How to get into professional photography: Tips from industry pros

First published:
May 16, 2023
January 31, 2024

How to get into professional photography: Tips from industry pros

First published:
May 16, 2023
January 31, 2024

Cover image by Avonne Stalling

Discover what it’s like to be a professional photographer through the advice of industry experts

For anyone inexperienced, entering the professional photography market can seem overwhelming — how do you begin? You'll soon find that there isn't a single correct way because everyone's circumstances and desires are different.

That's why we spoke to several professional photographers across different niches. Their insights and experiences will give you a better look into the real world of pro photography but remember to take any advice with a grain of salt and only apply tips that work for you.

Get to know the professional photography industry

James Broadbent recommends buddying up with an already experienced photographer in your chosen field and starting as their second shooter or assistant. As a pro photographer, he's also the CEO and founder of Narrative, where he developed an AI-assisted culling software and a blogging app for photographers. Throughout his journey, he has encountered and seen many others use second shooting as an entry into professional photography.

"You will learn so much through this process, you'll learn about how they manage their day, how they communicate with their clients, and what gear they use, and it's a great way to build your portfolio," he tells Picfair. "Second shoot as much as you can."

Food photographer Matt McCormick agrees – it's an invaluable experience for anyone new to professional photography.

Working with an experienced photographer can give you a fast-track into the day-to-day of professional photography. Photo by Aditya Wardhana

"I've assisted plenty of bigger photographers over my time, most notably, Rankin in Kentish Town in London around the end of 2010," he says. "I saw so many things and learned so much in that short time. Obviously, the man himself was way too busy to give me any advice. Still, his experienced assistants had a wealth of knowledge, so I would always pick their brains."

But ensure the photographer agrees you can use the images in your portfolio with your editing style. Doing so will help you fill your portfolio with photos representing your style to attract your own clients.

You can research local professional photographers in your area and contact them. Not everyone will have the time to take a beginner photographer under their wing, but someone will. You might decide after a while that this type of photography is not for you, and that's okay.

Everything you learned and picked up along the way will only strengthen your skillset regardless of which direction you take later in your career.

Learn from the best in the industry

If you want to break into the world of art photography or photojournalism, second shooting may not be an option. Selling, exhibiting, and pitching your work is essential to this type of photography, so developing a unique style that fits you and helps you get noticed is necessary.

Widely published, award-winning photographer Britta Jaschinski believes it's a personal process — there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But you can seek guidance from those who know the industry inside and out through workshops, mentorship, or portfolio reviews.

An expert working closely with your individual needs and abilities can help refine your photography style and steer you toward achieving your professional goals. After numerous accolades and experience in publishing and exhibiting her photography work, Jaschinski has also begun offering her support to others.

"I feel that it is time to pass on some knowledge, skills, insights, and even contacts," she says. "This is why I decided this year to offer portfolio reviews and mentorship programs. I hope it will help people of all ages and from all backgrounds to build a career in this wonderful but forever-changing photography industry."

While mentorship will generally cost you because it's personalized support, some programs or grants offer funding for photographers, especially if you already have specific projects in mind.

It’s all too easy to go in circles when you’re unsure how to advance your photography career, but a mentor can help you gain clarity. Photo by Michal Matlon

Treat professional photography as a business

The photography business can look exciting from the outside — you can travel to picturesque locations, work with high-end clients, and have your work seen by many. But don't let the facade trick you because it's a business like any other.

But professional photography involves lead generation, sales and marketing, proposal writing, negotiating, customer service, guiding your audience along the know-like-trust journey, client retention, and finding ways to add value that no other photographer in your niche can do, says sports photographer and videographer Simon Yau.

"It's no longer just about what you like, but about the problems you are solving for your client by applying your photography experience and (niche) skillset — usually in exchange for money," he says. "No one wants to buy photos; they want to buy what the photos can do for them or their business."

