Hopefully you’ve read the first article on Advice for the New Wedding Photographer, because it’s filled with some really important lessons that every new photographer needs to know.  This article, however, differs from the last as it will be much more specific and discuss the process of transitioning from an amateur to a professional photographer.  I was inspired to write this article when I was asked “…how do I go from being an amateur to a professional photographer / when do can I start calling myself a pro? Also, when should I start charging?”  Boy, what a question!  Truthfully, I had to take a few days to think of what my answer would be, not because I didn’t know the answer, but because there really is no straight forward answer.

Let’s break that big question down into smaller bits and maybe we can find some answers that way.  If you want to go from an amateur to a professional photographer, you first need to look at the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer.  As my mentioned in my first advice article, 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, illness, 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!  Being a professional differs from being an amateur in several key ways.  Amateur photographers rarely have appropriate gear for the situation and even more rarely, have appropriate back-up gear!  Amateur photographers generally do not have a proper workflow in place to adequately and effectively post-process their files nor do they access to pro-labs in order to print albums, canvases, etc.  Finally, amateur photographers generally choose to showcase their materials on free websites as opposed to proper, professional websites (which have not only SEO capabilities but private galleries and are ad-free!).  If you read those last few sentences and thought “Oh, that kind of sounds like me” then you should not be calling yourself a professional because you will be misleading your future clients.

Okay, I promise I will not ramble on about pro vs. amateur any more.

Believe it or not, answering that first part of the question was the easy part of this article to write so in order to answer the remaining part of the “big question” I’m going to try a different approach: this time I will sum it up FIRST, then go on to explain in depth (for all you short-attention-span readers out there!)

  • One of the big moments that can signify the begining of the transition from amateur to professional is when you register your business with the government and you make a business plan.
  • You  start charging for your services once you have a legal business.  Not running a proper business?  Then don`t charge!

Okay, now that the short attention span crowd has dwindled out, let’s look further into the concept of creating a business and charging for your services.  After you take the proper steps to register your business with the government and read-up about proper book keeping (very important for tax time!), buy yourself an accordion file because you better keep track of every little receipt you have from this point on!  Starting a business can be very expensive, but luckily for you, you can claim all your business expenses in your income tax!

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Research

So you’ve decided to be a wedding photographer, but do you have any idea of what the other wedding photographers in your area are charging?  Before you set business goals or start putting together packages, you need to do your research!  Take a few days and pretend you’re a bride.  Do Google searches for photographers in your area and try using all kinds of key words such as “fine art” or “budget friendly” in your searches.  You can also take a look on various wedding websites such as TheWeddingRing to see what vendors advertise on there.  Also, don’t forget about the free classifieds!

Research is so important!  If you don’t do your research you won’t know where you fit in – you don’t want to be known as that photographer that is “so cheap” because you’re charging only a fraction of what the competition is.  At the same time, you also don’t want to be known as the photographer who did 1 wedding then had to close down their business because their prices were too expensive and no one booked with them. Doing research on what other photographers offer will actually help you understand what the prospective client market is in the area.

So, what do other photographers in your area offer?  Do most of them include all the photos of the day on DVD?  Do most of them include albums as part of their packages?  What price range do they have?  Do they charge by the hour, or by the event?  How many types of packages do they offer – just one or two, or a huge variety?  Do most of them have 2nd shooters?  Get to know your competition, it will come in handy as you plan your business!  (As a side note, I want to give you a heads up to the fact that many photographers do not put prices on their websites!  When that’s the case, just learn whatever you can from them and move on to the next.  Don’t contact them “pretending” to be a bride – it’s very unprofessional.)

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Initial Financial Plan

If you start up a business without a plan, you will never know how successful you are because you will never have an end point to compare yourself to.  How much do you want to make per year, after all your expenses are covered?  What will your budget be for advertising?  And for gear upgrades?  What advertising strategies will you put in place in order to help reach your goals?  How much money will you have to invest in yourself over the next few months and years in order to reach your goals?  Once you’ve outlined your plan you can determine what your hourly rate needs to be in order for you to stay to plan.  Once you have your hourly rate then you can start to package your services along that model.

