How to Go Pro - Part 1

August 15, 2011 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 18 Comments |
How to Go Pro - Part 1 Image

So you want to go pro. Fair enough. Photography is presumably a passion, so why not make it your livelihood? Lots of people have. Back in 1981 I was an out of work ex-Merchant Navy officer scraping an occasional living cleaning windows, dreaming of a life as a travelling photographer. Now, 30 years later, well, you get the picture; dreams can come true. But, and there's going to be quite a few buts in this piece, there's a price to be paid. No one is ever going to pretend it's easy. For those of you aspiring to a photographic career there's good news, bad news, and a whole load of penetrating questions to be asked.

So let's look at how to go pro. I'm going to use my own experiences as the template this month, but also in Part 2 next month use some of my fellow photographer friends and colleagues as case studies to cast some light on the many paths that can be taken to becoming an established professional photographer. And before you start furiously tapping out indignant comments let me just say this is an entirely personalised view. Next month you'll be able to compare my views with a posse of professional photographers representing a whole raft of different fields, genres and backgrounds. One thing that comes through loud and clear when talking to my fellow pros is just how different we all are; with widely varying attitudes, ways of working, ambitions and viewpoints. And that follows through to how we've got to where we are now; there is no established career path in photography and every pro has taken a different route through the labyrinth of the profession.

But first we need to establish just who a professional photographer is. Clearly it's someone who earns their daily crust with their camera. That sounds blindingly obvious, but there are many who call themselves professional who aren't. A plumber who shoots the occasional wedding and flogs the odd picture to a magazine is not a professional. I'm not being pedantic here, or bitter; in fact good luck to him. He'll certainly find out quickly he can earn way more as a plumber then as a photographer! He may make superb images, perhaps better than many pros, it's just that he or she doesn't have to juggle overheads and production costs against day rates and repro fees. I hope I haven't offended any plumbers as we've a dripping tap that needs attention but really there's no such thing as a semi-professional; either you earn your living from photography or you don't. Our plumber will view any dosh he earns from his photography as a bonus, whilst the full time pro needs to consider if that £50 repro fee even covers the cost of filling the fuel tank. It's a fundamentally different mind-set; a professional photographer lives, eats and sleeps off the proceeds of his or her triumphs behind the lens. Have I put you off yet?

I'm not trying to discourage anyone, actually, just be realistic. So let's have some good news. Globally our appetite for photography is voracious. Photography surrounds us everywhere; on screen, in print, advertising, the media, educationally, on the internet; you name it. Imagery is vital to our economy; everyone from banks to schools to firms who make tiny widgets to drill unfeasibly small holes need photography to inform people of what they do. And the lion's share of that imagery is professionally produced. In the UK alone there are approximately 15000 photographers registered with the various professional bodies, and that number can probably be more than doubled. How many are active is impossible to verify, nevertheless it's a significant body of people who earn their keep with their cameras. You will not be alone. That must mean there's a living to be made, but it also makes standing out from the crowd incredibly difficult.

I went professional in 1985, straight out of Art College. The massive difference between the professional world of photography then and now is not the old film vs digital story, it's the internet. It's transformed the market for photography and opened up all sorts of opportunities to the entrepreneurial professional. Most businesses and organisations know that their website is crucial to all they do, and the best websites generate interest, sales and opportunities. One way to make a website stand out is to have the best photography. So the new media freed from the shackles of printing presses are permanently hungry for new content; the demand for imagery has never been higher. Couple all that with the opportunities for photographers to make their work accessible to the whole wide world and, in many ways it's an exciting time to be a photographer.

So, it's a Gold Rush for photographers now, right? Well, I did warn you a few Buts were on their way. The very accessibility of the internet has resulted in the world being awash with cheap or even free imagery. Whilst the potential outlets have proliferated the perceived value of photography has never been lower. Everyone has a digital camera, and many fancy themselves as photographers, desperate for any recognition. Just surviving in such a crowded marketplace where pictures sell for less than a $ and day rates are in free-fall is a permanent challenge.  But for now let's remain upbeat. How as an aspiring Professional Photographer are you going to get started? Before printing your business cards and stocking up on memory cards you'll need to ask yourself some searching questions.

How to Go Pro - Part 1SS Great Britain, Bristol. The range of situations and technical challenges a professional has to deal with is never ending.

Do I want it enough?

If you are going to make it as a pro there's a checklist of stuff you'll need, and unfortunately none of it can be bought at Calumet. First and foremost you'll need bucket loads of self-belief. The determination you need will have to keep driving you forward not for days, weeks or months but years, decades even. You can reckon on it taking at least five years to establish yourself. Just surviving in this game is a huge challenge, and it doesn't get any easier. Your reservoirs of resilience need to be brimming just to keep your head above water. After 26 years as a freelance I still don't feel at all secure in my trade, I guess I never will. Neither do any of my chosen colleagues. It's not a game for the faint hearted. If you want security and the peace of mind a regular pay check brings maybe you should think again.

