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How to be a professional photographer

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How to be a professional photographer?

Opinion Piece – Keith Cooper talks about becoming a pro photographer

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In 2008 Keith was asked to write about taking up photography professionally.

This is an extended version he’s written just for Northlight Images about ‘turning pro’. It’s one of several ‘Business of Photography articles on our site’.

Updating the site in 2017, and the points made are still perfectly valid

Yes, that is a photo of Keith on a paying job…

Keith Cooper at work

So, you’d like to become a Professional Photographer…

High quality digital cameras are now relatively cheap – for not much money you can produce images that are in some respects (technically) better than I was submitting to clients back in 2003.

What’s more, with an economic downturn and rising unemployment, using that kit to earn a bit of money sounds a tempting proposition to more and more people.

One important note to add here. I’m a UK commercial photographer who doesn’t deal with the public – i.e. no weddings and portrait work at all. Much of what I’m going to say, is I feel, relevant to any photography business. Just remember where I’m coming from though.

I’m happy to offer information and advice to fellow photographers, and have always felt that my articles and reviews on this site were partly there to help people learn and give a bit back for all the help I’ve received over the years.

I receive several enquiries a week asking either for work, or advice on some aspect of photography business.

Note that Northlight Images are not currently looking for extra staff! ;-)

Remember that these are comments on the business as I see it, so YMMV.

Making a living – Photographers and Pizzas

I heard this one a long time ago…

  • Question: What difference is there between a 15 inch Pizza and a Pro Photographer.
  • Answer: The Pizza can feed a family of four.

Remember that the aim of being a pro photographer is to make money and make a living. It is not just about taking photographs (although that helps ;-)

latte with sugarAll the questions here are from actual ones I’ve been asked in emails…

As an amateur photographer – what do I need to know to become a professional?

First and foremost it’s about running a business.

If you can take really good photos then it certainly helps.

However, if you can’t run a business, it is no more than a hobby that makes a bit of money on the side.

There is nothing wrong with making a bit of cash on the side, but don’t make the mistake of trying to scale up something that won’t scale up.

A real story about Hippies and loaves of bread (yes, true!). Many years ago, a bunch of my layabout friends decided to bake some fresh bread and sell it door to door in a nearby ‘posh’ neighbourhood. They baked half a dozen or so loaves and went out and sold every one. Flushed with the success of their brush with capitalism, they went out and purchased a load of flour and other ingredients. Working overnight, they produced several dozen loaves. Out they went, and just as their market testing had predicted, they sold six loaves.

gaming room at hotel - blackjackA business plan really helps. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be written down. My original one for Northlight Images was just a single side of A4.

If you want to borrow money for your business, then no (sensible) lender will give you the time of day without a solid plan.

In the UK I’d suggest anyone looking to set up a business, has a quick look at, an official page with lots of information about setting up and running a business.

Good photos alone don’t get work – it’s about marketing. Fortunately there are a lot of resources to help with this. Remember though, that you do actually have to do it, not just read about it.

If you’ve currently got a day job, then keep it and spend more time planning what you are going to do in your business. Start saving too. I only set up Northlight Images after I had decided how the business was going to work and had amassed enough cash in the parent company bank account to pay not only for the various equipment I needed, but enough to tide me over the lack of jobs at the outset.

Note that I’m talking from a UK business perspective here, where we don’t have to worry about such things as health insurance – things are different elsewhere.

What qualifications do you need?

Whilst I believe that in some countries there may various restrictions on what you can do, here in the UK you don’t need any qualifiations whatsoever.

I’ve had a somewhat varied career (see my bio on this site) and have picked up a couple of university degrees on the way, but neither have anything at all to do with photography.

However before I put my business suit away and took up the photography, I did run several businesses.

It’s the business experience that really matters as far as I’m concerned.

seminar for property photography trainingWhat about photography courses?

If you are looking to study photography, then look carefully at what the course contains and what options there are.

I’d look for courses that include appreciable amounts of business studies. Or at least contain a significant number of units oriented towards the actual business of being a photographer.

