How To Become A Successful Full-Time Photographer In 1 Year: The Ultimate Guide – Part 1

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Just over 1 year ago I was working 50 hours per week in a cafe, dreaming of some day that I’d quit that job and work for myself.

I remember the day I made the commitment to stop dreaming about this idea and put it into action. I came home from the cafe and began the long process of trying to translate all my thoughts into a something that could be remotely called a photography business.

Of course, nothing I had originally planned turned out to schedule. And the journey has not been a smooth one.

become a photographer

Nonetheless, just over 1 year later, I often find myself pinching myself to remind me it’s all real because I’m spending my weeks taking and editing photos, answering calls from real clients, learning about photography and teaching lessons I’ve learned to others.

It’s not only a dream come true, but a job that I find intrinsically fulfilling and rewarding, there’s enough money coming in to pay the bills and the business is growing fast.

I think there were some key factors which really helped me along this journey. Had I not paid attention to them, I’d be behind where I am now, and if I paid attention to them sooner I’d be a lot further ahead.

It’s my aim here to share those factors with you in hope that the lessons I learned on my journey towards being a full-time professional photographer help you along on yours.

 

1. Motivations Are Everything.

Your motivations will determine whether the game is lost or won, long before you register a website or start writing down ideas about what your business will look like.

Your motivations provide the context for your actions. For example, if you’re hungry, you’ll go to the fridge – not the garage, right?

Your context, in turn, sets the boundaries inside which you’ll look for a solution to your problem. And that’s a huge thing to keep in mind, because most people buy into the myth that “working hard will yield results”.

And it’s true – hard work is necessary, but without the right context you won’t move your photography ambitions forward because the actions available to you will be limited in their power. Put another way, you simply won’t be able to see all options available to you.

 

2. Are You A “Getter”?

Let’s take a closer look at your motivations.

Broadly, people are either driven by a desire to get something or to contribute something. And that applies to everything – business, relationships and recreation.

In the context of your photography ambitions, ask yourself this – why are you thinking about quitting your day job and becoming a professional photographer?

  • Do you hate your boss?
  • Do you want to get rich?
  • Do you want to look cool with your latest D1X?
  • Do you think that “Rock Concert Photographer” is a much better job title than “Retail Accounts Executive?”
  • Do you think you’ll be more popular with the ladies? C’mooon, be honest!

Notice how all those motivations are centered around getting something – be it status, acceptance or freedom from being told what to do.

 

3. You ARE A Getter! (And That’s The Good News).

And there’s nothing wrong with experiencing motivations of the Getting variety – it’s a perfectly normal human phenomenon. Most people out there who are trying to become photographers are driven by the same thoughts.

But unfortunately it’s also true that most people who want to start a business will never succeed.

And for you it’s actually good news, because it means that if you become aware of, and take control of, your motivations, you’ll find yourself miles ahead of the pack.

If you remember anything, remember this: any time you’re driven by a desire to Get something, you are significantly limiting the scope of actions available to you and the depth of your interactions with people (which will limit your opportunities to do business with them).

 

4. How To Become A Contributor.

The best businessmen rarely talk about themselves. They spend so much time thinking about your problems that their only problem becomes .. all your problems.

Here’s what I mean. An ineffective (A Getter) salesman is likely to start his conversation with you like this: “I have something great, cheap camera gear for you!” and try to rattle off his pitch before your attention wanes.

A good one will just remark “Hey, I noticed your gear could be up for a replacement soon. I know somewhere you can get it for 20% less than in shops and get extra warranty for free – you want me to send you some details?”

And it’s not because the second guy memorised a better sales script. The second guy walks around, wondering about people’s problems and then tries to fix them. What he says to you just becomes a contextually relevant extension of his motivations.

become a photographer

 

5. Look For Problems.

Have you ever noticed that when you pay attention to your own problems, your life begins to suck more? But when you focus on problems of others – and especially when you fix them – you feel fulfilled, powerful, alive and connected?

I challenge you to start reshaping your life so it becomes about fixing some problems in the photography community.

And there are no shortage of them. Here are some that I spotted:

  • Why is it what it still costs $10,000 to hire a great wedding photographer – how can you bring the price down while maintaining the quality?
  • Why is it that big photo studios charge people $2,000 for a quick shoot and some big enlargements – could it be a rip-off?
  • Why does a commercial client, going through an agency, have to pay upwards of $20,000 for one photo – can we eliminate the middlemen?
  • Why is everyone obsessed about comparing megapixel counts on camera gear spec sheets – how about some real reviews?
  • Why are so many photographers out there charging people for work that is below average – how can we educate the consumers?
  • Why are so many photographers going out of business – how can we teach them to survive and prosper?

