“I’m able to make my passion into my work, and that’s something that years and years ago I never imagined I’d be able to do,” said photographer Sophie Crew.
If you’re a photo enthusiast thinking about making the leap from hobbyist to professional photographer, these words likely hit home. Knowing when, how, and if you should marry your passion with your pocketbook are difficult questions to answer—that’s why we picked the brains of four outstanding photographers and got the lowdown on what it means to go photo pro.
The learning curve
The photography industry comes with a veritable dictionary of its own terms, but it’s not impossible to glean the knowledge you need to become an expert. There are a number of ways to jumpstart your camera curriculum, but ultimately it comes down to that phrase you dreaded hearing from your 7th grade band instructor: practice makes perfect.
“I always liked photos, but I never imagined myself as a photographer—there’s just so much to learn,” said Lyndsay West. Her photo editing know-how began with a point and shoot camera and Picnic’s effects. When she purchased her first DSLR, she watched online tutorials and took as many practice pictures as possible.
Erika Thornes visited her first dark room when she was in middle school, and put the camera down after college. She picked it back up once she could swap out her diaper bag for a camera bag, and made it her goal to spend an hour per day learning something new.
For Rose Landa and her husband/co-founder Yosi, the decision to start Landapixel Photography came after taking senior portraits for a friend’s daughter. “It was something we really enjoyed that was kind of out of nowhere at the same time,” Landa said. By asking clients if they’d like to stick around and try something new after their sessions ended, the duo was able to experiment with new techniques while building client relationships.
Crew spent 11 years as a French teacher before launching her thriving photography business. One of the ways she’s learned more about her craft is by consulting peers. She suggests joining photography groups and reaching out to people in the area who inspire you.
Getting the word out
For many, getting your name out there starts with posting photos on social media and fielding inquiries from friends and friends of friends.
“People start to notice that you’ve developed a skill, and I think you get a lot of encouragement from the community that you’re around, who are seeing your growth,” said Thornes.
Social media can help build a buzz, and creating a website adds credibility. “Even if you start with a one-page website that has your name and information, and a couple portfolio samples, that’s definitely the way to go,” said Landa.
Other creative ideas for getting the word out about your new business include:
Building a blog. Crew notes that blogging can help make your clients feel special.
Running a special to gain exposure.
Personalizing your brand with posts about and photos of your life. “It gives people who don’t know you an insight into who you are, so they feel more comfortable with you,” West said.
Volunteering and doing free gigs the right way. “I think turning your free gigs into free marketing for you, if you do it right, is a great way to establish yourself as a reliable person in the community,” Thornes said.
Answering and asking questions in photography forums.
Always carrying business cards. “I know sometimes people think that print marketing material isn’t really needed anymore, but it totally is,” said Landa.
Business sense and cents
Setting up a professional photography business requires a few things: Getting the right licenses, a tax ID number, and insurance. But there are also a number of other things to think about—like pricing, time, and the business end of running a business.
“The transition to business is a lot more business than it is photography,” Thornes said. “Draw out that hobbyist part for a long time until you feel that you’re skilled enough to charge a marketable rate that can sustain your business and make it worth your time.”
When figuring out your rates, it’s important to factor in all of the time you’ll spend on a project, not just the time you’ll spend shooting. Crew recommends spending a few months monitoring how much time is spent during a session and on the computer, and paying yourself for your time.
Going pro also requires preparing financially, especially if you’re diving in full time. “Because it’s a flexible schedule, it’s a flexible income,” Landa said. “Make sure to prepare yourself for the good and the bad that’s going to come with it.”
Thornes notes that joining a group or chatting with other small business owners, even if they’re not in the industry, can also be helpful.
Style and specialty
Having a style and a specialty makes your work stand out from the competition, and ensures you’re doing the kind of work you enjoy. Nailing down both things is a matter of time, trial, and error.
“I think it doesn’t hurt to try everything in the beginning,” Crew said. “See what makes you interested and passionate, and go from there.”
While you’re getting started as a professional photographer, you may take most jobs that come your way. Determining a specialty is a matter of deciding what you enjoy, and what you’re not so into. “Sometimes you just realize through experience and by trying something that it’s not for you, and it’s OK to give up the aspects of photography that really don’t fit your definition of what you want your business to be,” Thornes said.
The same goes for determining your style as a photographer. Landa recommends mimicking things that appeal to you in order to find your own style, then determining “what you enjoy and what you’re getting positive results from.”