

Do people really go from not making any money from their photography straight to pulling the pin on their day jobs?

I've put myself on a 5 year timeline for the transition from one business to another. Although, maybe part of my logic here stems from the fact I already run a business.

I think that the old camera advice is excellent. Minimisation of capital costs/debt is always a good thing, and really, do people really need a 40+ MP $5,000+ camera?

Tip # 1 make sure you still have your dad’s credit card # just in case ...

Great points as usual Scott.
When I first got out of college in '79 I was too worried about failing to jump into the field and thus worked in photo labs and made contacts with a lot of clients and photographers.
I eased into the field slowly with portrait and weddings that fit easily into my free time.
Soon, I was getting so many requests that I gave up the lab biz and have never looked back.

Keeping costs in check is vital as too many are consumed by gear lust, studio lust, travel lust etc.

It was nice to explore five markers that suggest us are ready to make the leap from amateur to professional photographers.