Many people I encounter on courses I teach, or communicate with via this blog are in a position with their photography where they’re either a) already earning some money from it, but it’s not their full time job, or b) they’re very serious amateurs and would like to start earning money/go professional. Much of the advice I would offer is spread throughout the blog, as being a professional photographer is obviously the main focus of my writing, and I’m also giving serious thought to writing an in depth “Turning Pro” ebook in the very near future, but in the meantime here are a few key things to be thinking about if you’re in this position, and want to make photography your full time career.
Motivation and desire. Old school I know, but without this you’re stuck. Besides lots of currently fashionable psychological thinking about not needing motivation, simply creating good habits, I maintain that without a burning desire to go out and create photographs, and have all the adventures that a freelance career entails, you’ll give up pretty early on. You need this desire and passion to overcome all the hurdles that are going to come your way – the months when there’s not much money and work coming in, the countless approaches to clients that lead nowhere, the long days and nights required to hone your skills, do all the admin, and handle all the piles of work that will hopefully land in your lap. Each time you get knocked back, it should be this underlying motivation that convinces you it’s worth sticking with it just a bit longer.
Discipline. Self- discipline is pretty important across the board, but really important if you’re trying to build this career around something else. If you’ve only got the one day a week to play with, you’re going to need to be pretty strict with yourself about how you use this day so as to avoid not spinning your wheels and idling your time away
Planning. This ties into discipline very closely, and is something I’ve really come to appreciate in the past couple of years. Planning seems very strict and boring to someone trying to start out on a 2nd career or go freelance – one of the main motivations for them leaving their current position may well be a feeling of being trapped, stifled and ruled by a timetable. However, in my experience, whilst it’s vital to have that big ambition that gets you excited and motivated (see point 1), if it stays up there in the abstract, it’s very hard to measure your progress, know what steps you need to take and so on. The secret is to map out as many stages as you can, and break that big juicy goal down into actionable things you can do. Then draw up a plan accordingly. This avoids the problem of waking up on your “photo day” and not knowing what you need to do that day. If you’ve planned things out well, each chunk of time you devote to developing your career will give you the maximum return.
Learn Fast. With only a small amount of time devoted to career development (rather than, say, a 3 year degree course) you’re going to have to cope with a steep learning curve, and have a very thorough and efficient feedback system. When you make mistakes, you need to learn from them quickly, and not make them over and over again. A logbook can be very useful for this process. I’m not just talking about technical issues here, although obviously you don’t want to have to make the same technical mistakes more than once. I’m also talking about learning in the more general sense – make sure that when you hit bumps in the road you don’t just give yourself a hard time over it, instead extract what lessons you can from the experience and build on it.
Market Research. Make sure you know as much as you can about where you want to be getting work from. This step is often overlooked, and if you don’t bother to do it, you’ll set out on your own quite literally into the wilderness, with no clue as to what you’re doing, or where the money will come from. Find out everything you can about your potential market. How much are average fees? Where do people look for work? Where are most of your potential clients located? Keep asking as many questions like this, as the answers to them will define your business. I’ll give you a big hint here and say that the more specific you can be, the better your chances of success will be. It’s no use saying “I’m selling my services to anyone in the UK who wants some pictures” because that doesn’t help to focus your business in any way, nor does it allow people to get a handle on who you are and what you do. If, instead, you were to say “I’m going to open a high street shop in Kendal in the Lake District, and sell limited edition fine art prints of my landscape work” then you’ve got a much better idea of what you’re getting into, and can start to do specific research on that precise market.
Basic Business stuff. If you’re not already self-employed, you’re going to need to engage with this sort of thing. Start with calculating your break even, then establish good habits, then get an accountant. I wrote a full series of posts about this when I first started the blog several years ago (see links below), and most of what I said is still totally valid. None of the admin side of running a business is magic or mysterious, it’s all simple, repeatable, procedural stuff that anyone could do, but if you neglect it at best you’ll be giving yourself a massive headache once a year when your tax return is due, and at worst you’ll go out of business really quickly.
So there you go, not quite a full business course in a nutshell, but some key areas to pay attention to if you’re serious about making the move to earning money from photography.
Here are the basic business studies posts – from way back in 2007. Apologies for some odd formatting, they didn’t quite come across from Blogger perfectly: