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Friday, July 4, 2014

How to Become a Professional Photographer: 5 Steps to Take (or not)

This is an issue I normally would not touch upon, but I have received quite a few messages asking advice. And since AmateurNikon is here to help, I think I should share that part of my experience, too. I'm a professional photographer, yes, but I'm also an amateur photographer (amateur = someone who loves something).

Before we begin, here are two disclaimers:
a) This is a list of the things you need to tackle on your way to becoming a professional photographer. It is not a list that guarantees you will become one (that would be dishonest to claim).
b) There are, I'm sure, more than one ways to the goal in question. There is a lot of imagination in life, and sometimes things "just happen". But don't count on it.

Becoming a professional photographer requires much more than simply taking 'nice' photos. Pictured, Doris Yeh from the Taiwanese metal band Chthonic.  If you wanna know how it's connected with today's article, read the story here

Step 1
Understand the reasons behind your wish to become a professional photographer.

Why do you want to sell your skills, your time, and your gear? Why do you want to take photos for strangers? Is it for money? For glory?
For 99% of us, there will be no glory and for more than 50% of us, very little money (more often than not probably barely covering the monthly expenses). There will also be a lot of stress involved (photography income is notoriously unstable)

Maybe it's for some other reason. Maybe you like making people happy. Do you like seeing people enjoying their photos? Especially if they don't have to spend a fortune? My personal motivation for becoming a pro photographer was anger: I was angry with the irrational prices many studios charge (and particularly with hidden expenses related to printed materials).

Step 2
Be honest with your limitations in expertise and equipment

It's one thing to take "nice" photos that aunt Emma and uncle Joe praise, and an other to take photos that are truly outstanding, or at the very least can stand professional scrutiny and competition. I could take lovely photos of sunsets when I was 13, but that didn't mean anything. I wasn't making photos; I was simply pressing a button and mother nature did its best to provide me with eye-catching material. The same can be true for many photographers today. Just because you can take a vivid-colored landscape photo, a nice macro, or a candid photo of your child, it doesn't mean you're ready for all kinds of professional assignments. Be honest with assessing your own abilities.

At the same time, be honest with assessing the limitations of your current equipment. If you're planning to become a sports photographer but you have just an entry-level camera and a kit lens, that obviously won't do. You must know what kind of equipment you will need, and you must assess whether you are able to acquire it without getting into financial trouble.

Bonus Advice:
Never invest into any business anything you're not ready to accept as a loss. If you're planning to get a personal loan in order to afford a Nikon D4s, an AF-S 24-70 f/2.8 and an AF-S VRII 70-200mm f/2.8 (worth ~ $10.000) thinking you'll get the money back through photography assignments, you're in for a very unpleasant surprise that might have serious consequences.

Step 3
Realize professional photography is not about quality: it's about delivering what people want

Being able to produce outstanding photos is one thing; being able to produce photos that paying customers want is an entirely different matter. You see, the common mistake aspiring professional photographers make is to think being a good photographer (whatever that means) is all it takes to become a successful professional photographer. "If I can take really great photos, better than most people I know, it means I can be a pro, right?". Well, I'm afraid it's not that simple. Surely, a certain level of quality is required. You can't offer a portrait shot to a client if you can't make sure there are no blown highlights on their skin, or if you can't post-process the photos appropriately. But that doesn't mean a photo that you're happy with is what the client wants. This comes only with experience - I'm still learning this myself, and I suspect it's a never-ending process. Particularly when you must find the balance between producing something the clients are happy with, and something you are happy with.

I don't take many photos like this (from my pre-pro days) anymore. Part of me wonders whether I would take more satisfying photos if I was doing it only for me. 

Step 4
Acknowledge the work and stress involved in running a business

Most aspiring pro photographers focus on the photography part and neglect thinking about the business part. Take a deep breath and start reading: Equipment acquisition; equipment servicing; equipment insurance; other insurance; taxation considerations; book-keeping; forms of setting up a business; business plan; financial plan; promotion and marketing; networking; banking; and so on, and so forth...

If you think you can just grab your camera, start taking photos, and get paid for it, you'll find yourself swimming in the ocean without a life-vest. This is particularly the case if a) you have no prior experience of setting up your own business; b) this can't (and probably it shouldn't!) be your primary - let alone the only - occupation. Try working 9-5, finishing postgraduate studies, and running a photography business and you'll see it's not easy at all!

Step 5
Think of, recognize, and act upon the signs that tell you to give up

I don't remember who it was that, when asked about the secret behind his great strategic skill, he replied something in the direction of "although I never intend to run away as a first thing, I always wanna know where the exit is located". You should do the same. You must definitely have an exit strategy for your photography business. You must think beforehand, which would be the signs that would mean you should call it quits. Then, if these signs appear (and mind you, you should reevaluate these from time to time), you must be able to recognize them and, perhaps the most crucial part, you must fulfill the promise to yourself: when it's time to quit, you simply quit. There is no shame in recognizing that this didn't work out as you planned. Hey, at least you tried, and you're happy that you did. You acquired some invaluable experience. But don't make the mistake to refuse to give up on something that doesn't work. It will pollute other areas of your life, and make you miserable.

Concluding this article, I would like to give a bit more concrete piece of advice: If you have read and acknowledged the above information, and you would still like to give it a go, the best thing to do would be to find someone already in the business and work for them first. This might involve working for free for some time (think of it as a photography apprenticeship). You would get valuable experience without the stress and costs involved in starting your own business right away.

Patience is the key in everything, remember.

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