It might not be everyone’s goal however just about anyone who has ever sold an image will have considered progressing from amateur to professional photographer, at least briefly. Once you discover that your camera can be a cash machine, the thought of trading in the nine-to-five for days of professional shooting is never far behind.
After all, you’d be getting paid to do something that you currently do for pleasure.
But there’s a big difference, of course, between photographing for fun — and enjoying the odd income from it — and relying on your camera to pay the mortgage and feed the family. Starting any new business is hard, demands some very specific knowledge and often includes an expensive on-the-job education. Competition is fierce and pay, especially for new professionals, is painfully low. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average annual earnings for a photographer in 2012 was just $38,010.
If that’s a salary you’re prepared to accept — at least to begin with — and if you’re prepared to put in the work necessary to become a professional then taking the leap from amateur photography isn’t impossible. If professional photography really is your goal, here are four steps you must take to get there faster.
Practice, Practice and Practice Some More
Every enthusiast takes some fantastic pictures sometimes. However every enthusiast also has room for improvement. That improvement only comes with practice, from talking to other photographers – even on Flickr — about why their images aren’t perfect and setting up new challenges that stretch their skills.
That’s harder than it sounds. When you shoot one great picture, it’s tempting to feel that you really do have all the talent and skills that you need to succeed. All of the images that didn’t work were just bad luck.
Professional photographers though can’t pass poor images off to bad luck, rotten weather or an uncooperative model. When the client is paying for the product, the photographer has to be able to deliver that product every time.
The first step to becoming a professional photographer then is to make sure that you can, in fact, shoot like one.
Building a client base
Many wedding photographers find themselves slipping into the business after first shooting events for friends and families. Word spreads, favours are asked, commissions come in and soon you’re filling your weeknights with weddings and your weekends with engagement parties and baptisms.
That’s the right way to start.
Before you tell your boss that you’re hanging up your suit and buying a vest with lots of pockets, you should be as certain as possible that you will have at least some money coming in.
Once you’ve got the skills you need to be a professional photographer, the next step is to start adding the clients.
Add multiple revenue streams
These days though, when going from amateur to professional photographer, having just one group of clients just isn’t going to be enough. Photographers who were dependent on their stock photography portfolios for their main source of income have seen their revenues plummet in the last few years as microstock began offering low-cost competition.
To succeed, professional photographers need to have multiple revenue streams that might range from event photography to stock photography, and from postcards to prints.
One of the first things you need to do when starting your business is to set up a photography website that shows off your work and gives your prospective clients the information they need to hire you.
Your website is your virtual storefront. Not only is it a great way to get more clients, however it’s a really cheap photography marketing tool that you can control completely and find clients outside of the people you already know.
Check your figures
And the last step you need to take is probably the least exciting. You have to do the math – and do it properly.
When you’re shooting for fun, expenses aren’t really expenses and costs aren’t really costs. You were going to buy the lens anyway and time spent on post-production was fun, not working hours, so it doesn’t really count.
As a professional, all of these things count. If you have to spend hours fixing images whose light levels weren’t right, that’s going to lower your hourly rate and prevent you taking on more work. If you need to buy backgrounds and lighting equipment, those are costs that will come out of your profits. If you have to drive for three hours to reach a shoot, those are three hours you’re not earning and they need to be accounted for.
Before you take that last step and become a professional photographer, you need to be certain that you’ll have enough money coming in to pay your way – and you have to know how to count that money too.
Go From Amateur to Professional Photographer
Every year, thousands of camera-loving enthusiasts try their luck at going from amateur to professional photographer. Many of them succeed and go on to have a career that’s rewarding and fulfilling. Whether that will happen to you too – if you want it to – will depend to a large extent on the preparations you make before you step up.