Originally written 1/31/2001. Updated several times since then to address the current state of the industry brought on by the advent of inexpensive digital SLR's, social media and other changes in the industry.
This is a question that I often get asked and I receive many emails each month on this specific question from college and school students, as well as from amateurs wanting to make a living from their hobby.
I honestly do want to help but I am unable to respond to each one personally, so I have a written about my own my humble beginnings and offer some advice below - I hope it helps. Remember, this is just one man’s opinion. Get as many opinions as you can from other photographers, and formulate your own approach. Don't mimic, set your own path and be original.
A professional photographer is generally defined as a person who derives the majority of their income from photography. Someone who has a full time job and does paying photography work on the side would be a semi-pro or part-time pro. And someone who does photography for passion and personal interest is generally defined as an amateur.
But I will be the first to admit that there are many semi-pro and amateur photographers out there whose work easily rivals and even surpasses that of established professional photographers, so in my eyes there is no need to have any inferiority feelings by not being a full-time pro. I have seen many images by amateur photographers that I would have been proud to have in my body of work.
So this label of professional photographer is not so much to do with the skill with the camera (although it will definitely help) but it is more about that person’s ability to derive a livelihood from photography, and this is easier said than done.
I am totally self taught - I bought my first SLR at age 12 - I loved sports, fast cars and pretty girls. Well there weren't many fast cars where I lived so I focused on pretty girls and school sports. It was easy to start photographing my high school sports teams, and I had my first sports photo published at age 13 in a local newspaper. Plucking up the courage to ask a girl to model for me was a lot harder, and it took me some time to eventually convince a girl to pose nude for me, consequently I only had my first centerfold published at age 17.
I never looked back and have had well over 5,000 photos published in a variety of magazines worldwide covering subjects from nudes, glamour, sport, fashion, travel, automotive and others.
I still only photograph subject matter that I like. I turn down assignment after assignment for stuff that bores me.
I just love taking photos. I have been doing it for over 40 years and still love it. Doing the thing you love and being paid for it, well now there's a concept! I still only photograph the subjects that inspire me to be creative with the camera. If I feel I am just snapping away, then I need to move onto something else.
Surprisingly my high school English teacher, Lawrence Bam, had the most influence on my photographic career. He had such a passion for the language that he managed to excite me about writing and I started to care about the way my words appeared on paper. At the time I was an aspiring photographer and he taught me the value of writing my own stories, captions, headers, leaders etc. and this more than anything else helped me sell my photos (see...... Why do you write your own articles?)
In terms of photographers, the Playboy greats like Ken Marcus, Mario Casilli, George Plimpton, Richard Fegley, and Pompeo Posar were a big influence. I wanted to be photographing beautiful models just like them!
My advice to someone starting out is to take $1000 and buy yourself a $100 camera with a standard lens and spend $900 on film and processing. (These days the digital medium messes with these numbers but you get the idea). Now take hundreds and hundreds of photos and show them around - invite criticism - develop a thick skin - not everyone will like your photos as much as you do.
Listen to what they like and don't like. Don't get discouraged. Learn from their criticism. Develop your own style. Photography is about composition, subject, lighting, technical competence, etc. It is not about equipment. Yes equipment helps, but a creative and imaginative person with a cheap camera will always outclass an uninspired photographer with the very best equipment.
If you are young and can get by without much money, an internship working for a professional photographer can really give you an insight into both the creative side as well as the business side of photography. I personally didn't do this, but many of my colleagues feel that it was these learning experiences alongside other photographers that gave them the confidence to go out on their own. Personally I have never lacked for confidence and I don't mind much whether people like my work or not. As long as my work is good enough to satisfy my own level of self respect and keeps me getting hired, that's all I need.
No, I did not serve an internship with a professional photographer. I was already too busy pursuing my own photography career. But I would certainly recommend interning for a professional photographer if you have one willing to take you on. Professional photographers often utilize interns as assistant photographers, and while the pay might be meager or non-existent, and the job anything but glamorous, if you have your eyes and ears open you will learn more about the science, art and business of photography in one year with a professional than you will learn in a lifetime of college and libraries.
