Today’s topic is the age-old question: How to become a successful photographer?
Becoming a professional photographer is a dream to many, but a reality to a select few. Those who paid their dues and learned to embrace the grind are the ones who ultimately make it in this field.
While a career in photography can be highly fulfilling, the barrier of entry is so low due to how affordable photo equipment has become. Therefore, it is all the more important that you pick up and master the skills that will distinguish you from the average hobbyist.
With that said, here are some things I wish I knew back when I first started my journey.
Table of Contents
Improve Your Business Acumen and People Skills
Many great artists’ careers have failed to take off due to their lack of people skills and business acumen. I have been very guilty of this prior to relocating to New York City. I was a shy, anxious kid with big dreams but lacked the skills for connecting with people. But I mean, friends and families had such great things to say about my photos, so how could anyone not want to hire me?
Without any knowledge of marketing, I did not know how to get my work in front of the right people (heck, I didn’t even have a website). I was way too timid to attend a social gathering, and the few times I did, I had no idea how to network or sell myself.
I began making a few ads and posting them on Craigslist, advertising $100 photoshoots. The few responses I received were that “$100 was too expensive” and that they’d instead “give me credit for my work.” Without any competitor research, I was lost on how to properly price my services so I just went along hoping that this “credit” would somehow turn into paid gigs. It didn’t.
Meanwhile, I see other photographers with lower quality photos booking clients left and right. I didn’t understand why they were getting work while I was struggling to make a penny.
After taking on a few sales and marketing jobs, I’ve learned that people buy products almost purely on emotion and not logic. I read an example somewhere about a guy who drained his bank account to purchase a luxury car because he wanted to “make sure his wife and kids are safe.”
To find success, you must identify your demographics’ needs and find a way to fulfill them through your services. In addition, people buy things from people they trust and are comfortable with. By learning how to relate to and build friendships with your potential clients, you will not only get the gig, but also referrals for years to come.
The general rule of thumb for securing a gig is, you have to be either cheaper or better than your competitors. Most likely, you’ll start with the first and eventually achieve the latter. While you may encounter people who feel that you should shoot for free, there are many that see the value of hiring an experienced photographer and paying a premium for their services.
Specialize in One Type of Photography
I cannot stress this one enough, as it has the potential to make your break your business. Most of us start out excitedly shooting anything and everything (I have taken way too many cat pictures). By the time we decide to do this for money, we have amassed a large collection of photos that range from buildings to puppies to pretty flowers.
When starting a business, most people have the idea that more types of photography offered results in more potential clients (and more money). Makes sense, right? After all, these photos have to go somewhere!
The problem with this kind of thinking is that they are not looking at it from the buyer’s perspective.
Think about it; if you are looking to buy your first camera, would you rather get it from the electronics section of a general department store, or would you go to a photo specialty store like B&H or Adorama? If your potential client is getting married sometime soon, would they rather choose a jack-of-all-trades photographer or a wedding photographer? You guessed it!
Additionally, by specializing, you can dedicate your time and resources to learning all you can about that type of photography. You will also be able to dedicate your finances to purchasing the right type of gear for the job.
Build a Website and Social Media Presence
Back in the olden days, word of mouth was enough to consistently land you gigs. But in today’s highly digital world, the Internet is everything. People go online to look for all kinds of information, and you want them to find you. Not to mention, you’re also competing against others who have a substantial social media following.
When you hand someone a business card or tell them about your photography, the first thing they’ll do is ask if you have a website or portfolio. The lead has now been acquired; it is imperative that your website has a sufficient strong presentation to efficiently guide them through the sales cycle. If you’ve managed to pick a specialty, you will hopefully have a body of work that you are proud of, and can help you close the deal.
People like to be a part of something big, and they will often blindly follow the masses. To take advantage of this, you must be active on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram (maybe even Pinterest). When people see that you have a large following and great user engagement, they think you’re something special and would be missing out by not working with you.
I’ve gathered approximately 14,000 followers on Instagram within the past year or so, and it’s done wonders for my photography.
