A couple of day's ago I threw two options for upcoming blog topics into our Insta Stories and took a poll. The people spoke, and I, as a person of the people, decided to get to work that afternoon, scratching down as many kernels of wisdom that I could in the cursive scrawl I use for note-taking and only realized this weekend they're no longer teaching in American elementary schools (sad!). As I tried to compile a short list of five or so key ingredients to go from a hobbyist to a profitable photographer, I realized I couldn't condense this list to less than twelve or so things because, guess what, building a profitable skill isn't easy.
If you're looking for that kind of "get rich quick" list, you might find yourself more at home on the phone with a telemarketer.... I'm getting real, here, because the truth is the greatest determinant of your success in the photography industry (or any industry) actually is the degree to which you want it before you've even started to take it that seriously.
I'm deep into the pages of the book The Talent Code this week, and the neurological research done for this book doesn't only reveal that almost all forms of talent aren't innate, but grown, but also proves that the people who stick with something, who get better and better and go onto succeed are the ones who show up at the first day of basketball practice or piano or math team or creative writing having pre-decided that this is their thing. This list is for those of you that feel that strange mix of desire and drive for this industry before you've even really dipped your toes in the water. Combine that deep-seeded motivation with these steps, and I (really and truly) believe your success is not only inevitable, but will happen a lot faster than you think (to the tune of 3 months or less).
Let's jump in.
#1 Get A Camera & Learn How To Shoot in Manual
If you want to be a pianist, you can't just memorize a bunch of songs, you have to learn the keys and the scales and (eventually) how to read music. As a photographer, you're learning to read light; learning the strange art of balancing ISO, aperture, and shutter speed equips you with the ability to read all kinds of lighting situations, and how to adjust your tool (the camera) to those situations for the best possible outcome (a beautiful, well-lit photograph).
Most cameras these days have "modes" you can spin your dial to, whether it's landscape or portrait or even night sky. Those are training wheels, and it's time for them to come off. You might scrape your knees at first in the form of some very, very bad photos, but, over time, if you go painstakingly slow and purposefully bring your camera into all kinds of lighting scenarios, you'll start to understand how this "tricky triangle" of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed works. When it starts to click, that deep-seeded motivation we were just talking about will kick-in, and you'll get obsessive about perfecting the settings on your camera in all kinds of shooting situations.
This is the best "How to Shoot in Manual" video I've found on the internet. In fact, a lot of the Youtube's by Jana Williams are incredibly helpful for photographers who are just getting started. Watch them until you think you get it, and then watch some more. She might be a little peppy for some, but you won't find explanations that are more straightforward or applicable, believe me, I spent my Sunday watching dozens.
Now back to that beginning part - getting a camera. This is where the needing to spend some money part comes in. You'll need a camera that can be set to manual so you can learn the art of shooting in manual, but you don't need to splurge here. We recommend buying used or even renting on & off from a sight like Lens Rentals. If you have a parent or relative with a camera that they aren't using, just ask to borrow it for a bit. The important thing isn't that you have the world's best gear right now. To go back to the pianist metaphor, you don't need the world's nicest piano in order to affectively practice your scales, you just need a good enough piano. Figure out your budget and go from there; you want a solid piece of equipment that produces photos in good enough resolution for your resume, but nothing crazy just yet. Something like a used Nikon D3300 could do the trick.
#2 Zero-In on Which Photographic Style You Want to Make Money From
Although in art schools you might see self-described oil painters spend some of their time throwing pots, we're trying to be efficient here (3 months, remember?), becoming well-rounded can happen later. It's time to figure out what you like to shoot. More specifically, it's time to figure out which kind of shooting makes time stop for you. Are you an outdoorsy type person, who can hike for miles to photograph a mountaintop sunrise and return home knowing it was absolutely worth it, or does your brain seem to take a hiatus when you're shooting portraits, and suddenly what surely was only 15 minutes was actually an hour? Maybe photographing families moves you in a strange way you can't really articulate, or you feel that warm mix of purpose and presence when you shoot at a wedding. Get to know yourself as a photographer, then move toward what moves you. Concentrate all your energy on progressing in the field of photography that sets you on fire. This will keep that motivation burning.
