Steps To Becoming A Professional Photographer
Photographers are plentiful this day and age. The industry is heavily saturated with a new one popping up on every corner daily. The problem is, many think that simply owning a decent camera is enough to make them a photographer. While many do get away with it, if you want to be truly successful as a photographer and set yourself apart from the rest, you need to invest the time and energy needed to really understand the art of taking professional quality photos. You also need to have a game plan when it comes to the business side of things.
Here are nine general steps to take you from just a beginner with a camera to a professional photographer.
Get To Know Your Camera
Whether you start out with an entry level camera or go straight to the high end gear, it is important to really get to know your camera inside and out. A camera is only good as the person operating it. It doesn’t matter how high tech and fancy your camera is, if you don’t know how to operate it with ease you will never get it to function at it’s full capacity.
DSLR’s come equipped with many settings and functions, some more than others. I, like many others, started out with an entry level camera (Nikon D3200 to be exact). Of course it was limited on what I could do with it, but I invested hours upon hours upon hours learning every little thing about it. I read the manual, multiple times, and always kept it on hand to refer to when needed. I learned what each and every knob, dial, button, and setting meant and did. I kept studying my camera inside and out until I could easily navigate to all of the settings without having to dig through my manual. Regardless of the gear you are using, you need to know how to take full control of all of it’s functions before learning the actual art of taking good quality images.
Learn the Basics First
Now that you know your actual camera and all of the functions and settings it has, you need to start learning to use those functions to your advantage. It is perfectly fine to start out on Auto Mode and let the camera do most of the work. In fact, I recommend it. However, take note that to become a truly professional photographer, you will eventually have to work your way to being able to fully control your shots and get out of Auto Mode.
Taking great photos isn’t all about exposure, depth of field, etc. Things like focus and composition are equally as important. So start out by learning to properly compose/frame your shots in visually appealing technically correct ways. Also master how to get sharp/in focus images. These two things alone are crucial to getting great shots.
Research the web, find a mentor, follow other photographers on social media and pay attention to the way they frame their subjects. Practice, practice, practice. With a lot of practice and research, you will be able to get the basics down and prepare yourself to move onto the more in-depth ways to really take control of all aspects of your images.
Get Out Of Auto Mode
Moving out of Auto Mode can be a little intimidating and daunting for many beginners. It takes patience, time, practice, and a lot of research. But investing the time needed to shoot like a pro will reap the benefits later on down the road.
Three of the main things you will need to truly have an understanding of when working towards shooting in Manual Mode and taking control of your camera are ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. These three settings alone all work together to control exposure, depth of field, and freezing motion & getting sharp images. They each have their own responsibilities individually, but they all relate to one another when it comes down to it. Study those three things, know what they mean and get a genuine understanding of how they each affect the outcome of your images.
If necessary, start shooting in different priority modes. For example, Aperture Priority will allow you to set your camera to a specific Aperture setting, but it will control the Shutter Speed and ISO based on that setting. This gives you partial control, but it is a great way to become familiar with Aperture and how it affects other settings. Take note of how changing the Aperture affects the other two. This works for all Priority Modes.
Then take the plunge into fully manual mode and start putting what you have learned to use. Practice, practice again, and practice some more. There are TONS of blogs, forums, tutorials, etc. online that you can go to research these things. Take advantage of all of the free knowledge you can get. Just be sure that you aren’t just reading and filling your brain with all of this knowledge, it is crucial that you put that knowledge to work and get as much hands on learning as you can. The thing about digital cameras is we can shoot unlimited amounts of images. JUST KEEP SHOOTING! Eventually it will become second nature.
You don’t have to go to photography school or get a degree to become a professional. Many in the business are completely self-taught because they took full advantage of the plethora of resources available to them.
Learn Post Processing & Editing
I am a firm believer that you need to learn how to get your images as close to perfect as you can in-camera before even attempting to learn to edit them. Photoshop and Lightroom are the two most popular editing software available. But the goal with them, or any editing software, is to use them to “enhance” your images. Not correct them.
Don’t get me wrong, no matter how good you are at taking great technically correct images, there will be times when you will need to rely on editing to fix things. It happens. But don’t rely on fixing things later in post processing. If you rely on fixing your images later, you are really lowering your standards when it comes to being a great photographer. Not only that, the better you can get your images in-camera, the less time you will have to spend when editing. And in any business, time is money.
With that being said, you do need to eventually learn how to properly edit photos. Even if it’s just to adjust your exposure a tad, correct white balance, or maybe adjust your highlights and shadows.
Once you learn the basics of simple editing, you can then dive into learning the more in-depth editing techniques for creative purposes and personal style preferences. Just don’t go overboard learning too many “styles” as once. The goal is to get to a point where your images have a solid end result from session to session. You eventually want people to run across your images and instantly know they belong to you because of the overall look and feel.
Figure Out Your Niche
There are so many genres of photography in the industry. You have newborn, family, high school seniors, couples, weddings, concerts/events, maternity, sports, products, real estate…the list goes on and on. You need to narrow your niche down to what you are most interested in. It is fine to have a few things you are interested in, but if you can narrow it down to a couple of things, you have a better chance of being successful in the business. Don’t assume that because you understand your camera and how to take well composed and exposed images that you can take on any gig presented to you.