Find a Mentor
A true photographer will constantly be learning and refining his or her skills. No matter how good you are, there will always be someone who’s better. The key is to try to learn from them.
Prior to buying my first camera (Canon Rebel T2i), I read countless articles on shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. I gained a decent understanding of exposure and composition before I even touched a camera. However, apart from Googling things on the go, most of my knowledge came from trial and error. I’ve botched a few shoots from being clueless and under-prepared. It sucked, I was embarrassed, but I learned to never make the same mistakes again.
Today, I realize that my learning curve could have been much less steep if I had someone knowledgeable to guide me throughout the journey.
To speed up the learning process, I highly recommend that you seek out a mentor in your specialty whose work you admire. It may seem intimidating at first, but most photographers are very generous and love to share wisdom without asking for anything in return. If you’re worried about leeching, see if you can offer any services in exchange. Maybe you are a graphic designer and they need a logo, or you’re a barber and they need a haircut.
I know that I personally enjoy discussing photography with just about anyone. Apart from a second stream of income, I created this blog because I’ve found information on the Internet to be severely lacking. Things are scattered all around the web and it can be hard to piece it all together. I hope that this site can serve as a cohesive resource for new and seasoned photographers alike.
Learn How to Use Off-Camera Lighting
I originally planned to keep this post on the general side, as this advice applies mostly to portraits. However, I see many aspiring photographers actively avoid learning how to use off-camera lighting, and instead branding themselves as a “natural light photographer.” This irks me.
While there are some amazing natural light photographers out there, the successful ones are not choosing that style due to laziness; they know how to use flash gear when necessary.
If you have never tried using off-camera flash, or at least seen what it can do, then you’re missing out. When we talk about creating a distinct style, learning this will get you half way there. Once you mix ambient light with multiple light sources, your pictures will resemble what you see in high-end magazines. Yes, it adds extra layers of things to worry about on a shoot, and that’s why people avoid it. However, if you can make regular people look like models, you’ll never be out of work.
Now that I’ve hyped this up, it’s only right that I follow up with some examples.
Learn How to Retouch Your Photos
Similar to the previous point, many people are too lazy to learn how to retouch their photos. I get it. Honestly, I enjoy being out in the field and creating images out of things I see in the real world. The thought of sitting in front of my computer for 10 hours zooming in the skin pores is just bleh. But you gotta do it.
Yes, a big part of being a good photographer is “getting it right in the camera,” I won’t deny that. The closer you can get to your intended final image, the less editing you’ll have to do. However, we are not talking about saving a bad shot. We are talking about taking a well-lit, well-composed shot, and adding our own unique spice to it. Besides, there is no photo that is too perfect to be enhanced further.
Software like Photoshop allows you to make all kinds of selective adjustments, whether it’s the contrast, saturation, or sharpness. You can bring out certain parts of the photo, while completely ignoring others. You can push the shadows towards blue, highlights towards yellow, or some red to the mid tones. By having total control, you can easily creating your distinct style.
How to Become a Successful Photographer?
If I don’t stop now, I may end up writing a book (well hey, that’s an idea for another time). So, let’s recap. Business acumen and people skills can help you relate to your clients as well as identifying and fulfilling their needs. In order to avoid being a jack-of-all-trades, specialize in one type of photography and dedicate all your resources to it.
To sell your services, you must be able to gather and convert your leads through a well-designed website and strong social media presence. To speed up your learning process, find a mentor who’s willing to help in exchange for some beer. Last but not least, learn how to retouch and utilize off-camera lighting to aid in developing your distinct style.
Whew, this was a long one! I hope that you’ve found this article helpful. Having a career in photography can be extremely exciting and rewarding, and I hope that these tips will help you achieve your goal someday. If your friends ask you for ideas on how to become a successful photographer, be sure to share this blog with them.
As always, feel free to share your thoughts and questions in the comment section below. Is there something that has especially helped you in your photography career? Let us know!