How to become a professional photographer

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Professional photography as a career?

Q. How does one become a wealthy photographer?

A. Start out as a very wealthy person, then, become a photographer.

There are some important business insights that are relevant to all photography businesses, no matter how good you are. Key thoughts:

1. Overall, the photography profession is pretty much a part-timers game, and more for those who want to do it for fun, and make a little money at it.

2. A photography career is largely for people who already have at least one decent source of income. For the vast majority of people, professional photography is no longer a career that a person should consider to support a family. * This may not be the case in your corner of the world, so verify prior to making any decision.

3. Prices are coming down on photography services. Since photography involves people’s discretionary income, and there is less discretionary income, and more people getting into photography, the future doesn’t look very good.

4. Craigslist, Living Social, and Groupon are driving prices lower. I saw a groupon ad for 1-2 hours of photography, 1-11×14, 2-8×10’s, 4-4×6’s and a CD of 20 retouched printable images. Price? $69 Now also consider that the business gets half, and groupon gets the other half. So, the photographer was getting $35 gross, and maybe $10 net after expenses (this is a best case scenario, as insurance, taxes, computer equipment/software, camera gear, workshops, CPA, professional dues, daycare for her kids, auto expenses, etc. combine into a whopping drain of gross income) Divide that by a best case scenario of 4 hours and you get $2.50/hr, with not much of a chance for the sale of additional items, other than a frame or two. To make matters worse, there is a growing number of these “photographers”.

5. Photographers who have been in business full-time for over 10, 20 and even 30 years are having to close their doors. I know very good photographers who are in bankruptcy, heavy credit card debt, and/or have drained a significant portion of their retirement. Again, these are very good photographers with many professional achievements.

6. For a studio to be profitable, marketing and sales are more important today then ever before. Being a good photographer simply isn’t enough. Even putting 10-20% of your time into marketing may not be enough. It used to be that one telephone book ad could provide a studio with business all year long. That was the model for decades. Now, the best advertising method may change from year to year.

7. The vast majority of new photographers are trying to build their business by undercutting their competition. This is a horrible business model for various reasons. It is one reason professional photography prices continue to fall. It is also the reason quality portraiture is becoming a thing of the past.

8. *** With so many amazing photographers unable to make a career of this profession, what do you know that they don’t? What skills do you possess that they lack?

This is only the tip of the iceberg, yet these things are often missed by those considering professional photography as a career.

A “passion” for photography is the assumed key to success.

Do you have a passion for photography? Have you learned the craft (basics, and advanced techniques) of photography? Do you have to look at the back of your camera to determine if your exposure and white balance are correct? Are you more interested in FB “likes” than kelvin temperature and reciprocity? If so, join the growing crowd. Assume that you will make some part-time money, and keep shooting. There is nothing wrong with that. However, do the craft of photography a favor and call yourself a “photo enthusiast”. Your clients don’t want to hear about your passion, they want to see it in your work. If you don’t have the basic skills and tools, you are like a self-trained plumber with only a few tools in his tool chest.

If someone paid you for your photos, that doesn’t make you a professional photographer. I hate to break it to you. Are you upset at my definition? If your neighbor gave you $20 for changing a tire, would you now be a professional mechanic? If you were paid to trim a neighbor’s bushes, would you now be a horticulturist? One needs training, tools and practice to be considered a professional in most fields. If you must, embrace “semi-professional photographer” as a title. There is no shame in that. Learn about short light and broad light. Lighting rations. Mixing ambient light with strobes. Posing to slim a person. How to light a thin face, and a round face. How to eliminate reflections in glasses. How to minimize double and triple chins without digital retouching. Hard light vs. soft light. Light modifiers. Sales. Marketing. How to get your subject to have a natural expression, and many other techniques.

If you don’t own the book, “Photography” by London, Stone and Upton, buy it! Study it. Find a mentor, not a photography school. bring 5 images to a seasoned pro that you respect and tell them that you want them to tell you everything wrong about those images. Tell them to “please be brutal”, and not hold anything back. Now, as they critique your images, pay attention to their words, but also your thoughts. Are you thinking defensive thoughts about your wonderful images, or are you humbly trying to understand how to get better. Your response needs to be that of the later person, humbly receiving the criticism.

If you want to get better at any sport, train with those who are better than you. If you only practice with weaker opponents, your ego is fed, but you don’t get much better.

One final thought. Do NOT borrow any money to start/grow your photo business, EVER! If you can’t grow it a little at a time, just find another career path.

Good luck.

© Richard K. Dalton 2015

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