Discover everything you need to know about succeeding as a pro before—or even after—making the leap into full-time photography.
Turning your photography hobby into a full-time paying dream job as a professional photographer is the dream. And while there are people living that dream, it’s not as easy as Instagram photos make it seem.
Transitioning from hobbyist to professional photographer takes a lot of time, peppered by learning and real experience in the field. We chatted with seven photographers who run their businesses full time to learn their backstory and their pro tips for hobbyist photographers who want to become professionals.
Food Photographer Anna Ivanova’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
Anna Ivanova found herself in Moscow, a city she and her husband were both strangers to. Ivanova was unemployed and her husband was working remotely for a design company. Instead of renting an expensive apartment in city of Moscow, they decided to travel.
“We put all our belongings into two huge suitcases and booked tickets to Europe,” she shares. Ivanova decided to explore working online. “At that moment I could only work as a freelance copywriter and social media manager, but that definitely was not my calling. In fact, I was always dreaming of photography but thought I was not talented enough. I’m truly grateful to my husband who encouraged me to try,” she says.
Ivanova started working selling photos through Shutterstock in 2014 and has since sold through other websites as well. “The process was simple and quick. I just had to do something for a living, and I decided the best way to earn was to do what I’d been dreaming of for a long time.”
For Ivanova, stock photography has helped her make money and learn the craft of photography at the same time. Here are Anna’s two pro tips for future professional photographers.
Pro Tip: Take the leap as soon as possible
Ivanova underscores the importance of taking the leap and not waiting for a “better moment.”
“It will never be better than now.’
“If this is what you feel you always wanted to do then do it. If you’re not sure you’ll be able to survive shifting to full-time photography right away, then start doing it part-time. But never hesitate to start,” she says. While it’s a fact that it’s not always that easy, taking the leap, or even taking baby steps, is a lot better than sitting around and just musing about the idea of becoming a full-time photographer. You don’t have to have all your ducks in a row.
Pro Tip: Educate yourself on the industry
Another piece of advice Ivanova has is to educate yourself. Gone are the days when there’s very little information about stock photography. Today, there are thousands of blog posts and YouTube videos discussing how the industry works.
And not just stock photography, but building your own photography business, however that looks like for you. Ivanova says educating yourself can be highly beneficial.
“When I started, there was a lack of information on how to succeed in this field. It was like a private club and not many photographers had experiences they wanted to share,” she says. “Now there is plenty of information on every aspect. There are even special courses for young stockers. Despite it’s now a little harder to achieve your desired level of sales, it’s much easier to get started.”
Portrait Photographer Damaly Shepherd’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
Damaly Shepherd’s interest in photography grew stronger after a trip to Bali.
“I had a good job with nice benefits and all of the things but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and wasn’t creative at all. I was responsible and able to pay my bills but I was so unhappy and bored,” she shares. Shepherd added that at the onset, she knew photography wouldn’t be easy, but shares it was “way harder than I could’ve ever imagined.”
But after that Bali trip, it seems there was no turning back. “When I came home I practiced on everyone I knew, especially with women who noticed that they had similar experiences to mine. It was so hard for them to BE on camera. And that’s where it ended up stuck with me,” she shares, adding that figuring out the difference in those who are comfortable in front of the camera became something she really wanted to figure out.
Today, Shepherd is a full-time photographer. “I’ve been in business for two years. But I didn’t really take the business part as seriously until photography was my only form of income.’
“It was interesting and difficult,” Shepherd says of her transition from hobbyist to professional photographer. “It felt like I had to take the leap or put my photography business on hold and I couldn’t do that. I chose to bet on myself for the first time in my life and I’m really glad I did.”
Not long after, Shepherd was able to grow her business. She now works with a virtual assistant who helps her manage her clients and a retoucher who helps save her time on retouching. Here are her three top tips for future pro photographers.
Pro Tip: Ground yourself
If there’s one big tip from Shepherd on transitioning, it is to ground yourself. “This is going to sound a little woo, but I would start with really grounding yourself,” she shares. “I journaled immensely, I spent time in quiet.”
