43 Goals to Help you Become a “Real” Photographer

Not long ago, I set out to find what the photographic community defines as a “Real” photographer.  I scoured the internet and asked many in the photography community, including some of the Improve Photography readers.   I got a lot of the obvious answers, but also some very unique ones.     What was most apparent from my talking to photographers about this issue is the self-doubt felt by photographers.  Nobody wants to admit they are a real photographer, even if they are successful professionals.

There is not a degree or licenses that sets apart real photographers from people just taking photographs.  Photography is a lifelong journey where you can see continual improvement if you put in the effort.  There are also so many different genres of photography and the accomplishments you seek in each one can vary drastically.  I've decided the last thing photographers need are a bunch of requirements you need to fulfill in order to be considered a “real” photographer.  Instead, I have compiled a list of accomplishments, skills and experiences that will help give you the confidence and enjoyment sought by all photographers.  To me, that is what photography is all about-finding enjoyment in your craft.  Hopefully, everyone reading can gain some additional confidence knowing they have accomplished something to which other photographers aspire.  With the new year coming, perhaps you can find a new accomplishment to strive for in 2017.

Below are 38 things people have said made them feel like a real photographer.  Some are very basic while some may take a lifetime to accomplish, but each one is something that separates a real photographer from someone just taking pictures.  So if you are wanting to up your game next year, work on some of these.

  1. Leading a Workshop

I made this image at one of the free Improve Photography workshops.

This is a big one to start with, but a lot of photographers make a living  just by leading workshops.  With all the self-doubting in the photography community, I can imagine how hard it must be to take that initial step and say you are good enough to lead a workshop, but I don't think it should be that daunting if you approach it the right way.  Think about what you have to offer.  Obviously, you are going to need some experience and knowledge, but you might be surprised how many people want just a basic introduction to photography.  Think about a half-day workshop where you lead people through the basics of using their camera and focusing on something you are good at.  Another alternative, master a location in your area.  Figure out all the best places to shoot at the best times.  That knowledge will be sought after more than camera know-how to a lot of people.  Just make sure you advertise it in the right way.  If this interests you, find a photographer who has led a workshop and ask for advice or maybe you could find someone to team teach with.

  1. Be a Mentor

Fellow Improve Photography contributor Aaron Grubb said being asked to mentor someone helped him feel like a real photographer.  I think we spend so much time looking at top photographers and thinking of what we don't know, we forget about what we do know compared to someone just starting out.  Reach out to someone that is new and help them on their photography journey and you will get a good idea just how advanced you are.

  1. Having Happy or Repeat Customers

This was a common response, but I think it is a really good one.  Anyone decent at marketing and a low price can get a client, but when those customers are happy with your work or refer others to you, then you know you are producing a quality product.  This year focus on customer satisfaction and delivering a product that will get you referrals.

  1. Being Published

This is a classic.  I think every photographer of any genre has a goal to get published.  There are so many publications out there, it is possible to get published, but it takes work.  You have to do your research, figure out what the publication wants, follow all their guidelines and produce great work.  For more advice check out this advice.

  1. Holding a Gallery Showing

Improve Photography reader Brian Pitts provided this suggestion.  This is another classic goal for a lot of photographers.  This one takes a lot of work as well. If you are ready to try for this, research where you want to show your work, gather a cohesive collection and display it well.  If you are willing to put in the work, you can find somewhere to show your work.  Even my local library has a gallery that features a new artist every month.

  1. Getting Approval from a Mentor

Improve Photography reader and guest podcaster Brent Bergherm provided this suggestion.  If you want to feel like you made it, approval from someone who has made it can go a long way.  Everyone can get approval from friends and family, but when someone that really knows there stuff likes your work, that means something to you.  You can't get this approval if you don't have a mentor.  So go out and get one.  Reach out to photographers you admire and see if they have a mentorship program.  If you don't have someone local to work with, check out the mentorship programs from Improve Photography.  If you need additional convincing, just read this.

  1. Doing a Paid Commercial Shoot

Commercial photography is a tough field to get into (I think, I have never actually tried), but getting a job with a commercial client is a big deal.  Listen to the podcast, some of the hosts are always giving advice on how to get your foot in the door.

  1. Doing a Paid Shoot for a Stranger

I may not shoot family portraits, but my wife makes me get them every year. Photo by Kamra Fuller Photography.

Improve Photography contributor Tracy Munson suggested this one (and many others followed suit).  I am not a portrait photographer, but I have seen a number of them start their businesses.  It usually goes the same way: all your family and friends line up for a shoot long before “real” customers.  I see two ways to get those strangers coming in.  (1) Step up your marketing game.  Get a great website, get active on social media, mommy groups or wherever else people are looking for photographers, and (2) produce stunning work for your friends and family.  As they share it, their friends will see it and before long, strangers will be booking you.  So this year, up your marketing game and focus on producing great work.

