So You Want to Be a Professional Photographer

So You Want to Be a Professional Photographer

There’s much more to being a professional photographer than meets the eye. Making photos for your clients is about 5 percent of the job. Making a living from photography is difficult to say the least. If you want to be a professional photographer, there are many aspects you should consider before diving in.

The second you decide to be a professional photographer you become a businessperson first and a photographer second. Being an entrepreneur is no simple task; you need to wear many, many hats. It’s a never-ending uphill battle of learning and adapting. In order to succeed you’ll need to have a solid grasp on taxes, marketing, business practices, bookkeeping, and many other facets of entrepreneurship.

Finding Your Niche

What are you going to photograph? What demographic are you catering to? How much will you charge? What products will you offer? Are you focused on the high-end market or the average consumer? Do you do weddings and seniors or pets and families? You need to ask yourself all of these questions before you start. Finding a niche is important to your brand and spreading yourself between too many genres may be detrimental.

Sales and Pricing

One of the first stumbling blocks you’ll encounter is how to price your photography. There are an endless number of books and articles that cover this topic so I won’t go into detail here. Who you’re catering to and what area you’re in will determine how much you can charge. Doing research in your local market is a good first step.

Once you’ve booked the client and done the photos you need to know how to make the sale. In-person sales is the industry standard for selling to consumers. It involves meeting with your clients, showing them the products you offer, helping them make decisions, and answering questions for them. The opposite of in-person sales is called shoot-and-burn photography and most professions despise this approach. Shooting and burning is when you take photos for someone and hand over the digital files. This approach offers no print sales and they are now free to use your photos in perpetuity for whatever they like. It’s not a sustainable business model.


Marketing is the single biggest obstacle you will encounter as a business. If no one sees your work, it doesn't matter if you’re the best photographer who ever lived. The photography industry in general is very saturated, and breaking through the noise gets more difficult every day. 

Despite your web presence, word of mouth marketing remains the most powerful tool as your disposal. It doesn't matter if you’re a wedding photographer or a commercial photographer. People trust recommendations more than any ad you’ll ever be able to produce. If your business caters to consumers instead of businesses, incentivize your referrals and you'll get more clients. Reward your clients for getting you more clients.

A website is the most important part of your web presence. It’s where you showcase your brand, your work, and your personality the best. A business without a website will have a hard time being taken seriously. The market is abound with amateur photographers who don’t want to invest in a website, so having one will automatically differentiate yourself from them. Getting your website to show up in a search engine is a massive topic in and of itself, but you’ll need to learn how to make your website search engine friendly. Blogging is perhaps the best way to ensure your website gets traffic. It does wonders for your SEO and you can promote the posts on social media.

Social media is an important facet of modern marketing and advertising. Being on social media makes your business look more professional and enables you to have a more cohesive brand image. Hard sells don’t usually work on social media; people are so used to seeing ads that they are experts at ignoring them. Social media is for soft sells, brand awareness, keeping your business at the top of people’s mind, and of course showcasing your work.

Copyright and Legalities

Part of being a professional is ensuring that everything you’re doing is legal and that you’re protected. You need to protect yourself in case of difficult clients, and that protection comes from contracts. Having contracts that outline what your client can expect, what image usage rights you’re giving, and also verbiage to protect your own rights is a necessity. Model releases are also a must if you plan on using your photos for promoting your business. Oftentimes if you’re working with a high school senior or family, verbal permission is enough. If you’re working with other businesses or models, getting it on paper is a must. You can find contracts and model releases online but I highly suggest contacting a lawyer to get what you need for your specific business, or at the very least to review what you found online.

Copyright law is a complicated issue but it lies at the foundation of everything we do as photographers. In the age of social media, it’s more important than ever to know your rights. In the event that someone or another business steals your images, you need to know how to get them taken down or how get proper compensation. The longer you’re a photographer, the more likely it is that your copyright will be infringed. It’s more a matter of when than if it’s going to happen.

Taxes, Bookkeeping, and Accounting

To run your own business often means keeping your own books and financial records. The more organized you are the easier your life will be, so meticulous bookkeeping is a must. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with what expenses can be written off and what records you need to keep. Your camera gear will of course be a tax write-off, but so will things like insurance, stationary supplies, advertising expenses, or even getting coffee with clients. Business mileage is a big write-off as well. In Pennsylvania the reimbursement is 53.5 cents per mile driven. Every state's tax laws will vary. If you plan on doing your own taxes, the more knowledgeable you are the less money you’ll be leaving on the table.


