Many aspiring (and seasoned) photographers dream of making their hobby into a full-time profession. Who doesn’t want to make a sufficient living from traveling the world and taking pictures?
But what does it take to turn pro? Is it really as perfect as it sounds? I’ve talked with 5 industry-leading full-time photographers and asked them to share their best advice on turning pro.
#1 Be Willing to Make Sacrifices
Mark Metternich is a well-known name amongst most landscape photographers. With more than 10 years experience as a full-time professional, he certainly knows what it requires.
Here’s Mark’s best advice to those who dream of making photography into a full-time profession:
“As a full-time professional landscape photographer for over 10 years, the very best advice that I can give someone who is interested in attempting to become a professional nature or landscape photographer would be to take an extremely sober and hard look at your passion level, work ethic, willingness to sacrifice immensely and willingness to become a business person even before a photographer. I can not overemphasize how seriously these questions need to be considered.
My favorite musician who passed away many years back, Rich Mullins, when he asked his father for marriage advice, his father said this: If you can live without her, do! I take this wise answer as meaning, if you can live without her, you likely will not have what it takes when the going gets extremely tough! If you can not live without her, you might have a chance.
My absolute best piece of advice would be this: if you can not do nature photography for a living, then don’t do it! I believe that the only people who have any chance at all of actually making a living in this profession are those who can’t not do it! It’s going to be much harder than you think, you will have much more setbacks than you think, they will be bigger than you think, you will have to make sacrifices much larger than you think and the uphill battle will be much steeper and longer than you think.
Having said all that, am I glad that I chose to do this for my living for the last decade? Yes! But for me, it has been more of a calling than a mere career or business decision. I simply could not, not do it!”
#2 Find the Connection with Photography
It’s clear that passion is an important factor in succeeding as a full-time professional and Kevin McNeal points out that you need to find a connection with photography and focus less on the numbers. Here’s Kevin’s best tip:
“Although it sounds very cliché, photography must be a passion first and foremost. I have met many people who get involved in photography full-time who are looking to replace their current job which they are not happy with. The problem with this setup is they are always looking for ways within photography to meet the same level of money that their past jobs provided.
As hard as it is to make it full-time, it has to be something you absolutely love more than anything else in the world. When you have passion and enthusiasm for what you do, it comes through in anything you portray out into the world.
Every time I teach a workshop, I emphasize finding the connection to each image and finding a purpose for your photography. Sometimes it takes really exploring yourself to find out what really excites you about photography. But when you do find that one thing that makes it very special, I tell people never to let go of that. As long as they continue to feel as passionate as they did when they first began, any dream can be achieved in whatever you choose.”
#3 Have a Backup Option
A common misconception is that photographers spend all day and every day in the field. Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth. Australian landscape photographer William Patino emphasizes the importance of having a backup plan and money to fall back on during tougher times:
“Becoming a professional photographer in this day and age is a multifaceted profession, particularly in the landscape photography realm. Unfortunately, creating good imagery is only one piece of the puzzle, with marketing, teaching, and customer service skills all being elements that are almost equally important (to name a few). My honest advice for anyone wanting to turn their hobby or passion into a career is to give yourself a backup option if things don’t work out.
The industry is incredibly saturated and glamorized because of social media and being able to make an honest living from photography requires working almost every hour you’re awake. You really need to love it and have the passion to stay afloat. I’ve seen a few people suddenly quit their jobs and want to pursue photography full time without really thinking of the long term. When this happens and things aren’t running as smoothly as what was perceived, stress develops and the passion can be lost very fast, which in turn affects business, and then it’s a downward spiral.
Giving yourself another option to fall back on or even a second job will really alleviate the pressure to make it work as a photographer and in turn, be better for the creative side of things. This isn’t something I’ve had to do but I certainly made sure that before I quit my full-time career, I had some savings in the bank to get me out of trouble in case things didn’t work out. Photography and being outdoors is so important to me personally, and I don’t ever want to jeopardize the freedom that this art has given me.
