When to Turn Pro in Photography

When to Turn Pro in Photography

Going pro or full time in photography is often a daunting task. A lot of us are making the jump from another career rather than straight from university. This offers a particular set of challenges. Chances are that you have a mortgage or rent, loans, credit cards, children, cars, bills, a cat and dog, and a host of expenses that you have to keep on top of. The risk is high, but so is the reward.

Choosing the correct time to make the leap is going to be different for everyone depending on your personal circumstances, but here are a few key points that should help you make the decision.

Savings

Do you have enough money to cover yourself for the next year?

This is a bit hypocritical of me as I made the jump with very little in savings, but I also had very low overheads and no dependents. If you have small people, a partner, or anyone else who relies on you making money, be sure you can keep them safe for the first year at a minimum. It's also worth having all of your equipment purchased before you start relying on photography money to pay your bills.

Clients

If you don’t already have any clients, it probably isn't the time to go pro. I spent my first three years shooting part time, taking days off work (skiving, not sure what you call this in the U.S.A.), working evenings and weekends to fit in small ad campaigns, headshots, and band shoots. I was probably grossing about £1,500 a month when I decided to hand my notice in at work. I had also hit a point where I was turning work away because I simply didn’t have the time to take any more on. 

Know Your Numbers

I cannot stress this enough. When I first started out I could tell you to the penny how much I was spending on food each week. You really have to keep an eye on your finances. Make sure that the amount you charge, the amount of work you can viably do, and your overheads all add up.

Do You Have What It Takes?

This is a very hard one to work out unless you are really self-aware. Some people can’t be a professional photographer. This can be for a host of reasons, the obvious one being that your work simply isn't good enough, also some of us struggle with the stress and pressure, others lack in organizational skills, and some folks are just not nice to work with. It's better to work this out now rather than after you've left a well-paying day job.

Are You Sure You Want to Be a Professional Photographer?

It isn’t all it's cracked up to be, all of the time. Last year I worked in Sicily, Paris, Normandy, and London. I flew around in helicopters and photographed some big names in music and comedy. I also lost my temper, cried alone in my studio at 3 a.m., traveled so much that I mastered sleeping while standing on a crowded train, had cash flow issues of biblical proportions as the level of work I shot grew dramatically, had nightmare clients, late payers, and equipment failures that would make your wallet weep. Some of this I am really good at coping with, other aspects can get to me at times. When it was a hobby, I just took photographs for the love of it. Now I have a plethora of expectations and pressures that I didn’t even know existed.

Some of my favorite photographers don’t make a penny from their passion. Think hard before making the jump as it can be an easy way to ruin something you loved.

If you have recently turned pro, please add some hints and tips in the comments for others in the same position.

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10 Comments

Do all you can to stay debt free. Once you take on debt it is very hard to get out from that pressure while trying to meet the rest of your overhead.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Although in the last three years I had some paid works, I consider that my pro-jump is happening right now. Tomorrow I have to sign the rental of a place and from that on I have to move quickly!

I spend the last months studying High-End retouching, social networks, and some marketing solutions, reading a lot... I feel prepare. Let's see where this adventure is going to take me!

Thanks for the article! I'll keep it in mind!

Scott Choucino's picture

You will have a blast. Remember that things get a bit scary now and then, you just have to keep going and if it isn't working, adapt and change quickly.

I've recently left a teaching job and moved to France. Big changes... the language not being the least. Although I've done some paid work in the past, I haven't been really sure how to set-off on a pro career. Some good solid advice in your article. Cheers!

Oliver Saillard's picture

Thanks for the article! It's always interesting to have such readings when you're on the verge on trning pro yourself.

About the when leaving the 9-5 job, it's still hard to find the compromise between keeping the work to increase one's savings and quitting to have more time to build your portfolio, learn new skills, and expand your network...

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"Do you have enough money to cover yourself for the next year?"

This is a commonly held rule of thumb and a great starting point but often said by financial advisors or people who are already in business and did not follow that advice.

I know if I tried to do that I would probably never started my business. Unless I bumped off my wealthy great aunt, the chance of me having $30-50k in the bank was pretty slim.
Being debt free is the best advice as you don;t need to own everything these days, rentals are quick, easy and billable.
I had low expenses, and small jobs so it worked out when my jobs grew while my expenses were affordable.
Keep things under control and don't follow the advice that a friend of mine took from the movie "Field of Dreams"
"If you build it they will come". He did and they didn't

John Audrey's picture

All photography really is to me is a creative outlet. I will do paid jobs (definition of a professional, I suppose) but turning this love of creation into a job is not something I am particularly interested in doing. Sure there are times I don't like what I do at my job but I make a good living that supports every aspect of my photography including purchases and travel. I'm also enrolled in a Fine Arts degree program and intend to get my Masters. I love this stuff. But I think this topic is vastly under-rated and I'm happy to see a bit of reality brought to the forefront.

What I don't like to see is when people say you shouldn't have, buy or own anything that is pro-level equipment if you aren't making money off of it. Some people say you should walk away. What a silly sentiment. Like someone else said, some of the most well-known photographers didn't make a dime. I just want to make fine-art, pictorial-style images and send them off to galleries. That's all that I need to make me feel like a successful photographer. But all things aside, it is MY creative outlet and to hell with what everyone else thinks. The pressure alone to go pro is far too great.

If you aspire to go pro and it is your dream...follow it! Hustle! Do what it takes!

Take care everyone. Happy shooting!

R/
John

Arun Hegden's picture

"When it was a hobby, I just took photographs for the love of it. Now I have a plethora of expectations and pressures that I didn’t even know existed."
These words, truly gold. Experiencing this now, though I haven't moved into full time.

Graham Glover's picture

I have additional motivation to keep this non-pro for awhile. At present I am able to use my single car garage as a makeshift studio. It's wide enough for a normal roll of seamless, and is deep enough to do some interesting work. As a "hobby", I can do fashion photography in there. As a business, I cannot have a studio in my home, nor can I have clients visit. I have neighbors who would report me for a county violation in an instant; these are "friends", btw. This is Fairfax County Virginia. (I can move 2 miles up the road to Vienna, Virginia and have a home studio.)

I'd suggest looking into what you are allowed to do, based on local laws and regulations. Without looking at that, you may find yourself either facing additional expenses to maintain similar resources (studio, office, for instance), adapting your business to what you are allowed to do, or being unable to do certain things. In Lee Morris' and Patrick Hall's wedding tutorial, their "offices" are typically either in a coffee shop or a reception venue. Likewise, a studio didn't appear to be an issue for them. If you've already started a business, you probably covered this. If not, check your local laws.

Elan Govan's picture

skiving....limited contribution to a full day's work. I think this is a fair description in any English speaking country Scott.