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Photo Contest Insider Blog

How to Become a Professional Photographer: Going from Amateur to Professional

March 16, 2016

The transition from amateur to professional photographer isn’t an overnight journey – after all, if it was easy everyone would be doing it, right?

Thankfully though, it’s certainly not an impossible feat. In fact, there are a number of actionable steps which you can work on each day, week, month, and year in order to successfully get to your end goal: being paid to do what you love the most – photography.

How to become a professional photographer

We’ve read countless guides, how-to’s, and down-to-earth advice from full-time photographers in order to cut through the fluff and present you with the real facts. Here’s how you can transition from a hobbyist photographer into a professional.

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Learn manual mode

It might seem like a basic area in which to begin, but many hobbyist or amateur photographers may not have moved out of their comfort zone, also known as ‘auto mode’. Many photographers insist that if you’re not shooting in your camera’s manual mode, then you’re simply not being a true photographer.

Take time to learn about terms such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. and more importantly, begin to experiment in order to see how they relate to one another, as well as how they impact your images.

Once you understand these various options, your work will transform into the eye-catching, crisp, and clear works of art that professional photographers are celebrated for.

A great photographer can take incredible photos with a terrible camera.

– Matt Lief Anderson

Master your editing process

While we can all dream of being able to capture the perfect image in just a single click, editing is a part of every professional photographer’s workflow.

For amateur photographers who may not have had in-depth experience with professional editing software, it is recommended that they start small. Use free online photo editors (such as BeFunky, for example) to play around with settings such as saturation, exposure, contrast, etc. in order to understand how each of these elements work within your image.

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Once these settings have been fully understood, amateur photographers should then move onto using professional editing software such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Not only can these programs transform your images and lift them to new heights, but mastering these editing skills is actually vital to becoming a pro.

Here’s a helpful tip, however: unless you’re embracing surreal or fine art photography, you still want your images to look natural. Therefore, don’t over-edit! Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like a photograph that is too contrasted or overly saturated, don’t you think?

Learn from your mistakes. Apply what you have learned, go back to a place and get it right.

– David Noton

Get a website

If you really want to take your photography seriously, you’ve got to present it in the most professional light. Platforms such as Flickr, 500px, and Tumblr (for example) are wonderful sites for photographers to share their work and establish relationships with other like-minded creatives, however when presenting your work to potential clients or publications, a free-to-use site simply won’t do.

Invest a small amount of money into purchasing your own domain name and finding a host for your website. WordPress has a number of free-to-use, sleek themes and designs for your site, or you could even invest some more money into purchasing a super professional-looking theme. Want a stunning website which successfully represents your brand (a.k.a your photography)? Simply hire a designer to get it just right!

Once you’ve perfected the look and feel of your own website, you’ll want to add in vital pages such as information about yourself, how to contact you, testimonials (if you have any), and links to your social media.

On our Resources page we have some tips for you on Website Builders for Photographers.

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Only post your best work

This rule applies for any platform that you share your photography on, whether it be your website, social media, or those free-to-use photography sites that we mentioned earlier.

It’s better to have a showcase of ten amazing images than it is to have one hundred images which are simply ‘ok’. When you start reaching out to potential clients, brands, and companies (more on that next!), you want them to visit your portfolio and be blown away by your work. As a result, they’re more likely to want to collaborate with you and this will be a huge step forward in your photography career, especially when it leads to paid work.

Concentrate on your unique vision and learn to listen to yourself…Shoot what you love. Then keep shooting, keep shooting and keep shooting.

– Cameron Davidson

Use a professional email address

Let’s face it, when it comes to receiving emails from potential photographers to work with, a company or publication is going to favor “[email protected]” over something which reads “[email protected]” (ok, we made that email up).

As you’ll see in the next section, emailing is an incredibly important part of every professional photographer’s job. Therefore, anything you can do to make the right impression will help you turn your passion for photography into a paid career.

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Start pitching your services via email

The most successful photographers are those who chased opportunities for themselves, rather than just waiting for clients to come knocking. As you’re making the shift from amateur to expert and establishing yourself as a professional photographer, it is vital that you get your name out there. The easiest way to do this is through ‘cold-emailing’ where you email an individual and introduce your services to them in the hope that they may want to work with you.

