What's The Best Advice for Turning Pro as a Photographer?

What's The Best Advice for Turning Pro as a Photographer?

We've all needed help on the path to becoming photographers. Did some great advice help get you there? Advice may help you out of a bind or may help you to understand something you can't quite get the hang of. Of course, advice may also lead you down the wrong road. So, once you receive advice, you have to determine the value of the guidance. Is it good or bad advice? I asked a few photography colleagues to share the best advice they've received on turning pro. I'd love to hear about good advice you've been given, or good advice you'd like to share on turning pro. 

Advice can be extremely valuable. To paraphrase David Bailey, knowledge is power, so keep learning, keep collecting advice. On the flip side, Sophocles is reported to have noted that the greatest enemy is bad advice. So, how do you distinguish good advice from bad advice? Perhaps we channel Bailey a little more than Sophocles, collect advice, and then determine how to leverage it. After all, Sophocles wasn't nearly as good a photographer as Bailey. 

Don't forget, though, as Mary Schmich wrote in her now famous article, Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young: "Be careful whose advice you buy into... Advice is a form of nostalgia: dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth."

Ajani Charles: Don't Procrastinate (and Get To Work)

Canon ambassador and storyteller Ajani Charles attributes the best advice he's received to emperor philosopher Marcus Aurelius: 

Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong and of that controlling power... that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment, or it will be gone and never in your power again.

To paraphrase Aurelius, make hay while the sun shines. Get to work. Get on with it. Don't delay. Charles is a strong proponent of mental health in our industry and would likely be the first to quote another famous statesman inventor philosopher, Benjamin Franklin:

It is the idle man who is the miserable man.

Basically, get to work. 

Mike Gere: Bleed Your Art (and Get To Work)

Somewhat related, but perhaps a tad more extreme (you'd have to know him personally to really get the joke), wildlife and night sky photographer Mike Gere, of Jasper Photo Tours and Frontiers North Adventures (where we work together as photography and interpretive guides), passed me on to Charles Bukowski to explain the best advice he's ever received: 

If you're going to try, go all the way, otherwise don't even start. 

This could mean losing everything, but you have to be devoted. 

Continuing to quote Bukowski:

...if it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don't do it.

Make sure that photography is something you want. It's a tough road and doesn't likely lead to riches.

This particular approach also reminds me of artist Chuck Close's advice:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. 

I see a bit of a theme developing here. 

Jeffrey Garriock: Photograph Stories and Create Empathy

Wildlife and adventure photographer and filmmaker Jeffrey Garriock, who I work with as a Photographer in Residence at G Adventures, explained that the best advice he ever received focused on story: think about storytelling every time you trip the shutter. From Garriock's perspective, most of us get caught up in either content, composition, or both. Of course, these aren't bad things to focus on at all, but storytelling is by far the most powerful tool you have to try and connect with someone. The more you can focus on using your photos to tell a story, the more effective your message is and the less accompaniment it needs. When Garriock teaches photography, he always teaches it in the context of storytelling. Garriock finds storytelling an incredibly powerful tool to help his students focus on why they're taking photos in a particular way.

This certainly resonates with me. My first three slides of my shipboard lectures in Antarctica include the word intention in all caps. Similarly, I ask my guests to think about what their story is, what their experiences are, not just to go about collecting a catalogue of images. 

Michelle Valberg: Never Stop Exploring

Internationally recognized photographer and Nikon ambassador Michelle Valberg attributes her continued success to a piece of advice she put into practice early in her career: promote exploration and a continued discovery of your own distinctive photographic style. For Valberg, art thrives on creativity and subjectivity, so, continuing to explore your self will help you continue to grow. A piece of advice that Valberg has never stopped implementing.

Michelle Valberg, of note, one of Canada's entries into the WPC 2024.

Ricardo Peralta: Pursue and Grow

The best piece of advice Ricard Peralta received was to pursue his dreams and work through his initial challenges. Encouraged by this advice, Peralta followed his instincts to become the successful professional photographer he is today. From Peralta's point of view, this early advice has ingrained an eagerness to improve his photography constantly.