While journaling may not sound appealing to all, it’s a great way to fully understand how badly you want something and how important that thing is to you. It will help you see the bigger picture and know whether pursuing it full-time is something you truly want to do.
Pro Tip: Surround yourself with positive, supportive people
“I worked with a business coach who helped me immensely. She pretty much helped me own my want to bet on myself,” shares Shepherd, underscoring the importance of having supportive, positive people around you. “Get help if you can; there’s no shame in bouncing your feelings off of other people and having honest conversations. And make sure the people you share your want to go full-time with are positive and supportive to you and your dreams,” she adds.
Pro Tip: Have savings and don’t play small
“I’m a jump before you’re ready kind of person. Which isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. [I had three months’ worth of savings] I knew that if I jumped that I would stop playing small in my photography and treat it like the real business it was.’
“And make sure you’re priced for profit, which includes all of the time you spend creating and culling and editing your shoots,” Shepherd shares, adding that it’s also important to continue working on yourself. “My journey to business has also been a journey to getting to know myself. I think it’s much harder to build a business that you love when you have lots of other issues going on. So acknowledging that it’s all somewhat related has been really good.”
Family Photographer Annie Wu’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
“Honestly, when I was in school I didn’t understand photography,” shares Annie Wu. Photography began in college, as a simple course that later became her major. She shares it wasn’t until the end of her studies when she “started to understand lighting, composition, form, and technique.”
“My own style was beginning to develop,” she added. Today, Wu works as a children and family photographer, and occasionally works with clothing brands. Full-time in the photography business for more than two years now, Wu was able to build her own photo studio called Iolite Studios.
Just like any photographer, Wu started as a plain hobbyist. “I was working a full-time job and doing sessions on the weekends,” she shares and noted that after being let go from her job, she made the decision to take her photography hobby and turn it into a full-time gig.
“Luckily, I had built up a client base and network to make this possible,” says Wu about the transition, adding that with Lolite Studios, she’s been “trying to build a community with and for creatives serving as a space for them to create and network.”
Here are Annie’s pro tips.
Pro Tip: Start photographing people you know
One thing that really helped build Wu’s skills is by photographing people she knew. With this, you’re basically just playing. Exploring. Trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. And that aspect is very important in photography and any creative field.
“Start off photographing people you know,” she says. “Figure out what it is that you want to photograph and how you want to do it.”
Pro Tip: Don’t be ashamed to advertise yourself
Wu also advised new photographers to not be ashamed to advertise. At the end of the day, we need to remind ourselves that in every business, advertising is part of it. Even if that’s a creative business you’re trying to build from the ground up.
“Be sure to put yourself out there and advertise to help you connect with people and clients,” says Wu, and we couldn’t agree more. Putting yourself out there through sharing and advertising your work is a slow, sometimes cringe-y process, but something that helps build a solid audience and a strong network of people. “Build your portfolio, client base, and network because these will serve as your foundation,” she added.
Lifestyle Photographer Antonio Diaz’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
“I’m currently shooting my 300th photoshoot right now.” Antonio Diaz is a freelance lifestyle photographer. It all started with a 1MP Kodak digital camera back when he was in high school.
“When I was younger, I loved photography as a hobby but could never think of ways to make money, let alone make a living out of my photography. I had many jobs unrelated to photography (engineering, languages, etc) and then I discovered stock photography,” he shares.
Diaz says his first experience with stock photography wasn’t successful. “Most of my photos were rejected and the ones that got through barely made sales.’
“Few years later, I decided to give it a good second shot. That’s when I got more organized. I created photoshoots, wrote shoot plans, recruited models, got a friend to assist me, etc. I started handling it like a real business,” he shares. “I’ve never really stopped after that.”
Diaz has been running his business for almost ten years now. “At the very beginning, when I was doing everything by myself, I was only able to produce about fifteen shoots and 1,300 photos per year,” he shares. “Right now, with plenty of help, we produce about sixty shoots and 5,500 photos per year. I currently have an editing office with a couple of retouchers and one keyworder, as well as a full-time producer and assistant.”
