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If you have a phone, you have a camera—does that make you a photographer? Even though the latest phone technology might have you wondering if you can charge money for your photography, that’s simply not the reality.
Professional photographers have developed skills and clientele through concerted effort and vision. If you’re happy to keep your photos on your phone, no problem. But, if you’re looking to go to the next level with your camera and become a professional photographer—someone who gets paid for their work—then you’re in the right place. (Note: If you’re wondering how to become a “freelance” photographer, you’re also in the right place! However, most photographers don’t use this term to describe their work; rather, they refer to themselves simply as photographers.)
There’s a lot to like about starting your own photography business, including having the ability to set your own schedule (to some degree) and the creative freedom to pursue projects that truly interest you. But as you’ll soon see, there’s more to it than just buying the best camera and going into perpetual “spray and pray” mode (which is an actual photography technique!). Indeed, even as photography has become more accessible to more people, there are still steps one has to master to become a photographer.
To help untangle the process of becoming a bonafide professional photographer—from shooting to delivering photos to happy clients—we talked with Emily Nix of Emily Nix Photography and other professionals. Based on their experiences, here’s some sage advice to follow on how to become a photographer and develop a successful photography business.
For starters, understand that your options are plentiful when it comes to the types of photos you want to take.
Of all the types to get paid for, what do you want to do? Emily herself specializes in wedding and family photography. Other categories include food, portraits, pets, landscape, fashion, sports, photojournalism, and more. “You don’t have to be amazing at it—everybody starts somewhere—but you need to have an end target in mind,” she says. If you aren’t sure what area interests you most, start by doing some research into each category.
Consider what you enjoy doing but also assess where your strengths lie. Are you good with people? Allergic to animals? Have the energy for long events like weddings or concerts? Will you need specialized equipment? Look into the local market to see what areas might already be saturated. Do some research into how different categories pay. Taking the time to get answers to these questions will help you find the best niche to showcase your storytelling and skills.
Once you’ve homed in on one or more specialties, you can begin to build your photography business in earnest.
There are a multitude of ways to gain experience and learn the foundations of photography. “There is so much value in research,” Emily says. “You can use manuals, books, how-to guides, YouTube, blogs, and more.” She also recommends checking out your local community college for classes, or looking for a local photography club in your area.
Another professional photographer, Laurence Jones of KidsNaturally Photography, notes that putting money and effort in up front is to be expected, and a good investment: “You’ll need to spend money on learning photography skills, and perhaps more importantly, business and marketing skills.”
Even if you only have a phone, you have a place to start. “There are all sorts of education resources online for every type and aspect of photography. Research offers a great way to improve, and learn about mistakes to avoid,” Emily says.
One asset that’s especially valuable but a bit trickier to develop is a mentor. Mentors may be local, established photographers, instructors, or passionate hobbyists. Laurence advises being thoughtful when considering a mentor. “Choose a mentor carefully based on their experience and earnings, and whether you admire their work and get on well with them.”
If you’re fortunate enough to find one, compensate them for the time and knowledge they share. “A lot of people think mentorship should be free, but I think there’s value to it, so it’s worth something,” says Emily.
Doing research and learning the basics of photography is a good first step, but the best way to become a professional photographer is to go out and shoot. After all, it’s your craft that you wish to market and sell.
“The more you take photos and review what you are shooting to learn about the process, the better you’ll become. If you do it consistently, you will get better,” Emily says.
She also recommends actively using your photography practice to learn and grow in specific areas. “The more you photograph, the more you have to learn about: the taking of the photos, composition, editing, lighting, posing, subjects.” If you have particular trouble with lighting, for instance, try to tackle different challenges and environments.
For any photos you review and edit, ask yourself all kinds of questions: What were the conditions? Why did this shoot work or not? Why did I like shooting this one? What did I hope for with this shot, and did I achieve it? “The more targeted you can be with your analysis, the more you will understand and develop your style and skills,” Emily says. “Taking the time to see what you like and dislike, especially as you’re getting started, can only strengthen your business.”
Ask for outside feedback, too, whether it’s from a professional source or not. Although hearing criticism may be hard, it can be helpful to see what an outside party thinks and figure out how to improve from there. Of course, try to differentiate between objective and subjective feedback—don’t lose your unique voice while using feedback to improve.
When you’re just starting out, you may be tempted to take different types of photography jobs while still figuring out what to charge for your services. In Emily’s view, that’s okay. “Pricing is really nuanced,” she explains, “and you have to manage different things.” Some of the categories she uses to determine pricing are: experience, quality, and target audience.
“If you charge a lot and your quality is low, you aren’t going to get anybody to book. But, you don’t want to go so low as to get taken advantage of.” Fortunately, you can easily adapt as you go, figuring out your expenses and demand for your work over time.
Should you offer free shoots? Yes, says Emily, but do it sparingly. They can be a great way to build a portfolio, but “I would only do it for a few people, and control your environment as much as you can.” This could mean doing a specific model call or using a specific style, architecture, object etc. Shooting for free at a known location (like a museum or sports arena) could add credibility to your growing portfolio. You could also volunteer to take photos of local events or organizations, too, and get experience and visibility all while helping your community.
Finally, do some research on how much local photographers charge. You could also look at online pricing guides and calculators to get a better understanding.
Once you’ve got some great pictures under your belt, it’s time to increase your reach. “All photographers need a website,” Emily says. “Have a web presence to showcase your best work and give people ways to contact you.” Be professional while also communicating your unique style.
Social media is a huge venue for photographers to showcase their work and advertise their services. Because it is an image-focused platform, Instagram is naturally a good place to have an account, but don’t overlook other sites like Pinterest or local platforms like Nextdoor.
Consider ways to diversify your reach: You could try guest posting for someone else’s blog or start your own; go to local events with business cards; or enter a photography contest. “Try a lot of different things to get your name out there, and when you see what’s giving you traction, focus on that,” Emily says. Word-of-mouth growth is especially helpful for photography styles that are local, like portraits and weddings.
Starting a new venture of any kind isn’t easy, so be patient and stay the course. “Even if you don’t see growth quickly, you still need to put time and effort in,” Emily says. “You’re not going to get every client you want, and that’s okay.”
Donald “Don” Orkoskey of WDO Photography also emphasizes the importance of persistence: “Perseverance is key to breaking into the photography business, so keep at it and don’t give up. Don’t let the haters stop you; know what you’re worth and what you want to do, and go do it.”
“Always remain hopeful. If you don’t believe in it, you are in the wrong profession,” Emily says. “If you have an interest in it, then it’s something worth doing.”
“In a world where it feels like everyone is a photographer, it’s important for you to be confident in the unique value you provide to clients. Don’t underestimate the fact that people are hiring you for the specific qualities that you bring to the table, and the right clients will pay good money for your experience and talent.”
—Emma L. Thurgood of Emma Thurgood Weddings
“Creating value is the key to success in freelance photography. It requires intellect, consistency, and dedication.”
—Can Burak Bizer of Can Burak Bizer | Hotel Photography + Hotel Video Production
“In the beginning you think you know what you are good at and what you like. However, clients will guide you to the strengths you can’t see in yourself.”
—Bill Thompson of Pencilbox LLC
“Build an extensive portfolio in the form of a personal website/Instagram account as well as an account on stock photography websites.”
—Shabbir Gul of Chasing Heartbeats
“In all we do as photographers—from administrative tasks to executing sessions and post-processing to delivery—we are constantly evolving. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to constantly strive to be more.”
—Quinn Kirby of Quinn Kirby Photography