Knowing when it is time to become a professional photographer, or to start marketing your photography on the side, depends on many things but I think there is a straightforward answer that is true for most people.
The answer to this question depends DRASTICALLY on your individual situation and what type of photography business you want to run. If you have a good job and are considering opening up a studio, buying a lot of equipment, and make major investments in traditional advertising, then your decision to go pro may be a very scary one since you stand to lose a lot of money. On the other end of the spectrum, a stay-at-home mom who has basic flash photography gear and wants to open an on-location baby photography business has few obstacles to launching the new venture.
No matter what your current situation, I think there are three rules that you need to consider before you hang up your shingle.
Rule #1: Never open up shop until multiple non-family and non-friends ask to buy your photos or pay you to photograph them.
I worded this rule carefully, because I received many MANY emails from photographers saying their family members or friends love their work and they keep getting compliments, so they send me their portfolio for a little review. While I always try to be positive in my response, I usually find that only 5% or less of those people actually have photos that rise to the professional level. Very very good, but not quite professional.
So, my recommendation is always to wait until multiple non-friends and non-family members ask to buy your photos or ask to pay you to photograph them. I don't mean to discourage ANYONE with this rule, but it is important to have a certain level of skill before you start working as a pro photographer because you are going to be asking others to pay for your work. When others like your work enough to offer you money, you know you're on the right track.
Rule #2: Don't Hang Up Your Shingle When You're Desperate
Again, your current financial situation and your investment in gear will largely determine the answer to this question. When I started earning money with my photography, I had a family to support, no savings, and zero money to invest into the business. It was a great blessing to me and my family that we were able to make photography work out for us, but I always warn photographers about going pro when they are already financially strapped.
While some are able to succeed more quickly, I think it is realistic to say that it would take most photographers a year of hard work and dedication before photography could be a sustainable full-time job
Rule #3: Don't go pro unless you have the business and marketing skills that are necessary
I have recently heard from quite a few advanced amateur photographers who are considering getting a college degree in photography in order to become a professional photographer. My response: “HUH!?!?!?” Honestly, all you need to know about photography can be learned by diligently studying online and spending a lot of time practicing with your camera.
There are many terrific photographers who I would never recommend to go pro. The reason is that they simply don't have the business background and marketing skills. If you don't know how to create an LLC, optimize a website for SEO, market yourself with social media, handle contracts, etc….. you'll be at a serious disadvantage in creating your business. Clearly, all these things are learnable, but you need to ask yourself seriously if you have what it takes.
I can honestly say that I did not know enough about business or marketing when I started getting paid for my photography, but I had the drive to learn the skills, and that has made a huge difference for me.
My experience as a pro photographer
At first, I was the $50 photographer on Craigslist. I admit it, but I'm not ashamed of it because I was just doing the best I could to take care of my family during college. I was SO EXCITED when the first person paid me to shoot their event. I produced very nice pictures, but looking back, I can certainly say that it was not professional-quality work. I sold cheap because I was a starving college student and I wanted to provide more for my family.
Then, I decided to get serious about my photography, so I stopped doing paid work for a while and just focused on what I love: landscape photography. I shot almost every weekend and once or twice during the week. As soon as my family went to sleep at night, I'd head out and do some night photography so I could learn more without missing out on family time. I learned a TON and finally started to get a few requests to purchase my photos (one of the first pictures I ever sold is below).
It was at this time that I also invested in some basic lighting gear and began spending a lot of time reading everything I could about lighting. Once I applied proper lighting techniques to my portraits, I finally started to see professional results. It wasn't the camera, or the lens, or the pose, or anything else. What was missing in my photos was the light!
It was only at this point that I started earning real money from my photography. Instead of charging $50 for a 2-hour shoot, I was often earned over $1,000 for a 2-hour shoot. I hope it doesn't sound presumptious to talk about money here, because I believe that the only reason this worked out for me is because I had prayed for so long to find a way to provide better for my family.
Anyway, I started setting up quite a few shoots and booking clients more and more often. Soon I had a thriving business with more clients than I could shoot. I am grateful that I can now very comfortably provide for my family through my photography. Click here to read my full story.
Thank you all for being loyal readers of ImprovePhotography. I hope your venture as a professional photographer or a passionate amateur is as enjoyable as mine is.