What Skills Should a Hobby Photographer Focus on If They May Want to Go Pro?

What Skills Should a Hobby Photographer Focus on If They May Want to Go Pro?

Photography is a wonderful hobby, but for some, a hobby just isn't enough. Some of us get so infected with the craft that we instantly know we want to one day spend all our time on it. So what skills should a hobbyist photographer focus on?

Strangely, I'm not one of those photographers who instantly knew they wanted to go professional. In fact, it's more than that. As my love for the craft grew quickly and in all directions, I was confident I didn't want to become a professional photographer for fear of losing that love and becoming jaded. My journey took a parallel route in which I tried to go every which way but photography with my career, but eventually realized the only two things I want to spend my time on this planet doing, is writing and photography.

I talk to a lot of photographers, however, and a common question from newbies and hobbyists is on what they should concentrate on to get to the point where they can earn money. This question was asked to me again just yesterday and I began scanning over what I could remember of just starting out. I remember it being intimidating, complex, and expensive. While that attracted me, there did seem to be avenues for learning everywhere I turned, and each avenue had myriad paths of its own. My approach was to craft my own makeshift survey course and try a bit of everything, but some advice from somebody who had gone through that phase and was now working in the industry would have been helpful and saved me some time.

The question I am putting to all you photographers out there who do this for a living. We have a great mixture of new and experienced photographers in our community and so I'd love the former to chip in with questions, and the latter to offer their advice. Here are my top three.

Adaptability

This is a tough one to articulate as by its very nature it's broad, but it pertains to getting some experience in as many situations as possible. One of the best ways to master your camera and never be surprised or stumped during a shoot is to have photographed lots of different genres, in lots of different scenarios. For example, if you like portraiture, shoot with a long focal length and a wide angle, shoot low-key and high-key, shoot editorial and shoot family, shoot studio and shoot street; put yourself in as many unfamiliar situations as possible and learn what it is they take to perform in.

Not only will this approach give you experience and a sense of comfort when thrust in to unusual places and situations, but you will truly master your camera and how to manipulate the exposure triangle, as well as composition to create desirable results regardless of circumstance. Briefs from clients can often contain curve balls, bizarre requests, or reference images on the moodboard that are technically tricky. What's worse though, is when that client is with you on location and asks for a type of image you weren't prepared for. A rounded knowledge of your craft can offset that problem dramatically.

My contracted hours shooting a wedding was up, it was now an intimate affair with people loosening up by fairy lights during the evening's blue hour. I wanted to capture the fun but without barging in with a big flash and ruining it, it wasn't possible. So I adapted by changing my focus entirely.

Mentorship

This is one I didn't learn from experience. I desperately wanted to have an experienced and talented mentor to help me through the early stages of my photography journey, but I could never find one, though I didn't exactly approach people either. I would always ask questions of how people achieved a certain look or style (definitely do this!), but no one took me under their wing. Over a decade ago I thought that would have been valuable, but now I think it would have been invaluable. The more I read on business and entrepreneurship, the more I realize the power of having someone guide you through territory they have personally chartered.

I have started working with a few mentees who are fairly new to photography and it's interesting to see it from the other side of the glass. I don't consider myself worthy of mentoring new professional photographers, but for those who are new to a camera, I'm able to help them avoid pitfalls and correct unnoticed mistakes far quicker than they might have organically, as well as cultivate their style. If you can get yourself a good mentor, no matter where you are as a photographer — be it pro or beginner — you should do it.

Sales

This advice always goes down like a lead balloon. Unfortunately, if you want to carve out any sort of success in an extremely bloated and competitive industry with low average incomes, you're going to need to have an edge over other creatives. A photographic edge will get you a little way, a creative edge might get you further, but a business and sales edge can really set you apart. You don't have to shadow Jordan Belfort and humming while you beat your chest, but reading some books and listening to some podcasts on business and sales techniques could make the world of difference should you decide to pursuit photography as a career.

I've written on this topic before on several occasions, so here is some further reading should you be interested:

Top 10 Business and Development Books for Photographers

The Biggest Difference Between Professional Photographers and Hobbyists

Dispelling One of the Biggest Myths About Becoming a Professional Photographer

How to Find a Valuable Niche as a Photographer

How to Plan for Success in 2019: My Free Goals Template

Over to You

Professionals: what advice do you have for newer photographers? What should they learn about or what skills should they focus on to give themselves the best possible chance at "making it".

Hobbyists and New Photographers: what do you want to know about making the transition from amateur to professional? Is there anything myself and our community of many full-time photographers can demystify for you?

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28 Comments

Robert,

What you say about not being able to find a mentor is something that I find interesting.

