5 Rules I Live By as a Professional Photographer

5 Rules I Live By as a Professional Photographer

As someone who makes 100% of their income by taking pictures, I understand how uncertain, and perhaps unstable, this career is. Spending thousands on gear is easier than ever, and with such a low entry point, everyone wants to be a photographer. It is not easy, and here are some rules I have come up with to survive in this industry. 

Cut Overheads

This is an excellent business tip in general. Given that your income is unstable as a photographer, you may easily have periods when no money is made. At the same time, there is a constant obligation to spend. Such payments may include subscriptions, rent, marketing costs, and so on. The devil for most creators is the stupid amount of subscriptions that you have to sign up for. While I understand the business decision to make software a subscription service, it is simply unfair to smaller creators who may not even have the budget. For example, I could not use Photoshop when there was no budget for it. The same applies to Capture One and virtually any other software. The subscription model is, frankly, a plague that does not do anything for the user besides making them pay a ridiculous amount if they need the software. Another thing that I cut down on is the heating as well as utilities. There is no reason whatsoever for the studio to be heated when I am not shooting there. The same applies to subscriptions such as Netflix, HBO, and so on. I don’t really have time to watch movies in the first place, and when I do, it is with friends who do have a subscription. The fewer subscriptions, the better. The less overhead, the better.

Help People up the Ladder

One of the best and worst things about working in such an easy-to-enter industry is the number of newcomers. Everyone wants to have a go at this fun and seemingly easy job. Besides the fact that it is not so easy and fun, you still should encourage people to have a try. Don’t be one of those super-protective creatives who don’t share what setup they used or what idea is more effective. I don’t have any secrets about my technique. Anyone can message me and ask a photography-related question and be sure to get an answer that will be complete. I don’t have a secret setup or a secret sauce. As someone who had to pay a lot for renting a studio when starting out, I now offer up my space to up-and-coming creators for free.

I was really fortunate to work with a world-class retoucher not too long ago. He has given me more than anyone, I have learned more than I can understand from this person, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to jumpstart my career. 

The more you help, the more help you will receive. 

Cost of Running Business Is Not a Justification for Being Reckless With Money

It might be an obvious one, but I still see so many photographers spending thousands on equipment they don’t really need and justifying it as a cost of doing business. I mean, sure, buying two identical bodies who can do 99% of the work is a cost. But replacing perfectly good cameras with something better because the camera marketing team told you so is not a cost, but an unnecessary expense. This is why the best camera is the one you have, not the one in the store. Having tested different cameras, I came to the conclusion that it really is the photographer and not the camera. The takeaway is that being reckless with money cannot be justified. The only time cost of running a business is a justification is when you cannot do your job without it. For example, I bought a background support system, because without it, I cannot use my paper rolls. But, I did not buy a set of autopoles, superclamps, and other things to do the same exact job. The bare minimum is usually enough. However, I will not skimp on the quality of what I am getting. While I own Profoto, I own the adequate minimum in their lineup, not the top-of-the-range lights. Most of it is bought used anyways. 

Stay True to Yourself, Decline if Necessary

Most things are for sale if the price is right. There are two kinds of projects that I do: a cash cow and a passion project. A cash cow project is something that I am not proud of, would not want to sign my name under, and in general, would rather forget about it. The motivation to do these projects is the money, nothing else. But, you have to be able to sell yourself at a high value. If the number is not good enough, just decline. There are other times when no sum of money would make you do the project. You must be able to say no to such work without any hesitation. The more you are able to stay true to yourself, the better. I wish I declined projects more.

Remember Why You Started This

It is easy to get caught up in the small-scale drama. In fact, there is always some drama between somebody you know. It is unavoidable, especially if it’s fashion or any other industry where people work more against each other. There were countless times when I felt like I wanted to give up, just do what people my age do, and follow a simpler, more traditional corporate route. Because really, I am on my own. I don’t have a family of creatives who land me work, quite the contrary, actually. If I don’t believe in myself, who else would? The reason I take pictures is not to have small-scale arguments or worry about who hates who. I take pictures because it feels right. Trust me, when you feel like quitting, the most learning happens.

Bonus Rule: Don’t Buy Coffee at Starbucks

This seems like a stupid business rule to include, but you would be amazed at how expensive it is to get a flat white every day for a month. Not only is Starbucks coffee garbage, it is also expensive. It is far cheaper and wiser (and more satisfactory) to own a coffee machine and make your own brew. The markup, even on an espresso, is ridiculous. Sure, coffee shops have become a hub for freelancers, but again, there is nothing romantic about being a freelancer in a coffee shop with a flat white. If anything, it is distracting and counterproductive. Have an office instead or at least a space that is silent and work-conducive.  

Closing Thoughts

So, here are some of the rules that I apply in my photography business. Condensed to one sentence, it might sound something like this: don’t spend money stupidly, be good to people, and be good to yourself. Sure, that is oversimplified, but it is the essence.

What are some of the rules that you use in your photography? Let us know in the comments! 

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya Ovchar is a fashion photographer based in Europe. In his work, Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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Thanks, and the bit about Starbucks was gold.

Glad it resonated! thanks for reading and commenting.

All good advice... especially the coffee. Sitting in front of a computer most of the day, it's cathartic and rewarding to go make a coffee in the kitchen. Breville Barista Express + a good bag of roast whole beans = good coffee.

ha, yeah it sure is! I should try the Breville, is it available in the EU?