I can see how more academic ‘Arts’ courses might appeal: “I just want to take photographs”

However, when you are writing that essay about trends in French 1960’s photography, it’s worth remembering that stuff like this does precious little to impress most potential clients. It may be fine to be able to list the key influences in your style for an essay or ‘artist’s statement‘ but that generally cuts little ice with the person hiring you to photograph new plant in their factory.

I used to be a university lecturer, so I can spot this academic guff a mile off, when people send me speculative job applications ;-)

If you are looking for evening courses or local college courses related to photography, then do take care to find the levels of expertise they are covering. It will probably be of little use taking your new Canon 1D X  and lenses along to a class where most other people have small point’n’click cameras or phones.

I used to teach evening classes here in Leicester, but was unable to convince colleges that there was a ‘market’ for more advanced stuff. Currently I suggest buying a stack of books and taking lots of photos, since that’s what worked for me ;-)

You will see a lot of ‘how to become a pro photographer’ courses advertised. By all means check them out, but be wary of anything offering too much. Many of these courses are aimed at people who’ve been made redundant and are looking for a business opportunity (maybe with some redundancy cash). Similarly, be very wary of franchise ‘opportunities’. I’ve heard of some pretty awful schemes, particularly in portrait photography.

I’ve a passion for photography…

Well that’s great, glad to hear you like what you’re doing :-)

It may give your work a bit more of an edge and inspire you, but it’s business knowledge that keeps the bank account healthy and makes a profit.

Oh, and don’t forget that your photography business does actually need to make a profit at some time.

In the last few years I’ve met a lot of professional photographers, here and whilst travelling in the US. Many have impressed me with their photography, but far fewer with their business acumen.

I also teach and lecture on aspects of colour management, and other technical areas, and have been surprised at the relatively low levels of technical expertise I’ve sometimes encountered.

Understand running a business and understand the technology, and you will have stolen a march on a significant proportion of your competition (that’s what other photographers are – even if you like them personally)

Putting it more bluntly, I’d say of my fellow pro photographers…

  • Many don’t understand the technology and where it is going, and how it will change things.
  • From a business point of view, many couldn’t plan their way out of a paper bag.

What professional organisations should I join?

Why do people join such organisations?

It’s important to distinguish between tangible business benefits and more personal (development and aspirational) ones.

Your choices will to some extent depend on the field you work in.

Whatever you look at, see if it is of actual value to your business.

I visit quite a few shows and exhibitions, and I’ve asked all the main UK Photographers’ organisations as to what the business benefits are to membership – replies frequently appeal to a sense of common purpose and even training/mentoring, but for myself they don’t stack up much in actual business terms.

Many other (non photography) organisations also offer credit card handling, legal assistance and other benefits for your business.

I’m a member of the UK Federation of Small Businesses, which offers a lot of benefits, including one you don’t get with Pro Photography Clubs, in that other members are potential clients too ;-) I also find it helpful to talk to other business owners about their issues and opportunities rather than chat about photography. In fact, I’m Vice Chairman of the Leicester branch, which gets me invited to a lot of networking events and meetings (and yes, I do usually take a camera with me)

There are lots of other business organisations and networking groups about. Your local council may be involved in promotional activity that you can be associated with.

Personally, I have a distaste for the membership criteria for some ‘professional’ organisations, in that my clients judge the quality of my work, not some self appointed arbiters of what’s good.

Awards are great if you are into competitions (I’m not).

If I wanted a press card, I’d join the NUJ or one of the other ‘gatekeeper’ organisations – but I don’t need one for my work.

There is also lots of free information and resources on the web. I’m one of the list moderators for the ProDIG mailing list. It was specifically set up for the discussion of professional digital imaging related issues (a useful web site too – all free).

I regularly use LinkedIn – a great place to find out more about people working at clients (and potential clients), and to be helpful to others (remember that in all networking ‘givers gain’)

However, one area I’m always personally very sceptical about, is the whole concept of ‘professional’ qualifications – or assorted letters after your name.

