What are some good things to consider when starting out as a professional photographer?
November 4, 2009 1:36 PM   Subscribe

What are some good things to consider when starting out as a professional photographer?

This can include equipment (lenses, bodies, flashes, strobes, computers), software, sites, marketing, rates.

I have lots of experience with photography but don't know exactly how to break in as a freelance professional photographer. I have a portfolio better than most and expansive enough to cover pretty much any need (from jewelry, to wild life, to children, to wedding and traditional portraiture). One of the things I have most difficulty doing is finding and setting appropriate rates.

Any help would be appreciated.
posted by ghostpony to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Zack Arias said something while doing portfolio reviews that stayed with me: shoot what you need to shoot but have your portfolio be what you want to shoot.
posted by jedrek at 1:40 PM on November 4, 2009

DO NOT delete ANY photos until you have contacted the client. Yes, this happened to me. My wedding photos. Gone. We ordered a bunch right after the wedding and went back a year later to order more (because he said he'd keep the negatives - this was before the digital revolution - for five years) and they were gone. He said he threw them away. He never contacted us to give us a chance to either order more photos or buy the negatives.

Don't do that. It's devastating.
posted by cooker girl at 1:45 PM on November 4, 2009

Always have a back up EVERYTHING (that includes flash, cords, etc.) before heading off to shoot someone's once-in-a-lifetime anything. Sooner or later, something will fail (even if it was working that morning).
posted by availablelight at 1:47 PM on November 4, 2009

Join the ASMP and read their ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography.
posted by gyusan at 1:49 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you don't already use it, I would recommend using Adobe Lightroom (or Aperture if you lean that way) for organizing your photos and for your workflow.

Also, I would say that it's important to have a handle on color management.

IAMNAPP (but would like to be at some point)

on preview - also have a good backup solution for your hardrives.
posted by o0dano0o at 1:53 PM on November 4, 2009

Another wedding photography cautionary tale here. We found out on Monday that our photographer dropped her laptop with all our wedding photos on them before we could even look at them. They had been on her computer for weeks without being backed up (!). If you plan on doing events that aren't recreate-able (like weddings), invest in a back-up system of some sort and make sure you actually use it as soon as you walk in the door from the event. She's now returning all her clients' money and spending additional time/money on recovery efforts (which includes dealing with the angry brides and their families).
posted by awegz at 2:00 PM on November 4, 2009

Don't do it.


Clearly you don't have the experience, not knowing what equipment to use (depends on the shoot), what software you need (CaptureOne), what sites you should use (aphotofolio, livebooks) and what to do for marketing (no easy answer).

Your portfolio is not better than most. In fact, I can say with certainty that it is bad. If I saw a portfolio with 'jewelry, to wild life, to children, to wedding and traditional portraiture' I would cringe and come up with an excuse to end the meeting immediately. Photography is not a generalized field. There are niches within it that operate entirely independent of each other and require different skills/business plans, etc.

Here are some previous AskMes to help you.

The main thing is, start assisting a local pro. Everything will open up from there, and all your questions will be answered in time. If you want to start a long career, you need to build a solid foundation.

If you insist on 'becoming a pro' then I implore you, do not buy equipment. Overhead is everything, and you'll be over before you even start by laying out tons of money without even knowing what you'll make.

But, like I was saying, don't do it. And definitely don't go to school for it. Photo school is a ripoff.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

We back up our wedding photos in triplicate, using external hard drives, before we even begin to work on them. We're also looking into leaving them on the camera chips, and just buying new chips, just in case....
posted by Lynsey at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2009

You're going to need a well designed website with your portfolio and contact info.
posted by kylej at 2:07 PM on November 4, 2009

Photo school is a ripoff.

You've linked to a problem with one photo school. Please don't make sweeping generalizations without backing them up.
posted by kylej at 2:08 PM on November 4, 2009

I have to say I agree with infinitefloatingbrains here. The way you are asking the question makes it sound like you are in the beginning of a long process, if being a professional is your goal. I think if you were ready for this, you'd realize that having any wildlife pictures in your portfolio is pretty much death for your photography career. Unless you are one of the (3?) people in the world who make their lives shooting wildlife, and in that case, you would definitely not be also shooting children, because you'd be shooting wildlife, all the time.

It's a hard industry, not necessarily a fun job, and it can eat through people. I think your question might better be, "how do people make money with photography".
posted by sully75 at 2:18 PM on November 4, 2009

I'm sorry to be negative, but if you're asking these questions, you're not ready. Its not something you simply "do". You need to spend considerable time learning these things (years) through experience. We could tell you "go buy xxxxx..." but if you didn't know what to do with it, it wont matter.