Sure I can make coffee at home and then go back and sit in front of the computer again. The thing about "Starbucks" (or any local cafe/coffee shop) is that after working at the computer for a few hours with more hours ahead of me I would like a break. It is good to get away from the screen so I can come back with fresh eyes. So getting out of the house/office is good for me.

Don't buy Starbucks? Is this article a parody of every bad take on why millennials can't afford to buy houses?

Not sure what you're getting at there.

100% of his income except for all the clickbait and often pretentiously written articles written daily for this site. But hey, go ahead and bash a coffee chain as a rule to live by as a photographer.

What a crock.

I'm not trying to bash a coffee chain, but I think spending money on overpriced items (such as Starbucks coffee) is not really worth it for the most part.

Not buying a from major chain (or any other coffee shop) has literally nothing to do with being a professional photographer. Especially a rule.

It "literally" does. "Professional Photographer" would infer that you are in the business of photography. Most likely you work for yourself. As such, any cost you incur is a cost against your business. Therefore, the higher your expenses the lower your profit. And if those coffees cost you, let's say $5 a day (if you only have one), that's almost $2,000 a year. That's a few months of studio rental, depending on where you live. So, explain to me how it has "literally" nothing to do with being a "professional" photographer.

If it's daily and you are not on a photoshoot out of town, that's really not a business expense, but a personal expense. That's as per the IRS, and easy to search.

I meant to reply to Dennis, but yeah. since I can't remove this reply, same, coffee is not a business expense.

Ah I love tea as well. An evening doesn't go without one.
Personally, I like to work out of my studio, since it doubles as an office.

The important point is do not spend money unnecessarily.


Overall, good advice. Don't waste money on expensive items you don't really need. The Starbuck's analogy hits it right on the head. A fairly expensive, ongoing cost that adds zero to your work. Which is exactly what a lot of the 'must have' accessories being pushed should be considered. I purchased a Philips LatteGo to counter my ongoing addiction to, you guessed it, Flat Whites and Lattes.

Thank you for reading, Anthony! I have to try the Latte Go sometime after my double espresso phase ends.

You're welcome, Paul! Happy to have you here.

As a 100% amateur, being a pro photographer of any kind sounds waaay too hard & unstable. Expensive equipment, cut-throat competition for every assignment, being creative on demand. I look forward to buying cheap second-hand photo equipment in a couple years when continually improving AI makes professional photography obsolete!

What income are you expecting from AI? I am just curious to see if you could tell your realistic income expectation.

AI absolutely does not, though! Check out this piece https://fstoppers.com/opinion/no-ai-will-not-kill-professional-photograp...

It's really not that hard to be a photographer if you understand some laws of business. From there it's all about how much you invest yourself into it and self motivation. Same for any business owner. Have you ever thought about being a jeweler or a restaurant owner? I don't see those as being easier than running a photo business.
As an amateur, if you want cheap gear, that stuff is already out there. But, if you think that AI is going to make used gear available in masses and for cheap any time soon, you may have to rethink this. If AI is about to be that powerful, you won't need that gear yourself because AI is already cheaper than cheap equipment to use.
CGI has already been around for quite a while and hasn't killed photography despite being already said to be cheaper. There is an erroneous assumption that CGI is for everyone because of the IKEA model, but in reality very few companies can benefit from CGI as massively as Ikea can and does. I do not do any CGI but last two year my photography business has gained 15% extra income because of CGI.
I think you should dissociate photography gear from image needs to appreciate what’s expected. When you understand what people want, their budget and actual needs, you’ll figure out that stills, CGI, AI or what ever illustration the client needs is going to fall in place and be what’s used, combined or not.
My only grief with AI in photography is that they grab and store images and decompose them to read the data in order to create starting points. That is far away from recreating photographically from a visual point and altering details to make new. It’s literally using the source to make new and that’s not a battle that’s going be short lived in court rooms. So cheap stuff? Not so fast.

Coffee in = photos out.


So true about all of that. Love the bit about buying gear. It is all a sales pitch at the store. Most definitely buy used from a reseller. I agree, coffee is overpriced, make your own.

Glad it resonated! Thank you for reading and commenting :)

Pretty generic rules. They apply to any trade. Nevertheless the starbucks rule resonated with many in the comment section. However if you consider that some people do not drop in but basically move into strabucks with laptops, notes, books, music, ipads, phones on the table and stays for long hours over a muffin , 5 dollar does not sound too hars for a half a day office rent. :)

It was an interesting read up until you express your personal view on Starbucks. So here's why I beg to differ.
But first, I totally understand the valid advice on spending money wisely.
I use Starbucks as a real-life social hub. I would say that I meet the majority of my prospective and past clients in my local Starbucks. The staff know me, know my work along with many of my clients and play a role in validating my value as a credible local artist to anyone who accompanies me there in the banter and small talk that takes place during my regular visits.
They underscore my notoriety.
Beyond that, it enables me to be visible as a friendly, approachable human being. Of course, I always have my portfolio with me for the curious onlooker/prospective client.
Lastly, I consider the cost of a couple of coffees as very cheap rent, not a couple of expensive coffees.
Thanks for listening and have a great day!

All true, but Starbucks still has overpriced, bad burnt coffee.