How to Become a Professional Photographer in 2021
The entry barrier for photography is at an all-time low. Technological advances have turned it into one of the most accessible hobbies in the world. So much so that it’s uncommon for anyone between the age of 8-99 to walk around without a camera in their pocket at all times. Many of them even have their own photography website where they share their creations with the entire world.
In a way, being a photographer has never been easier, but at the same time it’s an incredibly hard endeavour. You can start taking pictures at any moment, and even get quite good at it after practicing enough. But learning how to become a professional photographer actually requires much more than being good at shooting images.
You’ll need to learn the technique behind every shot, develop a unique perspective of the world, fight your way up an incredibly competitive space, and constantly develop yourself personally and professionally. Overall, this means you’re in for many years of dedication, hard work, and practice.
Learn how to become a professional photographer with this step-by-step guide:
Define your purpose
Master your skills
Take some classes
Explore all possibilities
Find your niche
Get the right gear
Dedicate time to editing
Develop a personal style
Build a solid portfolio
Create a professional photography website
Brush up on your networking skills
Nail your marketing strategy
Put together a business plan
Invest in your growth
01. Define your purpose
There are many things to consider before starting your journey towards becoming a professional photographer. Start by putting together a list of questions you’ll need to answer before embarking on this new adventure.
Some of the points that should definitely be part of this list include:
Why do I want to be a professional photographer?
What will motivate me when my passion falters?
Am I ready to put in the time and effort that this requires?
What can I offer to my local industry?
Can I become as good as I need to be?
How can I actually make money as a photographer?
How much am I willing to dedicate to this goal?
The answer to some of these questions will require hours of self-reflection, while for others it will require you to do some research both online and offline. It’s even possible that you won’t be able to find all the answers at this point, as some solutions go hand-in-hand with time and experience.
One of the best ways to start your adventure towards becoming a professional photographer is by talking to actual professional photographers. They’ll be able to tell you about their journeys, as well as offer some tips and guidance to set off on your own.
02. Master your skills
This probably won’t come as a surprise, but the most important investment on your quest to becoming a professional is the development of your photography skills. To quote Ansel Adams: “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”
Whether you’ve been shooting pictures for half a decade or have never held a camera other than that disposable Fujifilm you took on a field trip in 3rd grade, keep in mind that you have a long learning process ahead.
While the pace and steps of this process will completely depend on your current knowledge and preferences, it’s recommended to start by brushing up on your knowledge of the most common photography terms. Talk the talk to walk the walk. Being able to understand the discipline’s jargon will help you navigate better through professional and educational opportunities alike.
Once you feel comfortable with the theory, put every single concept to practice. Start with basic techniques and tackle more complex ones only after you feel completely comfortable with them. There are two main goals you should work towards: Being able to identify the technical needs of every scene, and knowing how to meet them with your camera.
03. Take some classes
Formal learning is not a requisite for becoming a professional photographer. As you might know, there are numerous experts in the industry who are completely self-taught. However, working with a mentor can add a lot of value to your career and significantly speed-up your learning process.
Based on your preferences and availability, you can choose to enroll in university courses, attend local programs, sign up for workshops, or take online photography classes. While the level of difficulty and in-depth of these studies can vary significantly, they will give you a solid foundation upon which you can keep building your professional photography career.
More importantly, you’ll be able to learn from people who have already experienced the path you’re just setting out on. You’ll not only hear about what they did to succeed, but also what obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. These insights are an incredibly valuable tool that you will likely miss if you choose to take the self-learning route.
04. Practice non-stop
It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. That is roughly 417 days, so get ready to spend most of your time with a camera in your hands. Before you book your first paid gig as a professional photographer, your should be able to effortlessly determine which gear and camera settings each scene requires and switch between them with your eyes closed.
Pair practice with a solid foundation in theory. Start by learning about a specific technique or setting, and putting it into practice right away. Once you feel comfortable enough, move on to tackle the next one on your list. As your knowledge grows, so will your confidence and the quality of the images you capture.
