How to Become a Professional Photographer

January 1, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques , Photography Blog | Comment |

How to Become a Professional Photographer - Keith CooperOur sixth Christmas guest writer, commercial photographer Keith Cooper from Northlight Images, shares his top tips for becoming a professional photographer.

So you want to be a Pro Photographer?

Many people wonder about their futures and whether it’s a good time to become a professional commercial photographer?

I often get asked about what it takes - so here are some of my answers. Remember I’m a commercial photographer (so no weddings or portrait work) - If you want to be a wedding photographer then ask one of them :-)

I’ll ignore the old Pizza joke - OK I won’t

Q. What’s the difference between a 15” pizza and a professional photographer?
A. A 15 inch pizza can feed a family of four…

Some of what I get asked…

“I’m a keen amateur photographer - what do I need to know to have a professional career?”

It’s about running a business first - taking good photos helps, but if you can’t run a business it’s just a hobby that earns a bit of cash.
Oh, and have a business ‘plan’ - even if it’s just a side of A4 with some notes.
One of my favourite related articles is by Dan Heller (

How to Become a Professional Photographer - Keith Cooper
“What qualifications do you need?”

Actually need? None whatsoever. I’ve not so much as an ‘O’ level related to photography.  I do have two degrees in unrelated subjects and I’ve previously run another business.

Having run a business before is what really makes the difference.

However, if you’re looking to study, then look for courses that include a significant amount of business studies or are at least oriented towards the business of being a photographer.

More academic ‘Arts’ courses may look attractive but remember when you are writing your essay about contemporary trends in photography, that this knowledge is fine for academia, but rarely impresses potential clients (I used to be a university lecturer too ;-)

“My passion is for photography…”

Passion helps - it’s what gives your pictures an edge.
Business knowledge is what fills the bank account.

Two things I’ve discovered about a lot of ‘Pro’ photographers since deciding I was one (Oh, and that’s all it -really- takes)

1 - Most don’t understand the technology and where it is going, and how it will change things.
2 - From a business point of view, most couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag.

Just be comfortable about those two areas and you are already ahead of many in the business.

“What professional organisations should I join?”

I think it’s important to distinguish between tangible business benefits and more personal (development) ones. These will depend on the field you work in. I’m a commercial photographer and don’t deal with the public (i.e. no portraits/weddings)

Awards are great if you are into competitions (I’m not). There are plenty of free resources on the web. I’m one of the list moderators for the ProDIG forum ( - a mailing list specifically set up for the discussion of professional digital imaging related issues (a useful web site too - all free). I also run the Photography Business club on the Ecademy social networking site (

Take for example ‘professional’ qualifications - I’m not doubting the personal sense of achievement that some people get from obtaining these and possibly having assorted letters after their name, but as someone who doesn’t ‘use’ any of my various academic qualifications, I do question their actual benefit in a business context… oh, and yes my Mum is the -only- person who ever uses the ones I have.

Many other organisations also offer legal assistance and other types of benefits for your business - personally I’m a member of the Federation of Small Businesses (, which offers a lot of benefits, including the one that other members are potential clients too. 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 always take a camera with me)

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.

At various shows and exhibitions, I’ve asked all the major UK Photographer organisations what the -business benefits- are to membership - they mention things that sound good, but personally don’t stack up much in actual business terms (particularly since several benefits I already get via the FSB). In addition I have a personal 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 (yes, this is a personal bugbear of mine ;-)

I should add that not one potential client has ever asked about my professional affiliations… your mileage may vary.

Join whatever you like, but be realistic about the benefits to you personally and to your business. When people say how good something 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 the way I choose to run my business, not paying membership dues or getting a secret code ring ;-)

How to Become a Professional Photographer - Keith Cooper
“I’d like to specialise in XXX”

Well yes, so would I… but I know that the world of photography is changing fast and that may have to be just part of my business - until good fortune and a bit of forethought might allow me to do more of that sort of work.

Look to diversify your business and not put too many eggs in one basket. My own web site is one aspect of having a varied approach. If someone wants to know what I do, then I run a photography business - it just happens that being a photographer is an enjoyable part of that business.

“How much should I charge?”

Probably more than you thought - most people coming into the business make the mistake of trying to compete on price.  There will always be someone cheaper and prepared to undercut you. Live with it.

I have two prices - full price or free - never reduced price. Free means I’m getting something -very- useful in return. Once you do a job at a cut rate for someone, then they’ll only ever see your ‘proper’ prices as a price hike.

Just beware the dangers of ‘free’ work - that promise of publicity? It rarely matches up in reality with what you thought.

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?

“In my latest project…”

Projects are for fun, for learning, for filling in time when you’ve no work.
They are not a substitute for business planning and marketing…

I have ones I do ‘just because’ and ones that could potentially benefit my business.

“Should I do this?”

Only if you are serious and can see how the business could work, otherwise carry on taking great photos and get a real job too :-)


Keith Cooper is a Professional Commercial Photographer based in Leicester, UK who as part of his business writes photography articles and reviews on the Northlight Images web site. Although he particularly likes black and white landscape photography, he doesn’t think there’s much money in it.  As part of his teaching and consultancy work, he’s even prepared to teach estate agents to take better house photos.

All images in this article © Keith Cooper

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