We all know someone who has a fancy camera and loves posting random pictures of flowers and “deep, artistic images” on their personal Facebook page – but can they really call themselves a photographer? Does the simple matter of owning a “fancy-shmancy” Canon or Nikon automatically bestow that title upon you? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.) So how do you become a photographer then? Do you need a diploma from a world renowned school? Do you need to own a studio in the arts district of the city? What separates a professional photographer from an amateur photographer? And how do you make the transition from amateur to pro? These are questions I’ve had asked to me by numerous people over the past little while so I figured it would be best to write one big ol’ blog post about it!
When it comes to how to start a business; you need to check your local government regulations about applying for small business applications, yadda yadda. That’s the boring part and I don’t intend on discussing that. What I want to offer all you amateur or semi-pro photographers out there is simply some advice that can hopefully help you become the photographer you dream to be.
Some of these lessons I have had to learn on my own while others were passed down to me by various mentors. Becoming a wedding photographer isn’t easy. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up. You will work for next to nothing (or for free, as an assistant) in order to gain valuable experience and build your portfolio. Oh, and you’ll do all of this while working a part-time job elsewhere so that you have money for rent and groceries. Unfortunately, many new photographers make crucial errors in the beginning of their career and they pay for those mistakes for months, or years, to come. You’ll see what I mean as you read on.
One last little thing I want to address, before getting on to the good stuff, is that there are way too many people out where who own an entry level dSLR that call themselves a “professional” photographer. Being a “professional” photographer has nothing to do with the price of your photo packages or your annual income, despite what many websites out there will tell you Being a professional photographer means that you have a sustainable (and legal) business that can consistantly deliver quality results under any and all circumstances, that you have a vast portfolio and a plethora of experience, can provide top-quality printed products along with digital products and it also means that you have the proper procedures set in place to remedy any problems that may arise (ie: backup gear, insurances, etc.) during the course of your business activities. Being a professional photographer means that you invest in yourself in every way possible, including continuing your education, upgrading your gear, and having a reputable and professional website and/or blog in which to display your works of art to the public. Finally, being a professional also means having the utmost respect for your clients and nurturing the relationship you have with them regardless of the amount of money they are choosing to spend with you. As you can see, being a professional photographer is multi-faceted. There is no one-thing that makes you a professional; it’s almost, in a way, a lifestyle!
Tip #1: Be Humble!
You’re not going to wake up one morning and magically become the world’s most famous wedding photographer. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true. However, if you have talent, skill, drive and discipline you may one day become a world famous wedding photographer. When you’re starting out, you need to remember that you still have lots of growing to do. As you edit your photos, you must sit down and critically analyze them. Are your lines straight? Is your lighting even? Did you pose that couple in the most flattering manner possible? Could you have gotten a better quality photo at a lower iso if you just changed a few other settings? Did you capture all the moments from the best angles? If you can’t critique yourself you will never be able to improve.
Tip #2: Investing in the Right Gear for your Needs
Log onto any camera gear site and you’ll find a list of all the latest gadgets you “need” to properly shoot a wedding. I’ve tried Stofen’s, Gary Fong’s, Fish Eye Lenses, Gels, Reflectors and tonnes of other gizmos and gadgets but none of them have found a permanent place in my camera bag. Why? Because all you really need is: a good, powerful flash with a fast recycle time, a camera body (and a backup body) and a fast lens (ideally something like a 24-70, which is pretty multi-purpose).
When you buy lenses, you will want to buy fast lenses. Apertures of f2.8 or wider. CONSTANT apertures – not variable! Confused? Read this post all about lenses. If you can’t afford the Canon or Nikon brand of lenses, consider looking at brands like Sigma. It’s better to spend $600 on a Sigma 24-70 f 2.8 lens instead of $600 on a Canon 18-135 f3.5-5.6, that is, if you don’t have the $1600 required to buy the Canon version of the 24-70 2.8f.
If you show up at a wedding with a small, underpowered flash and kit lenses, you’re already setting yourself up for poor results. Photography, in it’s basic form, is the capture of light on film. If there’s no light – there’s no picture. Get a good flash, and get fast lenses, and you’ll maximize your potential. Can’t afford that gear? Rent it.
