Photography – Becoming a Professional

Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn! Look to this Day! For it is Life, the very Life of Life. In its brief course lie all the Verities and Realities of your Existence.  – Kalidasa

A frequent question in photography groups is “What does it take to become a professional photographer?” That is best answered with a question in return. “Do you realize that a professional shoots what is interesting to another person or company, when that person wants it done”? Gone are the days of shooting what interests you, and when you are in the mood.

However, a condensed list of requirements follows:

1) strong marketing skills (and lots of time and energy to utilize them).

2)  Professional equipment (expensive!) and willingness to forgo all of the other things that could have been purchased.

3) Excellent technique (and the time and money necessary to achieve it)

4) Five years, more or less.  However, I do know of an account executive in New York who abruptly quit his job and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to support himself as a photographer. He does not recommend this approach for most people, although he did succeed.

5) Shoot what you love. Learn to effectively convey your feelings to other people through your images. The owner of a stock photography agency told me that he thinks these are primary keys to success.

Becoming a professional photographer has always been a long and rigorous journey because of the amount of competition.  With the advent of quality, affordable digital camera and lenses, it has become 1,000 times more difficult than it was 20 years ago.

However the principle determinants of financial success remain the same.

1) Frequent attendance of workshops put on by successful professional photographers who are also effective teachers

3) Ongoing mentoring by a successful, established photographer

4) Practice honing one’s skills by shooting and processing . In one survey, the average number of photographs taken and edited per day by the better professionals was 40.

5) Study for development of new skills for both photography its self and for processing.

6) Find a niche. I know of one lady in Taos, New Mexico who has supported herself and her family for years by shooting only cooked food dishes for restaurants, magazines, etc. She has only one camera and only one lens. Her “studio” is her kitchen. A more complex, and probably more practical, niche could be some combination of tilt-shift lenses, focus stacking, high dynamic range (HDR), panoramas, mosaics and composites of photographs and illustrations.

Although 5 years of dedicated work is a rough rule of thumb, the time can be greatly shortened by attending a school such as Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. At Brooks, a typical single week’s schedule is likely to include 3-5 projects. Each project includes, planning, arranging for props, models, lighting and specialty equipment, shooting, processing, printing and presentation.  It’s rigorous, but upon graduation, many are offered (low-level) jobs.

When starting out, a professional photographer’s jobs are likely to be mundane and income meager. One might be shooting for a seed catalog or for K-mart junk mail or an oil refinery. For many years Ansell Adams supported himself by shooting dams and bridges for a railroad company. Induced Chaos Photography (inducedchaos.com) points out, correctly, that professionals must consistently produce high quality results day in and day out, regardless of how they are feeling or whether they are interested in the subject of the shoot.

Having effective marketing skills is essential for developing an income stream. Many people take classes in marketing. Early in one’s career, it is common to spend more time on marketing than on the photography itself.

Peter Lik is a dramatic example of the importance of marketing. Peter is a self-taught landscape photographer.   He used a panoramic film camera and perfect technique with which he generated wonderful nature photographs. His work was distinctive because film panorama landscapes were rare. Peter was an adventurer and individualist with no interest in marketing. As a result, his income was so low that he lived out of his car for 35 years. Several years ago he teamed up with a high-powered marketing firm. Currently he has over 14 galleries, each selling (huge) framed enlargements for $ 8,000 to $15,000. (His most expensive photograph is a multi-paneled mural the size of a large wall. It sells for $ 50,000. Last year he began a successful reality TV series (The Weather Channel-TWC) entitled From the Edge with Peter Lik. Wow! That demonstrates the power of marketing when your product is high quality.

In conclusion, the best advice for the budding professional photographer is “Follow your heart, but don’t give up your day job”.

I hope this will be helpful to someone. I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for future blog topics.

I am available at NaturePhotoRehab.com assisting clients in transforming their nature photos into works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

©2012 J. Michael Harroun  NaturePhotoRehab.com

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8 comments on “Photography – Becoming a Professional

  1. Aaron says:

    Great blog – I checked this out after my post on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. I like a lot of the ideas you’ve got here, the tutorials are excellent and you’ve hit a nerve on the philosophy of going pro for an advanced amateur like myself. Very well done.

    • Aaron, Thank you for visiting and commenting. I very much appreciate your generous compliments.
      I find your site, postcardintellect.com, very interesting and look forward to perusing.
      Your style and subjects are very different from mine, which makes your work highly instructive for me.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Keeping up with Carol. Great article.

  3. I am slowly starting the move into professional work but one of the greatest things is consistency. People want a proven product and a professional photography can produce it. We all have bad days and we may hate shooting what we have been hired to shoot but we can do it professionally and the product is consistent and on time.

  4. amras888 says:

    I have enjoyed reading your posts and would love to nominate you for the Inspiring Blogger Award. It entitles you to wear the Inspiring Blog image on your site.
    I have put a link to your Blog on my site.

    If you have stipulated no awards, then please forgive me for not remembering, and let me know.

    You will find my acceptance post here: Me « amras888

    Thank you, and please keep up the good work.

    • Thank you for your kind words and thoughts. I enjoy your excellent blog posts.
      I am surprised and honored (mostly surprised) to be considered as a candidate for an Inspiring Blogger Award. I am not familiar with this award. What obligations or cost would this entail for me?

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