So, You Wanna Turn Pro...

If you are like many of Strobist's readers, you are still an amateur. But you've gotten just enough knowledge and skills to be dangerous and you are entertaining the occasional thought about turning pro.

Well, I have some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is that if you just "kinda sorta" want to be a professional shooter you will never make it.

Why? Because if you do it half-heartedly, there are 100 people ready to compete with you who live and breathe this stuff. They will outlearn, out-hustle and out-shoot you. You'll get creamed.

Maybe not the first day, but eventually. And consistently.

Oh, and there's more bad news.

There are new companies popping up every day, trying to lure you into producing good work for them, so they can sell it for 20 cents (to you) a pop.

That's about 10 cents a pop after taxes.

You can argue "new paradigm" all you want, but that is simply not a sustainable, professional lifestyle.

In short, the market is ready to chew you up like a piece of cheapo gum, suck the flavor out of you, and spit you out.

And the news gets worse.

Let's say you have the drive. And let's say you are very talented. Let's even go as far as to say you are as good as you think you are.

Here's your main hurdle:

Most photographers who fail do so not from a lack of photo skills, but from sub-par business practices. The number that is commonly kicked around is 90%.

Ninety percent.

So, being a Certified Hot Shot just gets you past the 10% hurdle. If you cannot learn the business of the business, you will almost certainly still go down in flames.

So, to sum up: You have to eat and breathe the photo stuff. But you have to be a business type even more than a photo type.

Depressed yet? Had enough bad news? Well, here's some good news.

There are some very good books out there that can teach you not to do the stupid stuff that will otherwise whack your career.

Some have been around for quite a while, and are (or should be) staples on any professional-leaning photographer's bookshelf. I have a selection of several coming to the bookshelf page as soon as I can scrounge the time to update it.

But there's one in particular that stands out, and merits a post of its own.

I have a professional photographer friend in Baltimore who also happens to be a C-P-freakin'- A.

He knows this stuff backwards and forwards.

He has been raving about "Best Business Practices for Photographers," by (professional photographer) John Harrington since early on in the publication cycle.

The book, which was only just "officially" published, has been making waves among the professionals who have had early access to the info. I have heard nothing but great reviews about it.

Harrington is a business guru in the pro photo world. Shooters attend his seminars, keep his handouts and read them until the pages are dog-eared and falling apart.

And you can have access to all of his distilled knowledge for less than $20. That's like what you'd spend for just another compact flash card. A small one.

If you are even vaguely considering going pro, this is a no-brainer. If it helps to put it in perspective, consider it an essential piece of camera gear for your brain. A software upgrade, if you will. If you already are an (independent) pro, you'll definitely want to have it.

The book covers client interaction, negotiating contracts and licenses, and sticking to a good business roadmap. In short, it is about how not to be stupid as a professional photographer.

I first met John while covering Reagan's funeral in 105-degree heat in D.C. I was dragging butt and sweating like a dog hauling gear into position. John was on a Segway, toting his gear effortlessly. And had a case of ice-cold bottled water with him, to boot.

John's a smart guy.

Succeeding as a pro in photography is not easy under any circumstances. But trying it without the type of leg-up a book like this can give you would be nuts.

Even if you are only considering leaving your stinkin' day job to try your hand as a professional photographer, give yourself a fighting chance with a book like Harrington's.


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Blogger Mike Panic said...

I agree with almost everything you have said. By definition, a Pro is someone who makes a living at what they are doing. How well that living is can really depend as well. I have been actively selling stock photography with since 2001, prior to the term microstock was coined. Lets be honest, the vast majority of photographs don't have what it takes to sell for Corbis, Getty or any of the large houses. There is a need and demand for lower resolution files and sometimes lower quality, hence the number of microstock payment sites out there now. I don't put my best work up there, but I will snap a few extra shots when out and about or on vacation to make a few bucks back, and it works.