Tip #3: Keep your part-time job… for now
Don’t book your first wedding and then quit your part-time job thinking that you’re a “professional” now. Establishing a portfolio and a reputation takes time but your landlord will still require the monthly rent cheque. The money you make from your first few weddings should go to upgrading gear and you can even consider putting a small portion into advertising.
Once you start getting enough business, over the course of 12-months, then feel free to quit your part-time job. One last thought, though, before you give your 2-weeks notice: Photography is very seasonal! In Canada, we have long winters and very few brides want to get married during this time (and those that do, expect discounts as most vendors offer some type of off-season discount). The winter season is tough for all wedding vendors.
It can take anywhere between 3 and 5 years to really establish yourself in your community and to start getting the majority of your business through word-of-mouth referrals. Remember tip #1 – be humble. You’ll work your butt off during this time, but if photography is truly your love, you will be more than happy to do so!
Tip #4: Don’t use a FREE Website!
Your clients will judge your website within the first five seconds they are there. You must make a good first impression. Even if the photos are super-fab, if the website is poorly designed and full of ads, your potential client may leave your site before even viewing your portfolio.
If your website looks something like www.thefreehostingcompany.yourbusinessname.com the clients may not even visiting it in the first place. Buy a proper domain name. Buy a proper website that is capable of proper photo proofing and has protected galleries. It’s worth it – trust me.
Websites are the “offices/storefronts/studios” of the digital age. Talk to your parents – ask them about their wedding photographer. There’s a chance they had to go to a studio, or office, and sit down for a formal meeting with a photographer and were shown several portfolio albums full of photos. The photographer they were meeting with was probably dressed very nicely, maybe even in a suit! What a swell impression that guy must have made! Now, imagine that same scenario, except this time, imagine that the photographer decided not to wear a suit, and wore a pair of speedo’s and a Hooter’s T-shirt instead… can you imagine showing up to a new client meeting wearing that? That’s the equivalent of sending clients to a poorly designed, free website, full of ads, without a custom domain name.
Tip #5: Learn how to say “NO” to friends and family when they ask you for free stuff!
Once your friends and family know that you’re officially a photographer, they will start asking you to do all kinds of photos for them. Family photos, baby photos, wedding photos, you name it! They’re also going to expect you to do it for free. They don’t understand the hours upon hours of editing that goes into producing a quality product – they probably assume that once you go home, memory card full, you just burn a CD.
Think twice before agreeing to do anyone’s wedding for free – if you’re providing a service, even at an amateur level, you should charge something. Why consider charging? Because not everyone makes it too the altar and that has a chance of really screwing you over in the long run. Sorry for being so blunt, but there’s no other way to put it. If you agree to do someone’s wedding, for free, then that means you have to turn away paying clients for that date. If the free-wedding ends up not happening (for whatever reason), then you’ve lost out on the chance to have accepted the paying clients for the date instead. Also, don’t get guilted into the “Well, you’re my friend/family, you would have come to the wedding even if you weren’t photographing it!” Yes, it’s true – you would have gone as a guest. But a guest doesn’t have to spend 40-80 hours editing afterwards! So how do you deal with situations like this? One option is to charge as you normally would, but include a certain amount of prints, or a stunning album, for free, as their “present”. (Think of it this way… if you were just a guest, you may give between $100-$300 as a wedding present… so why, as a photographer, should you give them a $2,000+ present by doing it all for free?)
Everyone develops their own way of dealing with friends/family as clients. Some offer huge discounts, some offer massive amounts of free products when packages are purchased at original price, and others… well, some refuse to work with friends and family. Blurring the lines between family and client can be dangerous.
If you’re just starting out as a photographer, I truly do wish you the best! Hopefully you have found this article helpful and it has started to guide you on the right path. I have the utmost respect for those who started at the bottom and had to work their way up because I know just how challenging it can be. When things seems hard, don’t get down on yourself – keep pushing and keep working because one day, it will all be worth it!