About a decade ago, as a wildlife photographer who aspired to "go pro", I also tried to find a mentor, and was unable to find anyone who was willing to help. I didn't want, or need, help with the photography itself. But I did desperately need help figuring out how to monetize it. I talked with many - and I do mean many - pro wildlife photographers who were quick to tell me how NOT to sell my images. But when I wanted to know how TO sell them, they wouldn't help.

Telling me NOT to sell via microstock was not helpful. Telling me NOT to sell to publishers who paid peanuts didn't help. Telling me NOT to donate images to nonprofits did not help put money in my pocket, either. I needed to know what TO do, not what not to do. When I would ask, "well, then what Editors and Art Directors should I be contacting about submissions? How do I contact those image buyers?" they would grow silent.

I think that those of us who have learned through trial and error should help others who come after us. Give them actual help, not just advice. Instead of trying to keep them down, we should share what we know with them, so that they may find success a little sooner than they would without our help.

We should have an attitude that says, "we are all in this together" instead of an attitude that says, "they are my competition." Yes, that should be our attitude even if they ARE our competition. Exercising unselfishness goes a long way.

Robert K Baggs's picture

There's a real culture of the industry being competitive and thus everyone's a threat. I can see why, given the sheer number of photographers, but it's not been my experience at all. I've often ended up becoming friends with my direct "competition" for work and recommend them on jobs I don't have time for. Perhaps it is a detraction from mentoring — I honestly hadn't made that connection — but it really shouldn't be. I will do my best to help anyone I can for as long as I can. I couldn't agree more with your last line. I think both ethically and in terms of career success, being selfless with knowledge and advice is the correct move.

I think it depends on location. I and depends on the type of photography. I have no trouble finding mentors or help for wedding. But when it comes to portrait, fashion, and things like that it is very hard to find people wanting to work together.

I have been taking classes with a professional photographer, but when it comes to the steps of how to start monetizing my work, she has been deliberately vague and not helpful at all. "Look it up." I hate that answer, because the internet has a plethora of misinformation

Alex Reiff's picture

I have to say, I'm glad to see an article like this. It seems like most of the targeted content I see is either geared towards the total beginner who still struggles with anything other than auto mode, or the full timer who's looking for the best way to build their business. I have one foot in the hobbyist circle, one foot in the part timer circle, I'm sure I'm not alone in that, and I think that presents some unique issues. Like, when I have a limited amount of free time, is it really worth using it marketing myself and doing work that pays less than my day job, when I could be doing pure passion projects instead? In the same vein, investing in gear and travel expenses when you're not really sure if it's going to come close to paying you back?

Robert K Baggs's picture

That's a tough one and I think we've all been there. I photograph a motorsport event most years which (unless I get lucky with print sales as I did one year) I make a net loss. Every year that becomes more the case as my rates increase and my free time decreases. As far as I can tell, you have to ask yourself what you want from photography. A pay discrepancy is only problematic if you don't think it's worth the drop. I've been offered full-time jobs outside of photography more than once that would either immediately or very quickly return more money than my current businesses. However, I'd be markedly less happy and free, so I'm not interested. If you truly want to replace your day job with photography, then it's all worth it and the sacrifices are to be expected and necessary. If you're still not sure, then don't force it; enjoy it and see where it goes.

JetCity Ninja's picture

finance and basic business management.

michaeljin's picture

Communication.

Mike Spivey's picture

Why would anyone want to ruin photography by making it a profession?

EL PIC's picture

The requirements for selecting a good mentor is knowing their net worth.
Think about it ..

Learn how to successfully run a business.

Nice, vague reply.

Sometimes a mentor may just be an elevated process to that ultimate referral. What a mentor initiates is choosing a speciality. That is ultimately the important decision: Specialize. It may also be the worse decision of your career.

Scott Hussey's picture

1. Learn how to promote yourself and be prepared to spend time and money on marketing;
2. Get comfortable with the sales process;
3. Learn how to estimate jobs and deliver realistic quotes to clients;
4. Get efficient with post production;
5. Be able to support yourself for at least 12 months without taking a penny from your business;
6. Pay an attorney to create your contracts;
7. Pay an accountant to help you with the bookkeeping;
8. Work with a good insurance agent to make sure you've got adequate coverage;
9. Log every mile driven, and save every receipt; and most importantly...
10. Realize that 95% of your time and energy will not involve holding a camera.

In the phrase "photography business," "photography" is the adjective, not the noun.

Gary WWU85's picture

Excellent points and What about:
1. Health Insurance and loss of income?
2. Savings & Retirement?

