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Your Most Important Skill as a Professional Photographer Has Nothing to Do With a Camera

Your Most Important Skill as a Professional Photographer Has Nothing to Do With a Camera

Photographers spend a ton of time working on their technical and creative skills both with their cameras and in their post-processing. But the most important skill you can have as a professional has nothing to do with either of those. 

Average, But Reliable

When I was in music school, I had a teacher who always told me: "there are plenty of mediocre composers out there who have careers because they have their lives together and they meet deadlines without excuses." Of course, what he was implying is that there are a lot of talented people out there who can't get work because they can't meet professional demands, and at some point, people's patience ran out, despite their talents. 

The same warning should be heeded by photographers. Photography as a skill is hard enough: you have to master a myriad of technical parameters and techniques, and that is not even counting the fact that you also have to constantly be creative. With so many things to balance, a lot of photographers aiming to be professionals do not devote enough of their time (or even entirely overlook) the importance of being a competent businessperson. Besides, it is tempting to cast it aside. Playing with your lighting setups or learning a new Photoshop technique is a lot more fun than wading through marketing materials or updating your books, but the latter is just as important. 

A Businessperson Who Sold Photos

I remember when I visited a friend a few years ago in a place saturated with photographers, and he took me into the city so we could grab lunch. In the expensive business district of town, there was a local photographer's gallery. If I am being honest, their work was pretty mediocre — the sort of overly saturated HDR landscapes that we abhor and generally warn beginners to avoid. And yet, here they were, thriving in this business district where space was at a premium and rent was stratospheric, and their prints were flying out the door at impressively high prices. 

Now, before I go on, I do not mean my critique above as an insult to their work; I am merely being objective about its quality to underscore my point. I came to a really important realization that day. This person was less a photographer who sold their work and more a businessperson whose product was photographs. They knew their target audience and how to sell to them, and that is why they were occupying a sizable space in that upscale business district and shipping expensive prints out the door at a brisk pace. 

Most photographers work independently, which means they have to wear multiple hats and wear all of them well. Too often, the one that falls by the wayside is the business hat. Often, we oversimplify or overlook all the business skills we need to have to be professional. So, let's discuss all of them. 


Customer Service and Personal Skills

This is probably one of the most important. Just like posing someone, so much of being a successful photographer is knowing how to talk to people — how to make them feel comfortable and how to make them see value in you and your work. This requires attributes like the right amount of self-confidence and skills like being an empathetic listener. When a customer goes to a store to purchase a product, they have all the information they need about it right there — it's a finished, tangible entity. With photography, you are often not selling the person on a product so much as on trust (at least at first) — trust that you have heard their needs and desires and have the ability to bring them to fruition. 


I would rather be doing this, but voicemails are important too.

In this age of constant connectivity, people generally expect quick conversation and timely replies. That does not mean you need to be constantly tethered to your phone and missing your own life just to reply to clients. It does mean, however, that you should devote time at least every day to respond to emails and return calls. Often, the first reasonable response gets the client's business. Staying on top of incoming messages is crucial.


Most professionals will tell you that they spend a good chunk of their time marketing. You can have everything else right, but if potential clients don't know you exist and can't find you, it won't be any good. Finding vendors to partner with, working on your SEO, consistently posting to social media, managing your email list, promoting word of mouth, creating promotions, etc. are among the numerous tasks that are crucial to continuing to grow your business and to get it in front of the right eyes. 


Similar to marketing, photographers are often great networkers. This often means not necessarily directly interfacing with potential clients, but rather getting your name into circles where you will be turned to when a need for a photographer arises. This can mean hooking up with vendors if you are a wedding shooter or meeting major industry players if you shoot environmental portraits or the like.


Running your own business also means you have to take care of all the financials as well, which can be a difficult and time-consuming task, especially given the often complicated tax codes employed by some countries and municipalities. It is crucial that you stay on top of these both to make sure you're doing things properly in the eyes of the law and so you are not surprised by sudden taxes or the like. A lot of professionals pay a professional accountant to take care of these things for them; you might want to consider that if keeping good records and navigating financial laws and procedures are not your strong suit. 

While professional photographers generally don't need to keep a lawyer on retainer, they do need to have legally binding contracts to protect themselves and often have to navigate things like registering an LLC. Consulting with an attorney to make sure you are doing everything properly can save you a lot of headaches down the road.


No doubt, a successful professional photographer is capable both with a camera and as a businessperson. The above list was a basic outline of the things you should make sure you're proficient in, so if you need to work on any of those areas, consider a more in-depth tutorial. No matter what, be sure to devote time to not only improving your photography, but becoming a solid businessperson as well. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I went to college for photography but the most successful photographers I meet went to school for business. It is a bit of confession on my part but true.

Yep, it's no coincidence that David Yarrow is so successful as a photographer and is a former hedge fund manager.

Good article, Alex. The business side of any business is crucial for success.

This is so true, I know one or two photographers who do alright for themselves but their work is fishy at best...

Well-written and spot on advice. No matter the product or service, business done right is a "people business".