Becoming a Professional Photographer
So, you have bought a camera, a few friends have said you take good photos and you now want to take the step to becoming a professional photographer. This thread is a guide on some of the things to consider. This is not a definitive thread, but it covers a lot of aspects for those starting out.
Are you ready?
Professional photography is hard, you are working for others, with differing expectations, you need to be able to meet and exceed those expectations. Be honest with yourself, is your photography good enough, really?
Are you prepared?
Have you done any small business courses? Professional photography is mostly about marketing, promotion, client liaison, business partnerships (printers, suppliers), tax reporting, book-keeping, people management, and then there is the photography. It is highly recommended that anyone starting out in business of any sort, have some sort of training in how to run a business.
Time, do you have the time to run a business?
Running a business takes time. It is not just about taking a heap of photos on a Saturday for a wedding; you then have hours of post-processing, album preparations, client bookings and appointments, contracts, and more. Do you really have the time to dedicate to your business to make it successful? Are you flexible? What if a client wants to meet you at 10.00pm, are you able to do that? No use saying "I can't cause the children will be in bed". If you cannot meet a client to discuss a proposal, they are going to wonder if you can put in the 2 hours, 5 hours or more, to do the job, without having to run home to 'put the kids to bed'. Photography as a profession is about 80% business and 20% photography, and you need to be adaptable, flexible and professional at all times.
Do you have the equipment?
Professional photography is not about taking your DSLR and kit lens out and getting the shots, it is about having all the gear necessary to shoot your genre(s) under any conditions. What if your client wants a studio shoot, can you do that, or perhaps a midnight portrait shoot on a full moon? Do you have the gear to deal with that? What if you experience equipment failure (it happens), do you have the gear to cope with something like a complete camera body failure (it happens -the camera just dies) and still be able to finish the shoot in a professional manner?
There are some brilliant photography courses available, especially those that are more workshops directed at specifics, like weekend wedding photography workshops. They can be very beneficial for YOU. Why for YOU, well your clients generally don’t care what courses you have done, they have probably never even heard of the course or instructor(s), what the client cares about is your work, the quality of it, nothing more. So do the courses to improve your own photography, but don’t necessarily make the fact you have done the courses a huge part of the promotion of your business. Let your own work do that!
Find a mentor. Find a professional photographer who is willing to take you under their wing, maybe as an assistant, learn from them. Absorb everything you can. But before you go looking for a mentor, be prepared to have done the hard yards learning how to be a damn good photographer first. A good, solid portfolio of work, will make you stand out from the pack, when the Pro is considering an assistant. Remember there are lots of other people out there wanting the experience of working with a Pro as well, you have to be better than them.
Yep, photography is listed here. You need to be good, end of story! Good doesn’t mean that Aunt Bessy tells you that your photos are good. Good means complete strangers (AP members maybe) are telling you that your photography is of a high standard. Start at the beginning, learn the Art of Photography, learn all aspects of you camera, and understand the features, how they work, don’t forget to include light. Light is the key to photography, without it, you can’t take photos. Do you know how to control light? You need to be a very good photographer who can deal with all sorts of situations.
Post-processing is inherent in photography. Do you have the skills needed to process a photo the way the client wants. Learn all you can about post processing, maybe do a course or two. Sometimes the post-processing is more important than the original photo. Your post processing skills can make or break your success.
Create a business plan. You need to make sure you can make money doing this. No use charging $80.00 an hour, if your costs are $70.00 an hour. You need to know exactly what all your costs are, before you can work out a charging schedule. Most small business courses include a section on creating a business plan.
Another thing to do is a SWOT assessment. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
Strengths: What are your strengths compared to the other photographers in your area? Use them to your advantage.
Weaknesses: What are your weaknesses? Work at improving them so they are no longer weaknesses. Your competitors will use your weaknesses against you
Opportunities: What opportunities exist in your area? Is their a gap in the current market that is not being addressed by the Professional Photographers in your area? Is it commercially viable?