 

6. Contributor Is A Fixer, Not A Critic.

The temptation here may be to start a blog and begin to share opinions and criticisms. You’ve seen those blogs – bitchy, whiny and trying to be funny through abundance of sarcasm.

I’m not talking about that here. That’s the easy path. You won’t grow through it and it won’t feed your soul, either. Your life is too valuable to spend it blogging about real or imagined grievances.

 

7. Stand For Something.

Chivas Regal doesn’t sell you whiskey, it sells you sophistication. Harley-Davidson doesn’t sell you a motorcycle, but toughness. When you buy a TAG Heuer watch, you don’t buy a timepiece, but a hint at your ambition and success. A L’Oreal CEO once famously quipped that they don’t sell makeup, but hope.

Most successful businesses don’t sell commodities (i.e., objects or services). They sell a stand for something.

Sometimes those stands are artificially crafted (I argue that’s the case with make-up, for example), but the businesses which are amazing, inspiring, and world-changing (and are the kind of business that I’ll assert you probably want to have) are an organic extension of the original motivations of the person who started the business (is Apple too much of a cliche to cite as an example?)

 

8. Follow Jobs And Branson.

Read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. And then any of the business books by Richard Branson.

You’ll learn what it means to have a real stand for something. Apple’s stand wasn’t dreamed up by some advertising executive. Sure, it was implemented by them, but it was borne out of Jobs’ stand to fix problems he saw in the world of personal computing.

Similarly, Branson still succeeds to this day by taking on industries where consumers are getting short-changed by lazy businesses.

Make your photography business an organic extension of your stand for a cause you care about.

And don’t try to fake it – or you’ll just become another cheesy salesman with an elevator pitch. Your stand has to be something you deeply care about. And if you don’t care about anything, then don’t start your business today. And don’t beat yourself up over it – there’s wisdom in recognising that it’s not yet the right time for you.

And if that’s the conclusion you do come to, then great – go work for someone else, make more mistakes, learn from them, travel, shag, read, meditate – wait for a deep knowingness within you that you clearly care about something and then use it to create something remarkable.

 

9. Use This Real-Life Example.

My family photography practice has a stand for something that I deeply care about – closer families.

It’s not something I just pulled out of my butt. Both Irene and I have divorced parents and we both know first hand the damage, the confusion, the missed love and opportunities that kids experience when families fall apart.

Family photography for us is not just about taking snaps, but an opportunity to give families a chance to celebrate each other. We are deeply inspired by the love of families that we meet and form very tight connections with our clients.

It shapes the copy on our website, how we interact with clients, what kind of clients we get and the kind of impression we leave on them.

Importantly, of course, I think it comes through in our photography style as well – as we become more experienced, we focus more and more on bringing out the unique elements of each family and capturing those in a funky, fun, artistic way.

 

10. Avoid Other Getters.

Internet is full of communities of people who are hoping to get rich quickly and retire. They’re not short of advice (or info-products to sell). I’m talking about all those “online marketers”, so called entrepreneurs and “businessmen”.

They sometimes have sound business knowledge, but I suggest you stay away from them altogether because whatever good business knowledge you get will be offset by the Getting mindset you’ll also absorb by hanging around them.

As a test – if they’re not fixing a problem out there, they’re a Getter. And if they’re selling you on a dream of passive income, they’re a Getter.

(I couldn’t think of anything worse than a passive income. It means I’d have no other way of making myself happy than by spending cash).

My aim here is not to show you how to make money for doing nothing – I don’t know anything about that.

But what I can show you is how to build a photography business which helps you experience happiness and fulfilment through opportunities to create something amazing, through pushing your own boundaries and through making a difference in your field – all while getting paid to do it).

This article is part of a 3-part series about becoming a full-time professional photographer. Read Part 2 here.

Also check out the next series, Becoming a Professional Photographer in 2014, here.

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  • Comments
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  1. Ben Kelly

    It would be a dream to go full time. I’ll spend the next year improving my skills and maybe I’ll aim for 2014

    • Reply
  2. Chris

    Excellent text. Intriguing to see a fellow businessman (AND photographer) describing my own exact thoughts on the issue. In fact, my personal motivation to get into professional photography was a) how ridiculously overpriced it is, b) how the clients are treated not as individual humans, with their unique personalities, thoughts, and emotions (and all these reflect on a photo), but as production line units. I had had it with walking past photoshops having the exact same wedding photo, the exact same portrait shot. Exchange the faces and nothing changes, ever. Keep up inspiring!

