Are you passionate about photography and dream of turning your hobby into a full-fledged profession? The path to becoming a professional photographer may seem glamorous and exciting, but it’s essential to separate fact from fiction. In this blog, we will shed light on the truth behind the journey of becoming a professional photographer. From the hard work and dedication required to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, we will unravel the realities of this creative career. Whether you’re just starting out or considering a career switch, join us as we explore the ins and outs of pursuing your passion for photography professionally.
The Truth about Becoming a Professional Photographer
I get a lot of questions from people asking me should I turn photography into my job and not just keep it as that thing I enjoy on the side. And those questions are coming in thicker and faster at the moment because so many people around the world are struggling to find work, and people are questioning should I try and turn this thing that I love into the thing that also pays the bills. Maybe you’re in that position right now. And this doesn’t just apply to photographers, this applies to anyone who does anything creative on the side of their day job. Maybe you write poems or you paint or draw or design or make films. It applies to all these things. If there’s anything you love to do in your spare time and you’re sitting there thinking, I wonder if I could leave that day job and make this thing that I love the thing that pays all my bills, well I’m going to tell you my story about how I became a professional photographer and what that looked like in reality, the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day, so you can get a realistic picture of what you might experience if you choose to go professional. And hopefully, in hearing that story, you can make a more informed decision for yourself.
I was probably in my mid-20s when I decided that maybe I should start thinking about making money with a camera in hand. The first camera that I tried that with was one of those little DV handycams with a flip-out screen. At the time, I was working for the church back in South Africa, and no surprises, the church didn’t pay very well. And I had this camera, and I enjoyed taking photographs and videos. And I thought, I wonder if I could use this to subsidize some of my income. So, even though I’d always enjoyed photography and video on the side, it suddenly became the thing that I did to make that bit of extra money. With that little DV camera, I started out by shooting youth camps which I was involved in running at the time. And I remember one of the ones we used to do, this was back in the early 2000s when Survivor was a big deal on TV. So, we would run these camps that were like Survivor camps. We’d split the kids into tribes, and they’d have to build their own shelters and come together for challenges. So, I would shoot that whole weekend, and then at the end, I cut together like a one-hour sort of Survivor episode that I could sell to the kids who came on the camp as a DVD, something they could take away if they wanted to remember the weekend.
After I’ve been doing that for a little while and a bunch of other little jobs on the side, I decided to upgrade my camera and get a little bit more serious. And I got the Canon XH A1s, and I started to do corporate training videos. I had a friend who worked for a company, and he asked me to come in and film a training video for them. And then he recommended me to someone else, and they recommended me to someone else. And it slowly started to grow, these little videos on the side of basically just people sitting and talking to the camera, explaining internal processes. So, not very exciting, but it helped keep a little bit of money trickling on the side, and I could grow my skills.
It was around the same time that I picked up the Fuji S3500, which was kind of this silver chunky point-and-shoot thing with a zoom. See, I was shooting Fuji long before it was trendy. And even though I only had four megapixels, I really enjoyed using it in my own time and taking photographs. And the idea occurred to me, maybe I could start to add photography to the filmmaking that I was already offering. I obviously realized that four megapixels probably wasn’t enough for professional use. But it was at that time that Canon dropped the 550D or I think it was the T2i in America, and that had 18 megapixels. It was going to be plenty. And going from 4 to 18 was a lovely experience. So, I sold up my video cameras, all my little stills cameras, and I got two 550D bodies and three lenses. All went into a backpack with an extra little mic here and there. And I was then able to go around and shoot promotional videos, I could shoot weddings, I could shoot still portraits, I could do promotional skills for people’s websites, all out of one backpack.
Then, at 30 years old, I lost my job with the church. And I decided I was never going to go back to church work again. And I realized that whatever career I went to next, I was going to have to start from scratch. And I remember looking at my cameras, thinking, I wonder if I could take those and turn them into my day job. But being nervous that it was going to ruin it for me, that I would hate my cameras because I was relying on them to pay the bills, and it was going to get tied up with business and stop being just about art. But a friend of mine said to me, “If you’re going to have to start from scratch, you might as well pick something that you enjoy doing because then you stand a chance of having your day job being something that you love.” And it was those comments that pushed me over the edge; I thought, let me try and be a professional.
I began by freelancing, and I think I had this expectation that I’d just be able to go around to the clients I had those few to be able to get some more work from them, maybe some more referrals. And that, over the course of time, I would be able to build this thing to the point where it would cover all my bills and then grow it beyond that into the future. But my expectations were shattered pretty early.
For the first three years of going freelancing, my main source of income was waiting tables. And there are a few reasons for that. One, I think I overestimated how much work I was going to be able to generate in that first little while. And two, I wasn’t that good yet, and I hadn’t been honest with myself about the fact that I had a long way to go before the work that I was producing was sought after by people to the level that I would be able to support myself.
