Seven Tips for People Looking to Turn Their Photography Into a Career

Seven Tips for People Looking to Turn Their Photography Into a Career

One of my recent articles was on how developing a niche can help you make more money from photography. I received a lot of emails and questions over the next week and a strand that run through almost all of the contact was about making the transition to full-time professional. I was pleased with the interest in this question, but I wasn't overly surprised as I tackled the very same issue for several years. There's no exact formula, but there are some important tips I can give. Sadly, most of these I learned along the way, but hopefully some readers can use this to make that leap to professional feel more like a hop.

1. Overhaul Your Portfolio for Commercial Consumption

I will hold my hands up here: I could be better at this. Firstly, let me unpack what it is I mean. An amateur portfolio — even a keen hobbyist — will almost always lack a sense of direction. It will contain so many genres and sub-genres where you simply love taking photos of everything, that it's very difficult to brand. It doesn't matter how much you love to take photos of your dog or cat or even how good you are at it, if you're looking to get work photographing real estate or sports, it's not relevant experience to a potential client. One workaround that I employ is splitting my portfolio into sections of photography that I do commercially, and then personal work. I could (and arguably should) split my portfolio into separate portfolios entirely for each strand of my business, but I do believe there's a fine line to be walked where you don't present yourself as so niche that you end up pigeonholing yourself.

But I like taking pictures of pets...

2. Re-Brand Social Media Profiles for Business

I might be alone here, but I'm pretty adamant about this point. If your Instagram, Twitter, or other social media profile reads "Jade - Party Girl (L) - Happy Snapper - Coffee Drinker - Owner of @AnotherDogWithAnUnnecessarySocialMediaPresence," don't expect companies — particularly reputable and affluent brands, to treat you like a business person or even take you seriously. The old adage goes, "dress for the job you want," well this applies to social media and emails. Dress your language and your social media profiles up for the clients you want to have hiring you. You don't have to obliterate all that makes you you, just refocus the descriptions of your pages you will be using for business to reflect that you take what it is that you do, seriously.

3. Network With Purpose

I've written several times on networking and its importance to business growth, so I'll leave that be. What I will say, is network with purpose. That is, approach brands you want to work with (even if you think they're out of your league) and identify opportunities that fall within your photographic remit, wherever they may be. If you're meeting new people, always keep an ear out for where you might of use to someone. It's also worth noting that ruling yourself out of poorly paid jobs in areas you aren't interested in is as empowering as accepting work in areas that are. Have a vision for what it is you want to be doing, and network whenever possible with it in mind. Which brings me on to my next point.

4. Narrow Your Photographic Focus

I am, for the most part, summarizing my recent article where I discuss the merit and value in developing a niche. However, as much us artists might like to pretend money is irrelevant, it isn't. In fact, for most of us — myself very much included — it's paramount to being able to continue a career doing something we love. Well, much like I alluded to in the first point, honing your portfolio in to a large interactive advert for the area in which you wish to work is crucial. The more convoluted your body of work is, the less likely the people and brands you really want to work with will take you seriously. The entry-level jobs will still be open to you, I suspect. But for the really great projects, those portfolio-making, belly-fluttering, chest-swelling shoots you can't wait to share, well they require some specialization on your part.

5. Be Consistent

I am a photographer, writer, and I run a small business, so I'm far from the most insightful on this subject, but nevertheless, running businesses requires a lot of upkeep. It's difficult to keep everything ticking over and it's all too easy to let important things slip through the cracks and this is where consistency is vital. To give you an example: in my first few years of being a full-time writer and photographer, I had many peaks and troughs in my workload and earnings. In periods where things were too quiet, I would spend long days networking and building opportunities and connections. I remember this going on for weeks sometimes, with every passing day making me more stressed and anxious about my businesses being sustainable long-term. Then, as these things tend to do, the hard work paid off and I got hit by a train full of work. There's this funny old thing with work too: work brings work. It's much like money attracts money; once you have a lot of work going, those clients talk to other people and the work your sharing becomes more regular and interesting and you start receiving more inquiries. Then, while outrunning that train, you forget to build future tracks. You stop networking and building connections because you couldn't take anything on right now. Inevitably, however, the well dries up and you're back to spending long days trying to bring about work again. The moral of the story: set aside time to always canvass and network — no matter how busy. Similarly, don't let your social media accounts follow the flow of your workload and have weeks of two posts a day, then a week of just one post. Consistency.

6. Work Out Your Prices

I cannot tell you how much difficulty I had with pricing in the early days. If you go back even just a few years and read some of my articles you will be able to see me discussing how I wrestled with price when I made the jump to full time. I read multiple books on price and the psychology than underpins it (which is genuinely fascinating) and yet I couldn't really settle on what price I ought to charge. The problem was not so much that I didn't know what price might get me the work I wanted, it was more I didn't have a sense of my own value. This takes time, but in the early days what I would say is to work out exactly how many hours the job will take you to travel to and from, to shoot, and to edit. Look for any costs you might incur for travel, props, model hire, and so on. Then combine the latter costs with an hourly rate you believe is fair and work from that. My first year of my photography business (which was by far the most difficult to work out a pricing system of my businesses) was a great deal of flailing in the dark. Some jobs I felt as if I'd overcharged and most I realized at some point during the project that I had undershot. Too many undershot projects can be dangerous to an already fragile and fetal stage of a photography business.