If it means having to stop shooting as a career then I can accept that because I haven’t allowed myself to get in such a tight situation where it has to work or I’m doomed.”
#4 Be Persistent, Patient and Curious
Just because you’re a full-time professional doesn’t mean you know it all. No matter your position, it’s important to remain curious and willing to learn. Norwegian photographer Stian Klo says that there are 3 keys to turning pro:
“My best tips for those who want to turn pro would be persistence, patience and curiosity.
By persistence I mean always do your best, you need to be on your toes and create quality content and be true to your style. Building a successful career requires a lot of time and patience. By setting yourself several smaller goals on the way, you will keep on pushing and never look back. At the end of the day, a consistent workflow and signature style will improve your chances of making it.
When I say curiosity, I mean it in a way that you always need to willing to learn and evolve your work. The very moment you think you know it all, you are done for. Look at other photographers’ work, but never imitate or copy their style – instead, ask yourself what, why and how they did it and try to make your own “mindmap” and use that creativity to always be one step ahead of the pack.
Last but not least, always have a backup plan – personally I saved up a 6-month buffer till when shit hits the fan, there are always going to be setbacks on your journey, but with a safety net, you can allow yourself some patience and failures. Those failures will be very useful at a later point in your career.”
#5 Invest in Content
It’s not uncommon that ‘newly turned professionals’ start selling tutorials, tours and other products from an early stage but they lack the content and don’t deliver consistent work. Eric Bennett emphasizes that without creating new content you’ll get stuck in your career and miss out on many opportunities:
“Doing photography full time is great because it allows you to dedicate all of your effort to your craft. It’s not about shooting photos for money, but when money can be a result of you creating your art, then it allows you to create more art since you don’t need to worry about sustaining yourself any other way. I think if anything becomes your motivation besides that, it will be a difficult and frustrating pursuit.
As with any kind of art or freelance type of career, money isn’t always consistent, and it can hardly be made on command. It always seems to just come in waves for me, so if money were my sole motivation or the cause of my photography, it would be extremely disappointing. There has to be some kind of motivation greater than yourself in order for it to continue to feel worthwhile, even in the slow months where you are scraping from your savings to get by. I think before anyone tries to take the jump full time they need to find that and establish that for themselves. Holding onto that will be the only thing that can keep you from giving up down the road.
Another super important thing is to start off by investing in your content. There is that common rule that “you need to spend money to make money.” Once you go full time, hopefully, you have some savings so you can invest in trips to go to the places you connect with the most and produce the best quality work you are capable of.
If you start out by only focusing on ways you can make money (like making tutorial videos, teaching workshops, selling prints, etc.) you’re going to get stuck where you don’t have any new work to sell and you don’t have new locations to offer new workshops. Throughout your career, you will need to keep that balance so you have plenty of time for serving others in order to make an income as well as shooting photos for yourself in order to keep progressing and improving the quality and variety of your products.
I think that great success comes from great products (art) and when you focus all of your attention on making money, then the product (art) is going to suffer. You have to ignore the money to make great art and then the money will come on its own.
The five photographers I spoke with all have different backgrounds, business models and income streams, they all seem to agree that there needs to be a certain level of commitment if you want to make it as a full-time photographer. You need the passion and photography needs to be your only option. As Mark Metternich said, if you can not do it, then don’t.
It’s easy to think that a photographer’s job is to spend all day outside exploring new terrains. That’s, unfortunately, far from the truth. Speaking for myself, the time spent in front of the computer is more than in the field. But that’s ok. It’s when you’re out photographing a beautiful landscape that you remember why you make all these sacrifices.
So, to sum up the essentials of taking the leap into full-time photography, you need to:
- Be passionate and curios
- Have a plan and a backup plan
- Invest in your art
- Be willing to make sacrifices
If that sounds like you, you might have exactly what it takes to become a professional full-time photographer. If it doesn’t, then you (and your art) might be better off keeping photography as a hobby. Remember, the best photographers aren’t always full-timers. Some of my personal favorite artists have careers outside photography.
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