Just like most photographers, he started his career as a part-time gig with “minimum investment in equipment and production.”
“I was working in a couple of other jobs and stock photography represented about 10% of my time and income,” he shares. Diaz says the transition wasn’t fast and involved a lot of persistence and “a little bit of luck, to be honest.” Here are Antionio’s number one tip for up-and-coming photographers.
Pro Tip: Always have a shoot plan
Diaz also says shoot plans are important if you want to be a successful stock contributor. It’s vital that you pour enough energy into planning photos and organizing everything in shoots and all else in your set.
“I sometimes improvise, but I always have a shoot plan,” he says, adding that it “keeps you focused and it really helps with your workflow. It wasn’t until I started creating shoot plans and planning photoshoots that my business started picking up.’
“Always have a shoot plan, no matter what you’re shooting.”
Music Photographer Nesrin Danan’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
“I was always into art, but I think photography stuck with me because I absolutely loved the process of developing my own negatives and seeing myself get better with each roll of film,” says Nesrin Danan, who started her full-time business right after college. She shares that even then, she used her free time to hone and pursue photography, “shooting shows for musicians and touring.”
“By the time I graduated college about three years ago, I was working full time as a photographer and I have been ever since.” For Danan, running your own business is ever-changing.
“I’m my own employee, manager, HR department, etc. Every day and week looks different (especially during a pandemic).’
“Freelancing is very weird and unpredictable but it’s so fun and I love it,” she shares.
While there’s not much of a transition from a hobbyist photographer who has a totally different day job to being a full-time photographer, Danan’s experience of going full-time right after college did have some learning curves.
“I’m very glad I had enough downtime when I was a university student to pursue photography,” she says. “It does take a few years to establish yourself in the industry and looking back, I feel very fortunate to have been able to start getting my name out there when I was younger.”
Danan shares that because she was able to build her portfolio throughout college, she had jobs lining up right after she graduated. “It was pretty seamless because I was really motivated and knew exactly where I wanted to go with my career.” Here are her tips for photographers looking to take the leap.
Pro Tip: Meeting people and networking is key
For Danan, making it as a photographer, meeting people is key.
“As a music photographer, I really focused on building relationships with artists, managers, venues, A&Rs, and other people who would be potential clients,” she shares. Danan added that reaching out to brands you align with is “a great way to get your foot in the door for people to see your work,” especially if your goal is to work with brands.
This advice doesn’t just work for photographers but for writers and other creative freelancers too! Don’t wait for a job post from your dream brand. Reach out to them instead.
Pro Tip: Keep shooting and learning
And as cliche as it may sound, Danan says “keep shooting.”
“It’s so important to find your specific shooting and editing style. There are so many avenues for photography and you should explore all the options until you find the best fit for you,” she says. She also noted how for a long time, she only shot shows, but branching out into portraits and product photos has “brought me so much work and really made me a more well-rounded creative.”
Wedding Photographer Katrina Marii’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
“Photography has always been an outlet for me—a therapeutic way for me to express myself,” shares Katrina Marii, a photographer and owner of ExploringNorthGA. Marii is a family and wedding photographer who started learning about the medium through a film class in high school.
“A challenge always presents itself when creating imagery, and I love that about photography,” she says, adding that there’s also an instant gratification when “capturing that fleeting moment that truly feels emotive and authentic, then being like ‘wow, that’s it. That’s THE one.’”
Marii started photographing friends and “became invested in capturing creative portraits of people. For the next six years, I continued photographing fine art portraits, then started working with professional models.”
From 2017 to 2019, Marii’s photography business was just a part-time gig.
“When you are a hobbyist I feel like you have more control over what content you are creating. You might take a client here and there, but you’re doing more styled shoots, and portfolio building,” says Marii. This year, despite COVID, she decided to give it a go and turned it into a full-time business. “Full time is really about serving your clients.”
She added that as your business grows, when taking on more clients, the backend stuff tasks double, if not triple.