It is a VERY DEMANDING job. And in many cases, professional photography is 80% business and 20% creative work. Rates and pricing alone are a huge topic....

You can actually learn alot though, by learning what NOT to do - and Zach Arias' portfolio review video podcasts are an excellent resource for this. He posted a new one today. http://www.zarias.com/?cat=82

And also, if you have a portfolio better than most, let see it!

Feel free to email if you've got specific questions.
posted by blaneyphoto at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2009

I'm going to come down firmly on the side of Don't.

It's a very hard industry to break into... your only real choice is to apprentice to someone established and hope that translates into eventually getting your name known and finding your own niche.

This is of course if you are thinking of doing it as your full time primary mode of making money. If you are thinking more as a hobby that will make you a bit of money... well go for it. But you are probably going to spend more then you'll ever really make... but it can still be quite rewarding.
posted by cirhosis at 2:45 PM on November 4, 2009

Your portfolio is not better than most. In fact, I can say with certainty that it is bad. If I saw a portfolio with 'jewelry, to wild life, to children, to wedding and traditional portraiture' I would cringe and come up with an excuse to end the meeting immediately.

This is so true, you should just re-read this over and over again until it sinks in. The photo industry is like the rainforest - only the ultra-specialized survive. You sell your work based on what makes you different from every other person with a camera, not your ability to shoot anything and everything.

Assisting professionals is probably the best advice you're going to get out of this.
posted by bradbane at 3:04 PM on November 4, 2009

OP, you might want to come back and clarify what you're looking to do, as the routes can be very different. If you're looking to become an editorial photographer, good luck and god bless. Product photography? Personally, I'd go to school for that. Documentary? There is zero money in it, but you might find something you're interested in, go to a third-world country and loop up with a local aid organization to document a cause, post it to the web and hope someone notices. Weddings? Probably the easiest to break into, particularly as you seem like you are of an age when your friends, cousins, etc. are getting married and can pull together a web portfolio of a few images.

Getting high on your own supply is a dangerous thing (to which I think all devoted amateurs, including myself, are victim). If your portfolio is better than most, you're likely comparing yourself to other enthusiasts who will come and go and be the worse for it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:16 PM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: When I said that my portfolio was expansive, I didn't mean my finalized portfolio included images of jewelery and wild life. I should have been more delicate with my wording.

What I meant to say is that while starting out I would be interested in anything that can bankroll future development. If that means shooting jewelry so be it. If that means selling stock wildlife photos, well I have that covered as well. I understand the way to specialization is through assisting a professional photographer, but unless you live in a larger town the likelihood of finding a top notch pro is slim to none (and even slimmer to find one willing to bankroll you).

I understand that no portfolio should be as expansive as to include everything I listed. Also, I hadn't mean to come across as an insolent braggart, what I should have said instead is that I have experience shooting across a variety of disciplines including editorial, product, landscape, and portraiture, with a variety of different mediums (bw, medium format, large format). I have assisted for a product photographer and found the experience to be invaluable if only because it forced me to realize that I don't want to do that for my career (although it is the best way to learn about lighting).

Given that this is my first MeFi question I think I learned a valuable lesson in asking the question I really want answered, instead of one as open ended and poorly worded as my initial attempt, I should have focused on specifics like what kind of strobe to buy (but even something like this is subjective). More than anything, it has been good to see how lively the community is here, and I plan on learning from every question asked. So thanks.

And thanks for all the advice, and keep it coming. Although (and I understand why) I have to admit the overly negative responses were a bit of a shock. I was looking for general pieces of advice (for example about what organizations to look to, or a good book about the business side of things), not a critique of my portfolio (or my stupid decision to rattle off a list of seemingly unconnected things).
posted by ghostpony at 4:01 PM on November 4, 2009

Very extensive information is available on this forum: Photography On The Net. Perhaps search for "turning pro" or something similar. Some helpful threads may include:


posted by dave*p at 4:59 PM on November 4, 2009

You want to know if you can even hack it? Post a link to your portfolio (or memail me) and I can tell you inside of 10 seconds whether or not it is made of win or fail. If it is currently made of fail, you are unlikely to ever be a professional photographer. 98% unlikely. This is not snark, this isa limited time offer coming from a working professional.

