How to Become a Paid Professional Photographer in Just 9 Steps

woman photographing mushrooms at home with professional camera

Adobe Stock / Alliance

Heather K Adams
Heather K Adams733
Content + Copy Writer
  • Practice your art and grow your skills by training your eye, learning your camera and tackling post-processing.
  • To launch your photography career, strategically invest in more equipment, look for an internship or mentor, create a business plan and a website to build your business. 

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With the omni-presence of visual-heavy social media like Instagram, and the ever-growing technological sophistication of the cameras in our phones, photography as a hobby, passion and even a profession isn't going anywhere any time soon. 
Who hasn't whipped out their phone to catch a shot of that gorgeous sunset, that laughing baby, that friend doing some awesomely awful 80s karaoke? It's safe to say we all love being able to take pictures and capture our memories. But you may find yourself using all your phone's storage with the massive amounts of pictures you take. 

You may even decide to upgrade to an actual DSLR camera which means at some point you'll probably start to wonder just how to take your love and turn it into a profit — you're not alone. Lots of shutterbugs want to know how to become a professional photographer. And here are the basics steps.

How to become a (paid!) photographer

1. Train your eye.

Like other creative passions, becoming a professional photographer doesn't necessarily hinge on your educational background. You can study photography in college, of course, and that's useful for any visual arts degree. However, if you're not currently in school or not in a position to take a more formal course that's okay. You can still learn the ins and outs not only of your professional-level camera but the art of photography itself. A simple internet search yields nearly endless results for introductions, tutorials and free or paid courses.
The most important element to becoming a photographer though? Taking pictures. A lot of them. If you're focusing on portraiture as your specialty then chances are you're already in the habit of roping family and friends into posing for you — keep going. And treat these occasions as serious portrait sessions. 
You can learn posing, lighting techniques and other tips and tricks for creating professional-level photographs by watching tutorials. But the only way to actually train your eye and build your photography muscles is to go out and do it, applying what you learn each time. Practice doesn't just make perfect, it also makes you a better photographer.

2. Learn your camera.

Remember when you were first learning to drive a car? So many things to keep straight all at once. It was sometimes overwhelming. But today when you hop in your car you just buckle up and go. You don't think about the process of backing up or parking or merging onto the highway anymore. The motions have all become second nature.
In many ways your camera is like you car, a thing you'll use so much it starts to feel like an extension of your hand. Again, videos and other tutorials can help you learn about whichever model camera you have, its different modes and bells and whistles, but nothing will get you to that level of instinct and comfort like actually going our and using that camera. Spend time experimenting on your shoots with different shutter speeds, ISO settings and other options in the moment to learn what works best for you under different lighting conditions.

3. Tackle post-processing.

So what do you do with your pictures once you have them? If you want to become a professional photographer the answer to that question is: you edit them. No matter how stellar your skills are at capturing moments and stories in-camera, learning an editing software program will let you punch up your work and turn those pictures into professional photographs. 
Different kinds of photographers edit for different outcomes — live event and fine art photographers may want high drama, while wedding and portraiture photographers may want a softer and more intimate feel. But you'll be hard pressed to find a professional who doesn't edit her work in some way.
There are tons of fun photo editing apps you can have on your phone, but if you're learning to become a professional photographer, with an actual camera, learning Photoshop or Lightroom is fairly essential. Both of these editing programs allow you to manipulate and edit a picture with a depth that most apps can't provide. Working on a laptop also means you have a bigger screen to see your work, giving you a better idea of how the edits you make will look on a final printed product for your clients.

4. Strategically invest in more equipment.

Once you feel comfortable with your art, your camera and editing your pictures you can actually start taking on (paying) clients. Most photographers of course start with family and friends, then friends of friends and similar word of mouth clients. As your skills and customer base grow and you become more of a jobbing photographer you're probably going to find that you need some more specialized equipment. Camera bodies last a fairly long time so things like lenses, flashes and lighting equipment are where you're more likely to want to spend your money. And you can end up spending a lot of money indeed.
Before you invest in that prime lens that has you drooling, take a look at what kind of photography you've been doing up to this point, and what kind you want to focus on more as you move forward with your business. When you're learning how to become a working photographer you'll say yes to anyone who wants to hire you, photographing babies, dogs, your coworker's nephew's high school talent show, a startup's grand opening. 
As you become more specialized, however, your equipment needs will reflect the work you do the most, or what you want to more exclusively. A budding wildlife photographer will need that incredibly powerful (and heavy) telephoto lens. A portraiture photographer just won't need that. So before you drop a thousand dollars or more, make sure it's on a piece of equipment you actually need and will use enough to warrant that level of investment.

