What does it mean to be a professional photographer? You might already have been paid for a few pictures, but going pro isn’t about making pocket money, it’s about making a living. Though that won’t happen all at once, it takes a change in attitude to start the process. You need to start thinking of yourself in a different way – that’s the single easiest way to make other people see you differently and respect what you do. If you can step beyond relying on talent and show that you’re prepared to work hard and adopt a professional attitude, you could be on the threshold of your dream career.
Learn to value your work
If you’re a skilled amateur photographer, you’re probably used to lending your services to all sorts of people for free – and your friends and family members will be used to taking advantage of that. When you’re a pro, this has to stop. Favors should be very few and far between. You can still charge mates’ rates if you want to help out people you know. You should also ignore those emails you get that offer to publish your pictures in return for “exposure” – unless they’re from organizations with very high profiles, you won’t get “discovered”; this way, you’ll just get ripped off. Ignore the competitions with entrance fees and little chance of success – most are run as lotteries and don’t really respect talent. Don’t give people the rights to your images unless they pay. You deserve it.
Invest in good gear
If you want to take pictures that get noticed, you’ll need good gear, and you’ll need to know how to use it. This doesn’t mean splashing out a fortune on the latest DSLR and a dozen lenses, but it does mean thinking about what you use and making sure that it’s up to scratch. A decent mid-range camera picked up second-hand shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, and you’ll often find that you get basic lenses with it. You’ll need a tripod for most kinds of photography, and a couple of flashes with remote triggers can make all the difference to how good your work looks. Little things can also contribute a lot. Pick up some color gels, a GorillaPod, and plenty of rechargeable batteries.
Make yourself visible
Every professional photographer needs a good website, so take your time to think about the design and pick out the images that best represent your work. You’ll find it easiest to make a success of marketing if you focus on one or two niche areas to begin with – for instance, weddings, wildlife photography, or sports photography. If you’re looking to be hired for local jobs, use lots of local terms on your site, and get to know editors at the local papers where there are always opportunities for people to talk about their businesses. You might want to put on a show, but don’t spend a fortune on a gallery – lots of small venues such as diners and bars will exhibit your work for free and get it just as much attention.
Join the family
Because there are so many different niches within it and people work at many different levels, photography is a very friendly profession, and experienced professionals are often happy to give advice to newcomers. This means that it pays to be sociable. As well as investigating any local photography societies in your area, get online and check out photography forums where you can read as well as asking your own questions. They’re great places to pick up useful tips and make connections. Sometimes, successful pros will adopt newcomers whose work they like and offer them jobs that they’re unable to cover themselves. You can also get cheap equipment this way as people pass on what they no longer need.
Now you’re in business
Once you get serious about making your living from photography, you need to start approaching it as a business. This means paperwork and taxes, alas, but it’s not all bad. It also means that you may be able to get support and even funding from state or city initiatives aimed at helping small businesses get off the ground. It means that you can connect with wider business networks, which may provide opportunities to sell your work. You will be expected to be respectable, but not too much so – most people are prepared to cut a bit of slack for creative types, and having personality will help you get noticed. Just make sure that you’re always carrying business cards.
Photography isn’t always an easy way to make a living, but it can be a fun one – and thanks to the internet, there’s more and more work to go round. If you’re ready for the challenge, you could be a success.