How to become a professional photographer - 7 Key Skills

Photography is a popular choice of profession for many, but despite the perception of it being a ‘glamourous’ career, in actual fact it requires a lot of hard work, time and effort.

What you'll need to become a professional photographer

With over 20 years experience as a professional photographer myself, it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about what it takes to make it as a pro. To help you make a success of your own journey, I’ve broken down the seven key things you need to do to help increase your chances of success.
Pro photographer, Karl Taylor captures a portrait using large beauty dish
To become a professional photographer one needs to put i hard work, time and effort.

1. Understand photography basics

If you ask any professional photographer for advice on how to get started, they will tell you how essential it is that you understand the basics. I’m not talking about simply knowing what aperture is or which shutter speed will be the best to freeze a moving car — if you’re thinking about going pro you should already know those.

I’m talking about understanding more than just the very basics. If your image is perfectly exposed at f11 at 1/300th, what would you have to do to reduce the depth of field while maintaining the same exposure? Do have an understanding of what makes a good picture? Have you fully grasped the importance of emotion and mood in an image? Can you tell a story with your photos?

If you haven’t yet fully grasped these concepts — you should definitely make sure that you take the time to get to grips with them. As a photographer, there is always more to learn. You should never be satisfied with what you know as there will always be something else that can help you improve your photography. Keep practicing. Look at work by other photographers and try to figure out what it is that makes their work so strong. Then, go and practice some more. Aim to develop your own style, don’t simply copy others. Then, once you’re confident you have a better understanding than before, the next step is to decide what you’d like to photograph.

Capturing a professional image at night. Karl Taylor showing camera LCD display.
In order to build a successful photography career, it's imperative that one understands the basics of photography.

2. Choose your niche

Do you have a panache for portrait photography? Or perhaps you have more of a flair for food photography? When it comes to becoming a professional photographer, specialising can be a good move. Not only will this give you a focus, it will also help you figure out things like who your audience is, where and how to market your work and what you should charge for your photography. It will also allow you to focus on developing key skills.

Pricing your photography

Photography pricing

How much to charge for your photography

Key points for calculating what to charge for your photography.

Read More
Read More
Join Now

That being said, when you’re just starting out, it can also be a good idea to just get out there and experiment with a number of different subjects. Don’t limit yourself. Start with shooting things you enjoy, whether this be wildlife or street photography, and see where it takes you. Photographing different subjects will teach you a variety of different skills, and you never know when they might come in handy.

What do professional photographers earn

Now at this point I’m sure you’re asking “But what type of photography will make me the most money?”. You can find a much more detailed explanation of this in our Business course, but to help answer this question here, I’ve tried to provide a general idea for a few of the different types of photography. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these figures are largely driven by supply and demand and can vary greatly depending on things like experience and even location.

Photography business

The Business of Photography

A  guide to running a successful photography business

Learn how you can make money with your photography in our business classes.

Learn More
Learn More
Join Now

Wedding photographer income

Wedding photographer average income: Approximately £45,000 / $58,000 + per year

Typically, wedding photographers can make anywhere between £45,000 / $58,000 and £150,000 / $193,000 per year. If this sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is. These figures fluctuate drastically depending on a number of factors, including how many weddings you shoot per year, what experience you have, where you’re based and your position in the market.

Watch my interview with award-winning wedding photographer David Stanbury here.

Portrait photographer income

Portrait photographer average income: Approximately £35,000 / $45,000 + per year

Most portrait photographers charge per session, which means their income depends largely on how many shoots they do each year. For any photographer wanting to specialise in portrait photography, it is expected that you’ll be able to make a minimum of £35,000 / $45,000 + per year. Again, this depends on a large number of factors.

Watch my interview with celebrity portrait photographer Tom Oldham here.

Product photographer income

Product photographer average income: Approximately £75,000 / $96,000 + per year

Typically charging per day or per job, product photographers earn between £75,000 / $96,000 and  £250,000 / $322,000 per year. Again, this is dependant on factors such as experience, the type of job, the size of the client and even whether you’re charging usage rights or not (to learn more about usage rights, watch our ‘Business skills’ class).

To find out what you could be charging as a professional photographer, take a look at our Photography Pricing blog post.

When looking at these figures, it’s important to keep in mind what you’d like to earn. If you’re thinking about setting up on your own, you should be confident that you’ll be able to make more than if you worked a regular job, working for somebody else.

Montage displaying different types of photography
Deciding on what type of photography you want to pursue will help focus your career.

3. Get the right equipment

Over the years, photographic equipment has become more accessible and more affordable than ever before. However, with so much on the market, it can be difficult to know what you really need to get started as a professional photographer. This brings me back to my previous point — choose your niche. Once you’ve decided what type of photographer you want to be, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what equipment you’ll need.

Whatever your area of specialisation, it’s important you have the right equipment. You wouldn’t be happy if you went to the dentist and they used a toothpick instead of a sickle scaler, or if your builder didn’t have a spirit level. While you don’t have to start out with the very best equipment right from the get-go, you can’t expect to make it as a professional photographer without having to invest in some equipment. Speedlites and reflectors will only take you so far, and as your career progresses, you may find you require more specialised equipment such as filters, studio lights or even specialist lenses.

