So, You Want To Be A Professional Photographer?

Every once in a while, someone approaches me saying that THEY WANT TO BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER… and while I’m happy they see an interest, a desire & passion to get behind a camera… and hope they learn ‘the exposure triangle’ (intersection & symbiosis between the aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings),  and a good eye and brain to compose images IN CAMERA, as much as possible. Knowing how to use a camera, with manual settings, and working with RAW images, is vital to consistent quality images…

HOWEVER, I also want them to understand the reality of more boring & challenging parts of  ‘the photography business.’

In all honesty, a counter person at Micky D’s will often make more money the first couple years a person is trying to build a photography business, and will have more ‘disposable money’ (spendable on fun things) for the next five years (the time most photographer’s are ‘gearing up’… buying necessary equipment, software, computer power, upgrading camera or computer gear, testing, learning, etc.). The reality is that less than 1 in 1,000,000 can ‘just start’ a profitable photography business without a spouse or ‘real job’ helping fund their gear and shoot time for the first few years.

‘The Business’ side is not just ‘snapping a few images’ and then collecting money. It’s not all fun & games, or going to cool places, meeting famous people, or how it’s often portrayed on TV or the movies. It’s usually not scripted or documented, except in the RESULTS (portfolio) of the well established photographers that have clicked tens of thousands of shots honing their craft, learning their camera gear, and dealing with shooting in a variety of challenging situations.

Nope, 100% of photography generally breaks down to about

  • 10% of the time behind the camera (once you KNOW HOW TO REALLY USE A CAMERA)… about 90% camera & computer UNTIL you’ve mastered the settings & controls to shoot consistently in different environments & conditions. Getting the feed back, mentoring, experience, and training… and figuring out WHAT TYPE of photography you most enjoy, and CAN make money at are often two different things.
  • 20% behind a computer post-processing (tweaking, cropping, editing, removing zits, straightening angles, and improving the images)… potentially much more in the beginning, as you learn the techniques, and assorted software tools necessary to effective ‘post process’ your images.
  • 10% accounting – Uncle Sam is going to demand his share, PERIOD! That’s dealing with federal (and most cases, State Sales Tax)… and all that paperwork. Accounting & income expense tracking takes time, and is a necessary evil of any business… and you really want it to be AT LEAST a ‘Schedule C’ business venture, if for no other reason than you can use PRE-TAX dollars to purchase your equipment, which is usually a 20 to 40% savings. In general, a ‘start up’ can ‘lose money’ (spend more than they take in) legally, for the first three years, then have to ‘make a taxable profit’ at least three out of five years thereafter. Profit is often subjective, but in general, at least from my limited understanding, it needs to be at least enough to ‘have to’ pay federal taxes on. Because ‘valid equipment & photography related expense are write offs’ for a business, and these are ‘acceptable expenses’ (cost of doing business) which aren’t generally taxed (but written off). So, dealing with the accounting allows you to SAVE & KEEP more of the money you earn. Failure, or ignoring it, CAN LAND YOU IN DEEP DOO DO with the IRS.*
  • 10% LEGAL… you’ll have contracts, releases, and copyright issues to deal with. These are vital, important, and necessary… once they are done, the majority of this time can be spent doing more of the other stuff. But make no mistake, legal stuff will happen, is necessary, and you’ll need to have either a good understanding OR COMPETENT HELP, or you’ll end up with problems once people think you’re making money or have something they can ‘take’ from you. Copyrights, trade marks, branding, use rights, licenses, and releases are common in most all types of photography. With some, there are actual ‘contracts’ for what a photographer can (and can’t) do with their images… what a ‘buyer’ of the image(s) can or can’t do with them. It’s worth knowing, understanding, and having a source for legal help. Prior planning is a real time saver (especially if someone steals your work or accuses you of inappropriate behavior)… or demands you don’t use their image(s) you took, after you’ve already sold or distributed them. There are rules & laws, understanding them is important.
  • 30% MARKETING… especially if you aren’t working for some established photographer (or photo company), and don’t have a solid portfolio & clients lined up, you’ll have to figure out how to attract paying customers, and turn ‘raving fans’ (of your work) into both paying customers & promoters of You & YOUR WORK.  Advertising, which will cost you money, is often necessary, especially if it’s not word of mouth or social media promotions, may also be part of this equation.
  • 5% Gear… maintaining, selecting, saving up for, acquiring, and learning to master will require a little learning, if nothing more than it’s limits of what it really CAN and CAN NOT do in real world situations. As well as, when and how you (and your client) will benefit from using (or not using) that tool or piece of equipment.
  • 15% RELATIONSHIP BUILDING/NETWORKING… different than marketing, different than shooting… it’s all about ‘getting IN’ – that toe in the door – with the RIGHT PEOPLE, and establishing long term working relationships… sometimes sometimes friendships. So THEY WILL HELP YOU (directly & indirectly) build your business by refrerring clients.