Threats: Threats can come from all angles. Maybe there is a primary industry in your region? What happens if it closes down suddenly and a heap of people are suddenly unemployed; this can impact your business dramatically. Recognise threats, understand them, plan in advance of what to do, if they occur.
Be ready to market yourself. Can you sell yourself? Some people cannot! You have to be willing to push your business, how else are people going to know you exist? There are plenty of other Professional Photographers out there, how are you going to make your name know? Know your market! If you live in an area primarily of retirees, no use setting up an baby photography studio. If you live in a low income area, it is pointless setting up a $10K per wedding photography business.
Presentation. You need to be able to present yourself as a professional. Turning up to a client meeting in dirty trousers cause you have been 'in the garden' is not on. You also need a wonderfully laid out and presented portfolio, whether that be albums or on a computer, you need to be able to present your body of work to the client. You need several of these. No use showing baby portraits to a wedding couple, or car shots to to a couple wanting pregnancy shots. Only show your best work, that is relevant to the client. But have access to the other portfolios in need. You never know when a wedding couple might mention that the Groom is into cars, so why not spend a moment or two showing them your automotive photography? This does several things, you might get another job, they might recommend you to a friend who wants a car shoot, and it endears you to the client, they feel an affinity to you, cause you are interested in the things they are.
Your communication skills are paramount. You need to be many things. Marketer, with an ability to sell yourself. Listener, to determine what it is the client wants. Remember some clients will not be effective communicators, so you made need to ask questions, clarify details etc. You need to be a director, being able and willing to tell clients (portraiture), how you want them to sit, stand, turn. You need to be good at both verbal and written communication. No use being a great marketer if your reply to an initial email enquiry starts with "thanks 4 ur email". The skills to control a situation, and move it in the right direction will be tested. Making people who are not used to being in front of a camera, relaxed and enjoying themselves. Have a sense of humour. Be sensitive to clients beliefs (religious and other).
Contracts / Prices
You will need contracts. Get all clients to sign contracts for the work they 'employ' you to undertake. Contracts are extremely important if someone doesn't pay you. And be prepared to not be paid, every business has clients that are bad payers. Have something in place to deal with these non-payers. Contracts need to be accurate and stipulate exactly what is being done and for what price. Speaking of price, you need to sit down and work out a price structure, one that will suit your client base, and be affordable to your target markets, but at the same time give you the income you need to not only keep operating by covering business expenses, but also give you a wage, money for superannuation etc. You need to know exactly what the minumum price is that you can charge to be profitable, and then your usual price, and also possible a 'high-end' price for those times you get an extremely demanding and work load intensive jobs that require a huge deal of attention, and thus could also be your occasional 'bonus'. Contracts and Prices are what make you successful. It is the money that comes in that keeps your business running, not how good a photographer you are.
Consider joining professional associations, like the AIPP. These bodies have a wealth of knowledge that is open to you, including things like draft contracts. They also run courses regularly, provide access to discounts on things like insurance. They can be very worthwhile as a source of information.
Other! Those things you need to also consider/have. Insurance, both for your gear, and public liability. Guess what is going to happen if a guest at a wedding trips over your camera bag and breaks a leg? Peripheral Business things, website, business cards, and more. There is a lot more to running a successful business, whether it be a weekend, part-time, or full time one. It is not about, 'have bought camera, can make money'.
Becoming a professional photographer can be very rewarding; however, those that succeed have several key reasons, which in part includes those listed above. These are no different in most instances to being successful in any business, not just photography. If you can honestly say you are ready, put in 110% and go for it. If you are not ready assess your weaknesses, work on improving them until you are ready.
The professional photography industry in Australia is shrinking, this mean some people will not succeed in this industry, and some of those already in the industry will leave it, whether you do or not, is entirely up to you. To coin a phrase ‘be prepared’ and be flexible. Always be ready to re-assess your business plan, or any other aspect of your business.
Footnote : any member who wants to add productive comments to this thread, please do so, but posts asking for specific answers etc will be deleted. Please ask those separately in the Business of Photography Forum.