I’m not doubting the personal sense of achievement that some people get from obtaining these, but as someone who won’t ‘use’ any of my assorted academic qualifications, I do question their actual benefit in a business context…

During my professional career, not one potential client has ever enquired about my professional affiliations… your mileage may vary. Don’t think I’m saying that paying to join such groups is a waste of time and money. Join whatever you feel like, but be realistic about the benefits to you personally and to your business.

When finding out more, just remember that those who value such ‘qualifications’ may not be the same people as those who actually hire you and earn you money.

Take the advertising materials of the various clubs and give them the same critical appraisal as you would any other materials trying to sell you something.

When other photographers tell you how worthwhile their chosen organisation is, ask them to quantify the benefits.  Chances are, most have never attempted it.

Many joined organizations as students, and never get round to questioning their ongoing relevance. Some may fall back on vague appeals to professionalism or something like that.

Professionalism to me, is about personal integrity and the way I choose to run my business, not paying membership dues or getting a secret code ring ;-)

One other thing – if you do join a professional photography organisation, read the fine print of their terms and conditions very carefully. A web search should find any concerns from fellow photographers – some organisation are businesses out to make a profit for their owners, others work entirely for the benefit of their members.

I want to specialise in XXXX

Really?, so would I…

However, I know that the business of photography is changing at an ever increasing rate.

Photographing X or Y may have to be just part of my business – until good fortune and a bit of planning and forethought allows me to do more of that particular type of work.

Even more so in the current economic climate, look to diversify your business and not put too many eggs in one basket.

The Northlight Images web site is one aspect of having a varied approach, in that it makes a reasonable revenue from advertising.

Note – if you are from outside of the UK, you’ll see adverts (for other photographers) on many of our commercial photography pages. We took the view that if you were somewhere in Kansas and found one of our pages when looking for a professional photographer, then the chances of you hiring us were slim. Hence the Google ads targeted to services local to your location.

When someone asks what I do, I say I run a photography business – it just happens that being a photographer is a particularly fun bit of that business.

telephone2 assistive interior2 crispy_bread product dancer solicitors
chip_shop nails drinks2 office explaining stairs filming_cars


What camera would be best?

20 degrees tiltHow long is a piece of string?

I take a similar attitude to workshop tools and buy the best I can afford for the job. You will be able to afford less (or more??) and will be doing different jobs, so it’s difficult for me to give a specific suggestion…

It’s often said that it’s the skill of the photographer that counts, not the camera.

In general I’d agree, in that I have prints from my 11MP 1Ds that are every bit as stunning as from my 21MP 1DsMk3. The newer camera gives me more flexibility and extends the range of photographic situations where I have to worry less about the technical side of taking pictures.

However, if I turn up on some jobs with a £300 Canon 1000D, then I know there will be clients that lower their opinions just because I’m using a cheap camera. Conversely, turning up with a £5000 1Ds3 has impressed some people no end. We may not like this, since ‘surely it’s the pictures that count’ but in the real world, presentation and ‘looking the part’ is a reality of running your business.

Right – Canon DSLR used as a back on a view camera – not practical for most work

There is an element of showmanship and fitting the part whenever you interact with clients. If, like me, you don’t intend ever addressing the bargain basement end of the market, then you need to find ways of raising your business offerings out of the mundane and ordinary :-)

How much should I charge?

McLaren F1 car at Holdenby houseI get asked this a lot. I also get people phoning up for quotes, in the vague hope that I won’t guess that they are a photographer who has been asked to quote for a job and they haven’t a clue what to charge :-)

The amount is probably more than you first thought – many photographers new to the business make the mistake of trying to compete on price. Don’t – there is always going to be someone cheaper who’s prepared to undercut you. Live with it.

If your prices appeal to the bottom feeders amongst potential clients, then expect to eat a lot of mud.

In another business, some time ago, I was given a bit of advice that has always stuck with me:
If half of your potential clients don’t even slightly wince at your prices, then you are not charging enough.

