How To Become A Professional Photographer

So You Want To Be A Professional Wedding Photographer? Here’s what you need to know before you start charging for your photography…

I get weekly emails from people wanting to shadow me to learn what it takes to become a professional photographer. I am approached almost every time I’m out shooting by someone who likes photography and it thinking about becoming a professional. They love taking photos, people tell them they are good at it and they have a “pretty good” camera. It’s fun, it’s creative and it seems like they can make really good money if they only work on weekends. Most of the people who approach me and want step by step instructions and words of encouragement while I’m clearly working with a client. So I tend to be rude since they are not a paying client and they are taking my focus off where it needs to be. The email queries for being my assistant, people looking for critiques of their work and “just wanting feedback” are constant. I spend “in season” running from spinning plate to spinning plate just to keep to my strict schedule of getting all photos back within two weeks (usually more like a week). I don’t use assistants and never have! I give 100% of my focus to my clients and work really hard to develop an intimate trust and relationship with them within two minutes. That can’t be done with assistants around or having me teach someone how to be a photographer while I’m working.

So I thought I’d write a blog about what I think you need to do to get yourself ready to transition from photo enthusiast to professional photographer. I’m also going to send this link out to everyone who contacts me because they thought “they’d just start with weddings” and “would like to dabble in weddings”.

