You’ve been taking your camera everywhere, shooting photos of your experiences, and you love the way photography makes you see the world. Gradually, you’ve started to wonder what it would be like to turn your passion into a career. This guide will walk you through the process of how to become a photographer.
If you put some thought into what you want out of your photography, you can build a career or a business that’s fulfilling and sustainable. There’s a lot that you’ll learn as you go but planning ahead will allow you to take a few fewer detours. You’ll want to start building a map with your destination in mind and an idea of what tools you’ll need to get there.
Photography is a technical skill as well as a creative endeavor. The photography industry is multifaceted and ever-evolving. In this guide, we’ll walk through your motivations, the craft, the various specialties, and the steps you can take to go from hobbyist to professional.
Table of Contents
Reflect on Your Why
The first step in becoming a photographer is identifying your why. This may sound less important than some of the hard skills we’re going to walk through but having a strong and clear purpose will be valuable in your journey. Your why will help you determine which photography specialties you’re interested in or whether you should build a business or find a job working for someone else.
In this section, we’ll talk about meaning, money, and lifestyle. Thinking through these three topics will give you clarity as you work through the rest of this guide. It will also give you strength as you ride the ups and downs of your career.
People choose professions for many reasons. Some people choose their careers based on things they are good at or things they enjoy doing. Others want to make a difference, do something meaningful, or be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Photography has the potential to make a big impact on people’s lives. Some photographers make people happy by capturing important moments while others create change in the world through their art by adding more beauty or making strong statements. Photography is a form of expression and storytelling which is what gives it such great meaning to those of us behind the lens.
The first question to ask yourself is why you want to be a photographer. Your answer will help you wake up and get yourself to work even on days when you’re dealing with a difficult client or struggling to tap into your creativity. It will also help you decide how to build a career that will best align with your actual goals.
Despite being a question of how you spend your time, talents, and energy, most of us also have to consider money. While you’re likely not here because you think photography is going to be the most lucrative career, money is still a factor worth considering. Can you support yourself financially?
Whether you’re looking to quit your day job or simply supplement your income, your relationship with money will influence the steps and processes you take in becoming a photographer. Your financial needs and situation, such as if you have a family to support, might dictate how much risk you can take while building your career. Regardless, I hope you don’t ignore the money side of the work equation.
Money is part of our why because it’s part of the relationship between our work and the other aspects of our life. While we would love to work for passion alone, our society is set up in a way where we trade our expertise for money that we then use to support our lifestyle.
Speaking of lifestyle, working as a photographer can give you a schedule that you either consider flexible or chaotic. Depending on your perspective, the lifestyle of a photographer can be romantic or a nightmare. Again, identifying what you want your life to look like might dictate how you choose your specialty and how you build your career.
For some of us, the lifestyle is part of our why. I love working at sunrise and sunset rather than sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 regardless of what I’m working on. But let’s be honest, a chaotic schedule makes it really hard to have any sort of routine.
It’s important to think about how your work is going to interplay with the rest of your life. Understanding the type of lifestyle you want to have will help guide you as you think through these topics. For example, it might push you towards or away from creating your own business.
A Word of Warning: Count the Cost
If your love of photography as a hobby is the reason you are considering making it a career, you should think long and hard about whether or not you would be willing to sacrifice your hobby for your career.
While the idea of doing what you love as a job may seem perfect and like a dream come true, that idealized view may come crashing down to Earth when the going gets tough and the profession does not turn out to be as glamorous as you thought.
It isn’t uncommon for passionate hobbyist photographers to completely lose their love and passion for photography once they become professional and find all their energy being put toward shooting things for work rather than for pleasure, and once they discover that actually working with photos is only a tiny part of what it means to be a professional photographer.
Learning the Craft of Photography
For those of you who impatiently skimmed the previous section hoping for more hard skills, this section is for you. Photography is a craft.
Photography is a creative and artistic act but an artist has to know how to create their art. Craft is that ‘how.’ How do I evoke emotion, inspire change, or ensure someone connects with my art?
There are a lot of people that can take great photographs but fewer people who can consistently take great photographs. Some people have a great eye for design and there are others that seem to have access to an endless well of ideas. However, what sets the professional apart is that they have to consistently create high-quality work.
As you work towards becoming a photographer you’ll learn that it’s not as simple as relying on instinct. First, you have to train yourself to have the right instincts. That’s one of the reasons they talk about experts having 10,000 hours of experience, the more you’ve practiced good framing techniques the more they will become instinctual.
It’s one thing to have a great eye for design. It’s quite another to understand why something is effective and how to create it on a daily basis.
Learning Your Camera
Things like composition and framing techniques apply to art in general. Next, you’ll want to dive into photography specifically. How does your camera work and how can you use it to create the story you’re trying to tell?
You’ll want to understand shutter speed, aperture, and ISO — the exposure triangle. You’ll want to know how to use your camera and understand the purpose of different lenses and other gear.
