When you make the decision to become a professional photographer, it's easy to get wrapped up in all the gear you need, the software, and the technical abilities. However, there's a lot more to a successful career in this industry, and overlooking many of these elements can hold you back.
I want to start this article with a caveat: your love for photography will fuel you through the difficult times as a professional, and it will be rewarded too. I have written on the topic a number of times over the years, but I don't believe that turning your passion into a profession has to kill your affection for the craft, despite what many naysayers will swiftly point out. That said, I don't know a single successful person in this industry that has built a career off of passion alone. As much as creatives and artists balk at the administrative and financial sides of business, they are necessary. It doesn't matter how great a photographer you are; there is a lot outside of the craft that underpins it. To that end, here are seven parts of being a professional photographer that have little to do with photography but everything to do with your success in it.
There are few areas of life duller and more irritating than insurance. You often feel as if you're paying for nothing at all — and you usually are in a way — but when you need it, you better have it there. I personally have an approach to insurance that I was taught from a book on money some years ago, but it's not for everyone. The general principle is that if you could not afford to pay for or replace what the insurance policy would, then you need insurance. If, however, you could afford to replace it but it would just hurt your wallet, then you're better off putting money in a savings account each month.
The insurance policies I believe are absolutely essential (I am U.K. based, so it may differ elsewhere) are professional indemnity and public liability. Professional indemnity covers me against legal matters like unintentional copyright infringement, loss of client data, and so on. Public liability covers me against damage to property, injury to people where I am shooting, and other physical accidents. Both of these policies cover disasters that have the capacity to bankrupt me many times over.
2. Small Business Management
While I'm sure some photographers come from a business background, most do not, and it can have a detrimental impact on their success. When I started as a full-time photographer and writer, I had no experience running a small business whatsoever. I knew nothing about keeping financial records properly, taxes, advertising, what software I needed... the list goes on. I made a point of reading as many books as possible on money and business, and they paid dividends. If you know somebody who runs a small business and has done it for some time, I would recommend chatting with them. I found a professional photographer who had been working for several decades, and he agreed to have a chat with me about it. After two hours, I had multiple pages of notes and learned so much that I would have had to learn by making mistakes otherwise.
This dreaded buzzword is difficult for many. Whether you're an introvert or not, getting up at 5 am to stand in a local hotel lobby, drinking repulsive coffee, and talking to people who just want to find people who can make them money, is soul-destroying. However, the face of networking has changed drastically since the advent of social media. While face-to-face meetups are powerful, joining the right groups and communities online can make a huge difference. In fact, the clients that have been the most lucrative to me I have all met online in some way (bar one who I was introduced to in person.)
4. Money Management
I can't think of anything that will sink your newly sailed boat of full-time photography faster than mismanagement of money. I knew that the average yearly income for a photographer was low, and fortunately, I took it upon myself to learn how to get the most out of my money, which continues to serve me well even though I am no longer pulling my hair out to find clients. I would implore you to learn about handling your money and to consider the returns you'll get on any investment. Just because photography is something you love doesn't mean you can justify buying equipment you want unless there's good reason, at least not if you want to run your craft as a business.
5. Market Research
I would argue that the only reason I survived the first three years of self-employment as a photographer — and it is in the first three years where most businesses die — was that I did market research. What I mean by this is that every time I had an idea of what I could photograph for money, I would look into that area thoroughly. I would see how many photographers were doing it, how much work there would be, what the pain points of photography in that niche were, among other enquiries. Eventually, I found an area that was difficult for photographers, required some knowledge, and lacked many skilled photographers already working in it. I started networking and reaching out and secured a few low-paid jobs. Within a couple of months, I secured a well-paid job. If you have a niche in mind already, do your research and see how viable it might be. Speak to anyone who hires photographers in that niche and try to get a picture of what it is they expect and need.
6. Physical Condition
I would never have guessed that physical condition would play almost any role as a full-time photographer, and that was naive. I am sure there are genres of photography that are less taxing on the body than others, but most of the ones I have worked on or have friends who have worked, are tough.
The genre of photography that best exemplifies this is weddings. You are often on your feet for 12 or more hours, carrying around heavy equipment, and rushing from point to point. You can pack light with equipment, and you can be as prepared as you like, wedding photography is one of the most physically draining types of photography work I have experienced.
7. Thick Skin
This is an area of photography and business I was aware of but didn't really consider. The more years that tick by, the thicker my skin becomes and the more aware I am of how thick it needs to be. The business side is obvious in many ways, and it's almost a cliche to say you need to be resilient in business. A lot of decisions will not go your way, people will try to whittle your price down, and you'll compete with other photographers for work. I wouldn't say photography as an industry is more brutal than any other industry, but you'll need to be ready for it nonetheless.
However, the photography side does require a different brand of thick skin. You will likely receive criticism, both constructive and otherwise, from people you work with and from other photographers. There is very little you can do about it. I would recommend just working out whether the person criticizing you or your work can be trusted and knows what they're talking about. If you believe they do, then take it on board. If they don't or you don't know who they are, don't give it another thought.
Professional Photographers: What Do You Think Is Important to Be Prepared For?
This list was difficult to keep self-contained, and I had other sections I cut. One example that didn't make the cut, primarily because it's an article in itself, is marketing and the need for it in all its various forms. So, I put the question to the network of professional photographers we have in the Fstoppers community: what non-photography components of being a full-time photographer should people be aware of before they make the leap? Share yours in the comments below.
You'll never attend another family event without an awkward conversation in which you're asked to bring your camera.
I want to 2nd the physical conditioning call out in your article. Any kind of on-location lifestyle photography career will include extended hours under the sun, twisted ankles, and having to shoot through lunch. It's a lot like shooting a wedding gone wrong, except if you take a break, the whole show stops. A simple cardio + yoga routine every week will do wonders. Take that preparing into a comfy studio, and your creative clarity will outpace any other stakeholders on-set.
Got into photography as a way to relax. Friends pushed me into concert photography and I began making some money but I quit. You have to enjoy customer service style jobs to work with clients and I don't, people frustrate me.
If only NatGeo would pay me to photograph wildlife, that's a much more satisfying type of photography.
I would add that you should have an insurance policy for your gear as well. Things happen, and knowing that your expensive lens, camera, etc. are insured gives you more confidence to use them fully.
Thank you so much for all these great tips.
You will have slack periods, work wise - use that time wisely. Keep shooting, keep looking, keep practising and keep learning.
Always keep learning.
quick question to Robert K Baggs , is the cover image from the sacred valley in Peru ?
Even if you aren't a professional photographer I'd also add the never ending requests from relatives and friends who suddenly need passport pictures and family photo shoots and suddenly remember they have some old photos they'd 'LOVE to have fixed!!'. Don't get me wrong, dear family, I do enjoy photography and retouching but I see the Photoglory window more often than I see real world now.