9 Things to Think About Before You Become a Professional Photographer

I want to throw the romance of photography and being a photographer in the garbage can for a few minutes. This post is to give you some idea of what you may be stepping into should you decide that you absolutely need to become a professional photographer. I am not speaking of getting published once in a while, winning a photo contest here and there, or traveling the world taking the pictures you want to take. That is not the job of a professional. That is the romance that we all believe a photographic lifestyle is or should be. This is very IMPORTANT…becoming a professional has very little to do with taking photographs. The actual picture taking part, becomes the luxury item when you become a professional photographer. So with this thought in mind, here are 9 things to think about before you follow your romantic, stomach-butterfly, feeling that makes you all warm and fuzzy inside.

1. Be prepared to never sleep. Never slack. Never take a nap (almost never). Never not know your surroundings, competition, competition’s successes and failures, and the quality of your own work. All from a photographic perspective. Especially from a photographic perspective. Make sure your work is the best it can be, then go out and make it better. Study who is successful and try to not only create what they are creating, but go beyond them. Live creativity, breathe creativity, even drink it on Friday afternoons at the bar. When in doubt, stop your whining, get off the fucking couch and accomplish something, anything. Even if it’s throwing a rock through the neighbors window who you hate (although don’t photograph it), then do it again, again, and again.

2. DO NOT quit your day job. For any reason what so ever until you are completely and utterly sure that your current lifestyle will NOT be in jeopardy. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t bank thousands upon thousands of dollars and then quit, that’s fine. I want you to really know where you stand and be VERY honest about this to yourself. If you have a budget, make it the most accurate budget on the planet right down to the necessary Euros it will take to use that emergency pay bathroom in Chamonix.

Now only, and I mean ONLY, if you have sold everything you own, bought a ‘70s Ford Econoline Van with 250,000 miles on it, dumped your favorite girl, kept your favorite dog, and can fit everything that remains, including your camera gear, into said van and have decided that living in a van down by a river somewhere is the cat’s meow, do you deviate from sentence one or two. Sentence three is an exception as well.

I know you are going to ask, “How will I know?” Trust me, you will know. You won’t have to worry about where your next bag of dog food is going to come from and you will know how much money you will need 3-6 months in the future and you will know how to leverage what you have to get what you need.

3. Have two plans, not in your head, in writing, one for your business and one for your marketing of said business. Now there are tons of templates online that can set you up to create these things, but honestly, I didn’t know shit about either, so I sat down and wrote them out just like I would a feature article or award winning novel. One paragraph at a time by one paragraph at a time. Are they perfect? Nope. I change them daily, weekly, and monthly at times. I add numbers, paragraphs, lists, and remove almost as much. These two plans in the business world are called a Business Plan and Marketing Plan. No they won’t create world piece, but they will give you something to work upon and with when you are sitting there spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Vimeo, YouTube, do I really need to continue?

4. Know how much a carton of milk costs. Seriously? Yes. Go to the grocery store and price out everything you eat. Then you know what it costs to fuel you. Now do it for your ‘70s van, recreational activities, camera equipment, computer equipment, office supplies, printing services, do you see where this going, etc. Now all of a sudden you know what it costs to live. This is before your START your photography business. This information gets written into your business plan. You will now know how much you need in your savings account before your quit your day job. Plan on covering this for a year (most say 3 months is adequate, a year is better) without a single dime coming into your photography business. This is even if you have been nominated for the Pulitzer. Why? Cause beauty gets old baby, and next year someone else is going to be nominated and they are in fact going to be better than you. It is impossible to always be the lead dog, at some point you will trip and break your leg. To some extent.

5. Now, don’t think for a minute that Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Vimeo, YouTube, etc. will make you an overnight success. They may, but you still need to run your business with that old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.” If you don’t have anything to spend, free will get you little to no where. Why? Because everyone wants free! That is why we have gone through points 1-4 above. If you take the Pulitzer, you may be able to leverage this free thing, but again how many of you out there are being nominated? I am not saying to ditch social media. You in fact need it more than ever now. However, target specific social media providers that you feel will offer the best benefit for your business and then use them wholeheartedly. Remember point 1 above. This train of thought is going to get you thinking about that marketing plan.