I expect a few enquiries each week where the person on the phone goes quiet after I give them a rough quote. Clients that always want discounts and always query prices are frequently the ones that are not worth the trouble of supporting. Be wary of the small business mindset that says that every customer is precious – no, some are a pain in the rear and should be dropped.

Too many small businesses are afraid of putting their prices up (yes, even in the current climate) for fear of losing clients.

Think of this example: You run a business that buys widgets for $6 and sells them for $8. 100 customers makes you a profit of $200. Let’s say you decide to compete on price and reduce your prices to $7? Now you need 200 customers to still make that $200. Doubling your customer base is not easy. Instead of this, let’s say you up your prices to $9. You now only need 66 customers to make $200. In other words, a third of your customer base can leave and you still make the same amount.

Remaining customers can benefit from the better service you can give them and you have more time to spend on marketing and other activities beneficial to the business. If you just lose 20% of customers through the price rise then you can bet they were mostly the high maintenance ones that caused the most hassle, paid late, and kept asking for extra discounts. Aim to deliver premium products and service at premium prices.

Northlight Images has it’s prices on this site – we don’t aim to compete (much) on price. We’ve effectively two prices – full price or free – never cheap.

First time you do a job at a cut rate for someone, then they’ll only ever see your ‘normal’ price rates as a price hike.

Free means we’re (as a business) getting something of actual use in return. Always beware of the dangers of ‘free’ work though – that promise of publicity? In reality it rarely ever matches up to expectations.

Have you tried getting someone to do work on your house very cheaply in return for mentioning to your friends that they did it?  If it doesn’t work in the building trade then what makes you think it’ll work for you as a photographer?

Whilst I happily give my time to help some local charities. I pick the ones I want to help for personal reasons, and appeals for a ‘charity discount’ from people who just phone up for a quote are facing an uphill struggle.

As part of my latest project…

Oh, you’ve not got much work on then?

Projects are for fun, for learning, for filling in time when you’ve no work.

They are not a substitute for business planning and targeted marketing…

I have ‘projects’ I do just for the fun of it and ones that could potentially benefit the business.

Remember too, that your clients are the final arbiter of what’s a great photo. Your own personal work can strive for perfection (whatever that is – I’ve never been sure) but if it isn’t what the client wanted, then you won’t last long.

Entering photography competitions

discussion groupA word of warning about competitions and copyright.

I have a personal dislike of competitions, but I do realise that some people like them and a title such as ‘xxxx photographer of the year’ can be very useful in your marketing (if used well).

Just be very careful about reading the fine print and what rights you are giving away. As an amateur you may just be pleased to see your image published all over the place. As a professional, seeing your image being published all over the place and not getting paid for it is probably not so good for your business.

I have a strict policy of NEVER assigning copyright for one of my images. I license images (sometimes for an exclusive period) but I always retain the rights. If a potential client wants copyright, then think very very carefully before you agree. If the phrase ‘work for hire’ appears anywhere in your dealings with a client, be very careful, since it implies that you give up ALL rights to the photos you take. We have, and will again, walk away from any client who insists on this.

Photography for corporate events

If it’s of help, have a look at the Northlight Images standard terms and conditions for photography services – to see how we handle things here.

Should I become a Professional Photographer?

Only if you are serious about it and can see how the business will work.

If you don’t like running a business, then carry on taking great photos and get a real job too :-)

It’s also worth accepting that it might not work out. Have a period (it was 3 years in my case) at the end of which you’ll seriously consider whether you should still be in the business. It took 18 months for this business to really get going.

Remember too, that in essence, the word ‘professional’ in respect to photography just means you earn a living from it. It does not mean you have been raised to some higher calling or are in somehow now better at taking photographs than a ‘mere’ amateur.

I’ve also written – 5 business mistakes for Photographers– some of the problems of photography business startups.

One last thing – enjoy yourself. I’m almost never available for work on Thursdays – why? It’s the day I have my piano lessons :-)

Some useful resources I’ve found

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