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How to Become a Professional Photographer in 5 Steps
For most, photography starts as a hobby, inspired by an initial creative spark. It takes time and dedication, however, to develop a career as a full-time photographer. You might find that along the way, you start questioning your voice or start struggling with landing new clients; that’s ok.
Learn these 5 steps, practice them, and revisit them as often as necessary until you’ve achieved your goal of becoming a pro.
1) Find Your Voice
Discover your interests. When thinking about what to photograph, ask yourself:
What interests you?
What is unique about your point of view?
To what extent are you willing to take risks?
What are the possible consequences and are you willing to accept them?
Make a list of photographers that inspire you, and create a digital album of images that resonate with you. Can you identify common elements among the different images? Do certain themes, subjects, or styles show up across their different bodies of work? Now take a look at your own work, and see if you can list the common elements or themes that are your passions.
Make a list of things that you are interested in, no matter how small or esoteric. These can be hobbies that you have, like climbing or cooking, or broader concepts that you might be interested in, like social justice or climate change. Then spend some time doing research on what types of photographs are already being made on these subjects. Create a digital album of these inspirational images for reference.
Take creative risks.
Taking a creative risk can result in failure, and although it doesn’t feel great, that failure will often spark a new idea or approach for you to try again.
The more you start to embrace mistakes and failures as a means to move forward, the faster you’re going get to where you’re trying to go. Whether your goal is small or large, it can be helpful if you can work with others as a team to achieve that goal.
Capture your passion.
Experiment with a genre of photography that you’ve never tried before. For example, if you’re accustomed to shooting landscapes, try to shoot food. Or if you normally shoot architecture, try shooting portraits.
Remember that you don’t have to publish or show anybody this work; it can just be part of your own artistic development. You will find that by trying different types of photography that you’ll become better at the thing you already love shooting.
2) Brush Up on the Basics
It is important to have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of photography in order to become a professional photographer. Spend some time getting to know your camera and lenses really well; experiment with changing settings like shutter speed and exposure to see if you can expand your creative abilities.
Don’t forget to train yourself on the basics of editing as well. Advances in digital photography means more robust editing softwares, like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.
3) Learn to Pitch
As a photographer, you land new clients based on the strength of your pitch. Your client could be an entity like a magazine or an advertising agency or big brand. There are many other types of clients; for example, portrait photographers have clients ranging from actors to engaged couples.
The same principles outlined below can apply to any type of pitch.
How to Pitch an Editorial Client
Determine a story that you think is magazine-worthy, and research outlets to determine where it might be a good fit. Then concept, research, and craft your pitch, using the following roadmap as your guide:
Concept a bunch of ideas. Start broadly, writing down as many concepts as you can think of, and then start doing preliminary research on the concepts, making note of key points you could use to pitch your idea. Be specific, and pull visual examples (either from your own work, or someone else’s) whenever possible to support your pitch.
Research the existing editorial coverage of your ideas. Evaluate every article you find that has crossover with your ideas, making note of its specific point-of-view, and also what larger concept each story is pointing to. Then look through the list and figure out what gaps exist in the ways this subject matter has been approached in the past. Do any of those gaps seem like they’d be interesting to you (and the magazine, and its readership)?
Refine your ideas into elevator pitches. Write it down and revising it several times and then read it out loud to see how it sounds. Once you’re ready, find a friend you can practice with, and pitch them your story. Then ask them what they think about the clarity and brevity of your pitch; both are very important to a photo editor.
Prep your photography portfolio. When you pitch, you’ll need to have a portfolio of work that you can share; ideally you already have a website with your work, but if you don’t, you can create a free, sophisticated-looking pitch using Adobe Spark.
Prepare a rough budget. You’ll need to have a firm understanding of how much it would cost to execute the assignment you pitch. This budget should include your time and any hard costs for crew or materials that you would need, as well as insurance, food, permits, and location fees. You don’t need to send your budget with your pitch; you just need to be prepared for that eventual conversation.
Construct and send your pitch following these steps. If you’re not a strong writer, get a friend, or hire a professional writer to help you craft this email.
Find the right person.
Don’t send your pitch to a general email inbox; do some research to make sure you know who the appropriate contact person is. If you’re pitching a magazine, you’ll find the editors names on the masthead.
Hook them with a strong subject line.
Editors get so many emails each day; make sure the subject line of your email will entice them to want to click on it and read.
In just a few sentences (and maybe a couple of images) give the editor a sense of what the story would be about, what the takeaways for the reader would be, and why it’s relevant.
Give them the option to see more work.
Include links to any previous work you’ve done that would help them understand why you’re the right person for the job.
End the email telling them that you’ll follow up in a couple of days (and then don’t forget to do that).
How to Pitch Commercial Work
There are two different ways you can get commercial work:
1) Creative director contacts you directly because they’ve seen and like your work.