5. Look for an internship, mentor or entry level photography position.

For freelancers, a mentor can be an invaluable resource for both the art and business sides of being a professional photographer. For those going a more commercial or print photography route finding an entry level position with a publishing or production company will be the start of your professional career. These positions for newbies are low in terms of pressure but worth their weight in gold. 
Sure you may fetch a lot of lattes, but you'll also get to see how a photo shoot is planned, organized and implemented. You'll also learn how the work is handled from post-processing all the way to the final product in a magazine or on a website. Learning from practicing professionals, getting to watch them while they work and asking them questions is also invaluable. And you'll soon get the opportunity to start shooting on your own, building both your portfolio and your reputation. This is a career path many commercial photographers and photojournalists take. Photojournalists can also start looking for work with local newspapers and then scale up as opportunities arise.

6. Create a business plan.

If you're going the freelance route then creating a business plan is a solid idea. Even if you don't see yourself making the leap into full time freelancer (lots of professional-level photographers choose to support themselves in other ways as well), creating a business plan helps you refine your creative business endeavor. It gives you a chance to create a break-even budget, showing you in black and white exactly how much you need to break even each month before you can consider making the transition into full time. 
A business plan also asks you to refine a niche, a brand and an ideal customer. This part of writing your plan can feed later advertising and marketing efforts. Writing it is also an opportunity to draft contracts, model release forms and other paperwork your business is going to need as you grow.

7. Build your business by building your website.

Some photographers find work in slightly more traditional 9-to-5 roles, shooting commercial work for everything from fashion magazines to food publications. But a great many more take the freelancing route. For those photographers a great website is essential to building your business. It serves as both your portfolio and your sales pitch, so make sure to build a site that sounds like who you are, talks to the kinds of customers you want to attract and shows off your very best work.  Clients who engage a photographer's services, such as an engaged couple, want to connect with you and your work on an emotional level. They need to feel they can trust you with one of the most important events of their lives.
To that end, your networking and people skills are going to be just as important to your business as your photography and editing skills. Adding business and marketing courses to your studies will stand you in good stead. Learning how to become a photographer involves not just creating excellent work, but being able to find new clients, deliver results, handle complaints (happens to everyone), draft invoices and keep your financial affairs in IRS-worthy shape. It's a lot of work, both behind and beyond the lens.

8. Keep adding to your skills sets.

If you want your business to stay relevant, you have to keep putting in the work. Tastes in photography change and part of learning how to became a successful professional photographer is learning to adapt to and meet those fluctuating expectations. Staying on top of industry trends is necessary, but so is being able to actually produce work in a new look or style.
Professionals in all industries make a point to keep learning and trying new things. If you're a wedding photographer this may involve incorporating more experimental portrait techniques into engagement sessions for your couples. Commercial photographers will want to experiment with different shooting and editing techniques to keep your images looking new and fresh and never dated.

9. Test the boundaries of your niche.

Those wedding photographers sometimes learn videography in order to add that service into the packages they offer their couples. Those commercial photographers dabble in fine art photography in order to push the envelope in that more mainstream sphere. Live music photographers may practice wildlife or portrait photography in their spare time. The end result of this kind of cross-training is two fold. For one thing the skills needed to shoot a different kind of event or subject will work your photography muscles and your brain in a way that can feed your energy and creativity in your own niche.
The other reason has more to do with letting you play with your camera again, and to play without worrying about a client's expectations or if there's a market for this kind of work.  Creatives, like everyone else , run the risk of hitting burnout and stalling in their careers. But an added danger is that if a creative professional photographer burns herself out on photography, she's losing both an income and a pastime she deeply loves. So exploring different kinds of photography can inform your business and improve your mental health at the same time.

How much money does a photographer make?

As ever your income as a freelancer will depend on your photography and business skills, as well as how much demand there is for your niche in the area you service. In general full time freelance incomes will vary from about $30,000 to $50,000 a year, the average coming in at $40,000 annually. Photographers in more popular niches such as wedding photography can make upwards of $100,000 a year, but the competition is pretty stiff in that niche for both beginners and pros alike.

Keep on clickin'

If you've been bitten by the shutterbug and are kicking around the idea of becoming a professional photographer, know that the first and last steps to success are simply practicing your art and growing your skills. You'll get more equipment when and as you're able. If you're dedicated to the idea of becoming a business then you'll find customers and your business will grow. But nothing is more valuable than just getting out there and getting clicking. That's what's so awesome about photography — with enough passion anyone can grow their skills and technical know-how. After that, going into business for yourself is just a matter of hard work and stamina.