Q: Who wants to be a professional photographer?
A: Everyone who owns a camera.
Okay, that answer might be a bit hyperbolic, but sometimes it really does seem that way; there are so many people — photographers and non-photographers alike — who harbor some rather fantastical ideas about how easy it is to become a professional photographer.
You’ve got a nice camera and a business card. You’re all set!
Hardly. Although plenty of pros have started out with not much more than a camera and a few clients, they quickly realized that the greater challenge was to turn it all into a gainful endeavor. There are any number of things that might conspire to contribute to how successful, or unsuccessful, anyone’s photography business becomes. As with anything in life, there are no guarantees.
But if attitude and perception play any kind of role in determining success or failure, it’s time for people to re-think some things; things that would-be professionals think about the business, and things that non-photographers think about professional photographers. Myths and misconceptions abound on both ends. Let’s discuss some of them.
- Having a DSLR means your work is 99% done already. As if the camera spits out a “good” photo every time, even if the shot is poorly composed and/or exposed. The camera itself is, obviously, an invaluable tool to the photographer, but it’s still just that: a tool. Never discount the talent of the individual behind the camera.
- Asking a professional what kind of camera they use or how much their camera cost is a compliment. It’s not. You’re basically intimating that the only reason their photos are so nice is because they’ve got a “nice” camera. Admiring the quality of their work or the skill it must take to achieve what they have is actually a compliment. This, in fact, applies to any skilled photographer, professional or not.
- Getting lots of compliments means it’s time to turn pro. It’s time to turn pro when people start offering to buy your work. Compliments are great, but they’re not the litmus test for whether you can or should enter the world of professional photography. Of course your friends and family compliment your work; it looks better than their snapshots. But clients don’t care if your shots are better than theirs; they want the photos you take of them to look like what they’ve seen in books and magazines.
- A second camera is optional. When you first picked up photography as a hobby, it was perfectly acceptable to have one camera and maybe a couple of lenses. But part of being a professional means being prepared for anything and maximizing your potential. Which means having at least one backup camera. You never know what might go wrong, and having to walk away from a shoot because your camera stopped working isn’t very professional.
- A nice website will bring in all the clients a photographer could ever hope for. It doesn’t quite work that way. A nice website will make a client’s visit to it an enjoyable experience, but you have to have a client to begin with. And you don’t get them just because you put up a good collection of shots on a slick-looking site. Your website needs text also; it needs to be optimized for search engines. Who you are, where you are, what you are. It’s the only way people will find you online.
- Clients have the same creative vision as the photographer. More often than not, they don’t. Clients often purchase more standard fare when it comes time to select their shots: head and shoulders, simple poses, smiling. There’s nothing wrong with that; the client cares more about how he or she looks than how creative the photo is. But part of that is conditioning. Once a client becomes comfortable with you, they’ll be more in tune with and accepting of your creativity.
- Verbal agreements and handshakes are suitable contracts. Only if you’re trying to ruin your own life. I understand fully that creative types often have little interest in the business/legal side of things, but if you’re in business for yourself you don’t have much of a choice. Put it in writing! A lawsuit — win or lose — is a headache you can do without. Never do paid work without a signed, legally binding document. If you join a professional photography trade association they will likely provide a standard form so you can save yourself the disastrous outcome of trying to pen your own contract.
- Professional photographers only have to work whenever they feel like it. Nope. Not if the plan is to be in any way profitable. You have to have a working understanding of marketing and sales; you have to schedule shoots and fulfill orders; you have to maintain your website. The list goes on. Being a professional photographer is, in many ways, a ‘round the clock effort and for much of that time, you won’t even be behind the camera.
- Enjoy photography? Then you’ll love being a professional photographer. It’s easy to feel that way when you’re shooting for the fun of it, shooting what you want, when you want, and how you want. But once you start shooting for someone else, shooting to satisfy someone else, working to meet someone else’s demands, your outlook will probably change. Not to mention all that business/legal/marketing/sales stuff you’re going to have to handle — just be very sure that you are prepared for how becoming a professional is going to impact your hobby.
There are enough myths and misconceptions out there to fill several books. The ones listed here aren’t intended to discourage anyone or to point fingers at anyone who may have ever bought into such a mindset — these things aren’t true 100% of the time for 100% of people. But they are common enough to warrant a discussion. Awareness benefits everyone.