John and Veronica Park: Find Work With Clients Who Understand You 

Award-winning wedding photographers John and Veronica Park learned that before entering into a contractual agreement with a couple, you should listen to that little voice in your head. If your intuition strongly suggests a gulf between you and your client on any important matters, such hesitations, particularly when driven primarily by financial considerations, warrant serious reflection.

Each photographer possesses a unique personality and methodology, evident even in their portfolios, which are tailored to attract specific clientele. If a little inner voice cautions against collaborating with a particular client, heed that instinct. This feeling often signifies potential incompatibility, a crucial consideration in realms like wedding photography. Given the deeply personal and emotional nature of weddings, the selection of a photographer extends beyond mere aesthetic appeal; it hinges upon a harmonious connection between the photographer's ethos and the couple's sensibilities.

Aris Apostolopoulos: Break Rules

Another Photographer in Residence with GAdventures, Aris Apostolopoulos turns to Pablo Picasso for his go-to advice: learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. For example, the rule of thirds and leading lines, to name but a few ubiquitous photography rules, are made to be broken. How many times do you find yourself in front of a photo that has struck you and looking at it, you realize that not only it doesn’t follow the rules, but it's successful because it doesn't? For Apostolopoulos, understanding why the rules work is critical to subverting them.

Esteban Toro: Run Your Own Race

Travel photographer and Sony Ambassador, Esteban Toro was told early in his career to avoid comparing himself to others. For Toro, your only true competitor is your past self. Any measurement should be an evaluation of your own progress. If you spend too much time comparing yourself to others, you won't have time to grow. Toro suggests that you should celebrate your wins, and own your failures. It might be hackneyed, but it's a truism, failure can be the best teacher if you embrace it.  

Trevor Sherwin/; Create Relationships

Popular creative boudoir photographer, Trevor Sherwin of Provocateur Images has crafted his intimate style based on advice he received years ago: it's what you say between the shutter presses that gets you the shot. You can know all there is to know about the mechanics of exposure and lighting but if your client isn't comfortable, the images will be stilted or drab.

It's what you say between the shutter presses that gets you the shot.

Sherwin always has ongoing conversations with his clients; shoot time isn’t always devoted to taking pictures. For Sherwin, his sessions have more to do with talking and coaching the client than anything else. Building the relationship with the client is not only part of the experience, it’s what relaxes his clients into the best and most empowering photographs of their lives.

Please take the time to share your favorite piece of advice, something that was shared with you, or something you'd like to share with others.

And, of course, don't forget to wear sunscreen.

Stay tuned, I've also asked my colleagues for the worst photography advice they've ever been given. 

All images provided by and attributed to the credited photographer. Lead image Aris Apostolopoulos.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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My best reco is start shooting stuff that has marketable value. Which usually means fewer pretty girls and landscapes, unfortunately, but rather more "things" such as products. This is not to say that the former can't drive a career, but there are far more opportunities and less competition in the latter. (I know, I don't follow that advice. ;) )

Agreed, there has to be a market or you're just shouting into a vacuum (might as well make it a Dyson ;) ).

Probably the first question would be what kind of photographer do you want to be?

I would assume that many people who "want to turn pro" will be doing more of a direct to consumer business like the boudoir and wedding photographers shown in the article.
I have known maybe 150 photographers in my life. 99% were doing work for clients, some local some on the other side of the world but they were "pay me this much and I will photograph your project" and worked for ad agencies, magazines and big and small companies.

The artist in residencies and doing photo tours and workshops seem like a totally different animal and I don't really know how one would become an artist in residence, and where does the money come from for those situations?

But there was one guy was doing phototours in Tuscany :) and another was a sort of artist in residence at a giant corporation that we all have heard of as a giving back to society type of thing and there were teachers and workshoppers too...and one was a city employee and probably has a better retirement package than most photographers LOL

There is no better way to ruin a perfectly good hobby than to turn it into a business...

The second question should probably be: Do you know anything about how to run a business?

If you "want to turn pro", make sure you know not only the art side of being a pro photographer but also the business side. Without a solid business plan (or at least any kind of business plan) the art side won't matter at all.

Couldn't agree more - some kind of business plan is critical. But so is that courage to take a leap.

