The dream of becoming a professional photographer is extremely common. It looks like a glamorous gig, but it’s not as simple as getting paid to take photos. Becoming a pro photographer also means becoming an entrepreneur, and that’s way harder than learning how to shoot on M.
Photography is an incredible thing. It can be a therapeutic outlet to help deal with trauma. It can be an escape from the mundane, or a way to re-assess the mundane and gain a greater appreciation for the everyday things around you. Photography can be a medium for the technically inclined who enjoy poring over white papers and debating optical characteristics, qualities of light, and printing techniques. Its accessibility can be equally valuable for those without a technical bone in their body whose exceptionally creative minds produce stunning and imaginative works of art.
The beauty of photography is that exactly none of the above benefits require becoming a professional. The ability to realize your photographic potential, create meaningful images you love, and glean every bit of energy and enjoyment from doing so can be done more easily with pursuing photography as a passion than using it as a means for putting food on the table. The fantasy is that as a pro you’ll be able to take images you love all the time. While the business of photography will most likely consume every waking moment (and some sleepless nights), the work you do as a pro is often not in alignment with the work you’re truly interested in.
The melding of passion and income is a bit of a unicorn. You might love “photography", but you might not have any interest at all in the kinds of photography that generate consistent income (or be naturally good at them). Not all projects are fun to work on. Not every image that sells is a good image. Not all clients are in alignment with your final vision, and you may be distressed to find out that few are.
Not only do pro photographers have to situate themselves into a realistic genre and place themselves in a niche which hopefully they have decent interest in, they also have to work to find those paying clients. In reality, the actual act of taking images, (the thing people love that makes them think being a pro photographer would be great,) ends up being only a small percentage of the responsibilities a pro photographer has. The rest is bookkeeping, marketing, contracts, paperwork, e-mails, taxes, editing, errands, and the never-ending hustle of small business upkeep that frankly isn’t that fun unless you’re a highly organized business oriented person. For every 1 day of shooting there is usually 10+ days of non-photographic responsibilities just to stay afloat. Enjoy taking photos on the weekends? You probably won’t have weekends as a new pro.
Like photography because it allows you to work alone? If you want to be a pro you can go ahead and pour water on that right now. You need excellent people skills in order to get new clients, as well as maintain good relationships with the clients you already have. And it’s not just clients you need to have good relationships with. It’s important to make connections in your niche and develop relationships with stylists, producers, designers, and anyone else that plays an integral role in helping a commercial shoot come together.
You may also find that once you’re a professional you start to view photography differently. Something that was once a joy and a release is now welded to pressure, work, stress, anxiety, and wondering when that next paycheck will come. You may second guess yourself into wondering whether you’re in the right genre, whether your should re-brand yourself, or whether or not you’re working for the right clients to further your career.
As a pro photographer you’ll also be met with fierce competition. As mentioned above, photography is an extremely common profession. Chances are there aren’t just a few pro photographers in your area you’ll have to compete with. You’ll have to deal with pricing challenges, learning how to place yourself and your product, people low-balling you, and maybe doing some work for free to help build a relationship or get work for your portfolio. You’ll also deal with rejection on a nearly constant basis. Be prepared to put in hours and hours and hours and hours of time researching, sending e-mails, pitching potential clients ideas, introducing yourself, staying in touch, and carving your elevator pitch. Oh, and making new work to stay relevant.
Many people want to be pros because they think their work will improve because of a sink or swim mentality. The idea that professionals are guaranteed to have better work than amateurs is simply false. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and so can you by perusing many of the photos on this very site posted by passionate non-professional photographers. The technical mastery and creative ability to consistently create top quality work has nothing to do with how much money it is able to generate or whether or not it was created for a paying client. In fact, I would go so far as to say being a professional photographer is frequently a hindrance to the fulfillment that comes from pursuing a project you’re emotionally connected to. If you’re a pro you’re shooting for someone else. If you’re an amateur, you’re shooting for yourself (and taking whatever risks at whatever budget you want). It’s ok if the end goal of a photograph is not to generate income.
If you love photography and are thinking of becoming a pro, please consider these points. You may think that quitting your job and diving into photography as a fully fledged career will only increase the satisfaction of creating new images and give you more time to do so, but the reality is more likely that it will do the opposite. Photography and business are separate things that don’t always have to join together. Someone who shoots for pleasure is no less a photographer than someone that shoots for money.
Give yourself the gift of doing what you love because you love it.