Professional photographers don't typically get their start asking for advice on the internet. They figure out who to ask for advice in real life and then seek them out. The figuring out for one's self part is key. This business is a money pit and is cutthroat as hell. You're better off finding a job where you can make the kind of money to supplement your hobby. You'll be happier in the long run because unless your portfolio is top 2% good or you are an absolute marketing genius (there are a few of shooters running around who are), you're in for a life of hurt.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 8:04 PM on November 4, 2009

Consider becoming an pornographer.
posted by Locobot at 11:47 PM on November 4, 2009

Even after reading your follow up, I agree with the vast majority here.

Don't do it.

I've been in this business full time for over 30 years, and that's the only reason I'm still able to make a living at it. The bulk of my work is a result of long established relationships with a bunch of really good commercial and corporate clients who pay on time, don't argue about my rates, appreciate my flexibility, and like the peace of mind I give them.

I'd never attempt to enter photographer as a career today if I were starting fresh.

I'd never make it.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:40 AM on November 5, 2009

Best answer: In my response above I also meant to add the following...

If, like many who have posed a question like yours to me over the years, you choose to ignore my advice, just remember thsi one last thing:

The first prerequisite to becoming a professional photographer is having a spouse who is gainfully employed at a company with a good family health insurance plan.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:54 AM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's a tough business, you're probably not going to make much money, you'll be very, very stressed most of the time, but if you love it, then do it.

In terms of advice - things like always carrying a backup everything, backing up your photos into several places at the moment of ingestion, etc are all well and good, but the real tricky business is finding work. Word of mouth is everything these days, possibly more so than it's ever been. You have to perform like a superstar. You have to be friendly, authoritative, witty, brave and respectful. Blow people away. Do what they ask of you and then go several miles further. Make them gasp in wonder at your greatness to everyone they know. This is critical.

I just went and found your online portfolio (anything that can be googled from your name is part of your portfolio, btw, including any blog, twitter, facebook etc. You're now a walking brand.) You've got some good pictures on there, but you desperately need to work on your editing. Even if you have a keeper rate of only 1 out of a thousand, just showing those keepers will make you look infinitely better. Quality, not quantity has never been truer. I'd also take a bit more care over your post-production. Some of those pics looked badly white-balanced and a bit flat. Tighter editing before hitting the web will let you fine-tune each picture perfectly. Don't assume that the client wants every last alternate either.

Communicating well with the client before a shoot is intensely critical. You need to find out exactly what they want out of you, work with them to figure out how you're going to realise that (the most successful ones are usually when it's a meeting of two minds), and then meet everything they ask of you.

Good luck! It's a crowded marketplace.
posted by Magnakai at 2:11 AM on November 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. While I didn't learn much I hadn't already heard, it was interesting to hear what everybody had to say. I realized it was a cutthroat market, but to hear so many professionals talk about how they would never enter the market today was astonishing (and edifying).

While I can't claim to know whether I will succeed being a photographer, I don't suppose in this economy it can hurt much to try (I live in a small town without much competition). I already own a camera, and wouldn't have to make many investments (other than a Mirrored RAIDed drive in duplicate).

Zach Arias' site was invaluable, so was the forum someone suggested. Also, the ASMP membership (costing about $140) seems like it will pay off just to be registered in their database.

Thanks again for answering this AskMeFi first timers question.
Best of luck to all the pros out there, and if you want to follow up feel free to memail me.

posted by ghostpony at 12:00 PM on November 5, 2009

Just to clarify: I think one of the issues people are seeing in your post is some misunderstanding of how people make money from photography. When you talk about selling stock wildlife photography, you have to understand: NO ONE DOES THAT. YOU CAN'T MAKE MONEY THAT WAY. Whether you come from a small town or live in a city. Just not going to happen. Impossible. Maybe there are 4 human beings in the country who make their livings doing that. As far as jewelry goes, I'm not sure what you are talking about. If you are thinking about doing high end catalog photography, that's an extremely specific niche that generally requires insanely expensive cameras (a 1DS MKIII or whatever would be fairly ghetto, I think you'd generally be shooting with a medium format digital camera, something over $10k). You are not going to "break in" that way unless you work a long time for someone who knows exactly what they are doing and has the equipment too.

If you live in a small town, you need to think about what you can offer people in your town. Does your town have an established wedding shooter? Portraitist? Those are things that people need. School photographer? Even with these things, you need to know a LOT of stuff, but it's doable and somewhat realistic. Realize that your current skill set is not enough, and you need to learn a lot more.

I think a good place to start would be strobist.com, where you can learn some basic ideas about how to light things, which is 50% of what you need to know.
posted by sully75 at 1:34 PM on November 6, 2009

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