Carry your camera with you everywhere, as if it were your phone or your wallet, and put your skills to test with different subjects and under different environmental conditions. Constant practice is the best way to get comfortable behind the camera and to truly take your skills to where they need to be. Plus, you’ll be producing a generous amount of content to share on social media and in your portfolio.
05. Explore all possibilities
A very common mistake among beginners is to focus all their energy on a specific photography genre right away. Even if you start your journey to becoming a professional photographer with a very clear idea of what you want to do for a living, it’s important that you start your career by trying out multiple types of photography.
Keep in mind that each type of photography has different requirements, and therefore giving each of them a shot will allow you to further extend your knowledge and skills. For example, if you only photograph landscapes you won’t learn a thing about studio photography, and little to nothing about artificial lighting.
Furthermore, being able to capture outstanding images across different genres will open a lot of doors for you early on. Take a look at the available freelance photography jobs online and see which ones you would feel comfortable enough to apply for. Afterwards, look at the gigs that didn’t make it on your list and dedicate time to master the abilities required. In the long run, a well-rounded set of skills will take you much further than quick growth in a very specific discipline.
06. Find your niche
Establishing your niche is the first step towards building a personal style and brand that will allow you to stand out from the crowd. It will also help you avoid oversaturated markets and further define the kind of professional photographer you want to become.
After spending enough time in the field shooting different areas of photography, you’ll find the type that truly speaks to you and the purpose you set all the way back in step one. This step is crucial for your career as a professional photographer, so don’t try to rush it and settle for something other than ‘The One.’
Keep in mind that you should find a balance between what you love to do and what the market needs. Spend some time doing research, paying special attention to the latest photography trends and the trajectory of different genres across recent years. In order to become a professional photographer with a focus, you’ll need to make sure you can actually sustain a career in that field.
Now, finding the genre you want your career to focus on doesn’t mean you’re legally not allowed to shoot any other type of photography ever again. In fact, you’ll most likely end up doing so every so often. This specialization will simply be the type of work you’re known for, which in return will help potential clients find you much more easily.
07. Get the right gear
One of the most widespread photography myths claims that you need expensive gear to take great photos. While that is simply not true, there is no denying that gear is a very important element to take into account as you learn how to become a professional photographer. You might be able to take outstanding photos with your smartphone, but in most cases clients won’t feel too confident about paying someone to take their pictures with the same phone they have in their pocket.
Start your career with the gear you already own, or buy what you can afford at the time if you’re starting from scratch. The equipment you’ll need for your work depends on the niche you choose to focus on, and therefore you should refrain from spending money on camera accessories you might not need for another few months.
As with many things, gear quality is much more important than quantity. You’ll be better off investing in an excellent glass rather than buying a handful of different types of camera lenses that are just mediocre. This, of course, means that the price you pay for each new addition to your collection might be remarkably high.
The best option when it comes to working with high-end gear is renting it. This allows you to see how comfortable you feel with it, and the results you can get, before investing fully. Renting is also a great option if your gig requires more equipment that what you own, especially if they’re not tools you’ll constantly need.
08. Dedicate time to editing
Don’t let the bad reputation of the word ‘photoshopped’ and the popularity of the photography hashtag #nofilter fool you. Even the most outstanding photos require minimal editing. Your camera sensor simply cannot see and interpret the scene the exact same way you do, no matter how spot-on your settings are.
Post-processing takes your photos from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ and allows your personality and style to shine. Because of this, you should dedicate just as much energy to it as to the development of your camera skills. You should start working with basic tools and moving forward to advanced tutorials as your editing abilities improve.
The two most popular choices in the industry are Photoshop and Lightroom, both developed by Adobe. But there is a long list of free photo editing software available online that you can try before signing up for a subscription.
09. Develop a personal style
Ideally, anyone who sees your work should be able to identify that you’re the person behind it right away. This is the ultimate goal for any artist, as it means that their vision of the world is unlike any other. In order to try to achieve this honor, you’ll need to find your photography style.
Start by putting together a selection of your absolute best images, the ones you’re most proud of. See what they have in common and sum it up in no more than three words. These can cover anything from composition to emotions.