Moving on, I work in the photo industry and am somewhere between being an advanced amateur and semi-professional photographer. Shooting, I've been in more then a dozen national magazines, countless local ones and close to 100 different websites have used my images (not through stock). I am constantly building a portfolio and trying to make my book bigger, to attract new clients. Working in the photo industry, it has opened my eyes to how crappy most "pros" really are. From what I have seen, a good majority of these shooters are doing it because more then likely, someone somewhere said to them, "You are really good at this and your photos are amazing, you should be a pro and start charging." They have no idea of real workflow, shooting and worst of all, marketing. Nope, I stand corrected, worst of all is their undercutting of everyone else. Some new photographers are so anxious about their first job that they will discount it heavily, or do it for free. This makes raising the price nearly impossible in the future. Most photographers don't think about how much their time is worth and how long it takes to actually do everything. Your average wedding is about 8-10 hours, the day of. However, that is not all the time invested. Once you figure in all the phone calls, the meet and greet, drive time, digital workflow and processing images, assembly of the book, delivery and reorders, a wedding could very well take up 20 or more hours of your life. If you were charging $1000 (using round numbers so it is easy to show) and thinking that the only time you had invested was the 10 hours the day of, it might look good to make $100/hour. However once you factor in the other 10 hours of work, you are now only making $50/hour.

Lastly, most people wanting to turn pro who have the drive, simply don't have the eye or imagination for it. I'm sorry, but there are a lot of bad shooters out there these days. Compounding that, there are a lot of shooter who simply can't translate a clients idea or dream into a reality.

October 11, 2006 10:06 AM  
Blogger Woody said...

I have to agree with you in regards to ANY creative endeavor you undertake as a career.

As a professional photographer, illustrator, painter or graphic designer you really do need to wear several hats. You need to be GREAT at the creative part, but you also need to be a good customer service rep, an accountant and a good business person, not to mention keeping up with all the software and advances in equipment.

I have worked in private industry, for the Federal Government and for myself. In 1996 I started a Graphic Design studio with an old friend, and let me tell you, it is not easy. Don't get me wrong, I love being creative and making a living at it, I just hate the rest that goes with it. The billing, cold calling, dealing with difficult clients, keeping the books, marketing to prospects and keeping up with ALL the software. There are days I don't do any designing at all. I also find it very difficult to switch gears and go from accounting to creative at the drop of a hat.

Before you decide to go pro in any creative field take a good look at all the rest of the things that go along with it.

October 11, 2006 11:58 AM  
Anonymous lee said...

indeed. undercutting doesn't work well in any industry. newbies, don't cheat yourself out of what you're worth. unless you think you're really not worth that much; then you'll be out of business really soon.

October 11, 2006 12:33 PM  
Blogger Mike Panic said...

It is also worth noting that you should strongly consider talking with an accountant and taking a marketing / business 101 class (if you never have) at your local community college.

October 11, 2006 1:02 PM  
Anonymous carlos said...

As someone who fits David's description I have already made some of the business mistakes and have been actively pursuing information to fix that by reading books and attending seminars. This book looks like a good one and I'll likely pick it up very soon.

As far as the comments on pricing things too low, even if you make it very clear that this is a one time favor they will expect it going forward as well.

October 11, 2006 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Christopher said...

appreciate this post most of all. Anything to keep business afloat helps alot. I've been running off of pure LUCK for these months past, and although its been really good luck, I don't expect it to last with out a ton of effort. Thanks as usual!

October 11, 2006 1:09 PM  
Blogger Joshwa said...

Other good books covering similar material:

Business Basics for the Successful Commercial Photographer by Leslie Burns-Dell'Acqua

Focus on Profit by Tom Zimberoff

ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography

October 11, 2006 2:53 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'll check out the book. I hope it has lot's of pictures as I usually look at the photos instead of reading the stories(attempt at humor).
Seriously though, the whole 90%-10% thing is true. Look how many cheesy photographers there are out there making a killing. I know a guy that just does weddings and photos of school kids and little kids on baseball teams. He seems to not have any interest in photography as an art form, he'll tell you so straight up. But he rakes it in, probably makes 4-5 times what I do at my staff job. Not that I'd trade as I'm pretty darn happy(whole other subject), but it's an example of what good business sense can do for you.