All of the marketing that has been successful for me to this point has been the campaigns in which I have worked as creatively to generate as I have my actual photography. If you want return from social media you will need to pay for social media. It can be quite effective if you choose wisely. This leads me to a little term dubbed Return On Investment or ROI. What the? I am going to make it as simple as possible.

You have $50 to spend on your business, you need or want $1000 in return for spending that $50. Do you put that $50 all into one advertising location or do you spread it out to different avenues? Or is actually putting it in one place going to make you the most? These are the types of things to consider while WRITING down your PLAN to tell the world or MARKET about your company. The best ROI for this situation would be to spend $0 of the $50 to make the $1000, (why people believe social media is the bomb) but you truly need to know where your photo business model and type fits in to what market. This is a very trial and error thing, so screwing up can be disastrous if you only have that fifty and make poor choices. Again, be honest with yourself. Think, research, rehash and then do it again. And remember we aren’t just marketing in social media. This a base in which to start from. Remember to always ask, what are you doing, who needs what you are doing, how are you going to interact with who needs you, and then how are you going to keep who needs you from using your best friend. The one who just started dating the girl you dumped in point number 2 without even asking you.

6. Buy a calculator. Learn how to add and subtract everything you do. Balance your account every week. Religiously. Although, please don’t drink KoolAid. If you planned correctly, and aren’t making ridiculous decisions, this should go smoothly. I do it on Monday, so I know where I need to be next week, and so on. I know what’s coming because I planned and know where I am going, again because I planned.

7. Remember this is business. You need to think creatively for it to succeed. Never underestimate anything. You need to consider everything, but don’t just take a job because you need a job. There are amazing clients out there who need YOU. Don’t think for a minute you should settle for a mediocre one to add some cash into that deflating account. That is a recipe for disaster for YOU. If you think that shooting weddings is a great way to fuel your business, but you hate doing it, you will undercut not only the fee you charge, but quality you produce. This in turn dumbs down that aspect of a photography business model and hurts those who are serious about it. If you are going to shoot weddings for money, shoot weddings for money. Be a PROFESSIONAL about it. Re-read number 1 above and continue on. (I only use weddings here because over my career I have seen so many start-ups head this direction. In no way, do I under value any wedding photographer who does what he or she does creatively and following ideal number 1 above. They produce work as dramatic as any other image maker striving to succeed.)

8. Follow those plans you create. And make adjustments, make notes as to what you have done and what you think you might try. There is no stamped out model for success, you succeed when you go out on a limb and dare to defy. Safely. Don’t be frivolous and don’t be exorbitant. Think about what you are doing and again be honest with the way you are going about it. Will a brand new Canon 1DX make you a better photographer? It may, but can you justify the $7000 price tag? And will it generate $7000 from owning it? Remember ROI. This thought process can be added to any item or concept in your business and if you begin thinking about them just a little, I promise you will become more successful than you have ever imagined.

9. Finally, don’t be afraid to learn. Embrace going beyond your limits. There are more bits of info out there than ever before to help you succeed. Utilize as much of it as possible. Copy and paste parts of it into your plans – you’re not selling your plan to others. If a thought works for you steal it for yourself. Just make sure you credit it if you go public with it. Remember the copyright! Knowledge is power and if you aren’t growing as a business owner you aren’t growing as an artist either.

This list is just my kick starter. A primer. You need thousands of pieces for a puzzle that is continually growing. Have I followed the above points and many more to the letter? No. I have realized one thing in my successes though, one thing that is always consistent. The best laid plans always seem to be the ones that have worked the best.

What have you learned from photography? From running your business (photography based) or not that has helped you succeed? Give us some comments. I know there are readers out there who could benefit. Now I have to go back to work because I haven’t followed any of the above steps at all this week.