Thinking about ‘Going Pro’? The sad truth.

Eliza-1065You love photography - so do I. It is wonderful to capture special moments and share them with others. Some of us use our cell-phones, and some use very expensive digital cameras. As a hobby and a past-time - it can help us record our personal and family history, and show others how we view the world.

Many people dream of being a professional photographer - the lifestyle and the opportunities to see different things is alluring.

However - its not all 'wine and roses.' Let me fill you in on what it takes to be a professional photographer.

What gives me the background to write this perspective? I did my first paid photo shoot when I was 16 - which is nearly 40 years ago now. I've photographed royalty, and politicians, athletes, weddings, models, architecture, landscapes, tools, food, homeless people, cans of tomato soup, and more. I haven't spent my whole life doing photography, but it was always part of what I did. I've also been involved in professional photography organizations both as a member and as the president, so I've gotten to know a lot of different photographers.

First off - I'm going to assume you are a good, honest, hard working person who wants to share your gifts with as many people as possible.

If you are thief or con-man who thinks its easy money, you really want to look to some other vocation because there are far easier ways to make big money than in photography.

People pay their hard earned money for quality images - and if you are producing anything less than great quality, you are ripping them off.

To be a professional photographer (in every sense of the word), you need to:

Have professional gear, and backups for that gear

Yes a professional can create compelling images on pretty much anything, but you only do that for specific effects, not as a consistent way of doing photography. Professional level cameras are just a tool for creating an image, but they help do the images be done at the best available quality.

And cameras fail - so you need a backup 'just in case.' You also need multiple high quality, fast (expensive) lenses so that whatever situation you face, you get the best image. Anything less and you are ripping people off.

You also need a professional level computer because anything less will waste your time (more on time down the page.)

You also need professional level software (Photoshop, etc) to produce the best image quality and not waste your time doing it.

It is expensive to set up a professional level photography business, you'll need to invest a lot to get to a level where you can do the work and not run into problems because of your equipment. And worse, as you progress you'll wind up with more gear and it will be more expensive because your skills will continue to advance.

Know your camera inside and out.

When something goes wrong - and it will - you need to be able to find another way to get the image, fast. You'll also be faced with a range of situations where the quality and amount of light will be different and the subjects will require different approaches. You need to be able to handle whatever is thrown at you and get a good image at the end.

While many people feel they can 'fix' images in Photoshop, you'll be far better off getting the best image 'in-camera' and doing the finishing touches with Photoshop. You can only do that by learning how to do photography in all kinds of situations.

Know Photoshop inside and out.

There are other programs out there that do image editing, but nothing is quite as good as Adobe Photoshop. This is actually the least problem any more - $10 a month and you can get the Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom deal. That's so cheap there's no reason not to.

But you also have to learn how to use it - there are many ways to get things done, and there are just as many ways to use it badly.

I also recommend using Lightroom for initial edits and sorting images. It makes the process much faster from beginning to end - and time is money.

Know light – and also how to light a scene

If you only do 'natural light' because you don't know how to use lighting, you are ripping people off. There are top photographers who choose natural light as a style, but they know how to use flash and other lights when needed. If you can't use a flash at all, you will not be capable of getting the quality of images people are paying you for. You need to know how to use light, and the best way I've found to learn and teach it is to learn lighting. Even if you only use reflectors in natural light, you need to understand how the quality and quantity of light affects the image.

Understand sales and marketing

If you can't market your services and ask for money, you don't get to do professional photography.

There always seem to be some people who find customers easily - but I suspect it's like the saying "The hyena says 'I'm not lucky, but I do keep moving'."

People who succeed in photography make sales, and they do that by constantly marketing to people and telling them about the photography and doing it enthusiastically.

Learning how to create images is relatively easy compared to learning to do sales for most people. You will need to learn sales and you'll spend far more time on sales and marketing than you will on actually 'doing' photography.

Your family will not see much of you

Your family will not see you nearly as much as you'd like. If you pursue photography full-time expect 60 hours work weeks, at least at the beginning. If you pursue it part-time in addition to a regular job, you'll be giving up most of your evenings and weekends to do it.

The process:

  • Send out marketing materials/promote yourself
  • Meet potential clients
  • Do the photography
  • Meet the clients to choose the final images
  • Prepare the images for delivery
  • Deliver the images

Consider this: The average wedding takes around 40 hours for a trained professional - in addition to the 12 or 16 hours on the wedding day.

You will need to charge more than you think you should

Not only do you need to be paid for the time you DO photography, but also for the time you put into sales and marketing, the time for meetings, for retouching, for delivering finished images, for your insurance (you absolutely have to have insurance, for your gear, for accidents, for your health and for your car), your administrative time, your taxes, your vehicle, your replacement gear (some lasts for a long time, some not so much), software updates, your holidays (vacations have to be paid for somehow if you want a 'reasonable life.')

This all ads up to quite a bit, and if you charge for your photography on the same level as you'd make at 7-11 you'll very quickly go broke.

I know a lot of 'former' photographers who thought they could make money by getting more work 'being cheap' - only to become burned out by the stress of never having money and working all the time to do it. And what's worse is that many such photographers wind up hurting their customers in the process.

Don't forget that your time away from friends and family is worth something. If you're not making enough money to make it worthwhile loosing time with your loved ones - then why do it at all?

You will not make money on a consistent basis

There will be times you are very busy, and times you'll sitting around wondering if you'll ever see another client. As one photographer aptly (if not slightly grossly) said - "Income as a photographer is much like watching a snake eat a small dog, really skinny then a big lump, then really skinny."

If you need to make regular income, this isn't the career for you.

You will need to take care of your paperwork

Among all the other things you need to take care of, you are running a business and you'll need to do the paperwork, your accounting, your billing, your marketing, your research and so on. You'll need to pay taxes and keep track of your equipment and software.

You will never stop learning

You will need to continually work on your photography and techniques, as well as on your sales, marketing and business skills. There are online courses, part-time schools, correspondence schools, etc.

And I've probably forgotten things you need to know

Photography can be a wonderful career, I've had the opportunity to see things and meet people I otherwise wouldn't get to. I also get to be creative and use my imagination to help my clients get the images they need. But don't go into photography thinking it's 'easy' or that you don't need to perfect your craft and knowledge of business before you do it.

If you want to be a professional, you need to do a lot of preparation before you ever charge a client for your services.

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