10 Steps to Becoming a Full Time Photographer
Could I sound more "sales-y"? More "act now"?
But this is all free, folks. So, you know, read it if you want to. Pass it on if you feel like it.
I reflected on 10 years of full time shooting and wanted to write down what I did RIGHT that led me to not only supporting my family with photography funds, but cash flowing things like trips to Disney, investments, and a new house.
Yes, you CAN be a full-time professional photographer. It can be done. But, it's not as easy as just putting your name out there and hoping you get bookings. These 10 Steps are also not a guarantee of jack squat. It's just what I did. There's definitely more than one way to skin a cat (gross).
But, I've been full time since Day 1. I've also supported my family and then some as the breadwinner since Year 1, so....you know....I have to be doing SOMETHING right.
1. Be Serious. Seriously.
This is not a situation where someone sends you a box of goods and BAM, you have a business (I'm looking at you, MLMs). If you want to be a full-time, working photographer it has to start as a real business. This means you should sit down and write out a business plan, figure out your financials, apply for a business license, and register to pay taxes. Yawn, I know, but if you want to be taken seriously....you need to be serious.
2. Portfolio Build the Correct Way
Portfolio building should really only take a month or two, if you work it right. You shouldn't be a year in and still charging "portfolio building" prices. If you are, you're doing it wrong. Set up a marathon session day with a variety of folks. If you want to do this for free, be my guest. If you want to charge a little for your time, that's cool too. Make it ABUNDANTLY CLEAR that you are portfolio building and that these prices are not your real prices going forward.
If you are set on being a wedding photographer, portfolio building may take you a bit longer. I was kind of a special case as I never second shot until I was well into my own full-time business. I took on lower-price weddings to start with and worked my way up. You have to be VERY comfortable with your ability to capture a wedding to start this way. Second shooting is preferable. Find someone cool who will let you use your second-shooting shots in your portfolio. I allowed this, but it's not cool with everyone, so make sure you ask first.
3. Shoot What Sells
You may really like shooting pictures of bees or bridges or whatever, but you may have a tough time making a full-time career out of being your area's premiere bee photographer.
Portraits sell. Weddings sell. Headshots and events sell. Everything else should be filler. A hobby.
And be aware, you may have to take the unsexy job sometimes. I've shot many a college awards banquet. I've photographed power equipment. I used to shoot magazine work for a magazine that catered specifically to a local hospital's waiting room. Yeah.
But it paid. Those unsexy jobs can fill in the slow time between the sexy wedding work.
If you don't like shooting portraits, you don't have to. You can also niche down and only shoot a certain TYPE of portrait. If you don't like shooting weddings, you don't have to, but you better be ready to sell the crap out of your portraits.
Which brings me too......
4. Get Ready to SELL
Being a photographer is a service-based business, but if you're a bad salesperson you're going to have a really tough climb to full-time success. You have to sell yourself (not in THAT way....we are not doing that sort of photography here....), you have to sell your prints and products, you have to sell your TIME. It's up to you to convince the consumer why they should hire you over Joe Schmoe Photography up the street. And believe me....there is ALWAYS someone else up the street.
5. Be AWARE of Your Competition, but Not Too Aware
Being obsessed with your competition only really leads to one thing: unhappiness. Seriously, there is always going to be someone cooler than you. Trust me. And let me put it out there right now, there's about 700 photographer in your general area. They're all fighting over that same photographer nickle and probably 50% of them (AT LEAST) are better than you, cooler than you, have more followers than you, charge less than you, or have an "in" that you don't have.
You cannot let this consume you. It'll take your ship down faster than anything. I know it's hard. BELIEVE ME I know. I've weathered 10 years of this stuff. I've seen photographers come and go. I've seen people who started YEARS after me reach the pinnacle of success.
You need to roll with it. It'll always be there. Get in good with your local community. They will be your best allies and best source of referral work.
6. Save, Don't Spend.
One way we have been able to thrive under my self-employed income (which is way variable, let me tell you) is we don't spend like drunken moms on Black Friday. We save a lot, we are frugal with our money. When it comes to funding my business, I try to buy what I need and really think hard about what I want. I've been using the same lenses for years, the same camera bodies for years, and the same Pelican case for years. They are MEANT to be sturdy and used. I don't need to upgrade my equipment every season. I don't need the BEST and the COOLEST of everything....and believe me, there's a lot of shiny shit out there.