Afterwards, set some basic guidelines that allow you to implement these concepts on any subject and scene. Make sure you feel comfortable maintaining them across several setups, as you don’t want it to limit your creativity in future endeavors.
10. Build a solid portfolio
The vast majority of people who hire your services will do so because they like your work. The rest will be comprised of family members, friends, and friends of family members. The collection of images you show to potential clients is known as a portfolio.
This might just be the most powerful tool in your quest to becoming a professional photographer, as it’s essentially the key to a successful career. It should be focused on your niche, and include only the type of work you would like to be hired for. Make sure to include only your most outstanding photos, and update it regularly.
You can gather inspiration by browsing professional photography portfolios from other creators in the field, both online and offline. Doing so will allow you to see how they choose to display their work, as well as the average number of photos included.
11. Create a professional photography website
A photographer without a website is like a ship without an engine. Sure, you’ll be able to get by without it, but won’t ever be able to reach your full potential. The list of reasons why you need a photography website is nearly endless, the main one being that it’s the 21st century and if you’re not online you simply don’t exist.
Having a professional photographer website is mandatory. Not only for sharing your work easily with anyone in the world, but also to be found by potential clients looking for the services you offer. While sharing can be done through other platforms such as social media, being found online requires SEO tools for photographers only available on a website.
A website will also allow you to advertise your services, get booked for gigs, share digital albums with clients, tell your story, and even sell your photos online.
Because we know this might sound like way too much to take care of, we have put together a detailed guide on how to create a complete photography website. We even have a long list of professionally designed portfolio templates to help you look your best in no time.
12. Strengthen your networking skills
Much of building a professional photography career is working with people. Not only with clients, but also with other photographers and businesses in your area of expertise. This means your networking skills as a photographer are pretty much as important as your abilities behind the camera or the computer.
You’ll need to learn how to connect with pretty much anyone who you come across. This includes everything from casually bringing up your services when chatting with friends to attending local events with other professionals in the industry.
Another option is to actively seek business opportunities through collaboration. For example, you can partner up with businesses related to your line of work or reach out to brands as a photographer for partnership purposes.
At the end of the day, chances are most of your clients will find you through referrals rather than online searches or advertising. Therefore, you should try to make a positive impact on people and ensure they remember you.
13. Nail your marketing strategy
Once you have a solid portfolio to show and a clear career path to follow, it’s time to start marketing yourself. Nowadays, the most popular way for photographers to bring attention to their work is using social media platforms. See which networks are more popular for your specialty, and start building a strong presence on them.
On top of expanding the reach of your images, social media also allows you to connect with people all over the world. Given the importance that networking will have on your professional career, this is something you simply can’t ignore.
But your efforts should not be limited to the social media world. There are numerous photography marketing ideas that will help put your name in the spotlight, such as writing a blog, entering photography contests, and printing business cards.
See what other professionals in your field are doing, and how the available options align with your goals and needs. You probably won’t nail your whole marketing strategy on the first try, so don’t be afraid to try different things.
14. Put together a business plan
Most professional photographers end up becoming business owners. This is a result of both a will to have full control over their projects, and a lack of full-time positions in the photography industry. In order to arrive at this stage as prepared as possible, you’ll want to start curating your business skills way before you start thinking about opening an actual business.
Even as a freelance professional, you should have a photography business plan upon which you can designate which services you want to offer and how much you want to charge for them. And don’t worry, when the time to start a photography business comes, we’ll be waiting for you with a full beginner’s guide.
15. Invest in your growth
The most interesting part of learning how to become a professional photographer is that you never really stop learning. Even if you have been in the industry for three decades, you should still be looking for ways to expand your knowledge and improve the services you offer to clients. Invest as much time, energy, and money as you can into funding your personal and professional growth.
Subscribe to photography blogs and magazines to make sure you’re always up to date on the latest news and developments in the industry. Join workshops and watch online tutorials. Start a personal project that makes you pick up a camera even when you aren’t scheduled for a gig. Photograph genres that have nothing to do with your niche. Come up with creative photography ideas that challenge your skills. And, most importantly, keep your passion for photography alive.
Last updated January 8, 2020.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Editor of the Wix Photography Blog