  1. Don’t start with weddings. DO NOT START WITH WEDDINGS! Weddings are very high stakes. People have invested a lot of time and a LOT of money on this one whirlwind day. They’ve picked a really pretty church and a beautiful reception hall. These are pretty caves. You have the potential to ruin their day if you screw it up or even flounder for a little teeny bit. I didn’t shot a wedding until I’d been a professional FULL TIME photographer for almost 10 years. If you don’t get diarrhea before every single wedding, you’re not taking it seriously enough.
  2. Invest the time into knowing everything you can about how your camera works. Take your camera off “automatic”. Forever. It rarely makes the correct choice. It doesn’t understand off center composition. It doesn’t know you wanted to bring up the ambient light. It didn’t get that you wanted a really narrow depth of field. Your automatic setting doesn’t comprehend that you wanted to drag that shutter for a cool effect. If what I just wrote sounds confusing and doesn’t make sense, skip the rest of this blog and enroll in a photography 101 class. It’s not rocket science, but there are certain photography principals every photographer needs to know inside and out.
  3. Take your camera everywhere. If you can take marvelous photos outdoors on overcast days, congratulations. So can a 2 year old with an iPhone. Learn to shoot all different lighting conditions and test yourself to see how close you can get to the perfect exposure within two exposures. Real clients are counting on you to know exactly what you’re doing and don’t have the patience or time for you to figure it out. Even I occasionally inadvertently bump a setting on my camera (why, oh, why Nikon, do you have the “bracket” option in a place that’s way too easy to accidentally get to????) which will make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. You have exactly two moves to undo that error. Pros don’t get do overs and they don’t have time to “figure it out”. It has to be instinct.
  4. Now that you know your camera and lens inside and out, go buy two more of everything. I cannot tell you how many modern day wedding photography horror stories start with, “And the photographer’s one camera broke so they left the wedding…..”. This is true for lenses, flashes, power packs, batteries, cards, etc. A little bit of paranoia goes a long way towards piece of mind and will get you back on track when something goes horribly wrong.
  5. Now that you have your cameras skills down to second nature and can make decisions about lighting and backgrounds within a few seconds, work on doing that while you’re keeping the people you’re with happy, calm, feeling assured and creating a nurturing and fun environment. Most clients are pretty freaked out about having their photos taken. They’re nervous or at least apprehensive. They are trusting you to make all the decisions and to make them look natural. A large part of that is keeping them happy and entertained as a distraction. Multi-tasking is key. If you can’t spin lots of plates at the same time, this is not the job for you. Oh, and be super creative while running from plate to plate. Being FANTASTIC at multi-tasking a mandatory.
  6. Practice on friends and family. Don’t take them out for a 3 hour session, but see what you can do in an hour. Most clients do not have the time, money or facial expression stamina to last more than an hour. You have to move around a LOT and get a wide variety of backgrounds and lighting in order to give them options. It always keeps things from getting stale. If no one is having fun, then the photos look like no one is having fun! For fun wedding and wedding party photos, I usually get 20 minutes to 45 minutes TOPS to get everything done. You have to make decisions quickly and execute our plans even faster.
  7. Learn to see the light. Sun is usually a photographer’s worst enemy. Your clients can’t look into it or they’ll be squinty and miserable. So you need to be able to make the sun do exactly what you need it to do. You need to be able to fill in shadows, create light where you need it and make it work for you. Learning to see how to create the light you want is one of the most difficult things to explain to people and one of the most challenging things to learn to correct. You can’t over power the sun, so how are you going to make it work for you?
  8. You can’t cancel on clients. Just about all small business people are tied to their phones and computers 24/7 so that’s just part of doing business. Being available on their schedule is just the way it is. What’s more challenging is that you can’t be sick, your emergencies don’t matter and you can never, ever NOT show up. It’s not that they don’t care about you, but if you’re shooting a wedding, it has to be done. Period. We all have back up shooters we could call if we are incredibly ill, but it will impact your business. With online reviews being so important, a cancelled appointment or sending a substitute shooter could result in terrible, career ending reviews (even if your sub does an amazing job). Being sick just isn’t an option. I once had a client back out of our contract because I mentioned that I was having my annual mammogram just before our meeting. She freaked out because she”couldn’t take those kinds of risks”. Apparently she did not know that women past 35 are actually encouraged to have mammograms regularly as prevention. I tried to explain it to her, but that little, teeny thing set off huge alarm bells. So you shoot weddings 5 days after C-sections, you shoot weddings with fevers, you shoot weddings two days after your husband’s been diagnosed with leukemia and you miss almost every family wedding, funeral and function that falls on a Saturday. Nothing is more important than keeping your prior commitments.
  9. This isn’t something you master by attending a few weddings. It isn’t something you begin to understand after shooting a hundred of them solo or as a second shooter. One of my dear friends said she didn’t even begin to feel remotely comfortable in handling the logistics of the timing, the crowd control, the responsibility, the technical aspects of so many different venues, anticipating personality issues and problems on top of being creative, trying new things and looking for something unique until she hit the 500 wedding mark. I agree with her whole heartedly. I still get nervous and have clenched intestines before EVERY wedding and I’ve now shot over 1,300 (stopped officially counting after 1,100). This isn’t something you can “dabble” at or do occasionally and think you can learn as you go. This is something that takes a lot of trial and no room for error. Photographing weddings really is something that requires practice, repetition, repetition and a lot more repetition. The only way you get better is by going it again and again with a different cast of characters in totally different settings.