  1. Receiving a Request for Prints

Improve Photography reader John Sharp suggested this one.  A lot of people will compliment our work, but that doesn't mean much until someone is willing to pay for it.  When someone out of the blue offers you money for one of your prints, that is huge and tells you that you are producing great images.  You will never get this offer if you aren't getting your images out there for people to see.  First, produce great images and then get to sharing.  Having your own blog or website is great, but it takes a while to get traffic there so be active on social media and take advantage of all the eyes that can see your work.

  1. Developing and Printing Film

Improve Photography reader Dieter Horst suggested this one.  I would add a caveat here that my junior high developing and printing in a class probably doesn't count!  I think this more goes to having your own lab.  That takes dedication and isn't going to be something just anyone with a camera does.  If you really want to challenge yourself this year, go back in time and try mastering film from start to finish.

  1. Receiving Accolades from Photographers you Admire

This is another take on a common concept from Jim Ruse.  You will really feel like you have made it when a photographer you look up to praises your work.  Only thing to do here is reach out to those photographers you admire and see if any will interact with you.  If you can get your work in front of them, just make sure you are sharing your best.

  1. Providing a Real Service to your Clients

David Sobina, another Improve Photography reader, brings us this one.  If you want to feel like a real photographer, make sure you are providing a real service to your client.  Not only does this mean producing great quality, but it also means great customer service and making sure to really focus on what your client wants, even if it is not what you prefer.  Too often photographers get so wrapped up in their art, they forget the client is the one paying them.

  1. Getting a Press Pass to Shoot an Event

It is fun shooting basketball when the players are only a five feet away from you

This is one I crossed off my list this year.  I used my personal website to obtain a press pass to shoot a handful of   college basketball games at the MGM Grand.  With my press pass, I was one of a handful of photographers permitted to move all around the sidelines and shoot the game.  It was an awesome experience shooting with the big boys on ESPN-televised games.  There are ways to get access to big events, it just takes the effort.  Fill out applications, contact smaller media sources or sponsors.  If you put in the leg work, you never know what you can get.  Don't let the twenty rejections stop you from reaching the one source that says yes.

  1. Write Articles for a Legitimate Source

There are a lot of photography publications and websites out there.  Find one you feel comfortable writing for and reach out to them.  This is another way you can share the knowledge you have and help other photographers.

  1. Get your First Paying Client

This was another popular response.  If you are doing any kind of portrait, event or commercial photography, this is the first big step.  If you have thought about making the leap, this is the year to do it.  Even if you are not ready or do not want to make photography a full-time job, that doesn't mean you can't get your first paying client and bring in a little extra money once in a while.  If you aren't there yet, hone your craft this year until you are confident enough to make the jump.

  1. Being Sponsored

I know this is a top goal for a lot of people and is definitely a sign that you have made it.  Unfortunately, I don't have much advice to give you.  Jim Harmer has discussed this a couple times  and has always said to work on companies other than your major camera and lens companies.  I have never done anything with a sponsorship, but doing gear reviews, there are a lot of companies out there that are great to work with.  The first step, in my opinion, is building something up where you have something to offer.  This means work on producing great images and getting a large following.

  1. Having your own Website

This is not a tough one, but it is not something you do unless you are serious about your photography.  If you want to take that first step toward feeling like a real photographer, create your own website and get your work out there for people to see.  There are so many options depending on how much you want to spend and how easy you want it to be. Find what is right for you and get it done in 2017 if you haven't yet.

  1. Being Featured by a Respected Source

This could mean getting published, but you don't have to limit yourself to that.  There is a lot of satisfaction in seeing your image featured by a prominent website or local publication.  Start with the websites you like and see if they have features images or artists.  If not, use the Google and you will find something.

  1. Being on the Cover of a Magazine

Everyone knows the model wants the cover, but so does the photographer.  If you already accomplished being published, get to the next level in 2017!

  1. Sell an Image from your Website, Independent Site or Stock Company

This is the first image I sold on 500px

The first print I sold was a shocker.  It sold on 500px for $130.  The shocking part was that I was no longer even posting on 500px and the image that sold was one I had taken when I first started and was still shooting with a Nikon D3100.  Knowing that someone is willing to pay a decent amount to hang your image on their wall is an awesome feeling so work on producing images people will want and find a way to get it to where they have a chance to purchase it.

  1. Shooting your First Wedding

Again, I am not a portrait photographer, but I know it is not hard to get at least one client for senior photos or a family session, but getting a bride to trust you with her wedding is a different story.  You need to be able to show that you are capable.