But if you are contemplating the leap of faith you are obviously not afraid of a challenge or competition, and the flip side of all this is the deep life affirming glow of satisfaction of making it happen, being master of your own destiny, earning your living from your passion. The price to be paid is high, but the reward is priceless, if you get it right.

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photos, photo, photography, landscape, how to, professional, pro, David Noton, photographer, landscapes, how, job

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18 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Hillary Newton

This is an absolutely *must read* article! I cannot wait for Part 2.

7:32 pm - Monday, August 15, 2011

#2 Cosmin

An excellent article. Thanks David Noton! I’m new to this business and it’s a real struggle. Thank you again!

5:18 pm - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

#3 harry

A very realistic narration condensing twenty five and more years of profesional photography. Journey through a mind of a self made man, emphasising the importance of tremendous patience and self confidence needed as necessary for every walk of life not just photography.

5:58 pm - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

#4 Esther

i love how David Noton doesn’t glam up the life of a photographer.
I really appreciated his realistic article!

9:14 pm - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

#5 Steve

Great article.  I’ve often day dreamed about being a Pro and even went so far as to get into the wedding business on weekends.  But, as the article say, in dealing with all of the problems, I lost my love of the craft, and even gave it up for several years.  Overall I’m much happier as an amateur and have since rekindled my love of photography.  Can’t wait for Part -2!

3:36 am - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#6 Tobias Weisserth

This is a great article. Like so many others, I want to take my photography to the next level. I already knew I won’t be able to make a living of the trade, so I see my photography as a supplementary project next to my day job and my free time - with my free time melting with photography actually.

The only part I have to disagree on is the notion of the non-existence of semi-professionals. I don’t consider myself a semi-professional (yet). My wife is also into photography (food photography) and she is working with Getty Images (they selected about 50 of her images to sell through their agency). Neither for me nor for my wife, making money off photography is essential for paying our bills. But as soon as we’d be able to generate repeatable income from our photography, I would consider us semi-professionals. If we’re obliged to pay income tax on the money we make from photography, that makes us semi-professional.

1:56 pm - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#7 John

There’s always the old adage…

Q. “What’s the difference between a Professional Photographer and a Large Pizza?”

A. “Only one of them can feed a family of four!”

Which is a worthy warning to plan carefully…

4:20 pm - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#8 David Noton

I love the last comment! Thanks for the positive responses. David

6:48 am - Thursday, August 18, 2011

#9 Bahamas Photographer

Good Article. Another aspect of being a professional is having technical proficiency. Some guys are out there shooting and making a living but they still haven’t mastered exposure.
Photography is definitely very competitive nowadays. I’m a wedding photographer and there’s definitely a lot more photographers in my area around then when I started out 10 years ago. Also with so many photographer snot traveling competition is no longer local its global.

2:08 am - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

#10 Loren

Social Networking has been popular for a long time now, I think pro-photographers should offer their services to the tourists, students, and everyone, who loves sharing their photos on the Net.

The services should include a copy of the photos in a SD cards or direct upload to wherever the clients social network.

5:53 pm - Thursday, September 29, 2011

#11 Colourscape Studio Backgrounds

What a great article, I know from experience how difficult it can be. I’ve been on many a job where the fee only just covers my costs !!

11:08 am - Thursday, October 6, 2011

#12 Essex Photographer

Some very sound and realistic advice.

6:31 pm - Thursday, November 3, 2011

#13 Simon

An excellent article. If it has not put you off then maybe it is for you. One problem is perceived value, many people think that anyone can do it. Like Plumber vs Painter. Let me pass on what Richard Briers told his daughter when she said that she wanted to be an Actor, “Not good enough, you need to HAVE to be an Actor.”

9:43 am - Sunday, December 11, 2011

#14 Simon

An excellent article. If it has not put you off then maybe it is for you. One big problem is Perceived Value. It looks easy - anyone can take pictures. To use the Plumbers reference, there’s more PV there than being a Painter. Richard Brier’s daughter said that she wanted to be an Actor, his reply was that that was not good enough, you must HAVE to be an Actor.

9:53 am - Sunday, December 11, 2011

#15 Allan

What a delight reading this article has been. Thank you David.

Though a significant expanse has been explained in Part 1, I look forward to your and fellow pro insights in Part 2.

3:46 pm - Thursday, January 5, 2012

#16 daniel

As a professional plumber, I find some resemblances between plumbing and photography like the use of measurements and ratios, work with heavy equipment, use of pipes and often difficult work at ground level :P

9:38 pm - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

#17 Alisson Silveira

Realmente a muita coisa antes de pegar um câmera colocar no pescoço distribuir cartões e dizer “Oi Sou fotógrafo”. Eu ainda estou na faze, sou um cara com uma câmera e gosta de fotografar… e não é por isso que vou dizer que sou fotógrafo. Talvez um dia quando estiver pronto para encarar essa selva… mas por em quanto… parabéns pelo Artigo.

9:37 pm - Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#18 clippingimages

Excellent post, thanks to share for the nice site….

5:30 am - Monday, November 26, 2012