I did lots of little freelance gigs for friends who sort of took pity on me and tried to generate a little bit of work for me. But they obviously weren’t paid very well, and I was still happy to do them though. I mean, every job was a bit more experience, and even that little bit of money made a real difference because times were hard. And one friend of mine who was starting a cafe came to me and said, “Hey, could you do some shots of the food that I want to have in the cafe to go on the website and entice people in?” So, I went over, just natural light because I really didn’t understand strobes properly yet, and I did the best that I could. I think I had the 550D and the Canon 50mm f/1.4, and I shot it all with that. And under the circumstances, those images came out pretty well. And those were the images that got me my first full-time gig.
There was a company in Cape Town who sold fancy kitchenware online. They were one of the biggest e-commerce companies in South Africa, and they liked those food shots a lot. And they asked me if I would come and be their in-house photographer. And so, they gave me this tiny little room at their offices. And overnight, suddenly, I was a “professional photographer.” I had a desk, and I had a computer, and I could leave all the gear there. And I was now responsible for photographing all of their products for the website and doing all the marketing shots and anything else that they need. And in return, I got a monthly salary. And that took such a huge weight off my shoulders because suddenly I wasn’t constantly hustling for the next job, wondering if I was going to make enough money to pay the bills.
But it also had its downsides. It became a routine, it became a job, it became much less about the art of photography and much more about just getting the work done. It was still a good experience, because it taught me a lot about putting a system in place and having to consistently produce a high volume of work. But there was always that tension between trying to be creative and trying to churn out work on a regular basis.
From there, I went on to start my own freelance photography business. And it was a slow process of building up clients and generating work. And I did a lot of work for low pay or sometimes even for free, just to get my name out there and to start building a portfolio. And slowly but surely, I started to get more clients and more referrals. And as my name grew in the industry, I was able to start charging more for my work.
But it took time and effort. It wasn’t an overnight success, and I had to constantly be learning and improving my skills. I invested in workshops and courses to expand my knowledge and to keep up with the ever-changing industry. And I had to be adaptable, willing to take on different types of photography jobs to make ends meet.
But over time, I was able to build a successful photography business. I now have a steady flow of clients, and I’m able to support myself doing what I love. It’s not always easy, and there are definitely ups and downs, but it’s worth it to be able to wake up every day and do something that I’m passionate about.
So, if you’re thinking about becoming a professional photographer or turning any creative hobby into a career, my advice is to be prepared for hard work and perseverance. It’s not an easy path, and you may have to start from scratch and work your way up. But if you’re truly passionate about what you do, and you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it is possible to make a living doing what you love.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) – The Truth about Becoming a Professional Photographer
Q: Is professional photography a viable career option?
A: Absolutely! With the growth of social media, online businesses, and the need for high-quality visual content, professional photography has become a thriving industry.
Q: Do I need formal education to become a professional photographer?
A: While a formal education in photography can provide a solid foundation and enhance your skills, it is not mandatory. Many successful professional photographers are self-taught.
Q: What equipment do I need to start my photography career?
A: It depends on the type of photography you want to specialize in. Generally, a reliable DSLR or mirrorless camera, a range of lenses, tripod, memory cards, and editing software would be essential.
Q: Can I make a living solely from photography?
A: Yes, it is possible to make a living solely from photography; however, it requires dedication, continuous learning, networking, and building a solid client base. It takes time to establish yourself in the industry.
Q: How can I build my photography portfolio?
A: Consider collaborating with friends, family, or local businesses for photoshoots. Attend events, join photography communities, and offer your services to gain experience and create a diverse portfolio.
Q: How do I find clients as a professional photographer?
A: Networking is vital in this industry. Utilize social media platforms, set up a professional website, create a strong online presence, and reach out to potential clients directly. Word-of-mouth recommendations can also play a significant role.
Q: How much can I earn as a professional photographer?
A: Earnings vary greatly depending on factors like experience, niche, location, and demand. Initially, you may earn a modest income, but as you establish your brand and reputation, your earning potential can significantly increase.
Q: Should I specialize in a specific genre of photography?
A: Specializing in a specific genre can help you stand out and build expertise. However, it’s not necessary, especially when you are starting. Exploring different genres allows you to discover your true passion.
Q: How important is continuous learning in the field of professional photography?
A: Continuous learning is essential for growth in any creative field, including professional photography. Keep up with industry trends, experiment with new techniques, attend workshops, and constantly work on improving your skills.
Q: Is it challenging to balance personal creativity with client requirements?
A: While client requirements may sometimes limit personal creativity, effective communication and understanding their needs can help you find a balance. Collaborating with clients and adding your artistic touch can create unique and satisfying results.
I hope you find useful my article The Truth about Becoming a Professional Photographer, I also recommend you to read my other posts in my blog at this link.
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Best of luck! and follow your passion.
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