#3 Photograph Efficiently; Edit Constantly
No one can enjoyably photograph for eight hours without stopping. Well, maybe some people can, but I'm definitely not one of those people. My maximum shooting time in a given day is usually around 4 hours (I prefer to do 1-2 hour shoots with time in between), but that 3-5 hour time zone has actually been shown to be a pretty typical reflection of the average person's ability to concentrate deeply in creative and even athletic endeavors. Don't feel like if you aren't shooting you're wasting time. Because, guess what, there's something else you can be pouring all that extra time into with a much longer mental runway: editing.
The other side of the "learning how to be a professional photographer" coin is learning how to edit, and edit well. If you haven't already downloaded Lightroom, do so now. It's your new best friend. To paraphrase Deuteronomy, you should edit while you talk, and when you sit in your house, when you walk along the road (or are riding the subway), when you lie down, and when you get up. You should be editing on your phone and your iPad and your laptop. You should edit while you're watching Friends and in between stirring whatever's on the stove, in the back of your Uber, and before you fall asleep.
Photographer's spend more time editing then they do shooting, usually by two or three or five-fold. That means, in reality, you're really becoming a photo editor first and a photo taker second. Prioritize accordingly. When you aren't editing your own photos, study the editing styles of others. See if you can mimic what they do. Watch a whole lot of YouTube's to discover new tips & tricks. Figure out which editing style is going to be yours the same way you chose a photographic category. Then master it. Edit till you get carpal tunnel (I'm only sort of kidding). Edit while listening to audiobooks or podcasts or the news to keep from getting bored. Learn that indescribably satisfying feeling of knowing you're done editing a photo because it's been edited in a way that perfectly reflects you as photographer artist and, well, editor.
#4 Capitalize on Resume Building Opportunities
Is your little brother graduating from high school, is it your friend's grandmother's ninetieth birthday, is your family heading on a holiday to a beautiful destination ? It's time to put on your "listening ears" (in the words of my first grade teacher) because before you can get paid to shoot anything, you need examples of the kinds of photographs you're capable of taking. Capitalize on any opportunity to build your resume and make sure to stick to your category of interest. A bride-to-be won't be able to tell how you'll photograph her wedding if your resume is all landscape shots. On the flip-side, a wilderness magazine will care very little how well you photograph a bridal party.
Before Porter and I ever were hired to photograph a hotel, we'd gone to multiple purely for the sake of shooting them to build up a resume to share with potential clients (some we were only having lunch at!). I can't tell you how valuable doing that turned out to be. You have to start somewhere, you guys, and before you can get paid, you need photographic evidence that you're worth paying.
#5 Be Disciplined in All Things
I don't own a single pair of sweatpants. That's not a weird brag, it's just a result of realizing that working for myself would mean needing to get serious about being put together. It is so easy when you work for yourself to quickly slip into not having to get dressed by a certain hour every day or even wake up by a certain hour, but lapsing into those habits will kill your productivity in whatever sector you're trying to pursue self-made success in. It's the old dress for the job you want, not the job you have line put into practice. I happen to believe in this sort of thing wholeheartedly.
Set your alarm. Eat food that makes you feel good. Stick to a schedule. Keep Checklists. Get dressed. Keep your work space tidy. Declutter. It will make your life better, I promise...and if you still don't believe me, read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
#6 Find a Person Whose Constructive Criticism You Respect; Then Find Another One
Photography is unfortunately one of those fields where, if you're not careful, your eyes can trick you. A person who's been editing the same photo for an hour just doesn't see it the same way as someone glancing at it for the first time with fresh eyes. If you're unsure if something you shot is great or garbage, you need a trusted friend who isn't afraid of hurting your feelings to call in for reinforcement. If you can ask multiple people, that helps too. Photography is a game where your clients' opinions of what you shoot will mean everything, so you need to sometimes get validation from others that you're headed down the right track.
#7 Shadow Someone Who's Better Than You, Then Shut Up
I don't like the phrase "shut up" but it was hard to come up with a more concise way to get my point across on this one. If you have any sliver of opportunity to shadow (i.e. follow around a talented, successful photographer you would like to be like), than you need to take it. Do not talk, just watch. Take notes on how they interact with their client, what they did as preparation, their routine before arriving, while at the shoot, and afterwards. In the old days, all artists were apprentices to talented artists for years at a time before becoming artists themselves. Michelangelo was a product of this process, as was Da Vinci.