October 11, 2006 6:24 PM  
Blogger Joshwa said...

see also this very interesting thread at the PDN Forums about lowballing (3 pages long)...

October 11, 2006 6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be happy shooting a couple of pics a month for a local newspaper doing say 1200$ after swedish taxes just to stay clear from all that business stuff from where i'm sitting. Unemployed autodidact "photostudent" / graphic designer / illustrator not really sure where I am, or where I want to go, doubting "i'm just that good" even though I know I blow most of the local press journalists out of the water. Ugh, I hate this, i'm busy enough as it is with living and not particularly liking my persona and life. Am I aiming too high? Shouldn't that outlook be sustainable atleast a couple of years into real adulthood?


October 11, 2006 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Jon Bloom said...

Sturgeon's Revelation applies: Ninety percent of everything is crud. As an engineer and software writer, I've found it to be true in those fields, too. (Something to mull over the next time you're blithely crossing over a bridge.)

October 11, 2006 7:32 PM  
Anonymous EntityDesigns said...

There is a market for microstock I do not consider myself a pro but I do see both sides since I contribute to stock sites and use images from stock sites to do design work. Mainly I started with iStockphoto not to get rich but to get credits so I can download other peoples images, basically like an exchange, and I pretty much still use it that way. Granted there are some users who try to make a living from it, but I personally have no experience with that.

If I had to purchase images from traditional stock agencies I would not be able to do freelance design work since the cost would be too high for my customers.

There is always going to be a need for professional photographers out there. Besides when you commission a photographer you want photos of certain things that usually are not available on stock sites for example models wearing your customers clothing line or product shots etc..

I also feel what your saying even in the web design business you have all these template sites that have cheap web site designs and clients still do not understand that they still need a designer to put it together for them.

The internet has whored out many industries look at retail sales I can go on sites that compare multiple retailers and choose from the cheapest price like and get my camera or lens from some retailer who wants to make money by selling more procuts at a cheaper price, or even on ebay people do this. So at least photographers are not alone but what you must do is adapt and move on.

October 11, 2006 7:49 PM  
Blogger Cyron said...

I said this before on your vanishing middle class article, but you are absolutely wrong when you say "but that is simply not a sustainable, professional lifestyle".

You seem hung up on the 20c issue, but that is the share you get if you aren't a pro, if you're the half hearted person uploading snaps here and there. Once you start to get serious about making things happen, then your share goes up, and when it does, there are no hassles at all about sustaining yourself as a professional photographer, at least if you've got the drive.

Your right though when you say that if you only kinda sorta want it, it's not going to happen. That's true in any aspect of pro photography, be it microstock or not

October 11, 2006 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Harry Pocius said...

Sheesh David, It's getting so that I wish you would post something and there it is! I just hope your new fangled esp device doesn't look like an upturned collander with aluminum foil all over it! I've always felt this was my achilles' heel, so thanks for the post -- I just ordered mine (but I'm sure you knew that too :)

October 12, 2006 3:08 AM  
Anonymous Janne said...

Woody mentioned graphic design. It's an excellent example of what's happening (and as my SO is one, I have some insight into this).

The job market for graphic designers shrank dramatically with the advent of cheap, good quality laser printers and setting software. Quite a lot of designers at that time made it their bread-and-butter business to do business cards, restaurant menus, leaflets - any kind of small scale, frequently revised job like that.

When people could start churning out such stuff on their own, that marked gradually dried up. The truth is, while a menu for a neighbourhood joint designed and set by the cook or the owner and cranked out on a badly trimmed Kinko's machine is clearly inferior to what a professional will do, _it is good enough_.

For a lot of graphic design like that, the cost of entry - and the baseline quality you get - for interested amateurs is compelling enough that there is no price point at which you can make a living churning out the stuff anymore. The market for "pro" work has shrunk substantially even as the total amount of work has increased.