I agree that most of us are shooting direct to consumer. Which, as others have pointed out requires market research. The few photographers I know that work in-house are basically running a 'similar' business to d2c, but with only one client.

Re guiding and PiRs, most of the money I know about comes from companies that run the operations or from grants.

Re pensions, I certainly made more as a lawyer than I do as a photographer, but I'm happier and I spend my time with people that I like (not to cast aspersions on all of the lawyers I know). Turning my hobby into a business likely saved my life (minor hyperbole).

I don't find that any of those quotes actually pertain to beginning work as a professional photographer. Many are good quotes for continuing and improving as a photographer, but none are exactly a first or second step to being a professional.

How about: Research the market you are in or want to be in and honestly evaluate how you can meet that demand with integrity. Repeat that sequence for every market you enter or level you want to take on. If you can't answer that question easily, learn more until you can.

I'm not sure about that Dan - sometimes it requires a leap and much of the advice does encourage that.

To be clear, I do aagree that market research is critical. At EVERY step of the process.

Quote:"If you're going to try, go all the way, otherwise don't even start. This could mean losing everything, but you have to be devoted. "

I think I heard that one before: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
(Yoda, the Empire strikes Back)

Ha - Not only did Yoda say that a long time ago, Bukowski likely said it first. Why not steal from the best <-- George Lucas was fond of saying / implying.

Target your market according to what's around you locally. Learn business and learn what the client's needs are and how they operate. Mostly, remember that it's the work they ask for, not what you want to do, so stick to that. I've see people making that mistake and not stick to instructions and loose accounts. The issue is that the bigger clients have a hierarchic structure and the person you deal with will often not have the power to decide, so in order to keep their job, they stick to what they are told and most likely they are also not available all day long and may work 8-5 and will not reply to you out of these hours. Prioritization and organization are critical since everyone has a short deadline nowadays.
The other thing I would recommend is to have more equipment than needed. Not camera, but the proper lenses for the market you target, lots of stands, various light outputs (power packs with higher output will become handy despite what the trend in photography says), back up, back up and back up equipment so you can never let down the client. Investing in reliable quality products will pay off guaranteed if you do it right and are fit for the type of work asked.

Two keys that a really like here: 'it's the work they ask for, not what you want to do'


'back up back up back up' On the ship, days from land, we're fond of the saying, if you have one you have none, if you have two you have one, if you have three you have a back up (to paraphrase an old riddle).

Take it from a guy who has more equipment than needed. lol
If you live in the right places, renting equipment like lots of stands and bigger power packs make more sense than owning it. Then you bill the client for the rental fee.
I have close to 8000 watt seconds of strobes in Pelican cases in my closet. Last time I needed anything close to that was early 2022, currently use a couple godoxs because the client needs have changed.

Where is the right place? yours? Like a very large number of photographers, I don't live anywhere close to a rental house.
I don't have more equipment than needed, your perspective is wrong. But if would say that you have 8000ws you don't use, you are very certainly in that situation. Instead I rotate my stuff so when it gets older it becomes back up or stays at the studio for other clients that need work done there. And when it dies, it's gone. But yes 800ws-1600ws is not a thing of the past just like cmyk and printing is well alive and you can make fantastic connections with printers if you show that you know how it works that you are up to the task and they understand that your work will be printable right away. All they care about is that their client is a repeat and that their prepress department doesn't have to fix a botched job and client accepts their proof right away.
In 25years, I have never failed a client for lack of lights, stand or anything that is a last minute request. In fact I do have card access to some clients locations to facilitate and speed up my work. It's based on trust and not failing them is apparently important to them. And I also do have regular clients that do some photography on their own and call me for the jobs that are more complex. You got to adjust with clients needs and changes and my set up is fine. There are jobs that require larger ws, you just don't look to reach them apparently.

My advice would be to assure that you have another source of reliable income.

That's a bit bleak, no? I do agree that everyone should be cautious, but there must be a way to make a life out of being a photographer.

Or marry someone who does. I usualle made more $ than my wife but she was paid every two weeks. I had a "less consistent" income stream.

Be prepared for inconsistency is also a good piece of advice.