So if you're willing to give professional photography a go, treat it as a business and calculate a fee for your work that accounts for any tax to be paid, expenses, and income for yourself. A good starting point is to see what others charge in your local area or for a similar service, but the numbers should reflect your needs and the service you offer to clients.

"What many don't realize is that what we may quote is not just for our time on location, but to pre-plan, post-process, and turn a profit to offset our investments in equipment, insurance, software subscriptions, marketing, content creation, put food on the table, and pay the bills," Yau adds.

Having a niche can help demand higher fees because of your specialized expertise — instead of charging for your time, you charge for the value you bring to your clients. That's where value-based project pricing comes into play. After all, a beginner may take twice as long to deliver similar work that a professional would achieve in half the time.

Developing a photography niche means clients will see you as an expert. Photo by Simon Yau

To find your niche, McCormick suggests having fun and trying various photography styles.

"Go on that mountain walk and shoot some landscapes, go to a gig, and twist the arm of the promoter for an Access All Areas pass to get beside the stage and maybe even backstage," he says.

"If your mum makes a delicious meal, spend a minute getting a great shot of it! Eventually, you're going to sense the one that's for you. For me, food is the one — since 2017, it's been my niche, and I'm more passionate than ever."

And when you're ready to start advertising yourself, Yau picked up a helpful tip from a podcast. It presented the classic definition of a niche in professional photography as "what" + "variation" + "location." For Yau, it was "photography" + "fitness" + "Lincolnshire."

"This is very Google-friendly, and already helps you differentiate from other generalist photographers," Yau explains. "But a bombshell that I'd probably drop is that a niche can be however you define it, as specific or broad as you want as long as it works for you and — as a business — gets you the income you desire."

Plan and prepare to deal with any unavoidable errors

It's only a matter of 'when' for any mistakes or errors to crop up in your photography business. A well-thought-out (and lawyer-approved) client contract can help you navigate disputes or legal issues, but preparation should also concern the shooting stage.

Broadbent says that "something always goes wrong or unexpected during a shoot. You should have a backup of everything while you shoot — multiple cameras, lenses, memory cards, and batteries."

Backup equipment is crucial for not missing any parts of a shoot, but don't worry too much about buying the best camera or lenses immediately. Instead, you can hire a camera and lenses for the shoot and repeat it until you've saved enough to buy your equipment.

After setting up a solid client contract and ensuring you have the necessary gear, it's time to look at your image backup workflow and equipment. Losing or accidentally deleting a portrait session would be frustrating, but at least you can reshoot it in most cases. However, that's not true for a wedding or a surprise proposal.

Save yourself from tricky situations by setting up a method for securely backing up your photos — as a minimum, start with one physical drive and one cloud storage account. 

Between memory cards, external and cloud storage, your back up workflow should give you access to any of your latest shoots. Photo by Samsung Memory

Be willing to guide your client from start to finish

Your clients probably know they need professional photography to build their brand and show their products to customers. But they may not always know what they're looking for — and that's where you come in.

"Use Pinterest, Instagram, or Google to give ideas," says McCormick. "Throw together a mood board and show it to your clients. If you can be there to talk it through – even better. A 15-minute Zoom call with screen share is all you need, and be positive."

"Also, don't presume your clients are visually literate. This means they don't always see the same way you do and don't have the visual experience you do from looking at thousands of photographs over the years. Sometimes an orangey, darkly lit, grainy ISO 1000 close-up of a burger shot on an iPhone is all they have in mind, but they need to see some examples of what can be achieved with a bit of planning and lighting."

Your clients won’t know what’s possible until you show them — use this opportunity to wow them with your ideas. Photo by Matt McCormick

By providing ideas and explaining the project's next steps, your client will see you as competent and eager to help. And as time goes on, you can start creating repeatable workflows or templates — like email responses or PDFs or pages that outline the project plan — so your process becomes faster, and your clients know what to expect.