I suspect it is the case with stock photography as well. There's enough people doing good enough work and selling it through cheap stock agencies - or licensing it completely for free, just for bragging rights - that I think the bottom will fall out of that market as well. Just as for graphic design, the high-end stuff will still be there of course, but how many peopel can live on doing just that (or even has the talent to do so)?

October 12, 2006 6:18 AM  
Blogger R. Janoski said...

John is a great guy and he has, along with others have been trying to get people to become business smart for a long time. I always touch on the subject when I'm speaking to an NPPA group and at every other engagement I'm at. The sad part is that it will most often fall on deaf ears.

Randy Janoski
NPPA Region 6 AD
Washington DC & Nashville TN

October 12, 2006 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Oh dear - now you have really depressed me. That bad news seems so bad that there hardly seems any reason to go on.

Having said that: I think the world has a never ending appetite for photographs. SOMEONE must be making them? Who? How?

October 12, 2006 10:52 AM  
Anonymous brentj said...

On your recomendation I bought the book the moment I read the post. I am now waiting for it to be delivered. I have been looking for someone to help me understand the business side of phootgraphy for a long time. I have done as much learning on my own as I can, but information is scarce, and closely guarded. Thanks for suggestion. I can't wait to read the book!

October 12, 2006 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should be at least pointed out that turning pro doesn't necessarily mean starting your own business. Many professional photography jobs are out there that don't require accountants, lawyers and a Donald Trump sense of business. It may have been touched on in the original post, I just didn't see it.

So all you amateurs out there interested in becoming a professional, there is a little more hope than conveyed so far. Just sayin'.

October 12, 2006 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting. Just placed an order for the book at - unfortunately it will take 4 to 6 weeks fo them to get it in stock - guess I'll just go and shoot some picture while I wait :-)


October 12, 2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger Chris Flynn said...

I heard John Harrington speak the other night at an ASMP meeting and it was fantastic. I am only an amateur and but his advice made think a little more about the business side of photography as opposed to only thinking about the photos. I highly recomend getting his book.

October 12, 2006 4:27 PM  
Blogger Jeremy C. Plummer said...

Better hurry kids, the Strobist effect is going to have them out of stock in no time. (I know mine is on it's way) Thanks, David. Like so many others have said... it's exactly what I've been looking for.

October 12, 2006 7:52 PM  
Blogger Stewart Stick said...

Sounds like exactly what I need as I try and figure out the local market and prepare quotes. I ordered mine today. Hopefully I beat the Strobist Effect hitting the Canadian market for this book.

October 12, 2006 11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Strobist all the time. It is a great resource for working pros. It helps provide some extra incentive.

I enjoyed your post on the problems of making it as a working pro. That book looks interesting and informative. there are other places to get assistance. There is a GREAT email group of working pros to answer questions.

Joe McCary

October 13, 2006 12:31 AM  
Anonymous Vittore said...

I'm a pro... Well I love my work, I like reportages but...
The new photographer is:
1) A good eye
2) A photoshop guru
3) A DAM expert
4) A businessman
5) Flexible (shoot well different type of works)
6) A man who like to study and to learn

I sell a lot of images with Alamy, I start to consider

October 13, 2006 2:08 AM  
Blogger Mike Panic said...

It should be at least pointed out that turning pro doesn't necessarily mean starting your own business. Many professional photography jobs are out there that don't require accountants, lawyers and a Donald Trump sense of business. It may have been touched on in the original post, I just didn't see it.

Perhaps you misread what I wrote and what most of this article is about. Most pro photographers don't work for anyone else, they work in a freelance environment. In doing so, they take on the responsibility of filing their own taxes, having their own insurance and doing everything on their own. For wedding photographers specifically, they have insurance if you can't make the event. Say you brake your wrist the day before an event and can't shoot, there is insurance for it. Along the same lines, many new people to this type of work don't realize that many common things are tax write offs, such as travel expenses, home offices, business meetings over lunch, etc., much less how to file them and prepare their tax forms, which are usually done quarterly, not yearly.

It will behoove most people to at least get a free consultation with an accountant if they are really serious about shooting full time, or even part time. I am not the perfect citizen, but if you make money from a job, it should be reported to the IRS and you may be responsible for collecting state tax depending where you live.