7. Identify Your Weaknesses and Address Them Head On

You know your weaknesses; we all know our own. It's tough to really address them, however. It's important to identify where your weakest and which of these weaknesses might affect how you progress as a professional photographer. It's much easier said than done and it can be a little hard on ego, but it's necessary. One of mine is the aforementioned price and value problem. I didn't know my worth when I started my career and I didn't know how to price my time to acquire enough work to continue as a professional photographer but not so much that it would deter any interest. So I read books, I read articles like these by people further down the line than I was, and I asked anyone who would take the time to answer me.

Find those rough waters and hit them head on. Metaphorically, obviously.

I knew when I received my third question about transitioning into the professional photography world that I ought to write something on the subject as I would have liked to have read it some years back when I was looking to make that move. I didn't anticipate quite how many points I'd like to include, however, and this is the most important seven of nearly three times that. If the interest is there, I will follow this up with more. As always, I will reply to comments as soon as I am able and if you have any advice you'd like to add, it is warmly welcomed.

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16 Comments

Michael Holst's picture

Great points!

Narrowing my focus is something I wish I was better at.

Robert K Baggs's picture

It's one of those things that's sounds easy but it actually pretty difficult to execute.

Aaron Mello's picture

"Narrow Your Photographic Focus." This is still something I'm very much interested in hearing more about from different photographers. How do people who successfully shoot multiple subjects (say portraits and aerial photos, videos as an example) show off their work? Separate accounts for each or can they be combined? This is what I'm struggling with and I believe is the reason for having such difficultly in growing my IG account.

Robert K Baggs's picture

I mention in that niche article linked above that the most successful photographer I know shoots multiple genres successfully and I mean, VERY successfully. He has multiple portfolios, business cards — the works — for each of his genres and treats them like individual businesses. I think that's where I might head but I'm not there yet either.

Levi Keplar's picture

Robert, this is one of my favorite articles I've read on Fstoppers. Really insightful. I loved the analogy you made of building tracks and forgetting to build the future tracks. Great job!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Ditto, it's the perfect way to describe this

Chris Ramsey Jr.'s picture

I feel like focusing on your strengths is equally as important as trying to improve your weaknesses. Possibly using them to mask your weaknesses.

I tell people that a photographer is like a lawyer -- there are different kinds and you need the right one for the task at hand. For example, you'd never hire your wills and trusts attorney to represent you in a criminal case. That helps them get the point.

The problem is all the photographers who say "I do everything!" My belief is if you think you are equally talented at shooting a wedding as you are in shooting a print ad for a line of laundromats, you haven't defined your skill set sufficiently.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Networking is soooo important, someone could be perfect in all these other areas, but could go nowhere if they don't network.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Thanks for that one. I'm still thinking about going pro, what would it take and when I'll be "ready" to do the leap. I understand there is no one place I could say that - it's the process. But still, I have a feeling that lots of issues should be addressed first. Anyway, looking forward to other 7 tips. ;)

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Thomas Blasche's picture

For become to be a professional photographer this is a good article. To focus, networking, think about pricing are importing topics. But: What I'm missing is the thinking about "should I really go the way into a professional?".
Most people today buy a camera, buy lenses, tripod and so on... Some people make good pics, earn likes (on social media) and the first thought is to earn money with photography. Earn money with photography, in the most cases, isn't a passion. It's a hard job. You have to reduce yourself. Today you take pictures from landscape, people, animals, bridal pair, products, ore other - doing experimental photography like pictures of drops or other things.With them you have fun - because you haven't the pressure, that this is a job.
That's the different. If you want to be a professional, you have to focus and every pic you make in this focus is for your work. You would lose something - i.e. your freedom to do what you want....

Robert K Baggs's picture

Completely agree, it's tricky and very easy to fall out of love with photography. One of the reasons I didn't make the leap in to professional photography earlier was because I didn't want to lose it as one of my favourite things to do. The balance I — and a lot of photographers I know — strike is doing work for money but then making sure you put time in to personal work too. This could be an article in itself, and one I may write.

Jonathan Allen's picture

At this moment, I am struggling with the networking portion. I sit at my computer telling myself that I am going to do it, but then I end up reading about photography (like this article haha). What should I be doing to network? Should I be sending emails to local businesses or something? I just need a little push into a direction that I can walk.

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Robert K Baggs's picture

It's tough, there's no doubt about it. Local networking events can be useful and I know a lot of people who have had success with those. Personally, I've done better by creating pitches and then approaching relevant companies. You do maternity shoots, so perhaps come up with a special package (shoots, editing, prints — whatever you can make sound appealing and cost effective) then approach pregnancy classes or try and team up with someone who does maternity yoga. These are of course rough outlines off the top of my head, but the salient point is this: try not to be too vague when you approach local business/people. Have an idea and then sell that. I hope that helps in some way!