How to Become a Professional Photographer
by NoD Staff | February 7, 2023
Just about any kind of business you can imagine is in need of professional photography and that’s only the commercial side of things. From events like weddings and graduations to portraiture and family keepsakes, there’s an incredible amount of opportunity in photography for personal purposes as well. The potential applications for professional photography are nearly endless. Photography as a whole is an industry as varied as its practitioners. As such, the path to becoming a professional photographer is different for everybody.
For those looking to go pro, the specific path your career takes will depend on variables personal to you, such as your personal network, your interests, and your location. There are, however, some key elements each journey has in common, so we’ll focus on those.
For most of us, the journey into photography begins with simple curiosity. One way or another, we get our hands on our first camera and through taking some snaps of friends and family or while on a trip, we catch the bug and a hobby is born. We quickly realize there’s more to taking pictures than meets the eye. A good photograph isn’t merely the result of a good camera. It’s not quite as simple as pointing the camera and pressing the shutter button. There’s an elusive creative element that requires vision, skill, and experience to master.
This brings us to the first step toward becoming a professional photographer:
Developing Digital Photography Skills
All creative disciplines are a combination of technical skills and knowledge paired with artistic sensibility and intuition. Photography has a larger technical component when compared to other creative disciplines. The path toward proficiency begins with understanding your tools. The number of settings and variables to keep track of may be intimidating to beginners but the learning curve isn’t prohibitively steep. It does, however, take time and plenty of practice to get the hang of. The key to unlocking the creative capabilities of your camera lies in first understanding exposure. Beyond just ensuring that your subject matter is visible in the final image, ISO, shutter speed, and aperture can be wielded to great creative effect. Every professional photographer possesses a keen understanding of the ways in which these three variables interact and how pushing or pulling one will influence the others. A firm grasp of these variables allows the photographer to change the expression of the image, influencing the way it’s viewed and interpreted by the audience.
In addition to the technical aspects of photography, there are creative principles universal to image-making in general that require development as well. Like the ability of a slow shutter speed to introduce blur and communicate a sense of motion, or a low aperture to blur the background and direct our viewer’s eye to the intended subject matter, composition and lighting are two creative tools that have the ability to drastically impact the final image. By opting for one composition over another, or adjusting the lighting to hit our subject in just the right way, a photographer can change the message of the image they produce, by changing not only what the viewers see, but how they feel about it.
Due to its ease of access, photography has become a competitive industry. Anybody can buy a professional-grade camera, set up a website, and start selling their services, focusing their efforts on better marketing and equipment rather than improving their skills as a photographer. Developing skill is arguably the most difficult part of the journey to becoming a professional photographer to navigate. It takes dedication and time to reach a point where one can be truly confident in their skills. This is where instruction from experienced teachers can be beneficial, to help you reach your professional goals.
Once you’ve got the hang of the technical and creative side of things, it’s time to start putting together a portfolio to share your work with the world and advertise your services to potential clients.
Building a Photography Portfolio
The work you choose to showcase in your portfolio will have an impact on the types of clients who will be willing to work with you and the way your career progresses, so before you start reaching out to offer your services, it’s important to first consider the types of clients you’d like to work for. Once you’ve got a target in mind, you can start to tailor your portfolio to meet the specific needs of these types of clients while attracting other similar clients you might not have thought of.
There are a couple of pretty easy ways you can go about doing this. The first is to start by taking a look back at your body of work so far. What sorts of subject matters do you naturally gravitate toward? Maybe you enjoy taking pictures of people and events, or maybe cars and food. Make note of the sorts of subjects that make frequent appearances in your personal photos and start to imagine the kinds of businesses that might be willing to pay you to take those sorts of photographs for them. If you like taking pictures of food, consider putting together a portfolio of your best work and approaching local restaurants to take photos for advertising or social media. If you enjoy photographing events, you can try offering your services to local festivals or concert venues. Think about what it is that these businesses need. What are their goals and how can you help them to achieve them through your photography?
Another great way to find your first clients and start building your professional network is to tap into any existing communities you’re already a part of. People you’ve already got a relationship with are more likely to give you a shot and are also more likely to recommend your services to others if they like your work. Explore the different networks you may already be attached to via hobbies or organizations like church or school. These can be great ways to add some paid work to your portfolio, gain credibility, and attract similar clients. This brings us to the next point, building a network.
Building Your Photography Network
Whether you plan to work in-house, build a business of your own, or work gigs as a freelancer, having contacts who can vouch for you to others and direct additional work opportunities your way is an integral part of sustaining your career as a professional photographer. The quality of your network is directly linked to the quality and frequency of the jobs that come your way. For this reason, it’s important to take an active role in expanding your network by maintaining an active presence in the communities you work in. Before you even begin working professionally, having an established network can help to give you a leg up on the competition. Schools offer a great opportunity to build a network that consists of both instructors and students alike. Teachers can not only help you to jump-start your career by providing you with insider knowledge, but may also be more than happy to grant you access to their own personal networks if they’re impressed by your work. Your fellow students will also be an asset as they enter the field as working professionals and can vouch for your skills and connect you to work opportunities.
Finding the Right Photography Courses
You don’t have to get a degree or certificate in photography to become a successful photographer, but it certainly helps. Depending on the type of photography career you are pursuing, you may find some education to be invaluable. If you can’t make a multi-year commitment, you can earn an undergraduate certificate or a professional certificate in photography. You don’t need to end your education after a certificate, either. Many photographers earn an associate degree in photography. At Sessions College, an undergraduate certificate in photography is a stepping stone to an associate degree or higher. It is very common for a professional photographer to have a bachelor’s degree in photography. Choose the right path for you and know you can always come back to school.
The great news for photographers is that everybody needs professional photos, making the list of potential clients nearly endless. Whether you’re interested in travel, fashion, or food, there are many possible directions you can take a career in photography with some great perks to boot. While the journey to becoming a professional photographer can be long and at times challenging, it’s a rewarding field open to anyone with enough persistence and passion to make it happen.
This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.
Are you interested in stretching your photography skills? Sessions College offers a wide range of online photography courses as well as digital photography degree and certificate programs. Contact Admissions for more information.