    • Reply
    • Steven

      So glad you found it useful!

      Isn’t it amazing that when you begin to look for opportunities to make a difference, you begin to see that there are more than you could ever possibly occupy yourself with in your lifetime?

      If you liked this intro, you’ll love part 2, where I explore that idea in much more detail. Thank you for reading.

      Steven

      • Reply
  3. Gary Williams

    Outstanding article! Straightforward and to the point. Enjoyed it and looking forward to part deux!

    • Reply
  4. Abdul Basith

    Thanks Steven. Not many people would want to share their stories on the internet. Be it a success story, or an unsuccessful one.

    Appreciate it !

    - Basith

    • Reply
  5. waldomarek

    thanks for the post, it’s very interesting and i’m eager to read the rest.

    photography is a hobby of mine right now, i’ve only been into it for a few years. i really like it, but i’m also being realistic. it would be great if i could make money out of it, but i know competition is fierce these days and also admit i’m still only a beginner, that’s why i don’t expect to be making any money out of it any soon (or at all in my whole life).

    i hope the posts which are following will allow me to change my dream into reality :)

    • Reply
    • Steven

      Hey,

      Here’s something to consider, which might allow you to see through the difficulty of it all.

      You’re right – photography is fiercely competitive, but what job (that’s interesting/worth doing) isn’t?

      I assert that photography is nowhere nearly as competitive as becoming an athlete, a great doctor or an academic who has worthwhile idea. Those folks spend 10-15 years training/studying and doing their version of an on-the-job work experience before they really get an opportunity to shine

      Compared to them, our goals are a lot more achievable. Just follow the points in the articles and take action :)

      Steven

      • Reply
  6. Otto Rascon

    Thank you for sharing your insight into becoming a FT photographer. I especially connected with #7 because walking aimlessly taking pictures will get you nowhere. But standing for something gives you focus and vision, and that took me a while to understand. Thank you again for sharing. Much love from Chicago.

    • Reply
  7. Julian John

    This is terrific and has given me lots to think about, its not just about getting your head in the right place its about getting your heart there to. There are lots of technically gifted photographers who work in a formulaic way but the photographers who stand out a mile have an emotional connection to their subject whether its landscape or portraiture. Thanks for your brilliant blogs. Just about to start on second part. kind regards

    Julian

    http://www.facebook.com/groups/407528999321966/

    • Reply
  8. Kelly Urban

    Great post! I am planing on reading more of them. Oh, and fabulous photos!

    • Reply
  9. Wallace Hutchinson

    Your story is very inspirational. Standing up for something is very important. I have been shooting for six years and is in the process of making it a full time business. (Cant wait to read the rest of the story).

    • Reply
  10. Bruce Borer

    Loved all three articles, a great read. As an aspiring photographer who hopes one day to take a picture I can be really proud of, I found your articles inspiring. Oddly what really captured my attention the most though really had nothing to do with photography, it was this whole “getter” and “contributor” philosophies. I am really curious as to where you came up with that, was it something you came up with based on experience or was it something from a publication? I found that to be thought provoking and made me wonder to myself which of the two I fall into. Turns out I’m a contributor.

    • Reply
  11. Matt Paint

    What a breath of fresh air! An article from your heart and not one trying to sell me something!

    I am a newbie, very amateurish, photographer on a very steep learning curve. My inspiration for getting involved in photography stemmed from my frustrations in being unable to capture those really important, as well as those mundane, family moments on a ‘point and shoot’ camera. Countless friends and family members have ‘average’ photos in their homes and I knew that I could give them better pictures for them to enjoy and remember ‘that moment’.

    After lots of attempts I have realised that my best pictures are those taken with some real emotion for the subject matter. A photo of a friend’s son scoring a try at rugby has real emotional gravity to the family.

    I send the pictures to friends because I get pleasure out of their pleasure. As you say – contributing is far more rewarding than taking. I have subsequently been asked, on several occasions, to take photos of sports events for a fee. To me this is a win – win situation. I get to take photos that I enjoy taking and I get a bit of money for a few beers (and a bit of cash to upgrade my kit)!

    I know this is a long way off being professional and earning a living from photography, but your article has sparked a fire deep within. Such fires tend to be persistent with me – nothing will happen quickly, but over time I will nurture the flame, time to develop a business that is based on MY principles.