  10. Figure out what to charge. Not what you want to make. Not what you think you’re worth. Once you decide that you aren’t doing this as a favor and you’re not doing this as a hobby, you need to figure out what the going rate is based on your needs and what the market is. Once you charge, you are technically a professional. Most people start off by charging very little. They like taking photos, they don’t have a lot of money invested in gear yet and they’re sick of doing it for free so they charge a little bit. Around here it’s not unusual for students to charge each other $20-$50 for senior photos. It’s not like they are doing this professionally and they’re happy for some pocket money. They are also putting brick and mortar photo studios out of business. They are also putting full time professional photographers out of business. If you’re going to charge money for shooting photos, even as a student, consider what your rate should be for the valuable service you are providing. If prospective clients can’t tell the difference between someone who just started and is learning how to take photos versus a photojournalist with 29 years of experience they are NOT going to pay more for the experienced Pro. On the other hand, why are the newbies all creating a race to the bottom of the pay scale? Believe me… if you charge $50 bucks for senior photos, someone in your yearbook class is going to undercut you and charge $40. It’s annoying. It’s really annoying when you can no longer afford to feed your family.  Few consider what their fees should be and why they should be as much as they are. Here are some things to consider;
  11. Carrying Costs – Equipment costs (X2 or X3 depending on how much back up equipment you need). You should have two camera bodies and a third (maybe older model) as a back up. All the lenses need to have back ups. Dropping, banging, rained on, used up and many other issues render cameras useless (unless you want an interesting paperweight). When they don’t work for whatever reason, you need a duplicate piece of equipment within 10 seconds. You also need to pay to insure these things. You also need to pay to repair these things. You also need lighting equipment (X2 or X3 or in my case X5) depending on how much light you want and how portable that light is. You need to cover liability and theft insurance, car insurance, a car, health insurance, a web site, domain name, web design and maintenance, rent/mortgage, taxes, self employment tax, cell phone costs, computers, software, utilities, retirement funds. Oh and your time. Don’t forget to charge them for that! People often ask me why I charge $250/hr. Seems like a lot! I always say that an hour of shooting is about 4-5 hours of work. For a skilled, creative, experienced contractor who is creating one of a kind artwork for you, that’s pretty damn cheap! What photographers charge is all across the board. I would hope that just because you might not have to worry about mortgages and health insurance now or you have parents or a partner who foots some of these other bills, please consider what the cost of doing business is. If you start out charging $50 for hourly sessions or $500 for weddings, not only will your clients not understand if you start hiking the prices up to where they should be once you do have experience, but you will not be able to survive on your own with all the costs of living once you don’t have parents or a partner to depend on. For example, I have a really good friend how is fabulous and has over 1,500 weddings under her belt. She’s a FANTASTIC deal at $1,500 for weddings. Hasn’t raised her prices in a long time. She always said that it didn’t matter because that’s what she needed to have a nice, livable salary on her own. Fast forward a few years and now she has two kids she pays child care costs for every time she’s out shooting and it’s getting hard to process all the images with kids underfoot. And she’s got their health bills, school costs and it’s getting harder to answer email and phone calls in as timely a manner as she used to. I’m pretty sure she will be raising her prices once she sees how much having a family is cutting into her bottom line. This is partly why photographers fees vary so wildly. What’s your experience level? How much education do you have in this field? Is this your full time job? If you want to make this your full time job, don’t price yourself out of your own market. If you start low and have lots of return clients, they most likely won’t be loyal to you if you have a price hike! If you start high, but can’t back up those fees with great, consistent results each and every time so you can reproduce a reliable product, your reputation will tank and you will have no repeat clients. So think long term for yourselves and figure out how you can slowly grow your business. If you’ve read all this and decided you’d prefer to be an enthusiastic hobbyist, that’s fine! Just please don’t price those of us who have worked really hard to grow a reputation and make a living from this right out of business.
  12. Working long hours. I’m lucky. I can still pay all my bills and do what I love AND eek out a living. My work is seasonal with the heaviest months being May-November. I worked it out once after someone asked me how many hours I worked on average a week. When I averaged out high season and low season, it worked out to me working on average 55 hours a week every week of the year. In”low” season, it’s around 30 hours a week. In “high” season, it’s around 90 hours a week. It’s extremely rare to have a day off. It’s been 14 years since I could go a day without checking and answering emails and voicemails. If you don’t answer email within a few hours, potential clients get rightfully annoyed. You’re not reliable or easily accessible and few care why! I’m used to this schedule and am not complaining, but it involves a lot of nights and many weekends. That means you’ll miss a LOT of family events including reunions, weddings (that you aren’t shooting which I actually encourage family members to hire me so I CAN attend their weddings), funerals and all the dinners with friends. They know I’ll opt in when I can, but if they plan something on a weekend, the odds are that I won’t be there. And so I miss a LOT / MOST fun family activities.

Thanks for reading this ridiculously long post and sorry to all the people who query me about becoming a professional photographer or being my assistant. I wish I had the time to mentor each and every one of you, but I simply don’t… yet.

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