Figure out what interests you the most and focus on that. Newborn photographers need to put a huge emphasis on safety when photographing tiny little babies. You need to be able to safely pose them. There are resources that teach you the proper way to do this. Wedding photographers need to know how to work in different lighting situations, they need to have back-up gear, they need to be able to work under pressure for hours on end. Each genre has it’s own requirements. So figure out what it is you want to focus on and invest your time in that. The last thing you want is a lawsuit for injuring someone or losing a whole gallery of images from a wedding day that can’t be “re-done.”
What is the demand for in the area you are in? What is lacking in your local area? Are you willing to travel? These are all things you need to ask yourself before taking the plunge into becoming a paid professional.
Ask For Feedback
Once you have learned your way around your camera, learned how to get out of Auto Mode, learned the important components of a professional quality image (composition, exposure, posing, etc.), and learned to properly edit your images, start asking for feedback.
Yes, your family and closest friends can give you an opinion on what they think of your work. But beware, they lie. Not always intentionally, but they can misinform you of the quality of work you are producing. This is because, unless they too are a professional, they don’t have the knowledge, skills, and experience to properly critique your work.
Facebook has a plethora of groups for asking for advice and getting CC (Constructive Criticism). Many other forums and sites are available to you when you really want to get an expert opinion. You need to be prepared to hear the “not so great things” about your images. This is a huge step for every photographer because it requires you to separate your feelings from your work. It can be hard to hear negative feedback on something you have invested so much time and energy into learning. But I feel it is an absolute crucial step to becoming a professional.
Getting true honest feedback from seasoned pros who started right where you did and had to work hard to get to where they are will truly benefit you in the end. They will likely look at every detail of your photo from corner to corner. Don’t assume they are “knit- picking” just to belittle you however they can.
Take every ounce of critique you can get and learn from it. This will actually teach you how to better critique your own work in the future, because before throwing your images out to the wolves, you will find that you naturally look for all of the tiny little imperfections that have been pointed out to you in the past. That alone will push you to get the best images you can.
Start “Pre-Marketing” Yourself
Of course you shouldn’t just start charging for sessions right from the start. There are things you need to do to make you legally capable of doing that first. But, when you feel you are comfortable with taking professional quality photos, start building a presence for yourself.
Social media is a great way to do this. Show off the images you are working for, fill your followers in on your journey and start getting there attention. Basically get your name out there. Start working with others to get some practice sessions under your belt. This will not only help you get a jump start on marketing yourself, but it will allow you to get comfortable with working with other people aside from your own children or family members. It will teach you how to take control during your sessions. When you have clients show up for a session, you are the boss. You need to arrange the date/time, give them special instructions to prepare for the session (what to wear, etc.), and direct them when it comes to posing and getting genuine smiles and expressions. So getting several “practice sessions” under your belt will help ease you into the actual dealing with customers and taking control, which can be nerve wrecking at first.
Go through their finished images and present them with the best of the best. Encourage them to show them off, tag you in social media, and basically let them do the marketing for you. The better you get and the more your name is out there, the more business you will have come your way when the time comes.
Have A Business Plan
When you are ready to start creating a profitable business using your photography skills and knowledge, you will need to take a few steps to make sure you are doing it legally.
You will need a business license, insurance, possibly an accountant, business bank account, etc. Check into the things required in your area to properly and legally operate a business, whether you have a studio or not.
You will need to figure out pricing. So many factors go into pricing. You cannot base your pricing on what others charge. Of course your skill level needs to be worthy of what you charge, but other things need to be factored in as well.
The first thing you need to figure out is your CODB (Cost of Doing Business).
How much are you financially investing in gear, studio rentals, software, gas to get to and from sessions, workshops, website, etc.
How much time are you dedicating to each session or client? This includes time in marketing yourself, consultations, time spent at sessions, time spent in post processing, etc. Time is money, so what do you think your time is worth?
Your pricing should be based on skill level and time and money invested into your business, not what Susie the photographer down the street charges.
Market, Market, Market!
Marketing is crucial to becoming successful in this industry. There is so much competition out there that you really need to stay active in keeping yourself relevant.
Social media platforms are used by billions of people every day. Take full advantage of this. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are great heavily followed places to start. Keep them updated with samples of your best work, special offers and discounts, and any news relevant to your business.
Keep your website updated with a portfolio, contact information, a general description of what you specialize in and a general pricing guide. Clients to need to know a few key things when coming to your site before even contacting you. These are who you are, where you are located, how to contact you, what type of images they can expect, and if you are in their budget.
Blogging is another great way to keep traffic flowing to your site. Maybe blog about sessions occasionally and tell a story behind the photos. Or blog about tips on preparing for a session, or ordering prints and products.
To Sum It All Up
Becoming a professional photographer doesn’t happen over night. It requires time, patience, practice, and money to get to that point. But if you follow these steps, you will definitely be headed in the right direction.
Once you know how to work your camera like a boss, know the basics of editing, reach out to the pros for feedback, get your name out there and get yourself legal, you can start booking clients and working towards a successful career as a professional photographer.