Starting out as a pro photographer

With the proliferation of affordable DSLRs, photography has quickly become a business-in-a-box for many. Although camera equipment is expensive, this can be a relatively low overhead business to run once you have acquired your gear and this makes it appealing for those who see it as a great way to finance a very expensive hobby or have a flexible part-time job.

It’s so super important that you not get into this business out of either desperation or lethargy. I know many young people who see people like myself and other young(ish) business people and want to be successful too. They’re desperate for money but instead of getting a day job and building their business on the side, they wait for a big break to fall into their lap and it rarely ever does. What they don’t realize is that business people are hard workers. We have to hustle for the money and work really hard to keep it coming. I know a wedding photographer who does two weddings every weekend and still has his day job.

So, yes…it has to be talked about…the dreaded day job. This is where your photography business building success starts. When you have an income that’s not related to your photography business, you are free to build something that will last. You won’t make rash or unreasonable decisions out of desperation and you will be able to approach your new venture with a clear head. Albeit, a tired one, but it’s better to slowly build your empire than to get a domain name, a limited company and a giant loan all in one day.

While you’re working your day job, start your business slowly in the way all businesses -photography related or not- start. Decide what you actually want to be shooting (find your market), formulate a business plan, build a portfolio and begin building your business brick by brick. You will start making a small income and as you build, it will grow. Eventually, it will begin to rise towards the amount you make in your job. Then, it will begin to overlap with your normal day job income. This is when you can start to cut back on your job and carefully work your business more. And one day, the photography business will overtake the day job and you’ve done it! You have become a full-time pro without risking life and limb (and missing quite a few meals and water bills).

So be safe, make sensible decisions and enjoy your life as a professional photographer!

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  • esther

    There is such a big focus on “keeping your day job” but I think you forget that a lot of the women doing this were stay at home moms before they started their business. So this kind of plan doesn’t quite apply to SAHM.

  • This is a great article, Elizabeth. I agree with your thoughts. Photography business is very popular today with all the DSLRs available out there. That also makes it a very competitive business and one should make a smart decision on whether to go full time or not.

  • Love this! I am one of those with a full time job and I am sooo frustrated feeling like I never have enough time for the photography side…but I do, and I need to appreciate the long nights and endless days with no days off.  The days off will come, and I am thankful that I have a steady paycheck, health insurance and all those things to support me while building my business.  Thankfully I am surrounded by super creative people at my day job which then overflows into my photography…thanks again for posting.  Needed that reassurance that I am “doing the right thing” !

  • stephanie

    Thanks for the post, Elizabeth.  I always learn something from you each visit I make.  After reading this post, I followed up by re-reading some of your other posts on portfolio building.  And now I feel as if I am in a bit of a Catch 22 situation.  I am a full time research scientist and mother of 3 and don’t plan on leaving my day job until I can.  I am in complete agreement with you on that – we do what we have to do, right?

    But this is where I am stuck – I am portfolio building like mad (at least one or two shoots a week) for free.  I don’t want to charge anything because I don’t have a registered business BECAUSE I am still portfolio building.  If I never charge then I will never be in a situation where I CAN charge because I will never be able to afford to start the business.  What’s the best approach?  I don’t want to rush the business side because I want to do it right the first time (pricing, branding, etc) but I don’t want to stop portfolio-building while I am researching/working on the business side.  Do you see my dilemma? I would really appreciate your sounds advice.  Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Oooh yep I totally hear ya! And you’re right that once you start out in business you’ll have to get yourself registered and start paying taxes but it’s been a few years and I have yet to owe taxes since this is a pretty expensive business to get into and my gear is worth so much. Think of things like phones, internet, mileage and you’re a ways off from worrying about the tax man too much. And it’s good that you realize that it isn’t a business you can just barely dip your toe into if you want to do it well. I would say have fun PBing until you’re ready to jump into business. Until then, you could even use your talents as trading power with the babysitter and the like!

  • I would disagree. I think one of the hardest jobs in the world is the SAHM. And then add to all of those responsibilities a part time job as a photographer where your editing images into the wee hours of the morning to only wake up with too few hours of sleep to start all over again. That being said I do know some SAHMs who have “quit” their day job and their family (including their marriages) have very much suffered.

  • One other bit of advice is to read the The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber. This one single book will answer most of your questions regarding what NOT to do so you can concentrate on doing those things that will grow your business. Then read a good book on pricing, do the math and charge what you would need to charge if your photography business was your way of keeping a roof over your head and food in your children’s bellies.

  • Anonymous

    Yes that’s right. Although I work at home, the majority of the time I’m no longer a SAHM even if I’m here in body, my mind is away. Having my hubby working flexible hours from home is what makes this all work. If it weren’t for that, my family would suffer.

  •  Chris, when I wrote this I meant that I am also a SAHM. I see a lot of photographers talking about “keeping your day job” while you build your photography career. It just doesn’t apply to many of us. I’d love to see an article on how to build a career from that point of view…I edit photos with a baby on the breast most of the time!

  • Caterina Lay

    I see your point. What you’re giving is good, solid advice for ‘young-ish’ people not to underestimate how much hard work it takes to get to having a successful business in photography. But from my own experience, if you truly live photography and want to build a career out of it, it’s going to take all your time. It’s a full-time job to research, get your website, build your portfolio, read other blogs, go to workshops, practice, get clients ,etc.

    My mum always thought I needed an office job and that I should treat my photography business as a hobby on the side, but it wasn’t until I gave it my 100% that it took off. It did however, take a few months of cut-backs and clever budgeting!

  • Tim

    Love this article!  Thanks Elizabeth!! I have a 9-5 office job and do photography as soon as I get home from work and most weekends. I can’t wait for the day where I don’t have anymore annual leave to take because I’ve used it all on weddings, etc!

  • Jingjing Song

    I read you said your started to build website when you were kid, so did you also build this website yourself? 

  • Anonymous

    Yup! :)