Some professional photographers like myself are willing to share, in fact they will enjoy teaching you the inside-scoop of what makes them great. Others on the other hand are insecure and guard their profession and secrets very closely. If you find yourself working for the latter kind - get out as soon as you can. For him you are nothing but cheap labor and he will not want you to succeed on your own. Find the type of photographer who loves his craft, is proud of it and in totally secure in himself. He will be more than willing to show you how thing work and encourage you to pursue your own direction, and he will take satisfaction watching you succeed.
Becoming an intern or an assistant to a professional photographer is really easy. Contact him by phone or email. Send him your images. Introduce yourself to him or her. Be persistent. Show him that you are serious - serious about becoming an intern and serious about succeeding in the business of photography. Every day I receive emails from several young photographers wanting to intern for me, or be my assistant, be my 2nd shooter etc. 99% of them do nothing after that 1st email - no follow up emails, no calls, no nothing! Those that bug me and hound me to death certainly get my attention. I am always looking for the right attitude and high energy first, and secondly I am looking for talent. Because all the talent in the world means nothing to me if the photographer isn't energetic and doesn't have the right attitude. The determination to succeed is so important in life in general that I don't want to waste my time with those who don't want to to be successful. In my eyes, persistence is one of the greatest qualities a person can possess.
At the magazine racks at your local bookstore there are magazines that you page through every time you visit. Those are the magazines that you must shoot for. That's because you understand and identify with the reader.
Don't try to photograph subject matter that you have no interest in, or photograph subject matter that you don't understand. Your lack of passion for the subject and ignorance on the subject will show in your shots - if you like nudes, photograph nudes - if you like sports, photograph sports. I couldn't illustrate a gardening magazine if I tried, as I have no passion for gardening!
When you page through the magazines, decide what it is about each photograph that makes it suitable for that particular magazine article. Does it illustrate the story that's being written? Is the story being written around the photograph?
Think like a magazine editor - what photo would you put on the pages to illustrate the article? When you think like an editor you know what to go out and shoot. Take lots of photos, and select and send the best of them to magazines. If they like them, they publish them and possibly pay you*. And the next thing - you're a professional freelance photographer! (*editorial budgets have been declining since the rise of digital content and the decline of magazine subscriptions).
You will find the masthead - that is the list of the Officers, Editors, and Publishers of the magazine - within the first couple of pages of the magazine. Find his email address; email him and introduction to yourself, along with a small selection of your best images (low resolution so you don't clog is in-box) and then follow up in a week to see what he thinks. Once again be persistent.
Being able to write your own articles and stories really does help to get your photos published. I started writing articles to make it easier for magazine editors to use my photographs.
When I supply the editor both the story and the photos, he gets the entire package in one shot. For him it’s a no-brainer. He has the story and the photos to illustrate the story, and for him that's 4-6 pages of his magazine taken care of. So I have just made it easier for him to complete his high pressure job; that is filling his magazine pages with suitable content, something that he has to do every month. Make the editors life easy, and you will be published every month!
There are thousands of articles written on this subject, some more valuable than others, so I will just gloss over this eternal photographic subject.
Find a suitable male or female that you are friends with, and and ask to photograph him or her. Tell them that it is for you own use, and you will give them images in exchange for their time.
During the shoot, develop a relationship with the model and strive in every photo to make him or her more beautiful in your photos than they appear in real life. There is something really satisfying handing over a series of photos to your model and seeing their expression as they start to realize with how beautiful they really are. It’s something that still gives me a thrill to this day.
Trust in this field is the most important asset that you can develop. If you are attracted to your model, that's only natural. You are unlikely to approach someone that doesn't appeal to you. Even if you feel that the model would like to pursue something more intimate than modeling, DON'T! Never do IT with your models! The last thing that your career as a photographer can cope with is a slanderous accusation, however unfounded it might be. One indiscretion could potentially ruin your career. I have seen it happen and I have seen photographers expend huge amounts of money taking models to court over inaccurate accounts of conduct at a shoot. Their reputations seldom recover.
Always have at least one female assistant around to put your female models at ease. Get model releases for every shoot.
