Making the jump from amateur to professional photographer can be both an exciting and scary thing, and it’s important to know how to do everything correctly. Make sure you do all these things before you open for business.
Know Your Technique
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is buying a camera and opening a photography business before they really know what they’re doing. When you’re an amateur, the worst consequence of a missed shot is disappointment. When you’re a professional, the stakes are much higher. Your reputation and thus, your income, are on the line. People will depend on you to capture some of their most important memories.
Be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself if you have any deficiencies in camera technique or post-processing methods. This goes beyond just shooting the way you like, because now, you’ll also have to shoot the way the client likes. If they want stray hairs removed, can you do that convincingly? Can you capture a running subject in focus every time? Everything from knowing the right settings to the best Photoshop techniques needs to be sound.
Know the Market
The simple truth is that some photography genres sell better than others and some are more saturated than others. These two things also depend on your local market, and thus, it’s crucial that you understand that market before you allow your income to depend on it. You may enjoy cosplay portraits, but can you make enough money from them? You may have to take shoots you’re not passionate about simply to increase your income. Be sure you’re ready for that and willing to do it.
Understand the Day-to-Day Life
If you think being a professional means more time behind the camera than when you’re an amateur, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not the case. Being a professional means running a business, and running a business is no small task. Interfacing with clients, putting out fires, invoicing, accounting, answering emails, updating your website, etc., all these things will take you away from the camera. Ask yourself if you’re comfortable with all these things or if photography is better left a passionate hobby.
Build a Portfolio
You can’t get clients if you don’t have work to show them. This might mean you’ll have to do a few free shoots with friends and family or the like to get some photos in your portfolio. That’s perfectly ok. It’s a chance to keep building your technique and to build a stronger case for yourself for the potential client. Put yourselves in their shoes, and imagine what they would want to see to feel comfortable giving you their money and their trust.
Don’t Go to School (Unless You Take These Classes)
Take it from someone who was in school into the fourth decade of his life: going to school for photography is a bad idea 99 percent of the time. Yes, you’ll become a better artist, but one of the most fundamental and common mistakes people make is confusing being a good artist for being a good businessperson. It’s simply not worth going into massive debt when you can learn the necessary skills for free or by working with a professional.
That being said, there is something you can go to school for that will help: business. A lot of great photographers are terrible businesspeople, and unfortunately, you need to be a good one to survive, no matter how much talent you have. Taking a few business courses could work wonders and set you up for long-term success.
Contracts and Pricing
Having proper pricing and contracts in place ensures that you have a viable business and you’re properly protected. When setting your prices, not only should take into account the local market and how much it costs you to shoot, but all the business-related things you’ll do that aren’t behind the camera. Make sure the overall hourly rate you’re paying yourself is actually something that can sustain you.
In a similar vein, you might think that giving your clients contracts makes you look cold and impersonal, but they’re vitally necessary for protecting yourself and ensuring you get paid properly. They also make you look more professional. Be sure to have someone with legal expertise help you draw up a client contract.
Doing things like starting an LLC are good, but you really need to protect both your assets and yourself from liability. All it takes is someone tripping over a light stand or breaking into your car and you could be stuck in a lawsuit or without your gear. Don’t let all your hard work go up in smoke because of an unfortunate accident. I carry large liability insurance and full replacement on all my gear, and the peace of mind alone is well worth the modest cost.
I’m not saying you need to go out and buy the best of the best, but make sure you have decent equipment that’s appropriate for the genre(s) you’ll be undertaking. If you’re a portraitist, calling yourself a natural light only shooter and canceling shoots every time it rains isn’t going to fly. Get a set of strobes and learn how to use them just as well as you would the sun itself.
In addition, particularly if you’re shooting things like weddings, where you don’t get a second chance, having backup equipment isn’t a recommendation, it’s a necessity. If something breaks or malfunctions, you need to be able to replace it and jump right back into shooting without delay.
Understand Your Clients
One of the biggest lessons you’ll have to learn is that your photography is no longer about just what you like, but also about what your clients like. Make sure your people skills are in top shape. This means being able to effectively negotiate, deal with conflict, and understand their needs and desires when they hire a photographer.
Lastly, a good website is crucial. Most potential clients are going to look for your portfolio electronically, and you need a website that showcases your work in an elegant, accessible, and efficient manner. Format is a great option that offers an impressive combination of ease of use and customizability at excellent prices. Whether you want a turn-key professional site or the ability to customize everything to your liking, Format is the place to do it.
None of this was meant to scare you. Being a successful professional photographer is something that takes drive, passion, persistence, and hard work, but it’s also very rewarding. If you have the love of the craft and the drive to get it done, it can be a wonderful career.
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