An Amateur Photographer’s Guide to Starting A Professional Career (From Scratch!)

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“If you work all the time, chase clients at every opportunity, and feel like you’re stuck in a loop, never earning enough – you’re deep in the freelancer’s grind.”

Photographers are one of my top favorite creatives. Isn’t it amazing how they make us see the world in a completely different perspective, and turn fleeting moments into tangible memories?

The ability to take a memorable, timeless photograph is a talent not bestowed to many!

But why is it that some amazing photographers – maybe including you – struggle to make a name for themselves, go past the amateur level, and establish a professional career?

The freelancer’s grind

If you work all the time, chase clients at every opportunity, and feel like you’re stuck in a loop, never earning enough – you’re deep in the freelancer’s grind.

This is not just true for freelance photographers, but for the rest of the creative freelance community.

If you’ve been around for some time, you already know that talent and skill alone can’t guarantee high-paying clients and exposure to the best gigs.

If that were the case, then everybody should have started freelancing and becoming self-made millionaires!

To escape the freelancer’s grind, you must pave your own path to success and “break into” the industry.

The importance of a brand, platform, and marketing strategy

What makes successful photographers different?

It’s not so much the equipment they’re carrying, or their ability to take shots. You can always buy a more expensive camera or improve your skills.

You need to have more than just talent, skill, and ambition. You have to think like a business owner.

And that means you’ll need a combination of the following:

  • Brand
  • Platform
  • Audience or network

“But I already have those!”
I’m not just taking about getting a logo, showcasing your sample shots somewhere, or building a group of followers.

It’s easy to get a logo from Fiverr, set up an account on Behance, and join photography groups on Facebook.

That’s not what the real pros do.

Do these people who take it easy earn three to four figures in each gig? Are they building a stable career?

Sure, they might gigs here and there, but they’re nowhere down the path towards becoming the next Annie Leibovitz or Steven Meisel.

And that’s because they’re building an amateur image, not a professional business.

Don’t be an amateur

When I say “brand,” I’m not just talking about logos, color palettes, and typography. I’m not even talking about your visual style in photography.

Your brand defines you as an individual business. It’s all about:

  • Your core values
  • Your mission
  • Your beliefs as an artist
  • The purpose of your business

What made you decide to become a photographer in the first place? Who inspired you? What are you trying to capture beyond portraits and images?

Do you believe in capturing beauty? Do you champion empowerment? Do you think photography can make a difference in this world?

Don’t copy-paste my suggestions – think of your own!

Deeply reflect and be honest with yourself. Be authentic – it’s the best way to become memorable.

[Read: How to Create A Memorable Brand Like A Charming Tinder Profile]

Define a professional, visual style

Do you know what looks amateurish? A portfolio that looks just like the first page of a stock photo library.

It’s everywhere. It’s everything. Themes bounce from one place to another. You don’t feel the photographer’s spirit.

Your visual style is a sub-product of your brand.

For example, if your brand is all about “capturing the essence of sexuality in a feminist gaze,” then your potential client won’t be expecting to see some food photography in your portfolio. (More on this later!)

Here’s the point: If your portfolio looks like pictures taken by an eight-year-old who got her hands on a Nikon Z6, please rethink your photography career.

Here’s how your portfolio can reflect your visual style:

  • Choose your best work
  • Do not include too many pictures
  • Stick to a single, or set of related themes
  • Reflect your brand identity
  • Host your work on a professional website

Choose a niche

“Narrowing down” or “niching down” doesn’t mean you’re limiting opportunities. It’s all about specializing and building authority in a specific market. 

The best photographers are known for being experts in a specific category.

And even if you’ve chosen a specific field, like, fashion photography, or food photography, you must also narrow it down to another degree.

For example, as a portrait photographer, you can specialize in taking photographs for seasoned professionals. Or you can specialize in outdoor portrait photography.

Put yourself in the shoes of a potential client. Let’s say you’re an old guy who wants to get professional portraits for a book launch.

Are you going to book a photographer who specializes in professional portrait photography? Or would you choose someone who primarily takes pet pictures and then some occasional food photography? 

Find your clients

laptop-and-notebook-with-eyeglassesIt will take some time before clients start coming to you, but you will eventually get there.

Keep in mind that you are not entitled to anybody’s attention, just because you can take some awesome shots and own a professional camera.

You have to earn your reputation and prove your worth as a professional. 

So how do you find clients or gigs?

The “how’s” of finding clients deserves a post of its own, so for the meantime, here’s a bullet list of the most useful tips:

Build a social network.

Talk to photographers and other creative professionals. Ask them where they get gigs or if they could refer you in case their plate is full. Team up with other creatives who might need a photographer (web designers might need your help!).

Make yourself trustworthy by helping others promote their work. Write a review or show appreciation.

Join online groups.

Find relevant groups and job boards where potential clients look for gigs.

Get featured.

Look for photography websites that might want to feature your work, or team up with content producers who can give you some exposure via a magazine article or a blog post.

If you’re unique, have a memorable brand, and an impressive portfolio, you can get featured.

Get into your potential client’s social circles.

Let’s say you’re a food photographer. You will want to network with chefs, restaurant owners, or advertisers.

Now if you take sensual photographs for middle-aged women who want to get in touch with their sexuality, well, I’m sure you have some ideas.

Hand-picked examples

I searched Twitter for professional photographers so you can see what it’s like when you apply my tips in real life.

Linda Wisdom Photography

Linda Wisdom hits all the check marks when it comes to building a professional brand and photography business.

linda wilson photography
It didn’t take me longer than 5 seconds to recognize her visual style, subject matter, and specialization – London street photography.

She even runs a blog where you can learn about the photoshoots, workshops, and events she has attended (there’s a lot!).

[Read: Why Your Creative Business Needs A Blog, Even If Your Not A Blogger]

If you’re visiting London, you wouldn’t think twice of booking Linda Wisdom to take your professional photographs.

Chris Vaughan Photography

chris vaughan photography

I love how Chris Vaughan’s front page tells you right away where he specializes in.

Without even checking his portfolio, I can get a feel for the kind of photography he is into – bold, energetic, full of life, and personality.

You know that his photographs get found on front covers and help people establish a serious business.

What’s more, the copy on his website reinforces his visual style. The writing is persuasive, clear, and concise as well. Thumbs up to his copywriter!

Lori Carey Photography

Can you guess what Lori Carey’s specialization is? That’s right – outdoor photography.

What appears as a humble, non-assuming front page is merely a cover of spectacular work.

If you look into her projects and galleries, you will see how Lori Carey takes outdoor photography to the next level.

Her subject matter varies (inanimate objects, off-road events, nature, people in action). And yet you get a feel of how she captures these unique scenes with an artist’s spirit. 

She has also published dozens of articles, in other websites and on her own, that shows how she makes an effort to become relevant in her community.

Now, what’s your brand story?

Building a brand and business doesn’t happen overnight, but it takes only one second for you to decide and make up your mind to get started.

Make the start of your professional photography business today.

After reading this article (and sharing it on social media!) write down a list of action steps. Let me know about it through the comment section below!