Thinking of Going Pro? The Good Signs, the Bad Signs, and the Red Herrings

Thinking of Going Pro? The Good Signs, the Bad Signs, and the Red Herrings

Transitioning from hobbyist to professional is daunting, but what are good and bad signs for someone looking to make the leap? And what "signs" aren't really signs at all?

I've written on the topic of making the move to professional photographer on numerous occasions, partly because they're always well received, and partly because it was a significant decision in my life; one I was never certain of even as I was making it, but we'll return to that. I won't spend much time unpacking what a "professional" photographer is, but rather just say that when I use that term, I'm referring to someone whose primary income is from photography in some capacity.

The Good Signs

You Have Opportunities to Make Money

This sounds so simple, but it's easy to overlook the financial elephant in the room from both angles; that is you can ignore the fact you haven't had any paid job openings present themselves. However, if there are, then that's a good sign. Without a doubt, one of the key indicators of business potential is clear opportunities to make money. This isn't to say a friend asking to pay you a small amount in exchange for a few portraits is that sort of indicator, but rather lots of people asking you, or companies and brands showing interest. It's hard to gauge before you start charging how much work there is, so test the water before you dive in.

You Suffer From a Lack of Time

I didn't realize this was as big a sign as it was, primarily because I wasn't yet looking to go full time with my photography. However, when I was completing my Master's, I couldn't do a lot of the photography I wanted to, even if it was paid. I thought that's just how things go — work trumps hobbies — but it was actually a positive indicator that perhaps I could use extra time to progress with photography as a business.

You Have Nothing Else You'd Rather Do

This feels like a bit of a "fluffy" non-point, but it isn't. If you truly can't think of anything else you'd rather be spending your time doing on this planet, and that isn't a fleeting emotion because one of your newest images was well received, then that's a great sign that you might be well suited to dedicating your working life towards it. I was always worried tha turning one of my passions in to a career would kill the love for it. It didn't.

The Bad Signs

You Have No Particular Direction With Your Photography

It's been a while since I harked on about discovering your niche(s) in photography, but here it is again. One of the biggest red flags for me when I see a professional photographer's portfolio (and I see a lot) is their work is too diverse in genre. Now, that isn't to say you have to be pigeonholed in to taking pictures of one type of thing forever, but rather some direction. For me, I take pictures of jewelry and I take portraits, often the two blend. Yes, I also like doing macro photography of insects and some landscape, but where my professional photography lies is in portraiture and commercial imagery of jewelry. If you're Jack of all trades, sod being a master of none, you'll be poor.

You Have No Interest in Running a Business or Learning About It

I'm going to keep this succinct: being a professional photographer is to be a small business owner. If you don't care about business, marketing, and running your own company, you need to avoid being freelance. By becoming a professional photographer you are starting a business and ought to learn what it takes to do so. Everything from negotiation through to taxes is crucial to not only your success, but your survival.

You Have No Industry Knowledge

This isn't to say you're not reading every piece of news on every camera, or going to every conference on the map, but rather no understanding of how it works. When you're uploading your images to platforms and getting nice comments from brands it can feel like you've got it figured out. I know, because I was naive when it come to understanding the industry before I took it seriously. The Fstoppers tutorials are great for that with a stand-out resource being Monte Isom's "Making Real Money: The Business of Commercial Photography". If you can't afford that, YouTube is a great resource, as are groups on Facebook where you can ask questions on how licensing works, for example. I wouldn't recommend going full-time without at least a basic understanding of how the industry functions.

The Red Herrings

You Don't Feel Ready

This is by far the most important red herring of all and as far as I can tell, it applies to just about everything. While it's true you might not feel ready to become a professional photographer and truly not be ready, you almost definitely won't feel ready when you are either. There are bound to be exceptions to this rule, but most conscientious arty types suffer from Imposter Syndrome and a large slice of self-doubt. Do your best to analyze things logically and objectively and don't let the negative self-talk bully you out of a good decision. This is a battle I still experience before every leap I take.

Your Friends and Family Think You're Good Enough (or Not)

I'm not going to patronize anyone by explaining this one much further. Your friends and family aren't fair and objective judges of your work and are either going to tell you you're great and should go for it (I hope this is the one), or they'll try to hold you back. Either way, seek opinions from people who know what they're talking about and who have no reason to swap you one way or the other.

You Need More Equipment

This is a well trodden path, but the opposite of "all the gear, no idea" is mistakenly believing that can't go pro until you have a full studio worth of Profoto strobes, a medium format body, and every focal length from fisheye to safari. That's perhaps an exaggeration, but the underlining sentiment stands: kit is almost never the thing holding a photographer back.

Alright, if you only have an old cheap SLR and a cup of coffee, you might have a point.


This article isn't prescriptive for deciding whether you ought to go pro or not, and I'd warn you against anything that says it is; there isn't an exact formula. With that said, there are definitely indicators that can aid you in making the right decision.

Professional photographers, what are some good and bad signs you can recommend hobbyist photographers to watch out for? Are there any red herrings I've missed? Share them in the comments below.

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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Red herring or red flag?

Don’t compare yourself to other photographers in your niche that also work in your territory. Learn from their successes and focus on how you can improve your business. Half the battle of running a small business is being confident enough to say “I can be great at this”.

Absolutely agree although it’s sometimes hard not to compare the quality of images. I often try to dissect an image done my another photographer to improve my techniques. Don’t stop learning and developing your craft. To be successful at this you must keep honing your skills in all aspects of your business.

Oh its terribly hard not to compare and I bring it up because I did it myself and I would guess that most others starting their small business fall into the same trap. I agree the only way to succeed is to continually grow your skills, either behind the lens, business or in confidence

A good sign is that the type of photography you like to do has actual customers.
I get calls all the time from people wanting to make the leap to pro but want to do it with landscape. fashion, nudes or sports. While there are some people that can make an actual living at those segments. All five of them are killing themselves doing so.

lol all five of them. Yeah not far off!

I photographed weddings for 10 years for the same studio and owner. I was rhe face of her studio basically.
When she wanted to retire I refused buying her business as I had no experience or interest in running a business.
I finally relented after numerous offers and losing my regular job .
Biggest mistake in my life. After 10 years the business died.
Heavy overhead, 2008 recession and my inability to make business connections like the former owner who was a networking queen.
I did excellent wedding photography. I was a lousy businessman.

Nice topic. Really need to think in depth. Today, photography has become house-hold-name. Every one is master, and some people skills with mobile phones is mesmerizing. ..

I used to tell myself I couldn't go pro because of my kit.... and I was right. Because I was using a VERY broken canon 650D with a 17-85mm usm covered in scratch marks, that did not autofocus even slightly, and had glitches on most photos that I took.

It's almost never the kit, until it is.

It took me 5 years to just realize how bad I was. That was my turning point and it took a workshop with a pro to tell me honestly where my work was at. My 2 cents anyway. Portfolio reviews by art directors and leading pros should be at the top of anyones list.

Good article btw.