I started at high school, taking photos of my classmates playing in their teams. I would photograph the game, process the film and prints in the darkroom at night and sell the prints at school the following day. Most sports players NEVER get to see a good photo of them playing a sport that they LOVE - they will buy LOTS of your photos at GOOD prices. It still amazes me what I can get for a good shot by selling directly to the athlete. (These days as a motor racer, I often purchase images of myself, from track-side photographers.)
Photograph the sports you LOVE, stay away from the sports you dislike or don't understand. Knowledge of the intricacies of the sport will allow you to search out that defining image. Start with local school sports and clubs.
Get to know the athletes, let their personality shine through in your photos. Submit your photos to local newspapers and magazines. Get to know the editors personally. Develop relationships with the editors and with the teams and athletes you photograph. Become an INSIDER. It takes time, but once IN you'll never be out!
Being a sports photographer requires a love for the sport you photograph. Why else would you lug around over 100lbs of gear plus tripods, monopods and lights, just to catch a fleeting moment? The pay is never that great, until you get that category defining image. But when I am photographing the sports I love, it never feels like work, and that gear doesn't seem to weigh anything at all.
Yet try and get me to photograph a still life and that 2lb macro lens feels like a sack of bricks!
I love travel and take my camera everywhere. It didn't take me long to figure out that my photography could pay for my vacations to exotic destinations. So I started taking photographs of every bit of scenery I could. I looked for unusual vantage points; not the ones that everyone sees when traveling down the road. I would go on foot, rent a horse, mule or dirt bike to find the unusual points of view, and soon my photos were being published in magazines. And as I mentioned above, I started writing travel articles to help sell my photos.
The one great thing about travel photography - a good travel photograph sells and sells and sells. It doesn't age, it becomes part of your pension plan. Fashion, glamour, sport and car photography dates very quickly. Even a completely naked model against a white background dates quickly. Body types, makeup and hairstyles all point to a specific time period. But good travel photographs and wildlife photographs will sell forever.
I often get asked why we still shoot weddings, possibly one of the most stressful and unpleasant assignments that a photographer can ever undertake. Hundreds of guests, lots of family, bride and groom and more. So many people to please that you can never please them all. And in some respects the naysayers are right. There are days when you are shooting weddings and it really gets old, especially if there is no romance, and as the photographer, you will be one of the first to pick up on the couple just going through the motions.
But the truth of the matter is that I am a hopeful romantic at heart, and being such a fundamental part of a couple's memories for the rest of their lives is a tremendous privilege that I love. Attending a wedding where the bridal couple is truly in love is something special and my sensitivity to that has allowed me to be exceptionally successful in this often-maligned field. We don't take every wedding couple that we interview. We try to get a sense of why they are getting married, and if we sense anything other than true love, we decline the assignment.
Also, wedding photographers in high demand have the ability to make really outstanding money, and also get flown all over the world to exotic locations to photograph wonderful weddings.
Yeah I know this all sounds corny, but I often stay in touch with couples whose weddings I photograph, long after that wonderful day. I get invited on their family vacations, sometimes I get offered their vacation cottages for my own use, and I get wonderful referrals that bring me more work. Also if you take great care of the wedding couple chances are you will end up being their family photographer for life. You will get their calls for pregnancy photography, newborn, children’s and family portraits, senior portraits and eventually if you live long enough you might actually photograph their children’s wedding too!
Once again I advise you to shoot what you love and AVOID THE REST. Shooting subjects of things that you dislike will turn you off photography, take my word for it. Pick your assignments! Turn down clients and projects you don't want. Don't stop taking photos for your own personal use and don't get caught in the GOTTA HAVE IT equipment trap - it won't make you a better photographer. Practice and experimentation will.
SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT!
UPDATE – JANUARY 2017
Over the past several years I have had literally thousands of readers write to me thanking me for the advice I have provided above. Many have found it inspiring. But it is important that anyone deciding to pursue a full time career as a photographer, has a good grasp of the current state of the photography industry, and so I have updated this page to bring in a dose of reality.
Just like the music industry, the photography world is changing.