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Packaging your Services

When you did your financial plan, you should have figured out how much you need to make per hour of work in order to cover your expenses and make your profit (afterall, you still have to eat and pay rent!)  For the sake of example, let’s say that your “magic number” is $25 per hour.  When you begin to package your services, you need to estimate how many hours of work each “package” will contain.  Let’s break down a “make-believe” and simple package:

“The Example Package”

10 hours of coverage on the wedding day

2 hour engagement session with 40 pics on DVD

everything from wedding day on DVD

So you know that there will be 12 hours of shooting time.  Take 12 hours x $30 per hour and you get $360.  But what about the editing time?  Everyone’s editing time is different; however, a good starting point is to assume that editing will take 4 times longer than shooting time (although I highly recommend you time yourself when editing to see what your pace really is).  If we’re shooting for 12 hours, that means there can be, on average, 48 hours of editing work to do.  Take 48 hours of editing x $25 per hour and you have to add $1440 on top of the $360 you already calculated.  Don’t forget to factor in a few hours of time for the ‘office work’ like writing invoices for that client, meetings and emails.  Let’s say, oh… 4 hours (which would be an additional $120).  All the costs above are reflective of your time and it’s value; but you also have costs associate with your gear, gas to travel to and from meetings and events, insurances, etc.  You can easily factor in $150 to $250 for those costs, especially if you are renting equipment.  So, office-work, supplies, shooting & editing = $2170 for that simple package.  Does that sound reseasonable?  I don’t know… you tell me!  What has your research shown you?  How does this compare to what other photographers are offering?  Does it seem expensive?  If so, how can you restructure your package?

Note:  For all the non-photographers out there who might be reading this and think to themselves “Wow, $2200 is expensive for only 10 hours of coverage!”  Consider this.  12 hours of shooting + 48 of editing + 4 office work + 3 hours traveling (to and from meeting, e-shoots, etc.) = 67 hours of work per client.  That’s pretty much 2 weeks of work per client.  There are 52 weeks in a year; which mean at best, a photographer can do 26 weddings per years (and that’s without a single day off!).  If every client that photographer booked chose this package (and not a smaller one!) the photographer would make just over $57,000 a year, gross, but a portion of that would still go towards new gear, advertising, web site costs, etc.  Although $2,000+ may seem “expensive” at first glance, in reality, it really is more than reasonable (and infact, is quite budget friendly if you want a photographer who isn’t starving and homeless)

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Staying Competitive

After you initially package your services, go back to your research and take a look at how your services and prices compare to others in the area.  You may find that your prices are substantially lower than your competitors – so you need to ask yourself “why is that?”  Are you not offering enough?  Are you grossly underestimating the amount of time it will take you to edit the photos?  Perhaps you’ll have the opposite problem – maybe you will realize that your prices are a lot higher than your competitors and you need to make some changes accordingly.  Is it taking you too long to edit the photos?  Can your post-wedding workflow be improved significantly?  How you choose to make your changes is up to you, but don’t get let down if you have to go back to the drawing board a few times and re-design your packages and even your business plan.

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The Contract

Okay, so you’ve packaged your services and you’ve just bought yourself a domain name and a website… is it time to go live?  Hell no!  You’ve got a lot more work to do!

Before you even begin advertising, you need to make sure that you have an appropriate contract.  There are internet sites designed to help you develop contracts, or, you can do it the old fashioned way and find a lawyer to help you draw up a contract.  Every photographer’s contracts are different and some are much, much more detailed than others.  Contracts are important for the client and they are also important for you.  A contract is designed to protect the client’s investment in you and to protect your investment into the client. If you don’t have a proper contract, things can get very, very messy!  Don’t even meet with a prospective client until you have a contract.  Enough said.

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Building your Image

So you’ve got your contract, your packages, and your plan…. we’re almost there!  It’s now time to start working on your image.  No, no, I’m not talking about what you physically look like – I’m referring to your business!  You’re a photographer – your job is to find the beauty in all moments and turn them into works of art.  You are, essentially, an artist.  You need your business cards, your website and your blog to all have that “wow” factor that makes prospective clients say “Hey, I want to look at this a while longer!”  When clients visit your sites or look at your cards they will immediately judge your artistic and creative ability based on your business image.

Some photographers have a symbol or logo that they use, others simply design with text – however you choose to do it, keep it consistent.  Decide on your logo and your color scheme and stick with it.

