How to Make the Jump From Amateur to Professional Photographer

How to Make the Jump From Amateur to Professional Photographer

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

Show clients the full range of your technical and creative skills.

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.

Insurance

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.

Proper Gear

You don't get a second chance at these moments.

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.

Good Website

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.

Say hello to Format, the website builder with everything you need as a photographer to showcase your work and uncover new opportunities. As an Fstoppers reader, you can try it for free for 14 days and receive a 10 percent discount off your first purchase. 

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11 Comments

Jacques Cornell's picture

At the age of 34, I completed a 1-year full-time program in photography at the International Center of Photography in New York City. I learned very little about using flash or running a business, but it was absolutely invaluable in refining my creative sensibilities and helping me realize my own sense of style. The exposure to dozens of adept photographers from around the world with different skills, interests, and styles - with discussions and critiques every day - simply couldn't be replicated any other way. I don't regret a minute or a penny of it.
I got the necessary technical skills (particularly lighting) by working full-time for a year as an assistant to a successful Fortune 500 annual report shooter.
Running a business is where I really struggled when I struck out on my own, and I wished I'd taken some business and accounting courses in college when I had the chance. It took literally years to figure out how and why to incorporate, how to handle bookkeeping, and, most daunting, to grasp the zillions of state and federal tax and payroll requirements, filing methods, and required insurances. Ugh!
It also took a while to realize that a website is a portfolio, not a lead-generator. No amount of SEO made my phone ring. I had to go out and network.
One last observation. Wedding work is not the easy way into a professional career. Lots of wannabes who really aren't ready to perform at a professional level think they can break into wedding work because - let's be brutally honest - the clients are often unsophisticated about hiring a pro. Amateurs who wouldn't dream of pitching a relatively easy editorial shoot to a national magazine think they can take on some of the hardest, most stressful, most unforgiving, most technically difficult work there is outside a war zone - unfailingly capturing split-second images of fleeting moments involving people in motion in poor light and making the images look GREAT. My advice to folks under such illusions is to start with similar work where the stakes are lower and you can hone your skills without risk of a lawsuit - parties, local events, meetings, casual portraits, building interiors, and food shots for local restaurants. Then, assist or work as a second shooter with an established wedding pro.

Yan Pekar's picture

It would be great if it would be made clear that one can only consider becoming professional when he or she is able to consistently create good results.

Yan Pekar's picture

Photography is a profession for many, a hobby for many, and an art for some. How can you say "Photography is not a profession" about people who do it full time working very hard?? You seem to be paying too much attention to those producing low quality results for 20 bucks. Try to focus on having your own standards instead (unless you compete with those shooting for 20 bucks).

Yan Pekar's picture

“Yan, if your definition of 'professional' means someone who gets paid to do a task, then you are at least partly correct.”

Wrong. Don’t make assumptions without knowing a person.

“The median hourly wage for photographers was $15.62 in May 2017.”

There are many people who keep moaning that “pay in photography is low, competition is high, etc.”.

It is just excuses people use when their images are worse than these of other photographers, when they struggle to get paid jobs, etc.

You seem to look very negatively at the subject.
If one can’t make a living in ANY profession - make a switch and do what you can, but don’t keep moaning and looking for excuses.

Yan Pekar's picture

“Yan, if your definition of 'professional' means someone who gets paid to do a task, then you are at least partly correct.”

Wrong. Don’t make assumptions without knowing a person.

“The median hourly wage for photographers was $15.62 in May 2017.”

There are many people who keep moaning that “pay in photography is low, competition is high, etc.”.

It is just excuses people use when their images are worse than these of other photographers, when they struggle to get paid jobs, etc.

You seem to look very negatively at the subject.
If one can’t make a living in ANY profession - make a switch and do what you can, but don’t keep moaning and looking for excuses.

Yan Pekar's picture

John, I did not talk about you. I am sorry if you took it personally. I had no such intention, and was talking about "people" in general in my comments. I also do not have time for a dispute, and there is no point in having one - you have your opinion, I have mine, and this is absolutely fine. All the best.

amplighter's picture

Thank you, but no thanks as I'll remain a self taught amateur hobbyist photographer.

Maybe the best advice is left out. Just don't do it. Photography as a business is not a good project. A photographers job are mostly replaced by smartphones and selfies. The marked is overflowing with amateurs calling them self photographers. Prices is squished and pay is low.

A general rule is that it takes 10 years to build a successful business. That a long time to live on minimal budget. In worst cause you could accomulate tens of thousands dollar in debt.

Yes it is possible to build a photography business, but I think there are many other projects that are more fruitful. For most people a steady job is a good option.

Thanks so much, not only for the topic and its details, but also for publishing the content in text, not video-only. I'd vote for making this article format (text first) as the standard for Fstoppers. Cheers.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Well you forgot a huge one. Write up a business plan, not a wish list with things you hope to happen but a well researched plan.There's a very good chance the plan will totally crash and burn when the real world hits it but it is a good starting point.
Being a photographer, running a small studio is not really that hard, TBH most of what I learned about my photo biz I learned in high school business class and working for a photographer for a couple years. I use an accountant for taxes, a payroll company for assistants, a lawyer friend who has written a couple nasty lawyer letters.
Many years ago, I took a seminar from Tim Olive, a high-flying photographer in the 90s who failed and reinvented himself. He had a 14 page handout which was really well done. I showed it my wife as she was just finishing her MBA, she read it, then read it again and said "I think I just wasted $80k" can I borrow this...

Most photographers fail the same way most other biznesses fail. Undercapitalized.
In my 33+ years I probably have gone out of business a few times but I kept showing up and made it work.

Liam Doran's picture

You know how to make a small fortune as a photographer? Start with a large one...