Lastly, you don't need a Donald Trump sense of business but you do need to understand concepts and strategy and marketing. If you primarily senior portraits in a studio setting, advertising in your local coffee shop where the hippies hang out probably isn't the best place you could be spending your money. Taking a non-credit business 101 class at the local community college will open your eyes to workflow, concepts and other things that will give you the edge over your competition.

October 13, 2006 2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My point was that there are other options besides being a freelancer. They may not be the most desirable, the most glamorous, etc but they exist. And they are a good way to get your feet wet, if you want to "turn pro".

I got the impression from the original post that many amatuers would be unecessarily put off. This isn't taking anything away from the idea of the original post, either. All that David said was correct, in my estimation. There are other avenues, however.

October 13, 2006 6:19 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

But still, the overwhelming advice I read from the column, even after reading and rereading, is: "if you want to turn pro, just forget it. Photography is not something you are at all likely to be successful at".

Is that not very glum advice? I mean is it really that bad? Is the photographer today's lead typesetter?

October 13, 2006 8:33 PM  
Blogger David said...


Au contraire. The piece tells you what you need to do to have a good chance to succeed. If that turns you away, then it has done you a favor.

Better now than 5 years and $75,000 in gear later.

Under the best circumstances many would-be pro's will not make it. To have a chance, you need to know what you are in for.


October 13, 2006 9:14 PM  
Anonymous carlos said...

michael - You said, "But still, the overwhelming advice I read from the column, even after reading and rereading, is: "if you want to turn pro, just forget it. Photography is not something you are at all likely to be successful at"."

Did you read the same column I did?

The only way I can see you coming to that conclusion is if you only sorta kinda want to be a pro photographer and don't want to work at it. In that case, yes, the article is telling you to forget about it.

What the article says to those who genuinely want to be pro is that it's not going to be like breathing (something that just happens) but is going to be like making it as a pro athelete (something that requires dedication and discipline). That turns off a lot of people though and the world is full of folks with lots of potential but no realization of that potential.

October 16, 2006 9:51 AM  
Blogger Mike Panic said...

Being a Pro photographer is one thing. Being a Pro who can pay the bills is another. It is not terribly hard to make $30 or $40k a year as a wedding photographer, but IMHO that is the bottom of the food chain for a full time working shooter. Depending on where you live, making $75-150k is entirely possible, but only the talented ones who are business savvy will do so.

There are many aspects to photography. Photojournalists who shoot 250+ days a year and travel to corporate photographers who shoot 25 days a year and make more money. I'd highly suggest getting a subscription to Rangefinder magazine and any other publications you can get your hands on. I know too many talented photographers who are horrible business people and visa versa, which is handicapping their ability to both grow their business and grow financially.

Becoming a full time shooter who can pay the bills is tuff, you should get that out of this article, but it is also here so you are somewhat forewarned. Not a lot of people talk about it. You know if you want to be a Doctor or Lawyer that you need to put in 7+ years of school, its just something that is known. While you might not need all that formal education for photography, you do need to be headed in the general direction, otherwise people will eat you alive and take full advantage of you.

October 16, 2006 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah...I see now. I missed the part of David's article that said, "So You Wanna Turn Pro (And by "pro" I mean making $75-150k annually, because, you know, making only $30-40K is not really being a "pro" at all. They're just bottom feeders, ya know!)"

October 16, 2006 3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crumbs. Reading through this and the thread about photography's dissapearing middle class has been thoroughly depressing! This site usually entertains and informs. What's going on?

I think there are legitimate concerns here about the massive influx of new blood to the industry.

However, the sobering thought centres around your claim that only 10% of those trying their hand at the pro game actually make it.

So ... being a top photographer is a tough thing to do and only the best make it, right? Well, isn't that the way it's always been? I suppose it's definately true that there is more competition for the top spots, but that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

Having good business sense is crucial to any freelancing agent, regardless of their field, and to urge people to swot up is grand advice.