    Thanks for the inspiration – and the spark.

    • Reply
  12. rickymiller

    Very nice its realy post by you at your website. thanks for sharing this valuable information, this is a great information for those people who want to join the photography business, i am also a photographer in perth australia and click some amazing photos you can see on my site.

    • Reply
  13. miklraff

    Thank you for making this i am 13 and hoping to get better in photography. I have been looking for someone to correct my photos but i just can seem to find anybody.

    P.S why are all the A’s in bold?

    • Reply
  14. Chuck L

    Some very good stuff here. But I have to disagree a bit on one of your points: “Why is everyone obsessed about comparing megapixel counts on camera gear spec sheets – how about some real reviews?”

    On the second point about reviews, I agree. Good, solid, real-world camera reviews are rare. But megapixel counts are very important in many types of photography, despite what some critics and reviewers say.

    While it’s true that you can get away with lower MP images most of the time, the more megs you have available in the full image, the better the result if you need to do any heavy cropping – which is vital in sports photography, for example.

    The same applies to wedding photos. If you notice while post-processing one of your group shots that the bride and groom’s facial expressions are worth a crop and enlargement, but the MP count is right on the edge for the full photo to begin with, you won’t have enough pixels to play with to do a decent looking crop.

    Small point, but an important one.

    • Reply
    • Steven McConnell

      Fair point. Of course, if you need the megapixels, then you know who you are.

      My point was that, in my view, most people who engage in megapixel reviews have bigger challenges they need to focus on, before exceeding resolution of their sensor becomes a real problem.

      And when I say “real”, I mean one which trips them up commercially.

      Steven

      • Reply
  15. Sean Gregor

    Thank you so much for this article. It is so rare that you find true hope on the internet.

    I am just beginning of my journey as a full time photographer. I identify with everything you wrote in this post and standing for something is now at the top of my to do list.

    I cannot begin to express to you how much this article was exactly what I needed.

    Thanks,
    Sean

    • Reply
  16. thanh thien le

    i love to photograph more than anything in this world. I want to follow my dreams so bad but I just don’t know how.. can you please help me..

    • Reply
  17. Mikias sisay

    Thank you so much. i love photograph and i want to be a professional photographer i try to get some online course .please help me.

    Mikias.

    • Reply
  18. Snapshotz

    I too am a passionate photographer and would like to make a living at it rather than working for “The Man” However I am looking at it from a different viewpoint. I just want to do what makes me happy – even if I made no money as long as there was pride and recognition for you work that to me is payment enough. I would do some jobs for free just to be praised and loved for the artistry of it all. If I photographed a wedding for example and then they were proud of my work – they would praise me to all of their friends and family. That in itslef is the reward. If I made some money at it that would be a bonus. Memories and praise do more for a sense of accomplishment than placing a dollar value on it. Money is not real. Its too bad that our world has a money system in place to begin with. I would photograph a few weddings for a few hot meals or something in trade – what ever happened to the Barter System anyway. Also what good are photos in your collection if there is no one seeing them. It is an art form. They should be displayed for others to see.
    I enjoy photographing wildlife like birds for example and have some amazing ones in my collection but now I am realizing no one else really see’s them to enjoy them like I do and who would want to buy a picture of an eagle when you can just go out and take your own (well maybe). But if someone offered me some free printing on canvas in trade for a few of my pics and we could sell as art work at a reasonable price or even give some away for people to enjoy – the smile would be more valuable to me than lining the pockets.
    I would just hope to leave a legacy behind with my name on it after I am gone – that is worth more than its weight in gold – a real genuine contribution to society that would be remembered for decades to come.
    Thats the kind of photographer I aspire to be.
    Thank you for reading.
    Happy Clicking everyone (sounded better than shooting – lol)

    • Reply
  19. Rebecca Ellis

    My love for photography came about when I bought my first camera in 2011, since taking the ropes in the photographic industry I’ve realised there’s much more than just standing behind a camera, you automatically gain an opportunity to be creative and crazy. I’m sixteen now and just invested in a Nikon Coolpix L810, definitely not top of the range but does a bang on job for such a cheap camera. Have to say it’s intriguing reading something from another photographers perspective. I haven’t found my particular style yet which is why I do a range of shoots, from photojournalism to weddings to parties and so much more. I started my business on the 17th July this summer, starting off extremely nervous and excited, I wasn’t expecting any bookings for atleast a year! but somehow landed myself with a booking for a wedding this Friday, a childrens party on the 18th and a photoshoot for two sisters! Have to say I’m ecstatic about it, and I feel I’ve already developed a level of maturity when it comes to business. I don’t have much experience, but to gain that you need to have time and that’s something I have a lot of.

