How to become a professional photographer

With recent advances in digital photography and social media, there has been an explosion of interest in photography, both as a creative art form and sometimes as a career choice as well. The basics to become a photographer seem incredibly simple now: Get a camera, take a few free online classes, create a website and fill it with your photos of your friends and family. Then the clients should start knocking on your door, right?

Wedding shoot professional photographer
Shooting a wedding in Geneva

However, the truth is that it’s not that simple. Photography is a very competitive field that requires you to have talent, skills, marketing knowledge and discipline to make your mark as a professional photographer. To be successful, professional photographers need more than just talent; they also need to market themselves, put in long hours, compete hard due to supply-demand imbalance and manage their business as an entrepreneur.

Fact:
Professional photographers in Switzerland earn a median salary of CHF 62K per year / 42.9 per hour. In France & Germany, it’s around Eur 50K / year.

source: Jobup.ch & Glassdoor

Of course, you can earn much more as a photographer, plus have all the benefits of working on your passion and being independent. However, it should be your passion and love for photography that drive your decision, as there are surely easier ways to make more money with less effort.

If you’re ready to convert from a person with a camera to a a professional with a career in photography, we have prepared the following guide to help you through your journey. We also added specific regulations in Switzerland to make sure you don’t miss any steps.

Tip: In the Business of Photography class included in all the SPC Photo Academy programs, students go through all these steps with an instructor, prepare an action plan and get personal guidance.

How to become a professional photographer

  1. Set the correct expectations

    Photography is indeed fun and inspiring, but getting paid for it and managing it as a business are not easy. The majority of your time will be spent in finding clients and managing business.

  2. Design your life correctly

    Learn the pros and cons of working part-time vs. full time, with a partner vs. alone. Before you resign from your well paid desk job and give up on regular income, consider doing it part-time and see if you enjoy it as a regular job.

  3. Choose the correct photography education

    You don’t need a 2-year masters degree. Learn from industry professionals, not academics.

  4. Get the right camera and gear, and get comfortable with them.

    You don’t need an expensive camera, but you will need decent lenses and accessories. Check out our recommendations article to see our favorite cameras, lenses and photography accessories.

  5. Learn post-processing

    Start with Lightroom to sort your photos and do most of the basic edits, then learn Photoshop for advanced edits.

  6. Find your passion genres and decide on your niche

    Narrow down the types of photography you would like to focus on, make a list of potential genres.

  7. Identify poor & great offers in your area by SWOT analysis

    Find and analyze existing offers in your area, best in your field and then yourself. Find the intersection of your interest vs biggest opportunities.

  8. Create a portfolio specific to this niche

    Shoot, shoot, shoot until your portfolio for this niche looks great.

  9. Build a professional looking website using a dedicated service

    Use a photography-dedicated service that allows you to sell your photos online and proof albums with clients, preferably one that is multilingual and automatically linked to your Lightroom. Our recommendation is PhotoDeck.

  10. Set your pricing

    Don’t be too cheap, but avoid overpricing yourself. Focus on value.

  11. Start marketing

    Learn free and paid marketing tools.

  12. Learn how to pitch

    Don’t sell, help. This is what separates successful photographers from average ones. Not the quality of the photos.

  13. Keep on learning from the best

    Continue to attend workshops and follow famous photographers from around the world.

  14. Have the correct legal setup

    Create an LLC / Sàrl / GmbH or stay as an independent / sole proprietorship

Step 1: Set the correct expectations

Professional photography can be an excellent choice for a career if you can manage the right balance between your creative passion and entrepreneurial instincts. If you think that photography is easy money, maybe because you saw a photographer charging thousands for a project, you’re already setting yourself for failure. There are much easier ways than photography to make a living.

As an independent, you will spend 70% of your time finding clients, 20% of your time in managing business and paperwork and only the remaining 10% in taking pictures. You must have a huge passion for this 10% and you must be good at (or learn how to) finding and keeping clients to make your effort worthwhile.

Step 2: Design your life correctly

Consider the pros and cons of working part time, as an assistant or with a partner, before you go all-in as a single entrepreneur.

If you already have a full time job, don’t leave it just yet. Follow the steps below as much as you can during your weekends and off hours. Only when you start to receive real clients demanding more of your time should you consider starting to make the switch.

Shooting a corporate year-end event

Step 3: Choose the correct photography education

No, you don’t need a 2-year master degree. Yes, a formal training will help a lot to prepare you. It’s much better to learn directly from the industry professionals, not academics.

Fundamentals are crucial. If you don’t get them right from the start, you will struggle throughout your whole career. You will not only need to understand the concepts, but you will also have to repeat and use them countless times. If you’re not sure how to select which course is right for you, check my other article about how to choose a course.

Also make sure the school that you choose has proper accreditation or credentials (e.g. Eduqua certificate for Switzerland) and covers the latest technologies.