Insuring your business is vital to its survival. If you’re a wedding photographer, many venues require that you have liability insurance. All other types of photographers should have insurance too. For example, it’ll keep you covered if someone falls over a light stand at your shoot. The insurance will pay for their medical expenses and your legal fees. You can also insure your camera equipment against theft and breakages.


The information here is by no means comprehensive; writing such an article would quite literally turn into a book. I hope that it made you more aware of all the facets that go into running your own show. Succeeding in this business means showing up seven days a week, at all hours of the day. Patience is a must, as you will not succeed overnight. If you can’t handle any of the topics discussed above, this business isn’t for you. Becoming an entrepreneur is a big risk, but big risks can pay off and be extremely rewarding. If you’re willing to put in a tremendous amount of hard work, you just might make it.

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Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

Condensed and well written, thank you for sharing.

Brandon Adam's picture

Thank you! I really appreciate it!

Adam T's picture

Quick question, I'm back in the market for insurance, do you have any recommendations?

Brandon Adam's picture

I use Erie for mine, but I'm not sure where you are so that might not be an option. A lot of people I know use the PPA's insurance. However, most insurance companies, small or large, will offer business liability, even if not tailored to photographers specifically.

Adam T's picture

Thank you for the response, I was looking at PPA but wanted to know if there were other photo and video ones out there.

John MacLean's picture

Adam, I’ve been with this outfit forever. Very good service.

Justin Howard's picture

I want to go professional within 12 to 18 months. Putting together a realistic business plan and covering all the areas that need attention is no laughing matter, in fact l was joking just the other day with a relative of mine when l remarked that "it might be easier to build a rocket in the back garden and fly to Mars than get in to professional photography", okay so l was being rather facetious but many - l hope - will get my point.
Building a studio, making a website, building your online presence and growing your various social media accounts, getting a logo, putting together galleries of your best work, reviewing your gear, managing your finances and deciding where money will best be spent, looking at business cards, putting together a hard copy portfolio, samples to give away, the legalities of being a photographer (especially when people and events are concerned) whether to get an Ebay shop to sell prints and, last but by no means least, actually finding some time to go out and bloody shoot occasionally, basically there is no end of things that need your attention. l will confess that among my list are numerous things l am attempting for the first time and have no prior knowledge or experience of. But the size and scope of what lies ahead is nonetheless huge.
Despite that l have met and heard of numerous people who just "fell into" photography by pure chance. Hopefully all this planning will come off, time will well!

Brandon Adam's picture

I hope it works out for you! Everyone starts from nothing. I went to college for photography and I learned nothing about business from it. If you can afford the time it takes to learn all this, you’re set.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Fabulous article, there can never be enough of these. I personally, still always learn from them because it is SO hard!!

Brandon Adam's picture

Thank you! I agree, there definitely needs to be more business articles on here!

Jay Jay's picture

Not to be the devil on one of your shoulders, but the fairly outspoken topic on whether it's realistic or even viable to go into it professionally, is a huge pause for consideration.

With magazines like Sports Illustrated using cell phones to shoot at least one of their covers (among other magazines trying the same), and large newspapers disbanding their photo department, and instead issuing iPhones for photo coverage. Not to mention how incredibly good and advanced cheap entry level dslr's and mirrorless are, to the point that anyone can take decent photos (don't even get me started on how good some 10 year olds are now), you have the very real problem that there is a continual shrinking market for the need to hire professional photographers. Ever spoke to wedding photographers who have stated they're getting less and less jobs, or lost out on one because they were undercut by a family member who shot it for free?

It's a very scary landscape for current professional photogs, not to mention ones who want to get into it. If you want to do it and make some money as a side business, great. But everyone should be completely honest with themselves, do research of the current and future state of photography, and not put all their eggs in a basket with the assumption that this will make enough money to pay your monthly mortgage and living expenses, afford you moderate luxuries, and more importantly, provide a sustainable living for decades until you retire.

What do i tell people who tell me they want to go into it? Don't do it. If you do, do it because you enjoy taking pictures, not because you think you will make a living off it, because every year, that dream gets harder and harder to achieve.

Brandon Adam's picture

The market is saturated for sure. But I still know plenty of people who are making it work full time. It’s not impossible, and like any business veture, it’s hard.