But there is nothing more annoying as a photographer than being thrown off your game by incessant questioning, so observe quietly, politely, and sit down for a debrief once the day is done to get all your questions answered. The process will be a little awkward at first, but enlightening, I promise.
#8 Learn How to Write a Damn Good Email
The general inability to write a good, captivating email constantly blows my mind. We've received emails from handfuls of established brands that were, well, just plain bad. Spelling errors, jargon that was childish and unprofessional, poorly constructed sentences, you name it, it's out there. If you want companies or people to work with you, they can't feel like they're talking to a young, somewhat unsure-of-herself, new-to-this-whole-thing photographer. They need to feel like they've recently received an email from a confident, established, direct, concise young professional.
Avoid over-using exclamation points, figure out what sign-off suits your brand, explain what you do, and why the service you're providing will benefit your client. Call in those constructively critical friends and ask them what they think. Maybe email it to an old favorite English teacher. Whatever the case, learn how to write a damn good email. Failing to do so will cause you to lose out on dozens of opportunities. This doesn't just apply to photography, of course, but is a necessary skill for life in general. Learn to talk the talk.
#9 Build A Website As A Resource For Your Clients
A portfolio sent along as a PDF when you reach out to a potential client is great, but a beautifully curated website goes a longggg way in this photography game. Building websites isn't always fun and is almost never easy, so get started early. As soon as you start to create photographs you're proud of, put together a website with something like Wix or Wodpress so that you can steer people toward it as a resource for your past work. If you put on some music and reserve a few hours a night to doing this for about a week or so, you can create something truly stunning.
Remember, your website should reflect the kind of photography you're most interested in and your personal style (if you talk soft portraits with low saturation, don't put together a bright and busy site).
#10 Take Yourself Seriously; You're Now The Face of Your Own Company
You didn't go to photography school, so it's only natural that there will be people who throw that in your face, who ask where you studied or even tell you, point blank, you aren't a professional photographer because you didn't go to photography school. In the words or Ross Geller, that's boo-hackey. Not all artists go to art school. The same rule applies. Once you've profited from the skill of photography, in my book, you're a professional photographer. Carry yourself like you believe that to be true to your very core. If you don't, know one else will. There's nothing sadder than seeing someone with all the skills and none of the confidence. Keep your chin up. Be the kind of person you'd be drawn to work with.
#11 Learn That No Doesn't Always Mean No
Sometimes no most definitely means no, but in business, you have to learn when you've been turned down and need to walk away, or when you can wait a few days and try one more time. A hotel once told us they didn't need our photographic services four times in a row. The fifth time, they said yes. I know this because over the course of four months I asked five times. Did I annoy the hell out of that PR team? Probably. But I wanted that hotel on our resume, and I was confident that for whatever reason they just didn't realize how badly they needed new content for their website, and that we were the ones for the job. They would now agree with that statement.
You have to realize that you're not going to get "yeses" all the time, and that, rather than letting discouragement kick in when you get turned down, you just need to keep chugging on. Don't whine, don't cry, don't pull an Andy Bernard and punch a hole in a wall. In the sagely words of Sean Diddy Combs, "No one cares, work harder."
If you have time to complain about your losses than you aren't working hard enough. Let the sting of being rejected fuel you forward. You're going to fail sometimes. There will be disappointments. Wash your hands of it as quickly as possible, and don't let those moments define you or cause you to question yourself. Prove them wrong.
#12 Day Dream
It's statistically proven that people who spend a lot of time imagining their success in a certain field are more likely to achieve that success. Even Michael Phelps does this, so much so that his coach tells him to "play the tape" before every race, envisioning himself down to every micro-detail swimming and winning. Put time aside to imagine the kind of life being a photographer would create for you, and why you'd wan that and how that reality would better you and your relationships with those around you and play into your deeper motives for a purposeful, fulfilling life. It might seem corny or unnecessary but I don't think I could've kept the fire of motivation lit without this small tactic. Daydream often. It will stoke the fire, until you've become the fire, then there's truly no stopping you.
So there you have it. That's my list. Put all these things together and I, again, truly believe success won't be an "if" but a "when." If you have any questions, feel free to shoot them to us over on Instagram.
Have a great day you guys, and, as always, thanks for following along!