Scott Hussey's picture

The list could certainly be much longer. But I decided to call it at 10.

How would one go about making photography a part time business to supplement his/her regular income? Is that realistic?

Scott Hussey's picture

It's certainly reasonable. How to go about it depends largely on what type of photography business you're looking to develop, and what kind of "day job" you need to work around.

I work a typical m-f workweek. No late nights, no weekends. Would love to just make an extra $100-$200 bucks a month kind of thing to start.

Simple portraits or something straightforward would be a great place to start for me, since I would really just he jumping from hobbyist to actually getting paid, and a lower stress environment is probably the place to start.

Scott Hussey's picture

A lot of photographers start right where you are. So it's definitely realistic.

I'd encourage you to invest in setting up an actual business entity (such as an LLC, if you're in the US), and pay a CPA to advise you regarding how to track income and expenses.

A good CPA will almost always more than pay for themselves because of the tax savings they can help you discover.

Make sure you've got adequate business liability insurance coverage. No business is too small to require this. Ever.

If a client injures themselves while you're photographing them, you could get sued and lose everything you own, and half of everything you ever earn in the future. Likewise, if you're backing up to get a better angle and you knock over some little old lady who you didn't see standing behind you, you're going to get sued.

Don't take a penny in pay until you've done that!

Jerome Brill's picture

Being personable.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Having an exit plan, planned and ready.
Get another hobby lined up and make time for that hobby as you did your photography before you ruined that hobby by making it a job.

Don't get. me wrong, I love my job. I don't see it as a job. I never get Mondaymorningitis
However, you have to learn to put it down and take family time, time for yourself, time to do other things. Otherwise you get tunnelled into photography so deep that it's all your waking hours.

Rod Kestel's picture

Well how 'bout that.

Ian Oliver's picture

There's an entire other aspect and that is its impact on the rest of your world. It's critical to make sure you have buy-in and support from your spouse or partner. Pro photographers can have strange and unpredictable schedules, weeks of 80 hrs / week followed by weeks of 10 hrs / week, and extended travel. Relationships are stressful enough without this bit added.

There can be extreme stress when there is too much work and not enough time to get stuff done properly and stress when there's not enough work to pay the bills. And there is sometimes no definable reason for this.

I've heard more than a few stories of spouses concerned about what their photographer is doing on the road, particularly if they're spending a week in Buenos Aires with 3 pretty models, a pretty MUA, and others. It's easy to say that they just shouldn't be concerned or jealous... but then there's reality.

Partners of pro photographers often have to become comfortable with doing a lot of stuff by themselves. While friends spouses are with them at dinner or weddings, their pro photographer is off doing another wedding or a family photo shoot.

The skills to manage this side of it well do not always come very naturally.

Blake Aghili's picture

Being able to calculate exposure changes in their head ... I have seen too many photography college grads that can't even enumerate the f stopes ... SAD !

Probably the most important characteristic I have noted in my life on Earth is curiosity.
It is the Ur-driver of ambition.
Successful individuals in any field whether type A or B personalities have a unifying characteristic in that they all have curiosity about their field.
This drives them to find out more about their field than other students of the field. They do it unbidden, relentlessly and to the annoyance of friends and family. It can be called obsession, drive, perseverance and even selfishness but whatever the description the unstoppable nature of their interest permits the factors of success to emerge.
This is not to say others cannot get there without this level of ambition nor having that ambition guarantees success. Rather, it is far more likely that success will result.
We are bombarded by stories of seeming overnight success in many fields. Insta-famous people seem to have sprung up in the last two hours. However, the durable success that is the hallmark of a happy career is one of constant tending and growth. Many of the greatest talents we see started in their childhood years. My own daughter began writing obsessively in the second grade and would write a story EVERY DAY before breakfast all the way to college where she was a creative writing major. She is now, at the age of 27, the senior writer at a web firm with 450+ employees and 65+ writers.
I have been fortunate to also be such an obsessive and it has worked very well for me. However, my interest in the field did drive me to learn far more about the business than just the technical. I wanted to know how to price, to sell, and how to be a complete resident of the occupation.
I also note that the discomforts of life are evidence of being alive and learning and recognizing that you are part of the human experience. Not all is joy, but then not all is suffering.
Anything can be learned but lacking the death grip on motivation the learning can be minimal and ineffective.

Ok

John Pettigrew's picture

I have been taking photographs for as long as I can remember and it has always been something I loved to do and from time to time I often wondered if I should try and turn professional. At 55 I am now convinced it would be an awesome way to make a living but how do you make the step? Leaving a full time job to suddenly being out on your own is a daunting thought,