Are you worried because you’re not web-savvy and you fear developing your own website?  No worries – there are plenty of web designers out there who are more than willing to build you a beautiful site…. for money.  If you’re not capable of  building a beautiful and memorable website on your own, you must invest in someone else’s talents.  Whether the client realizes it or not, they take account the website design and layout when they are critiquing your work.  Websites that are difficult to navigate through, filled with ads and take forever to load cause potential clients to become frustrated and they will only end up judging your work more harshly than if they were to view it on a lovely, easy to navitage, well designed site  (that is to say, if they remain on your site at all!)  When you’re a new professional, you need to give yourself every upper hand you can.

Once you have decided on your image, you can start building the sites!  Keep websites easy to navigate through, well organized and, when choosing flash slideshow options, keep in mind that not all devices are flash-compatible.

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Discounts, Discounts, Discounts!

Once you’re ready to rock ‘n roll and all your ducks are in a row, it’s time to get out there and get some clients!  When you are advertising, it is imperative that you mention that you are a “new” photographer.  If you have previously worked with other professionals, you can mention that in your add so that the readers are aware of your previous experience, however, it is greatly to your benefit to be upfront about the fact that you are now photographing solo!

I feel like a lot of you out there are shaking your heads right now and saying “Geez, what’s the point of going professional if you are still calling yourself a new photographer?”  It’s simple: now that you’re charging for your services, your time is valuable!  Consider this… There are a lot of people out there who want full-day wedding coverage for cheap but they still expect a more-than-capable professional photographer with years of experience to do the job!  (Silly, I know!  But these people are out there!)  If you don’t mention the fact that you’re a new photographer in your ads, you will get a whole lot of responses and requests for meetings, you’ll set up and attend these meetings only to to be asked “So, how many weddings have you done?” or “How long have you been doing this for?” and you will then have to explain that you’re a new professional yadda yadda yadda…. If your potential clients don’t like the idea of having a “new” photographer on their wedding day, then you’ve just wasted a LOT of time with these people when you could have weeded them out by simply mentioning it in your ad.

So, how can you get people to book with you even though you’re a new professional?  It’s simple: Discounts!  Explain in your ad that you are a new up-and-coming professional in the area and that as you gain solo experience and build your portfolio, you will offer unbelievable discounts for your services.

How much of a discount should you offer?  Well, that depends on your financial plan.  If you have to rent your equipment because you don’t have appropriate gear (or backup gear) then you need to make sure that you still, at least, break even after the discount.  I’ve known some amateur-turning-pro photographers offer up to a 50% discount on their services to get those first few clients through the door.

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Set Limits for Discounts

When you’re offering major discounts, it’s important to set limits.  Don’t offer a 50% discount to someone whose wedding date is 3 years away because there’s a good chance that in three years you will improve so much that you will resent that couple for getting your services for so cheap (and you’re supposed to love working  with your clients, not feel burdened by them!)  Think of limits that work and stick to them.

You also need to consider changing your discount as you gain clients and experience.  Perhaps offer a 50% discount to the first 4 clients, then a 30% discount for the next 4… then maybe a 20% discount, etc.  The point is… eventually you want to charge full price, but you need the experience as a solo photographer first.

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Take Time for Yourself

Now that you’ve started advertising and the emails will come pouring in (hopefully!) you need to do one last very important thing: take time for yourself!  Decide how many week’s holidays you will give yourself in the year and book them off in your calendar.  It’s so hard to say “no” to clients, especially when you’re starting out, but if you never allow yourself time to spend with your loved ones and family then you will start to go crazy!  I must admit, even I struggle with this part sometimes (ask any of my friends and family and they will all tell you that I’m a workaholic and that I may have lost a few of my marbles over the past couple of years because of it!).

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Let the Journey Begin…

You’ve done it!  You’ve taken the appropriate steps to become a professional photographer and in the years to come, you will hopefully become an experienced professional photographer.   Every day of your life, from this moment on, you have to keep working hard to remain a professional photographer.  If you stop working hard and let things slip; poor business etiquette, no equipment upgrades, no continuing education, etc. then you will slip back into the world of the amateur photographer.

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To anyone who has ever started their own business, they may look at this article and think that it’s grossly over simplified – but for those of you who are looking at making the transition from the amateur to a professional, I know that you will benefit from the information you have receieved.  Yes, there are so many things about starting a business that I haven’t mentioned, but writing about all of that would yield a book larger than all the Harry Potter novels put together.  Starting a business is not easy at all – it requires an immense amount of hard work, dedication and confidence – but if you have those qualities and you combine them with talent, then you’ve got the magic recipe for success!