As jobs go these days, professional photographers are fortunate because photography is one of the few activities that can be turned into a moneymaking business without having to jump high barriers to entry.
Have a camera? Know how to use it? Cool, you can be a professional photographer!
Whoa! Stop Right There!
Unfortunately for the health of the photography profession, it really is that easy to become a “professional photographer”.
There are no exams to pass, no need to spend years training in school, you can work from home, and all you need is a camera, a computer, and a telephone to get started.
What could possibly be wrong with that?
Being A Hobbyist Photographer Is Okay!
Having a passion for capturing beautiful moments in people’s lives, or nailing the perfect breathtaking landscape, is a wonderful thing.
As a hobby, photography is hard to beat.
And, I hold nothing whatsoever against talented amateurs who harbor a true passion for the art of photography, and I applaud anyone who can dedicate themselves to becoming a genuine photographic artist for their own pleasure and sense of fulfillment.
But, being a photographic artist for the pure pleasure of it and earning a living as a professional photographer are two totally different things.
Sadly, too many hobbyist photographers either believe (or are convinced by their family and friends) that they could (and therefore should) use their talents to earn money from their photography.
But being told, “hey, you make cool photos, you should shoot weddings!” isn’t the best business advice in the world, is it?
For the vast majority of hobbyist-turned-professionals, their beloved pastime becomes a way to earn some occasional extra money, but it quickly turns into a frantic fight for survival when they realize that clients aren’t beating their doors down.
Professional Photography Requires A Commitment To Business
If there’s one simple fact that I wish new pro photographers would understand, it’s this:
You can’t be a professional photographer if you persist in treating it as a hobby instead of as a real business…
Here’s the cold truth:
You can be a professional photographer, or a hobbyist, but not both at the same time! I’m not saying it can’t be a job you love to do, but this is a business, nonetheless.
By all means turn your passion for the art of photography into a business; after all, that’s how most of us started out, and I believe there’s plenty of room for those who respect the industry and have a true commitment to being in business.
But “commitment to being in business” seems to be the hard part for so many wannabes, doesn’t it?
I don’t care where you are, or what type of photography you specialize in, you must commit yourself to running your photography studio (regardless of where it is) as a real business.
If you don’t, then you’ll undoubtedly suffer the same fate as the countless others who’ve tried to run a business as a hobby—nothing but pain and suffering, and burn-out.
Worse, you run the risk of developing a real loathing for photography itself (I know this is true because I’ve heard it so many times from photographers for whom this is a tragic reality).
All because they couldn’t to earn the money they needed to survive.
Such a sad end for someone who started out with a burning passion for the art of photography, don’t you think?
As A Professional Photographer You Must Want To Make Money
This is an area where many potential professional photographers trip up, especially the younger ones.
Maybe it has something to do with the artistic temperament, or the more emotional reasons for being a photographer.
I don’t know, but there appears to be a general reluctance to make money from photography. More accurately, it’s as if they’re allergic to making sales.
For example, I recently spent some time with a young photographer who wanted to be a full time professional.
She wanted to know how to start a photography business, and needed some pointers on setting up a website and marketing etc.
But when we got to the subject of sales, and the need to price her work appropriately, she gave me a big story of how she believed everyone should be able to afford her work, and that charging “high” prices didn’t fit her ideal way of doing things.
In short, she felt photography provided people with tremendous value, but that everyone is entitled to it.
While I applaud the altruism of this line of thinking, it’s unfortunately flawed and doomed to failure as a business model.
In business, money is nothing more than a tool, and it’s absolutely essential to ensure the continued smooth running of any operation. Without sufficient cash flow, the business will slowly bleed to death. In order to generate the necessary cash flow, we need to have a steady stream of clients injecting the appropriate average sale into the business.
If she continues with her line of thinking, and sets her prices low enough as to be affordable to anyone, then she will need to photograph many hundreds of clients per year in order to generate the cash flow needed to sustain her business and marketing.
Burnout, frustration, and failure are the inevitable results in that scenario.
However, if she understands that she’s running a business, rather than a purely charitable hobby, then she could design a business model with the correct pricing to generate a suitable volume of clients, while also allowing her the time to conduct “pro bono” work for those she feels deserving of it.
Asking For Money: The Professional Photographer’s Nightmare
How do you feel about asking other people for money?
More importantly, are you comfortable and confident when it comes to requesting the appropriate level of payment for your photographic services?
This is the fundamental concept behind sales success because, at some point, you’re going to have to ask the client to part with their money in exchange for your product or service.
If you can’t do so with conviction and confidence, then you’ll not enjoy the level of sales you need, and your business will suffer.
Developing your price list can be one of the hardest and most challenging aspects of your whole business, because it’s extremely difficult to be totally objective about it.
Every time you calculate a retail price for something, your subconscious mind complains about how you, yourself, couldn’t afford that, or how expensive it seems.
This translates into self-doubt and lack of conviction when presenting your prices to the client. Worse still, it can lead to unwise discounting, which is the most slippery of slopes your business could find itself on.
Instead, base your prices on solid data, and you’ll have a more confident framework to build on.
There are many pricing systems and models out there but, whichever one you choose, be sure to stick to it and don’t allow your own internal subjective thinking to get in the way of the logic and truth of the numbers before you.
Finally, believe in yourself, the services you provide, and the products you’re selling to your clients.
Understanding Marketing, Sales & Relationships Are Critical
I’m sure there are thousands of professional photographers out there who became photographers to escape the horrors of being a marketer, salesperson or accountant.
Sorry, you can run but not hide!
Becoming an effective marketer is absolutely essential to generating leads, prospects and clients for your photography business. You can’t expect people to come to you based solely on the quality of your photographs; it just doesn’t work like that!
Likewise, learning how to sell to your clients, without resorting to manipulation, trickery or pressure-selling techniques, is equally important.
Then, you have to learn to manage your client relationships properly, to encourage repeat business, referrals and generate positive social media exposure.
Without these, and other important business skills, you’re doomed to fail sooner or later as a professional photographer.
It takes constant study and practice to learn these essential components, a process which never comes to end, since the business world is changing on a daily basis!
Still Want To Be A Professional Photographer?
So, what are you going to do?
Do you want to remain as a dedicated hobbyist, or make the jump into the shark-infested waters of the professional photographer?
You can’t be both at one and the same time! Of course, you can switch hats periodically, although you still need to keep the two worlds separate!
My advice to anyone considering making the leap to professional photographer is to answer this simple question:
Will you be happy working in a world where at least 80% of your efforts are spent away from the camera, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual photography?
If you can honestly answer, “yes”, you’ll have a better than average chance of making it 🙂