What to learn:

The program(s) that you choose should cover all these important modules:

  • Photo I & II: Camera & Exposure basics, composition rules, portraits, landscapes, understanding and managing light, using studio lights
  • Imaging I & II: File management, post processing with Lightroom and Photoshop, alternative & additional software
  • Vision & Style: Develop unique style & self expression, create a personal project
  • Ways of Seeing: Study master photographers, re-create adding your own point of view
  • Business of Photography: Marketing, sales and strategies on how to win for professional photographers.
  • Practice workshops / Shooting lab: Shooting on field trips and in studio with instructors
Portrait Photography Class Swiss Photo Club
Portrait photography class at our Geneva Studio

Online vs in person trainings:

In person trainings are obviously the best, as you get to meet the instructors and other students in person, ask real time questions and get immediate feedback. Online trainings are great to cover specific gaps or learn from famous photographers who may not travel to your area.

Tip: At the SPC Academy program, we offer all these modules taught by professional photographers over 4 / 8 weeks full time or 12 weeks in evening classes. Courses take place in Geneva and in Zurich. And yes, we are EDUQUA certified.

Step 4: Get the right camera and gear

Just before a wedding shoot with my assistant.

Can your clients really tell the difference between an f/1.2 and an f/2.8 lens? Between a good camera and a high-end camera? No. Which means you shouldn’t be wasting money on gear that you think that you need. Instead, re-focus on what clients easily notice.

To begin with, check our recommended photography gear for beginners article to see our up-to-date advice for 2020. As explained in the article, having a reliable camera that you are comfortable with, 2 good lenses, a carrying solution and a tripod and/or flash, depending on your genre, are great to start with.

If you need an expensive equipment for a single project, consider renting rather than buying.

As you progress, you will know your needs and buy accordingly. Make sure to get recommendations from your photography instructors before you buy.

Step 5: Learn Post-Processing:

If you had fantasies about never editing your photos, you can forget about them right now. Almost 100% of all the photos produced by professional photographers are post processed. Why? Because cameras are not able to capture what your eyes see, even with the optimal settings.

An efficient post-processing flow will allow you to spend less time in front of your computer and more time photographing. Learn our recommended workflow and how to use Lightroom in a single day during our Lightroom course. Then you will need to start learning Photoshop for advanced edits. We offer 2 modules for Photoshop course, each 15 hours over 5 weeks.

Step 6: What kind of photographer are you?

Your education and shooting experiences should help you learn the artistic and technical aspects of photography and give you a more definite sense of the kind of photographer you want to become. It’s time now to start defining your style of photography, find your niche and concentrate on the genre/photography style that you enjoy.

Do you want to shoot portraits, travel, weddings, pets, fashion, conceptual fine art photography, documentary, or are you interested in commercial photography? Every photographer needs a niche. While experimenting in every avenue is fine, if you want to become pro, you’ll need to narrow down just what type of photography you will offer.

Start with what you love to do — maybe you love shooting sports and have a soft spot for babies and would love to spend your days photographing them. If it’s easier, you can also try ruling out what you don’t want to photograph.

At the end, you want to write down which areas you might be interested in focusing on, to prepare for the next step: SWOT analysis.

Step 7: Do SWOT analysis

Now to the business side, a SWOT analysis about yourself and other photographers will give you incredible insights and next steps.

  1. Local competitors SWOT analysis: Do a google & instagram search to find out the lead photographers in your area, then do a SWOT analysis based on their online portfolio. This will show you where there are gaps in your area
  2. Best in class SWOT analysis: Same analysis on your favorite photographers, wherever they are. This will identify what you can learn from each of them and apply to your business.
  3. Self SWOT analysis: After the first 2 steps, you should already have a good idea about the field that you want to go in. Now it’s time to do the analysis on yourself. This will identify where you need to focus your improvement on and which of your strengths to highlight on your website and portfolio.

In the Business of Photography module of SPC Photo Academy, the students do these analyses together with the instructor and prepare an action plan. If you’re up for it, you can also use our free SWOT analysis for photographers template.

Step 8: Create a portfolio specific to this niche

The chicken & egg question: how do I get my first client without a portfolio? How do I build a portfolio without a client?

You can & should try both of these options:

  • Advertise on social media for shooting with a big discount, or maybe even for free. Some genres like nude photography might require you to pay the models. It’s an investment, but of course make sure you get your money’s worth.
  • Assist professionals : Especially for commercial / wedding shoots, pro photographers would love to have a free assistant. Find out good photographers to help and offer your services. You should make it clear upfront that you’re trying to build your portfolio, so that you will get the chance to shoot and benefit from his or her feedback.

Step 9: Build your portfolio website

No matter how many followers you have on Instagram, creating your online portfolio website is critical for you to get exposure, reach out to clients, and have them view your work. This is your showcase – it can open up new opportunities for you and win your clients and projects beyond your network and local area. You will want to rank in the top 5 when people search for a ‘professional photographer near me.’ Your website, branding, content should reflect the kind of work you specialize in, to draw the right customer base.