The advent of the $500 15 Megapixel digital SLR has forever changed the photography landscape. The preview and histogram functions now give photographers instant feedback, and allow the photographer to make incremental corrections on-site under changing conditions. None of this was possible back in the days of film where the photographer would shoot 4 rolls of film hoping that when he got it back from the lab, that it would be spot on and that the client would be pleased. This made it very intimidating for a beginner whose skill levels and confidence were not up to the task, and kept many from pursuing a career in photography.
Now with the digital SLR, inexpensive zoom lenses, TTL flashes and inexpensive studio lighting out of China, the barriers to entry have been dramatically lowered, and more and more people are considering trying to make a living out of their hobby.
Furthermore, the ability for anyone to create a website and host their work for a few dollars a month, has allowed photographers to reach their target audience through the internet and search engine queries, and has dramatically lowered the cost of marketing and reaching out to their clients. Social media has also lowered the cost of reaching your potential clientele.
I wouldn't be surprised to hear that there are several million photographers in the USA who consider themselves as pro’s. Obviously there is not nearly enough paying photography work going around to support this many photographers.
The fact that the equipment costs and marketing costs have dropped so radically, means that there are very few barriers to entry. Anyone can launch their “pro career” overnight with very little investment in equipment and skill. Lots of photographers starting out, still hold down a full time job, and take on part time photography gigs as they get them and will often do jobs for free, merely to be able to get the images to use on their websites. This means you will be competing on jobs with other "pro photographers" who live on “Craig’s List” and are prepared to take the job for little or no money.
Many established traditional pro shooters have already felt the pinch of this trend, and have had to give up their studios, reduce their overheads and get by without staff. In my opinion the bottom end of the market has become totally “whored out” and there is little, or no real money to be made at this level.
Most business courses will teach that in all businesses, it is critical to develop USP's (Unique Selling Propositions). In other words you need to be able to offer something unique that separates yourself from other photographers.
There are several ways to separate yourself from the bottom of the market.
As I said before, I would always recommend that as a photographer you develop your own style, something that is your own and is unique. Relentlessly hone and perfect your style. And if this style resonates with clients, you will be in demand and you will be able to make a living.
Specialize in something that requires an in depth knowledge and passion of the subject. For instance I would make a horrible photographer of insects as I have no passion for it. I have all the equipment but I don’t know the first thing about them, and won’t take the time to study them either. So chances are I will never land a paying gig to photograph insects for a client. This applies to all sorts of vertical specialization within sports, fashion, commercial, industrial etc. On the other hand, I made a lot of money in the early days of kitesurfing as I got into the sport early and intimately understood what made a great image.
Fill a niche. If you can spot a niche in the market that is not being serviced, or serviced poorly, you will immediately have something that others don’t have. A niche can both be a product or a service. Hopefully that niche is financially rewarding.
If you have the money, chase a specialization with provides high barriers to entry, and corner the market. For instance, here in South Florida, Fort Lauderdale is one of the world’s largest marinas, and the number of million-dollar yachts is staggering. Obviously owners of million-dollar yachts have money and generally would love to have captivating images of their vessels at sea. Owning a helicopter gets you ahead of all of the other photographers that have to charter helicopters at staggering hourly rates to get the shots. Boat-Pix owned their own helicopters and for a while they really cornered the market in high-end yacht photography and boating events in South Florida.
But they too have succumbed to the progress of technology, as the $1,000 drone has allowed many photographers to enter this market without the need of a helicopter, further reinforcing the idea that the democratization of content will drive down prices as more and more are able to enter the profession.
The prime directive is to never stop marketing your abilities. This is a key ingredient of getting ahead. A professional photographer making a decent living from photography is many things, but he is always
Obviously there is a lot more to this than I can provide on this page, so I recommend ongoing study in this field. There are literally hundreds of books written on marketing, business and photography. Some are current, and some are a little outdated, but the principles will always be the same.
Develop a business brain - develop an insight into what your customers really want, and then exceed their expectations. This approach is a license to print money!!!!
If anything I have done here helps or inspires you, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your feedback is always appreciated. You are always welcome to pay me a visit if you are ever in Ft Lauderdale.
Best of luck in your career
Originally written January 2001. Updated several times to address the current state of the industry brought on by the advent of cheap digital SLR's