“You are wearing all the hats of the business. I spend eight hours at my desk five days a week working, and still shoot on the weekends. Be prepared to take on the workload, and not afraid to lean on others for some of it,” she shares. Here are some of Katrina’s top tips.
Pro Tip: Choose the right language
Understand that a plan will always be a plan if you keep seeing it that way. For Marii, language and visualization play vital roles.
“You don’t want to be full-time, you WILL be full-time,” she says. Marii further added that the more you visualize that this is your reality, the higher the chances you’ll see success.
“This kind of attitude isn’t a choice. Rather, it’s the strong mindset you need to succeed as a business owner,” she says. “Literally change the language you use around making this leap. The leap is scary, no doubt. And entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. Sometimes it can be isolating, and almost drive you mad. Sometimes there’s uncertainty, there’s conflict. For me, this is my way. There’s no other way,” shares Marii.
Pro Tip: Find stability before you go full swing
Stability is another aspect many people tend to forget and Marii wants to remind us of it. The common advice, “take the leap and don’t worry, you’ll learn how to fly” is not always applicable. Marii says finding stability is also very important.
“Don’t quit that side gig until you feel secure. Move into your parents’ basement if you have the opportunity.”
It’s all about finding ways to become secure before you go full-time. This will make the transition smoother and will give you fewer reasons to constantly worry.
Pro Tip: Find a system that works for you
Marii also advises folks to find a system that works for you, be it a routine, a planner, or even hiring a life coach.
“Outline a step by step for how you’re going to commit to the work you’re about to take on. Find a community, a mentor, ask questions, educate yourself,” she adds.
Keep in mind that we’re all different. Someone else’s system may sound perfect but it may not work for you. But when you explore and when you allow yourself trial and error, you will figure out a system that will work for you. “Nothing will happen overnight. Have grace with these thoughts and be gentle on yourself,” says Marii.
Landscape Jon Sanchez’s Pro Tips on Becoming a Professional Photographer
“Photography appeared early. When I was fourteen my parents gave me my first digital SLR. From that point on I never stopped taking photos,” shares Jon Sanchez, a French photographer who sells his prints online. “I love taking photos and documenting my travels and experiences. Photography is all about capturing a feeling, and I want to inspire people to get outside by expressing exactly how I feel when I’m in the environment that I’m in.”
Sanchez has been a full-time photographer for about five years now. He describes his life as “unreal,” being able to do what he loves for work. But also says it is “due to years of hard work and persistence.” Sanchez says he doesn’t want people to “look at my life and be jealous. I want them to get out there and make their dreams happen too.”
When starting out, Sanchez was able to make the most of Instagram to get exposure and share his work. Transitioning from hobbyist to professional photographer, for Sanchez, it’s a combination of “discipline and persistence” that made the process somewhat smooth.
“My passion was never turned into a career. My career has grown out of my passion. It sounds minor but I believe there is an important distinction,” he shares. Here are some of Jon’s top tips.
Pro Tip: Persist, persevere, and be curious
Sanchez is big on persistence and perseverance. “You have to persevere with everything. Question everything. Don’t accept that we say no,” says Sanchez.
He also noted the importance of being curious. When working in the realms of creativity, it’s very helpful to let your curiosity take the lead. As Sanchez mentioned, question everything.
He also added that it’s necessary to “keep challenging yourself to create better work. You should be your own worst critic,” adding that “whenever I look at my photographs, I’m constantly analyzing them and trying to figure out how they could be better. Being very critical of your own work and trying to constantly improve creates a high standard for yourself and motivates you to strive to be better.”
Pro Tip: No matter what, keep submitting your work
Another advice from Sanchez is to keep submitting. Whether that’s to print magazines, websites, brands, or agencies, keep honing your skills and keep submitting. It may feel “icky” at the beginning, but constantly showing up and sharing your work with these people is part of the business. They may not hire you, but you’ve put yourself and your work on their radar. And that’s something.
“The photography industry is challenging, but the most important thing is not to give up.”
Top image by sunsinger.
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