Photographers who are lacking in professional experience often find themselves disheartened and disappointed when they don’t always receive a response, but it’s important to realize that it’s all part of the job. Remember, sometimes you have to cast a net a thousand times before you catch a fish.

The more pitches and introductions you send to others in the hope of collaborating, the higher your chances of success will be. This is the part where you really have to hustle in order to make contacts, establish relationships, gain experience, and one day get paid for your efforts too.

Everyone has to start somewhere, so you need to expect that your first jobs or collaborations with brands, companies, models, publications etc. will be unpaid. It’s not all bad though – in return for your work, you’ll be able to collect testimonials, add more professional photographs to your portfolio, and gain that invaluable (and highly sought-after) experience.

Don’t just contact anyone and everyone, however. Think about the type of photography that interests you the most and go from there. Have you always wanted to be a fashion photographer? Contact modeling agencies and ask if you can do a test shoot with one of their models, or why not offer to shoot a lookbook for a smaller brand at no cost?

Alternatively, you might be trying to make your way in the music photography industry. Pro photographer Matt Lief Anderson advises that you “email bands in your town, venues, record companies, music sites, and other music related publications.”

He offers further advice to all photographers, stating:

Send your work to creative agencies, producers, and creative directors…Whatever your focus is with photography, email people in that industry.

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Enter photography competitions

Not only is entering photography competitions fun, but it also gets your creative juices flowing, especially when the competition has a particular theme or motivation. Another huge benefit which could come from entering your images into contests is that if you win or become a runner-up, you gain immense exposure for your work – plus some pretty cool prizes if they’re on offer!

Luckily, you’ll find the world’s largest collection of photography competitions right here (on Photo Contest Insider, of course!), with competitions from all around the globe and targeted towards various levels of photographic experience.

As soon as you’re ready to start sharing your work and reaching out to potential clients, you’re also ready to give these contests a red-hot go. Best of luck!

Stay inspired and creatively motivated

Anyone working in a creative career, such as photography, will understand the importance of finding inspiration from numerous sources on a regular basis. When you feel so incredibly passionate about your work, you’ll find yourself trawling the internet for photographers you admire, attending photography exhibitions, regularly reading industry-related publications, and even reading books or watching movies which inspire you.

As we’re sure you already know, there’s a fine line between being inspired by something and basically plagiarizing someone else’s work, so be sure to keep this in mind when you’re getting those creative juices flowing.

It’s important to also mention that everyone will have their days where they simply don’t feel inspired at all. Creative blocks will come and go. When they do strike, you can either try to seek inspiration from one of the sources mentioned above, or simply take a few hours off (if you can). Sometimes everyone just needs to rest their mind, especially when their work is as hands-on as photography.

Get out there and put your time in the field. The only way to guarantee that you won’t get any pictures is to be sitting at home. – Tim Laman.

Always have a professional manner

When wanting to make the shift from amateur to professional photographer, it makes sense to also develop a very professional, business-like manner when dealing with clients. Even a little politeness goes a long way and a friendly, co-operative, and skillful photographer is way more likely to attract repeat clients and paid work.

When dealing with emails, you’ll want to respond as soon as possible (within a 24-hour period) and be sure to remain courteous and respectful in all of your communication – whether it be over the phone, online, or in-person.

Another element of being professional is to remain organized at all times and be sure to always back-up your work to prevent any stressful disasters.

It’s also important that you present yourself in the most professional light in terms of the way you dress on a job. Although you’ve probably heard it a million times by now, first impressions count. Clients also want a photographer who is reliable, so punctuality is of the utmost importance.

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Continue to work hard and never give up

No one said the journey from amateur to pro photographer would be easy, but one thing is for sure – it’ll certainly be worth it. When you’re facing disappointment or just generally having a ‘flat’ day, visualize how amazing it would be to earn a living from doing what you love. Let this thought spur you on to continue striving for that (very realistic) dream.

In conclusion, we’ll leave you with this wonderful quote from professional nature photographers Joe and Mary Ann McDonald:

Make time to develop your skills – try to get a job that still gives you time for your photography and doesn’t stress you out! With faith and self-belief you can achieve your goals.