  1. Shooting a Destination Wedding

If you are comfortable shooting weddings, I feel like this is the next level.  You work has to be really good if someone is willing to pay your flight and hotel to shoot their wedding.  Nick Page has talked about this recently on the podcast.  He said the first step is having images in your portfolio at great destinations so do what you have to (big discounts/family and friends) to get images in your portfolio for destinations you want to go on someone else's dime.

  1. Being Confident Enough to Call Yourself a Photographer

Improve Photography reader Marta Perales  suggests a measuring stick that makes you look internally.  If you can look at your work and tell yourself and anyone else that, yes, you are a photographer, that should tell you a lot about where you are.  Ask yourself what you need to accomplish in 2017 to be able to call yourself a photographer.

  1. Upgrading your Camera with Money Earned from Photography

Jim Harmer suggests this great accomplishment.  With all he has done in the photography world, it is pretty awesome that he suggests this measuring stick.  If your photography is paying for your gear, I think it is pretty solid proof that photography is not just a hobby any longer.  Hobbies are expensive so if you have made it to the level where photography is no longer expensive, you are a real photographer.  This year pick a piece of gear you really want and make a goal to earn enough from your photography to buy that piece of gear before the end of the year.

  1. Seeing one of your Images Hanging on a Wall

This could be in a gallery, in an office, at a client's house or a number of other places.  If your work is strong enough that someone wants to put it on a wall and show it off to others, that is a great accomplishment.  Pick out a favorite image this year, get it printed professionally and find somewhere that wants to hang it.  Bonus if that person is willing to pay for it!

  1. Getting Booked Solely based on the Quality of your Work

Getting shoots from friends and family or from being able to market or sell yourself is one thing, but the ultimate compliment (for your photography) is someone being willing to book you based solely on seeing your work.  Produce awesome work and get it out there where prospective clients will see it.

  1. Shooting Alongside Professionals as their Peers

I was surprised to see my image on the internet the next day. Only it wasn't my image, it was this exact same view shot by the AP photographer two feet away from me.

This could be accomplished in a lot of ways.  It could be getting a press pass and shooting an event with professionals.  It could be second shooting a wedding or co-leading a workshop.  If you are doing the same thing as someone you think of as a real photographer, then …

  1. Understand and Use Lighting

Photography is all about light.  Your everyday person taking photographs does not understand this key principal.  Unfortunately, too many professional photographers are holding themselves back by not using light.  One of my pet peeves is when someone calls themselves a natural light photographer (I know Jim talked about this recently).  You can be great at composition and technical shooting, but there is only so many shots you can get with natural light.  If you aren't using flash yet, make it happen in 2017.  It will add more to your photography than just about anything else.

  1. Understand Composition

While I like this image, I could have improved the composition. Watch Jim's new video and you will see how he created a better composition just a couple feet away.

This is one of the first things that will separate you from an average Joe with a camera.  Understanding composition and putting thought into your image is the first step toward real photography.  The great thing about composition is there is so much to learn, you can work on getting better with it regardless of how advanced you are.  If you don't know where to start, try out Jim's new video.

  1. Being able to Create Quality Images that Break the Rules

Any photography lesson you take, it seems like they teach you the rules and then tell you to know when to break those rules.  That is the hard thing that separates a lot of photographers.  Mastering the rules is something anyone can do if they put the time and effort into it, but it takes another level to learn how to break those rules and create stunning images.  Another great ability that goes along with this is being able to create images that are good enough people don't care about technical issues you may have like noise or sharpness.

  1. Creating Images that Cause an Emotional Response

Think about what draws you to an image.  It isn't technical perfection.  You can follow all the rules and have a perfect histogram with everything tack sharp and leave the viewer bored.  The ultimate goal in photography is causing an emotional response with your image.  Study the images that do that for you and figure out why they cause that emotion and then get out there and do it yourself.

  1. Creating your Own Style

There are not that many photographers I can think of where I can look at an image and know right away who the photographer is.  Those few that I can are amazing artists.  There are also a lot of photographers out there where I can look at the work and I can tell that all their work was done by them.  This is something that takes a lot of time and practice to develop.  This year pay attention to your images you really like.  Look at the elements that make up those images and how you edited them.  Take those lessons into your future work and you will continue to improve and develop a style that one day may become associated with your work.

  1. Consistently Achieving Good Results, Rather than Relying on Luck

A lot of photography is being in the right place at the right time.  Some of that is luck, but a lot of it is understanding, study and practice.  Real photographers don't just get lucky once in a while with a beautiful model or amazing sunset.  They have put the work in to know how to get the great opportunities and what do when they are there.

  1. Master Shooting in Manual

This is another one of those first steps toward real photography.  I am not saying you need to always shoot in manual, but every real photographer at least needs to know how.  You need to understand the exposure triangle and how to manipulate it to achieve the image you want.  There isn't much to this other than a little study and a lot of practice.  So, if you aren't there yet, get it done in 2017 and watch your photography elevate.