This is ideal, because you know they already like you and your style, and want to figure out a way to make it work. You’ll meet with the agency or client to talk through the project and make sure it’s the right fit for both of you. Sometimes there’s a fixed budget for the project, but other times you’ll need to come up with a bid that they can approve.
2) You are sent a Request for Proposal (RFP), inviting you to pitch for a job.
This is an open competition between two or more photographers. For these it’s important to understand the criteria upon which the agency or client will make their decision. Ideally, they’re making their choice based on creativity, but sometimes they are primarily looking at the bid.
Talk with them and try to assess the situation. You can also ask if they have a fixed budget; sometimes that’s the case, and then the creative concepts are paramount.
3) Do your homework.
Research past advertising campaigns for the client—become familiar with the brand and its values so that you don’t pitch something inappropriate. Also, ask questions about how the campaign is being used (for example, is it for print? social media?) and who the audience is. All this research will inform the proposal, or pitch deck, that you submit.
4) Create a pitch deck.
A pitch deck is a treatment that clearly communicates your ideas to the agency/client, and shows how you would approach the project. A good pitch deck usually contains the following:
- A project overview that clearly states nature of the project, its objectives, and how you would meet those objectives.
- Reference images to support the overview— ideally you pull from your own work, but if you don’t have anything appropriate, then you’ll have to pull from other people’s work, making sure they understand that the images are for reference only—that they aren’t yours.
- A bid, which you’ll send with the pitch deck as a separate document.
- A calendar, listing the prep and shooting days, and key check-in dates when the agency/client will need to approve things, in order to stay on schedule.
5) Draft a budget.
If someone asked you to buy them a bottle of the finest Champagne, and handed you a five dollar bill, you’d have to tell them that that wasn’t enough money, right? That analogy holds true for any commercial job, too. The creative concept and the available resources to complete the job must be aligned, or else you’re trying to buy Champagne for five bucks.
That’s why you can’t pitch a creative concept without also pitching a budget, because the two go hand-in-hand. Your pitch expresses what you’ll do, and the bid tells them what it will cost. When there’s a fixed budget for a project, it’s your job to figure out how to best spend that budget to achieve the client’s vision.
6) Show passion.
Whenever you’re talking with the agency/client, it’s important to show them that you are fully engaged and passionate about their project. Ideally, they will feel like their project is the only thing you’re thinking about. Having a positive, solution-oriented attitude is especially important; not only when you’re pitching, but throughout the entire shoot as well.
4) Lead the Shoot
Once you have an approved creative direction, budget, and schedule, you need to stick to them. Ideally you have a producer to manage those things so that you can focus on the creative problem solving and client communication.
Changes inevitably occurs during a project, and you need to be clear with the agency and client what the effects of the change mean. Sometimes the change is small, and has little or no impact on the budget or schedule. But other times the client might request a change that will affect both.
Before you agree to the change, you have to make sure the agency/client understands the ramifications of the requested change. If it means the budget or schedule is going to change, they need to approve that before anything else happens.
What you don’t want to have happen is for the client to ask for a change, and then after you’ve done it, you inform them that it’s going to cost them more, and/or set the project back a day. It’s your job (or your producer’s job, if you have one) to make sure the client is making informed decisions.
5) Market Yourself
So you want to be a commercial photographer?
1) Take a hard look at your website and make sure it presents your best work in the clearest way possible. A busy art producer or creative director doesn’t want to spend time trying to figure out how to access your images. Group your work systematically, and label in clearly.
It’s important to have a strong portfolio of work to show prospective clients. Find a professional commercial photographer and ask if they would be willing to review your work.
2) If you’re interested in working with a specific brand, find out who their advertising agency is, and then identify the agency’s art producers or art buyers so that you can get in contact with them. Ideally, you want to be able to come into their agency so that they can see some of your work and what your personality is like.
Send a brief email with a couple of really strong images, telling them why you’d like to work for them, and why you’re the right photographer. Tell them that you’ll follow up with a phone call in a few days, and then make sure you follow through.
3) If you’re interested in doing a certain type of photography (e.g. adventure, fashion, or food) but don’t have much work like that already in your portfolio, then you need to create a body of work that shows your capabilities.
You can often negotiate a trade-for-prints deal with models so that you can each use the images for your own portfolios. And a producer will often help you do a test shoot so that you can build your portfolio up as well. The images you produce need to be of the highest caliber; remember, you’re trying to show what you can do, and elicit an emotional response in a potential client.
4) In addition to trying to forge relationships with art producers, it can be incredibly helpful to connect with creative directors. If they love your work, they will lobby their art producer to consider you for a job.
Find out if there’s a local group for advertising agencies and start to go to some of their events (which might include annual awards show, monthly lectures, or social groups, like a bowling league.)
If you don’t know anyone, it might take a while until you can create some genuine connections, but it’s worth it if you’re looking for that first lucky break.