In a recent conversation, a new photographer asked me a question that I had forgotten I'd had too when I was starting out. It was difficult to find much information that was actionable, so I'm going to do my best to provide it.
If you've been a hobbyist photographer for a while, there's little doubt you will have at least considered becoming a professional. The allure of doing what you love and earning money for it is strong for many of us, but it's a difficult path to take if you're looking at earning a comfortable wage.
I had been a photographer for around five or six years when I decided to go professional. I was in love with the craft and addicted to reading, watching, and practicing everything that surrounded it. Sometime after the first year or two with my camera, I had made the conscious and vocal decision to family and friends that I would never try to go pro. I told them that I didn't want to lose my love for my hobby and it was too competitive, with too low an annual average wage. What I was really saying was this: "I don't think I can make it and I'm too frightened to try."
I've recounted how I came to making the leap a few times and in considerable depth. You're not here to read that, so I'll summarize as it helps inform the tips to a degree. I finished my degrees, I interviewed for some sought-after jobs, and I got one. I then had a meltdown realizing that the life that sat before me was so far from what I wanted my life to look like. I'd worked a desk job in sales before I went back to university, and most of the reason I went to university as a mature student (albeit only in my early twenties!) was to get away from the drudgery of my chosen career path. While I enjoyed sales, I didn't enjoy just about anything else. So, once I'd completed two degrees and couldn't face the financial outlay of a PhD just to continue running away from desk jobs, I was stuck. I finally decided to all-in photography, with a sink or swim attitude. To be clear, it was a swim or drown situation; I had student loans, credit card debts, and I needed to buy a home with my girlfriend.
In my first week as a full-time 'tog, I found the most successful photographer I had any sort of connection with, and I asked them if they could hop on a call with me and discuss life as a professional and give me tips. We spoke for several hours, and I scribbled four pages of notes down. It was tremendously helpful, but it lacked one piece of vital information I hadn't realized I was looking for: how do you get your first paid job? I was looking years down the line and trying to figure out how I could have a successful career, but I wasn't looking at that first difficult step. I felt stuck and nervous, certain I was failing before I'd even started.
Nevertheless, I did eventually get my first paid job, and then, I repeated it in a number of different niches I wanted to move into despite having no working experience and for all intents and purposes, no portfolio and no contacts. In fact, I've done it enough times now that I believe I have a rough idea of the formula, but I warn you, it's not a quick and easy win.
Identify a Niche
There's some value if you're in a situation where you need to make money in photography ASAP, like I did, in casting a wide net. In my first year as a photographer, I shot giant drill bits, a wedding, actors' headshots, a range of watches, and a Christmas party. There's no shame in doing what you need to at the beginning to get the numbers in your account. You don't have to show the world all you're doing that isn't your niche. However, you should still identify a niche and do your best to break into it.
To identify your niche(s), work out what it is you're good at and what it is you're passionate about. Hopefully, there is a crossover between the two. Then, work out if it's commercially viable. Taking beautiful portraits of models is high up most photographers' lists, but making money off it is tremendously difficult. Try to narrow down what you want to do as much as possible. For example, with portraiture, I decided to aim headshots for aspiring actors. To begin with, the more narrow your aim, the better, as you have a higher chance of finding a paying client. You can then, of course, expand your area later.
Prepare a Portfolio (Even if It's Tiny)
This step can vary in how difficult it is. If, as a hobbyist, you've been shooting in a certain niche (headshots, real estate, jewelry, etc.), you are ahead of the game: you need to curate your best work into a small portfolio to show what you do. If you're looking to try to make money in an area you don't have any experience with (I've done this three or more times), then you need to start creating.
Find the sort of work you want to do, then find some of the work that has been done in that area. Then, you need to create your own shoots at the highest standard possible. If you want to photograph babies, track down a friendly baby with a parent you know, and take as many shots as you can. Create elaborate sets, experiment with styles a little, just create the best work you can. You don't need 50 example images to show to prospective clients; even five would do.
Brute Force Your Way In
Once you've got some work to show people, you need to start knocking on proverbial doors — a lot of them. I decided that my love and knowledge about watches in combination with my love for and ability in macro photography meant I could photograph watches for companies. So, I gathered some of my watches, and I put on shoots to build the aforementioned tiny portfolio. I then crafted an email that was completely honest; I didn't pretend I was an experienced commercial jewelry photographer. I said that I'm new to this sector, I explained why I think I'm a good fit for it, and I showed some of my images. I said I was offering reduced rates while I build my portfolio and that it's a great time to get some cheap but excellent marketing images. I contacted hundreds of companies, from fresh start-ups to titans in the watch world, and I refused to give up until someone hired me. I contacted anyone remotely related to watches, I asked everyone I could find if they knew anyone, and I called in every favor I'd ever accrued. You usually need to be a scrapper to get in that first door.
If you know your images are of a standard that is worth paying for — and that doesn't mean the pinnacle of photography in your niche — then you just have to find the right client. The world can feel small when you're looking for work, particularly with no experience, but it isn't. Eventually, someone will take a chance on you, and you need to over-deliver like never before.
- Identify an area of photography you enjoy but that has some opportunities for paid work. Be as specific as possible. For example, you want to take drone images of nice houses or portraits of pets.
- Build or curate a small portfolio of your absolute best images — photographs that exemplify your greatest work. This doesn't need to be big; even five images will do.
- Get your foot in someone's door at all costs. Contact every single person you can find in your targeted area, ask every friend who might know someone and call in every favor. You need to go further than others are willing to find that mystical first client.
How did you get your first client? Share your experiences and advice in the comment section below.