  1. Choose the right platform: You want a dedicated service that is fast, multilingual, easy to update, can handle different currencies and VAT rules in Europe, with interfaces to sell your photos and proof / share albums with your future clients. Our recommendation is PhotoDeck : It’s made in France (therefore compatible with EU & Swiss requirements), has a Lightroom plugin to update your portfolios quickly and has all the aforementioned features.
  2. Optimize for SEO: Focus on maximizing local SEO via three important steps: 1- Keyword research 2- On page SEO, 3- Content marketing. A great first step would be to write content articles about your shootings and your expertise, then have other websites link to your articles. Another important (and a bit tedious) step is to tag your images correctly. Here are a few good resources in English, French and German.

You should also create your listing on Google Maps, create a Facebook Page & link to your Instagram account, create Facebook & Google advertising accounts and install their respective tags on your website.

Step 10: Set your pricing

During your SWOT analysis, you must have already noted down the prices that the local photographers charge. If it’s not on their website, simply call and ask to get an idea.

To set your price, ask this question honestly: How much would you pay for your own services, given the prices on the market? First write this down. Then compare your portfolio to the others and ask this question: Does it promise same quality or not yet? While starting, it’s very difficult to have a consistently beautiful, rich portfolio, so you cannot really ask for more than others. Therefore decide on a discount: 20%? 50%? It will depend on your portfolio.

Now, on your website, write your “ideal” price, cross it and add your discounted price. Mention that this great price is for your portfolio building. This way it’s very clear why there is a discount and your clients will appreciate your honesty.

Step 11: Start marketing

While you don’t need an MBA to learn how to market yourself, you certainly will need guidance and help if you haven’t done marketing before. To start with, we recommend following marketing and entrepreneurial books, blogs and podcasts. Your time spent on learning will save you a lot of time and money in the future.

Marketing is not only about how you spread the word, it’s also about how you present yourself, how you interact with your clients, even how you dress and where you meet them.

Learn free and paid marketing tools to start spreading your name and building your equity. While Instagram & Facebook might be obvious, blogging and videos will get you much better return on your time. Also investing a small regular budget on online advertising can deliver positive returns if done correctly.

Step 12: Learn how to pitch. Serve, not sell.

Selling Serving is the most important task that you have as an independent entrepreneur. As a photographer, you land new clients based on the strength of your pitch. Your client could be a couple, an actor, an entity like a magazine or even an advertising agency or big brand. The same principles apply to any type of pitch:

  1. Research: If you can, do background research. If this is a client who found you online, check their social media profiles to get to know them better. Your target is to identify their needs and personalities and list your ideas for them.
  2. Refine: Narrow your ideas based on their request and write them down. Revise them several times and then read them out loud to see how they sound. 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.
  3. Prep: Tailor your photography portfolio to each client individually, and prepare your presentation on a laptop or a high res tablet. There is no point in showing your incredible landscape photos to a wedding client (unless they ask for them!).
  4. Budget: 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.
  5. Pitch: This is very important: Serve, don’t sell. Do it with passion. Your job is to help your clients with their problems. Using your unique talent and expertise in a genuine effort to help others is by far the fastest way to strengthen your relationships—and cultivate valuable new ones.

He was asked if he saw himself as a salesperson. His response was, “No, that’s the last thing I would want to be, I don’t sell at all. What I do is help people with their problems.”  

Depending on your country of residence, you can sell your services up to a certain level of income (e.g., Fr. 2300.- per year in Switzerland) without having to report it. And this is what you should first focus on: creating a customer base and a regular income stream.

Once you establish that, you will need to decide on a legal structure to pay your social charges and your taxes. Two options are used among photographers:

  1. Independent / Sole proprietorship: This is the most popular legal form for independent photographers. This is cheapest and easiest to set up, plus allows more deductions for expenses. The disadvantage is that you remain fully liable for the debts and obligations of your business.
  2. LLC / Sàrl / GmbH: The primary benefit of an LLC business structure is that the owner(s) enjoy the same personal protection from responsibility for business debts as owners of incorporated businesses. This requires a minimum capital investment and slightly higher costs of running the business.

We recommend starting as an independent, then switching to an LLC after you establish yourself and start to see a constant stream of clients. This is especially important if you work with big brands and handle expensive materials that have a risk of significant liabilities.

Step 14: Keep on learning from the best

Photography is a continuous learning process — even well-established professionals find new ways to challenge themselves. Whether it’s growing through new business skills or embarking on unique photography projects, continue to look for ways to fine-tune your skills.

Sometimes, when photography becomes your job, that initial fire that sparked the journey fades a little. Personal photography projects, new photography skills or masterclasses from great photographers are great ways to reignite that fire.

Lindsay Adler & Chris Knight during their portrait masterclass at Swiss Photo Club Geneva

Learning how to become a photographer is a journey full of discovery — and fraught with many different pitfalls and detours. Ready to embark on that journey? Read more on our SPC Photo Academy page.

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Osan Altun

Osan Altun

Osan Altun is a Swiss photographer & instructor living in Geneva. He began photography as a hobby in 2008 with events and landscapes. Later he left his finance career to follow his passion and founded Swiss Photo Club in 2016. He can be found on instagram at @altuno and @altun_travel
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