Don't take on a studio if you don't need the overhead....and don't intend on shooting studio work. Even if you think it makes you look more legit.
Save at LEAST 25% of everything you earn for taxes.
Save another 25% for "slow months". Because they're comin'.
7. Decide What You Want
And this will probably change. Especially if you're a person who gets bored easily. But, a lot of successful "photographers" people see out there aren't really shooting anymore. They're teaching. They're influencing. They're workshopping. They don't need to shoot, so they don't.
Trust me, the absolute obsessive LOVE you have for photography right now is going to wane. It just will. It's like any other job. I still REALLY REALLY like my job, I do. But, I have other passions as well....and I have days where shooting is the absolute last thing I want to do.
Decide if you are in it for the long haul. My schedule is set sometimes a year or even two in advance, being a wedding photographer. I start booking high school seniors for the next graduation year the winter of their junior year. So, you need to take a long, hard look at your demeanor and decide if you want to be a shooter or you have dreams of being a popular workshopper. Not that there's anything WRONG with that, but there's some dues-paying that needs to happen on both ends.
8. Make Sure You Don't Suck
Seriously. Get a mentor. Someone who is going to be 100% honest with you about your skill set. I've seen some folks out there who shoot for years and gather lots of low-paying gigs and seem happy being that insanely busy, but their work never improves. They never move up. Trust me, there are plenty of folks out there more than happy to pay $50-$100 a pop for absolute garbage work. It can pull the wool over your eyes and make you think that you're doing okay. This is a sure-fire way to burn out and burn out fast.
Maybe the photographer is fine with that. Maybe that makes them happy and whatever, you do you. But, we are talking about making a healthy, full-time income here.
You're not going to see too many full-time, consistent working photographers who bring home 6-figures (which is completely within' the realm of do-ability, trust me) who suck. Some may be BORING. Some may be trendy and some folks may not like their "style"....but they don't suck.
If you can't get your head around things like exposure or sharpness, light or proper editing.....slow your roll. Take a workshop or two. GET A MENTOR.
9. Service-based Means SERVICE-based.
Like I said, photography is a service-based business. People are paying you to provide them with a service. If your level-of-service leaves a bit to be desired, you need to check yourself. People TALK, yo. Especially with social media being so prevalent.
- Don't fight with clients online or spill dirty client laundry online. I can't TELL YOU how often I see this and I just want to smack that person around like Batman does to Robin. It's trashy. Stop it.
- LISTEN to your clients. They may not always be right, but they want to be heard. You will get crappy clients...they happen in every business. It's how you handle those clients that are the true test of your professional acumen.
- Stop going online and saying how "you're only one person" and that is why you're not turning around work fast enough or people need to stop bugging you about sessions because you're "only one person". Seriously? Charge more and take less work. There. Fixed.
- Don't let one crap client kill your buzz for the business. If I did that I would have been done in 2009. I'll say it again, you are GOING to have rough days, tough clients, and you're GOING to screw up. Everyone does. You are human. Just focus on not screwing up so badly that it's not fixable. (See #8)
10. Don't Get Too Big For Your Britches
This is a bit of old-lady advice from your kindly Grandma Type A.....don't get a big head. At least not before you're entitled to it (I mean, hell, if you get hired to photograph the president or something, you go ahead and gloat).
- Use social media wisely....convey your personality, get to know people....don't use it to talk non-freaking-stop about how amazing you are. Let your work and service speak for itself.
- NEVER STOP LEARNING. You may think you know it all and at some point it all becomes second nature....but you can ALWAYS learn more.
- Realize, sometimes, you're not too good for the free shoot. It can feel REALLY good to volunteer your services for someone who needs it or will benefit from it. It can also feel REALLY good to do a fun personal project. Don't lose your love of the craft.
So, there it is. And trust me, I could keep going. 20 things. 30 things. Just know, behind it all, is that you can't allow old-timers to tell you that being a full-time photographer isn't a viable option anymore. It is. It's just a hell of a lot more work than it used to be. There's a whole new world out there with social media and it separates the wanna-be's from the already-are's in many ways.
So share this. Spread it around. Give someone you know a little hope. Or, read it over when you need a little reassurance that if full-time photography is what you REALLY want to do, there are plenty of us out here doing it, year after year, proving it can be done.