  1. Others Rely on you for Answers

You know you are progressing when others start to ask for your advice and input.  If you are putting forth the effort to learn, you will have answers for their questions and they will keep coming back.  As you help others, your confidence will increase and your capabilities will improve.

  1. You don't Feel the Need to have Bigger and Better Gear

Most people starting in photography feel the need to get bigger and better gear.  You soon learn the gear will not make you a better photographer.  When you no longer use the excuse of gear for your photography shortcomings and can produce solid images regardless of what camera you are using, then you can be confident in your skills.  So, this year stop waiting to be able to afford new gear and master what you already have.

  1. Learning HDR

I could not have made this image without HDR as it was well after sunset and there were at least 8 stops of light between the foreground and sky.

HDR or high dynamic range is a tool every landscape photographer needs to know.  I know HDR has gotten a bad rap from a lot of photographers over-doing it, but at its simplest, HDR is a tool to capture data in a scene with dark shadows and bright light.  With the equipment we have available now, you may not ever need it, but getting a handle on HDR is like learning panoramas to me.  It is something you need to learn to have in your tool box.  If you don't understand HDR yet, make it happen in 2017 and you will have a lot of fun shooting landscapes.



  1. Actively Pursue Improving your Photography

This is a basic one, but it really separates a photographer from someone just capturing images.  Photography is an art form that takes study and practice.  If you are actively pursuing improvement in your photography through study and practice, you are much more than just someone with a camera.  Let's all make 2017 a year where we put more time and effort into improving our craft.

  1. Completing a Mentorship or Internship

There are many trades out there where you must serve your time as an apprentice before you become a professional.  Think how much your photography would grow if you put yourself in that situation.  Use 2017 to study under a professional willing to help you.  Especially if you can have some kind of structured mentorship or internship, you will feel like you have arrived upon completing it.

  1. Learning Photoshop

I believe the biggest jump you see in photography is when you learn to post process your image.  I love Lightroom and use it all the time, but there are some things you can only do in Photoshop that can take your image from a 9 to a 10.  I will be the first to admit, I need to spend a lot more time in Photoshop because to really achieve those amazing images we all want, it is likely you are going to need to master some tools in Photoshop.

  1. Quitting your Day Job

I am not going to encourage anyone to quit their job because I don't want that hanging over my head.  I, for one, can pretty confidently say my photography will never allow me to change my career, but several people make a good living as full-time photographers.  If photography is your full-time job and you are successful enough to make a decent living, there can be no doubt that you are a real photographer.  If that is your ultimate goal,  look at what steps you can take this year to get closer to that goal or make it a reality.

  1. Signing Contracts

This may be the lawyer in me rather than the photographer, but when your clients are signing contracts with you, it is going to feel a whole lot more real.  There is a big difference from shooting a session for a friend who is going to pay you a little money for whatever you deliver to sitting down with a client and having everything in a contract so that you have a duty to provide exactly what the client is paying for.  If you aren't using contracts yet, you need to start.  Rather than hire an expensive attorney, check out the contracts at Improve Photography that you can tailor to your needs for an insanely low price.

  1. Learning Off-Camera Flash

This one goes along with the learning to use light.   Off-camera flash adds so much to portraits, events or even action photography that you have to learn it if you want to produce amazing work.  If you aren't using a flash off camera yet, get the gear you need (it really isn't expensive) and get practicing.

There you have it.  I know there are probably a lot more.  Feel free to share them in the comments.  But for now, let's all get out and make 2017 the year we accomplish some great goals.

5 thoughts on “43 Goals to Help you Become a “Real” Photographer”

  1. Great article but as with all good stuff comes the debates! Lol. There is one I must disagree with. Film.

    I can bet any money Nick Page has never developed a roll of film himself along with tons of guys like Ryan Dyar. I’m just being THAT guy that has to argue. Ha ha.

    All in all, I love this article. I started out just under 2 years ago and have accomplished a lot of what you have on this list and it makes me very happy.

    I have a day job (Postal Service which I HATE if anyone knows me) and I truly want to work to get away from it. I am single with no kids and no real financial responsibility other than to eat. I’ve gotta work at becoming much better and make this a business. I love this world of digital photography so much and stuff like this makes me realize I’m on the right path.

    Great article

    1. Thanks Brian! I completely agree with you. I didn’t mean for any of these to be necessary qualifications and many real photographers will never touch film, just like many professional landscape photographers will never shoot a wedding.

  2. Copy & paste to Word. Print in a Filofax/A5 size with reasonable font size and margins. Punch, clip in handy organizer. And then circle the goals accomplished every end of week. Read again at the end of next year.

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