But I can't help but feel as though it's somewhat stating the obvious, and that as a revelation, it's not unsettling. I know that if I want to get into being a true pro, in any walk of life, you're going to need good business behind you.

Lastly, 'photographers' who walk around with long glass and shoot thousands of shots on full auto - those guys are NEVER going to make it, and if anyone is fearing them as a threat to their ability to turn pro, then they shoudln't be thinking about going pro in the first place. What is a site like strobist for if those guys are a threat?

October 18, 2006 9:14 AM  
Anonymous Erna Dyanty said...

I've heard this "bad" news before last year from my boss. I use to work in an art gallery as a curator and he was the owner/painter. He gave me the whole pack of advise on dumping my idea of Photographer for life as a career.
He said "If you want to be a Pro at this you need 16 years. why? i took that long, my friend a photographer took that long. so, in between if you ever want to have a normal life, either marry a rich bafoon or leave on eating crumbs to get yourself there". That somehow didn't bug me at all, him discouraging me from pursuing my dream of doing photography. I gave him a good fight back on this matter. BUt now, reading this article and thread a mix feeling has emerged from the depths, the last thing you need to read is something as true as this. I can't look away from it cause it is the reality, what makes it more of a downer is just the fact that; the same advise given to me sometime back is menifasting itself-- this time by photographers themselves.

I might not have the oppoutunity to be that 20+ photographer making it big [even in my own country], but I see myself doing it and braking my back to get there. I've been following this blog for a while now, its helped alot in boosting confidence, really it has. If its anything, this article has only made me more hard headed and hungrier than before.

"So, You Wanna Turn Pro.."

October 18, 2006 9:55 PM  
Blogger David said...

Good for you. You can do it. It just takes talent, work and smarts.

And it really helps when successful photogs like John leave you an excellent trail of bread crumbs to follow on the business side.

October 18, 2006 10:03 PM  
Anonymous Ryan Smith said...

I really wanted to have a say in the debate over photographer's rates and the changing landscape of the field.

I am not a professional photographer, however, I have been a freelancer for over 10 years, mostly in video production.

Two examples that highlight the problems we face today. First, I was a freelance videographer for a company that shot depositions for law
firms. As digital cameras got cheaper and more people had access to them, many companies sprang up in the market offering cheaper services. The company I contracted with closed, rather than work harder for less.

It really didn't make economical sense to stay in business and work for low rates. This reminds me of when John Harrington talks about the cost of doing business. I'm not certain if these cheaper services understand the total cost of running a business. Sure, you've already bought the camera with your own money, so $250 bucks for a day sounds like $250 bucks straight into your pocket, but in reality, you're losing money everytime you shoot and you won't have business money to upgrade your camera in two years.

Second example, I applied for a full-time job writing web content for a travel company. In the interview, they said that they wanted to try out several writers, to make sure they fit before making a decision. Fine. They wanted me to write 30 short articles for $20 bucks each. (Ouch.) I was just out of college without a portfolio so I was willing to do this because it could lead to a salaried position.

After I turned in the articles, they said great, here's another set to do. They weren't ready to make a decision yet, and wanted me to do another round on contract. I told them that I couldn't work for that
low of a rate. Since the first round was on spec, for consideration full-time, it was a reduced rate. They asked for my rate, which of course they felt was too much. (Naturally, they had plenty of freelancers working for >$10 an hour to write articles.)

I suspect, although I'm not certain, that to date they haven't hired anyone full-time. Why pay $30,000 a year plus benefits, for one person, who can only turn out 20-30 articles a week when you can pay
several people, $300 a week, for 100+ articles? Make sense for the company, but now these freelancers are busting their humps for $300 bucks a week and will never be able to make more than that.

This is fine if you're first-year, but eventually you need to save for retirement, have heath insurance, buy a new car, etc. Freelancing isa business and it takes strategy and integrity.

Ryan Smith

October 19, 2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger Jim Goldstein said...

Great tip.I've been hungry for this type of information for a while. I've been looking for more great reads on this topic. I'll also check out Rangefinder. Thanks

July 24, 2007 12:09 AM  

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