In the photography business, not only are consistent quality images required, but so is reasonable and consistent COMMUNICATION: verbal & written. If you’re lacking in these, a) study & practice, practice, and practice; or b) hire & pay someone to help (but still put in the effect to learn, improve, and become self-sufficient). Whether you’re enticing new clients, exceeding the expectations of existing clients, or dealing with another business or job opportunity, effective communication is every bit as vital as quality images.

Once you are ‘established’ – have a solid reputation, consistent work that people are willing to pay for… and understand ‘the business’ – and regularly are dealing with the legal stuff (to protect yourself & your work)… and have the habit of ‘working YOUR BUSINESS’ – those percentages can change around a bit, but will most always be some component of the photography business.

If you have a ‘salaried’ (or regular) gig/job, or are an ‘intern’ (usually no or low paying, until you can capture marketable images consistently), or second shooter (rather than intern, because you KNOW HOW TO CONSISTENTLY CAPTURE QUALITY IMAGES) for an established photographer… then there are some of these steps OTHER PEOPLE are potentially doing FOR you. Pay attention, learn all you can… ASK QUESTIONS, listen & watch. Everyone does ‘their’ business a bit differently, some are far better than others at marketing & selling their work product, which may or may not be better than yours. They are just better at CAPITALIZING THEIR WORK, and very potentially working harder & pushing some most every day to grow their business.

There are ultimately two types of photographs –

    1) PERSONAL IMAGES (of and to specific clients, individuals)… usually prints or downloads, one at a time… or in package deals. And,

    2) COMMERCIAL IMAGES (which can be resold for marketing & advertising, PR, news papers, magazines, etc.)… which can be sold with specific use rights, and limits multiple times over.

Most photographer’s specialize in one or two specific types of imagery… niche markets they believe they can make some money at (in). Few photographer’s will focus on trying to market for more than 2 or 3 ‘types’ of photography. Here are SOME of the most common types are:

Aerial From a drone, plane, helicopter, balloon, or other airborne device. (Subject to FAA regulation & threats)
Action/Adventure Adventure & sports, it’s all about the MOVEMENT & MOTION. (one of my personal favorites)
Amateur/hobbyist Any type of photography practiced by non-professionals… for fun, not money. (No tax write offs here)
Animal, Pet Pets (often interacting with their owners) – Personal or Commercial potential (MUST BE GOOD WITH ANIMALS)
Architecture, Real Estate This is all about making property appear attractive.
Artistic  (Fine Art) Photography with creative composition & often photoshop mastery is often required.
Astrophotography Photography of the sky, stars, milky way, planets, usually through a telescope.
Aura Some claim can photograph a person’s aura.
Black & White Black and white photography explores & exploits shapes, tones, and textures. Shadows and highlights are vital.
Commercial Product shots, advertising, for brochures, catalogs, billboards, web sites, etc.
Digiscoping Photography through a telescope or binoculars.
Journalism/Documentary Documenting the story… in a journalists style… Events, Historical, Political, etc.
Event (not wedding or music) Charities, parties, festivals, etc.
Forensic Police and legal photography (different than PI work… often includes crime scenes).
Infrared Specialized photography equipment, where the recording medium is sensitive to infrared light. (often thermal)
Large Format For use on posters, billboards, etc. (special requirements, aside from just massive megapixels)
Macro Extreme closeups, but not ‘microscope’ photography. Usually very small objects taken real close (i.e., insects eyes)
Medical Clinical purposes, to help reveal and diagnose illness, or educate others about diseases.
Microscopic Any technique for photographing objects too small to be visible to humans (but not ‘macro’ (super closeups).
Modeling Not to be confused with ‘models’ (humans). This is photographing objects to be rendered into 3D models (wire frames, SGI, CGI type stuff… Avitar, special effects).
Music (Concert) Low & terrible lighting, no control, crowds of people (sometimes drunk or rowdy), and often seemingly unreasonable contractual requirements
Nature Landscapes, animals, plants, water, etc.
Night Any technique used to capture images at night, usually including the sky… sometimes includes infrared photography. Sometimes ‘light painting.’
Panoramic Views of wide areas, up to complete 360° panoramas. (Stitching multiple images usually required)
Paranormal Ghosts, unexplained phenomena, etc.
People Huge variables: From Candid (not posed), to posed, usually of clients, their Family, Fashion, Glamor, Passports, Head shots, Portraits, Pregnancy & Newborns, School, Sport teams (non action)
PI (Private Investigator) Photo documentation covertly (there are laws about this, different in each state… some requiring a license or permits)
Scenic Landscape, Cityscape, Astro-scape (can include ‘Night’ photography)
Satellite Views from space (not something most citizens/people are even capable of doing)
Scientific Any specialized photography used by scientists (and their students) e.g. electron microscopy photographs, medical photography, astrophotography, etc.
Sports Akin to Action/Adventure, but often specialized in to specific types of sporting events, and requiring a working knowledge of the actions before they happen (for the mid-air images)
Stereoscopic (3-D) Involves taking two photos simultaneously to simulate 3-D vision.
Stock Photographs taken for distribution to other people, usually for little money, to  use in their projects (personal or business). These photos tend to be generic, with model releases.
Time-lapse Photographs of the same object,  from the same exact angle & settings (usually), at timed increments… to illustrate something happening over time.  Such as cloud movement, plant growth, etc.
Travel Showcasing highlights of a given locations, for travel literature, web sites, etc.
Ultraviolet Recording ultraviolet light, rather than the normal visible light spectrum. (common in Forensic Photography, and Medical) Requires special equipment.
Urban, Industrial Emphasizing urban environments, industrial plants, buildings, structures, parks, etc as they relate to the community.
Water, Underwater Any type of photography taken at water level or under, using a special camera housing (usually requires special lighting also).
Wedding Self-explanatory, but the variable difference can range from $600 to $30,000+ dollars for one day of shooting. (Average is in the 2-5k range)