Create an inviting portfolio and client experience 

A compelling portfolio is how clients can connect with you after seeing your website or social media profile. Showcasing your best work and tailoring it to your target audience takes practice. Initially, you might want to show off as much as possible, but how you curate your portfolio will eventually set you apart.

"Your portfolio reflects your skills and creativity as a photographer and can be a powerful tool for attracting potential clients," says wedding, portrait, and family photographer Evija Pavlova. "To build your portfolio, start by practicing your photography and communication skills with friends or family members willing to model for you."

Soft skills like listening to your clients and understanding their concerns are essential if you want to work in social photography genres like weddings or portraits.

"People-based photography is all about capturing genuine moments and emotions. Take the time to get to know your clients and their personalities. Use your communication skills to make them feel comfortable during the shoot."

It takes talent to recognize a special moment, but it takes even more work to master the communication skills necessary to connect with your clients. Photo by Evija Pavlova

It's common for clients to express concerns about their appearance before a photo shoot. Photographers must understand that everyone has insecurities, and it's their job to empower their clients to feel confident and comfortable during shoots.

Before the photo session, alleviate your clients' worries by explaining you're there to help them look and feel their best. You can take the lead and offer suggestions for outfits, posing, and facial expressions so clients know they're in safe hands.

"During the shoot, I focus on creating a relaxed and comfortable environment," says Pavlova. "I use positive reinforcement and encouragement to help my clients feel at ease. I also show them their photos periodically throughout the shoot to help them see their beauty and build their confidence."

Remember, practicing editing techniques will also help create a flattering final product for your clients. Correcting minor blemishes, color grading, and adjusting the tone curve will bring out your clients' natural features and fill them with confidence when they see the photos.

Expand on your skills and engage with the community

Even if you are focused on a particular photography niche, it doesn't mean your creativity stops there. Especially if you're multifaceted and enjoy different mediums, like Ameena Rojee, who is a published photographer, writer, and newsletter editor.

"The thing is, I still feel the fear – every so often, I do wonder if I'm doing the right thing," she explains.

"And that's absolutely normal. The key is to be organic with it all and go with your gut. Experiment widely, try new things, different things, give in to your creative urges, don't box yourself in if you don't want to, don't follow the trends you don't enjoy."

She reminds photographers not to fear mistakes along the way because "failure is how you'll build a creative practice and business that is genuine to you, and that requires experimentation and play."

Finding a community where you can seek support and idea exchange is as important as developing your creative direction. Rojee sees it as building a support system. "It's not just about finding paying work, though it can become the best source of paying work if you put the effort into building it," she explains. 

You don’t have to go alone — build relationships for mutual support and connection. Photo by Ameena Rojee

"Over the years, this creative community and support system has helped me: develop personal projects, review business experiments, improve my technical skills, give me confidence and encouragement, understand what strengths I could build on, understand where I've failed, understand what I don't want to pursue, as well as, of course, give me paying work and recommending me via word of mouth. And that works vice-versa too. You'll want to have people you can rely on to pass on work to."

Social media is a good starting point to connect with other photographers, creatives, and industry professionals whose work or content you like. To build these relationships, Rojee engages in dialogue without asking for favors up front.

"It was genuine interest and engagement, and that was key for developing these great long-lasting and relevant business or creative relationships, many of which have kept giving time and time again, well into the years," says Rojee.

"Most of the time, a friendly and respectful approach is enough, and I was often surprised at how accommodating people are, and how giving they are. But at the same time, you'll be ghosted, and there's a minority of people who will not have a decent or positive word for you. That's part of the process, and it's alright if you need to take a minute – then move on."

Embrace the challenges and make your path

It's clear that every photographer's business story is different, so it's only fair to give yourself the space to experiment, make mistakes, and find an approach that works for you. Even those photographers with decades of experience continue learning and networking because the industry doesn't stand still.

If you embark on this journey, know it takes time to succeed. And, what you define as success today might change in the future. Above all, give it your best shot, no matter how things turn out or where your career leads.

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