    Also would like to say I love your work, just checked it out! Hope you can check some of my work out :) feedbacks great! http://www.facebook.com/RebeccaEllisPhotography < thats my site.

    • Reply
  20. Carlene Webb

    Feeling inspired :)
    Such a fantastic piece, the best I’ve read for ages.
    Great to see its Australian too.
    Keep it up.

    • Reply
  21. Maurice Ross

    I would like to say thank you so very much for your pointed words. It is an inspiration. It puts a different perspective on life as a photographer. My love of photography came from my uncle when I was young. There have been a couple discouraging times, but the fight in me lives on, and after reading this it burns even hotter. I am starting a blog, and I am very excited about it.

    Thank you very much again for your words,
    Maurice Ross

    • Reply
  22. Alex

    I stopped reading when you called these problems:

    “Why is it what it still costs $10,000 to hire a great wedding photographer – how can you bring the price down while maintaining the quality?
    Why is it that big photo studios charge people $2,000 for a quick shoot and some big enlargements – could it be a rip-off?
    Why does a commercial client, going through an agency, have to pay upwards of $20,000 for one photo – can we eliminate the middlemen?”

    FYI:
    http://petapixel.com/2012/01/26/why-wedding-photographers-prices-are-wack/
    Plus, this guy’s list does not include travel elsewhere for a “destination wedding” event, nor a 1Dx!!!! And all that is without charging $10k.

    Hey guess what: when Canon, Nikon, and the rest of them will lower their prices to where the 5DMKIII for example will sell for $20, THAT is when your wedding prices will go down! Not by much, because MY TIME to process thousands of photographs from a wedding is not cheap. Have you seen how much professional lighting costs? Maybe you should Google and find out. Google for Broncolor, Bowens, Elinchrom, ProPhoto etc etc etc…Wescott…when all that is going to sell for $20, is when our prices will be LOWERED! I’ll lower my prices if gas will be free too! and my food! You should take those out of that list because the REAL problem we have are under those ridiculous statements you made.

    But for your information photography is a business; with business costs attached, which DIFFER from state to state, and city to city; what you can charge in NYC you cannot charge in Delaware! Then, not all wedding photographers are 25 years olds bored with call center life, SOME, Many have families to support; asking us to lower our prices is counterintuitive and INSULTING! Why don’t you ask Canon to lower THEIR prices! Then come back here and tell us all what you have accomplished!

    You have it all wrong dude, or you are a trust fund baby in which case we have nothing to talk about and your article is moronic at best, because it sounds a lot like Marie Antoinette is typing, and not a sound person that has spend enough time in this business to understand its costs!

    The ONLY, and I mean ONLY problem this business has ARE those people bored with their day jobs who decide to take the “plunge” without ANY consideration, or understanding, or knowledge of this BUSINESS; who then offer photos for free when none of their equipment was free, when none of their advertising was free, their gas wasn’t free yet for some idiotic reason (because no other business does this BTW), they decide to “offer” themselves for free!!!!! RUINING our business, and the client expectations! You cannot expect to be paid after you worked for free! You sound young enough to not have heard of slavery; guess what WORKING FOR FREE = SLAVERY! I am not sure why these FAUXtographers want to be slaves so badly!

    (Caps used to emphasize, as you have no formatting available)

    The article started with good points, and then it went to the pooper! Too bad.

    • Reply
  23. David G

    Inspiring…thanks

    • Reply
  24. Frank Villafañe

    Steven,

    Great article(s). Very apropos. One thing…I love the photos with the bridge in the background. That looks like the sister bridge to our very own Bayonne Bridge here in Bayonne, NJ. And no wonder…both were inspired by the Hells Gate Bridge built by Gustav Lindenthal.

    Drop a line when you can…would love to chat.

    Respectfully,
    Frank V.

    • Reply
  25. Daniel Prates

    Hey, Steven. How are you? Well I have always loved taking pictures. A couple months ago it started to find more and more space in my mind, though. Some people have asked why don’t I go professional and advised me to go deeper cause I have some talent for it. I don’t think I’ll be a full time photographer soon, but I do have thought about it. Your article just comes at the right time. It’s honest, clear and informative as they all should be. I’ now thinking about the stuff you wrote and I’m sure they’ll be of great help! Now let me say goodbye cause I have some part 2 to get down to.
    Big hug.

    Daniel

    • Reply

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