For example: A school photographer goes into schools, takes the class & individual photos based on a specific lighting combination, camera settings, and sends them off to another company to process. They are usually paid ‘hourly’ for their work, or ‘per person’ (student) – and the company they work for ‘owns’ the images (contractually). The company they ‘work FOR’ employs them, hustles the jobs, and sends them around to the different schools so the year books can look better, and consistent. Knowing WHO OWNS your images… and what you can do with them (legally) is important. A contract (work for hire) can trump ‘copyright laws.’

Many high schools & colleges have their own photography teacher & students running around with cameras… shooting events, sports action, etc. for the yearbook, school paper/website. And some pro-photographers actually pay the school a fee to have an ‘exclusive’ photography contract, in exchange for getting exclusive access, and the ability to sell the images at prices agreed to by the school. And yes, most schools have some ‘media’ camera people around for the big events, usually news paper people and tv stations. So, getting in prime positions to shoot at schools can be tough, and making money quite challenging (because you’re usually limited to what the parents & athletes purchase… with the occasional news paper request or potential (if you’re real good & consistent).

For those over 21, there are clubs, bars, and venues that have concerts & ‘contest’ type events… some have ‘house’ photographers, some allow pre-approved ‘freelance’ photographers… some, don’t allow any at all. It’s tough to ‘get in’ – and to ‘get paid’ – by the venue, artist(s), or people there. But, it’s possible.  At most of these type of gigs, if your camera equipment is lost, stolen, or damaged… OH WELL, your problem (as the photographer)… hopefully you have insurance. It’s something to be aware of, and not for the faint of heart or argumentative personality types. Professionalism, patience, and assertive behavior is necessary.

There is the ‘wedding’ (engagement, family, newborn) type of photography…. it’s often the second most lucrative (highest income generating)… but you’re constantly hustling NEW CLIENTS with money.  If you rock their engagement photos, you generally get to shoot their wedding (fees usually range from $600 to 30,000 for a full day wedding shoot)… and if you have a studio or are mobile, you can usually get their newborn and family photos in the future. But, make no mistake, there will always be people ‘cheaper’ (often a family friend… with a camera, which is frankly a joke most of the time)… and there will always be someone ‘better’ (that just ‘photoshop creates’ an amazing image (usually only one or two key images per wedding). It’s all up to you… but it requires patience, persistence, and pretty thick skin. Many will love your shots, until someone points out their little fat roll showing, or a zit you missed removing in post… then you potentially have bridezilla to deal with. Personally, “I try to avoid wedding photography altogether (but I’ll shot a divorce)” at least that’s been the running joke the last dozen years.

Senior Pictures can be a profitable type of photography, especially if you’re good with teens. While some is done ‘in studio’ – most is outdoors, in nature, around buildings, and usually done in 20 to 45 minutes.

Child photography is a whole different set of challenges… and whether you are male or female, young or old, I personally wouldn’t ever do it without a parent or guardian PRESENT, and a signed release… especially not in private or a studio setting.  0 to 18 years old can be an amazing niche’ market, especially the ‘teen years’ – 13 to 19… and most of the ‘modeling agencies’ and Commercial catalogs, and magazines want new, fresh, talent, looks… and there can be a whole lot of money made, if you have the right faces, shapes, and looks… a cooperative teen, and supportive parent (or guardian).

BUT BE AWARE… even if you’ve done nothing, YOU CAN BE ACCUSED! It’s always important to CYA (Cover Your Butt… the polite version). Thankfully I’ve never had that issue, but know more than a few photographers that have over the years. A couple were a total scam by the teen or parent, attempting to get ‘free’ photos, or some other special treatment (for them or their child).

I’ll write more as I have time… let me know if you have questions.





Disclaimer: *Please consult a bookkeeper or CPA, and attorney for the legal stuff, as I’m in no way giving any specific or individual advice on these ‘specialty topics,’ or nor am I licensed to offer such advice, and don’t bother keeping up with the rules & regulations as they change on a regular, especially here in the states. It’s generally not terribly difficult, and there are ‘smart’ people licensed on these topics that can help you for a reasonable fee. I accept no responsibility or liability for your screw ups, or for attempts to follow my advice. (Smile, and remember, Don’t Step on the Top Step of a Ladder) 







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So, You Want To Be A Professional Photographer? — 45 Comments

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