And finally, you’ll also need to learn about post-production and processing your images. How do you take the raw image and turn it into something marketable?
Studying the Profession
You’re learning the craft of photography. Now it’s time to study the profession. Meaning, you know how to take a picture, now how do you turn that picture into something you can sell?
Who are your potential clients? What are the different ways you can work in the photography industry? And what other skills will you need based on the role you end up playing?
Photography and other creative pursuits can be stuck in a nebulous place between hobby and profession. In order to take the leap to profession, you’ll need to know how and why people get paid for their work. In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into the various photography specialties.
Choosing a Photography Specialty
Understanding the industry is actually more complicated than it sounds. If you ask the question of what it’s like to be a photographer, first you need to know what type of photographer we’re talking about. A portrait photographer’s life is different from a product photographer’s.
Each photography specialty has its own industry and there are also different industries within each specialty. For example, are you a commercial photographer working in the automotive industry or the healthcare industry? Or you might be a portrait photographer but do you shoot newborns, families, or corporate headshots?
As you read through the following photography specialties, you’ll notice that they have more than just different subjects. They also have different types of clients, schedules, pay, and more. Think back to your why and see which one of these specialties fits your meaning, money, and lifestyle requirements.
Here is a list of photography specialties:
- Portrait photography
- Wedding photography
- Event photography
- Product photography
- Food photography
- Stock photography
- Architectural photography
- Real estate photography
- Commercial photography
- Editorial photography
- Fashion photography
- Sports photography
- Still life photography
- Fine art photography
- Conservation photography
- Aerial photography
Each specialty and the sub-specialties within each category will be different in terms of the types of clients you’re working with, what you get paid, and what type of schedule you have. Some photographers are shooting products every day while others are working on one bigger project over a longer time span.
Getting Experience in Your Field
Once you’ve narrowed down to the specialty or specialties you’re most interested in, it’s time to dive even deeper. You might find yourself interested in more than one specialty and while some people say you need to choose, I would encourage you not to limit yourself. You mind find that having more than one specialty will help you build a more sustainable business.
However, you do need to dial in and get very specific within your specialty. Who are the clients, what are their needs, and how can you best serve them? And how do you even find or contact them so that you can get them to hire you?
Some industries are more straightforward than others such as when you’re shooting weddings, portraits, or events. Your clients are individuals looking to hire you. In other industries, your clients will be businesses and it’ll be important to tailor your marketing plan to the industry you’re working in.
Steps to Go From Hobbyist to Professional
OK, you’ve done your research. You’ve studied your craft, the profession, and your specialty or specialties. Now you’re really wanting to know what you actually need to do, what steps to take, and which to-do list items to start checking off.
It’s essential to start with building a budget, you need to know how much money you need to make in order to run your business. You’re going to need contracts and pricing in place, you can use your budget to help determine your pricing. Note that your pricing structure might be influenced by your target client so that will be important to identify next.
With your target client in mind, you’ll build a marketing plan for how you’re going to acquire new clients. Likely your marketing plan will direct potential clients to your website and portfolio. You’ll get work, get paid, and suddenly you’re a professional.
Here are 7 easy steps to becoming a professional photographer:
- Build a budget.
- Have pricing and contracts in place.
- Identify your target client.
- Create a marketing plan.
- Put together a website and portfolio.
- Get work.
- Get paid.
Sounds easy right?! Just take it one step at a time.
Building a Business or Finding a Job
At this point, it’s important to note that building a business isn’t the only option. There are also photography jobs that you can look for. If everything about being a photographer sounds great to you except the entrepreneurship part, you don’t have to abandon the dream.
In almost every specialty there are business owners that hire photographers to do the photography. You could shoot real estate for a larger real estate photography company or work for a portrait photography studio. You don’t have to be a freelance photographer.
In fact, depending on where you are in life you might decide to start by working for someone else while you gain experience and confidence. There are also adjacent jobs to consider, jobs in the photography industry that are similar but different such as photo editing or creative directors.
Here are some careers that are similar to photography:
- Photo editors
- Film and video editors
- Camera operators
- Sound engineering technicians
- Graphic designers
- Fine artists
- Creative directors
- Product stager
- Photography teacher
How to Know When You’re Ready
If you’re reading this article and you’ve made it to this point, you’re wondering how to know when you’re ready. Maybe you’ve read countless articles on becoming a photographer and still aren’t sure about pressing that trigger finger. It’s daunting, overwhelming, and feels like a big decision.
At some point, you’re going to have to try it out. You’re going to have to get that first client, go on that first shoot, and see if you really like it. If you’ve thought through everything in this guide then the risk isn’t really that great.
I’m not saying it’s time to sell all your possessions, buy camera gear, and risk everything. Be smart, start slow, and see how it goes. Life is an adventure and our creative pursuits make it even more interesting, fun, and meaningful.
Get out there and make something.
About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” they are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.
Image credits: Header photo by Brenda Bergreen.