A good way to test out any equipment before you buy it is to rent it. This is something many photographers fail to consider, but it’s a great way to try out equipment before committing. This way you’ll be able to see the exact results yourself, see how it works and how it feels too.

Photography equipment. Canon camera on tripod connected to trigger cable
Photography, like any other profession, requires the right equipment.

4. Practice

Practice is one of the most important thing any aspiring photographer can do. Reading about photography is one thing, but it’s a totally different thing to actually get out there and start shooting.

The more you shoot, there more you’ll be able to get to grips with the fundamentals and how your camera works. The better you understand the basics, the better images you’ll be able to take, which means you’ll have a stronger portfolio and therefore greater chance of making it as a pro.

It’s also important that you take the time to analyse your own work. Take a moment to really look at your images — how do they compare to other professionals? How can they be improved? What could you have done differently? As I pointed out earlier in this article — there is always something more to learn when it comes to photography and you have to be willing to put in the time necessary to make a success of your work.

If you’re looking for ideas, we have hundreds of classes on Visual Education that will provide both inspiration and information. The key thing is to challenge yourself — try new things, experiment with new techniques or even re-attempt old shoots to see if you can improve on the image. Not only will practice help you grow your confidence, it will also provide an opportunity to develop your own style and build a portfolio.

Example images of Karl Taylor capturing models for natural light portraiture training.
Practice, practice practice. The best way to learn photography is to put the knowledge you've learnt into practice.

5. Be realistic

This is a point I can’t stress enough. Be realistic — about the quality of your work, the market and your location. At the end of the day, as with any business, it comes down to supply and demand. What do the consumers demand, and who else is supplying them?

Over the years, there’s no question that supply in the photographic industry has increased dramatically. However, the increase in demand has not necessarily matched this. This means there is often a surplus supply in the market.

If you’re looking to go pro, you have to be realistic about this. For example, if you’re in an area that already has hundreds of weddings photographers all offering their services at competitive rates, you have to consider what your chances are of making a success of it. What can you supply this already oversaturated market with that will make you stand out?

You have to consider who you are able to supply to and what you are able to supply them with. You also have to consider who else is already supplying similar services.

Location is another factor you have to be realistic about. A product photographer, for example, based in a remote location, may be putting themselves at a disadvantage if there isn’t enough demand in the area. Not every client is going to be able to ship their goods to be photographed, the same way it would be unrealistic for the photographer to travel for every job. Be realistic about where you are based and how this will impact the demand for your service.

And again, because I can’t say it enough — you have to be realistic about the quality of your work. Your mom, uncle and 30 people on Instagram could all absolutely love your images, but if they aren’t comparable to other professional work on the market, you have to be realistic about your prospects. Keep pushing yourself to improve, whether this be a better understanding of light (my next point) or your post production skills, never settle for what you think is good enough.

Two examples of commercial photography. One business portrait and a cosmetic product image.
To become a successful photographer you have to be realistic about the quality of your work, the market and your location.

6. Don’t think you know light. Know light.

Whether you’re shooting with natural light or studio light, key to any successful image is good lighting.

Light can make or break an image, so it’s imperative that you not only understand light, but that you also know how to control it. This may simply be knowing the best time of day to shoot at a given location, how to use reflectors to maximise/minimise your light or when and how to use filters. Or, if you’re in the studio, understanding how to shape light, how it interacts with different surface materials and how the inverse square law works.

This point also relates back to having the right equipment. You’ll struggle to create a soft, even light with just a speedlite, but with the right light and a large softbox, you’ll find you not only have an easier job, but you’ll also be able to be far more creative and efficient.

Understanding lighting is all about understanding the physics of light, which is what I emphasise throughout our photography training classes. You can’t break the laws of physics, so to have total control over your light you have to understand the science.

To learn more about the physics of light, watch our ‘Introduction and understanding light’ class, where I explain everything you need to know to help you control light.

Photography classes

Understanding light

Learn the fundamentals of light

This class covers the fundaments of light, equipping you with the knowledge you need to confidently work with studio light
Learn More
Learn More
Join Now
Montage of two fashion photographs. One using light sticks and the other a fast flash duration splash photo.
A strong understanding of light is one of the key things for successful imagery.

7. Get your work out there

Once you’ve  developed a body of work that demonstrates your skills, the key thing is to get it out there. Thanks to technology these days, there’s endless ways you can do that — from posting images on social media to crafting a professional website or even entering competitions.

Developing your portfolio

Your portfolio should be a collection of only your very best work, so it’s important that you give due thought and time to it. Online portfolios are incredibly popular now, thanks to how easy it is to quickly set up your own website. However, it’s still important to keep these tips in mind for building your online portfolio:

  1. Be your biggest critic: When it comes to showing your best work, try and think critically about your work. To help you select your top images, it can be worth getting a second opinion from other photographers.
  2. Be clear & keep things simple: Make sure your images display clearly and correctly and that you include your contact details too. Remember, you want to create a good impression, so try to think of what you would want to see if you were looking to hire someone.
  3. Connect with your audience: World-renowned product photographer and talk show guest Jonathan Knowles gave a great piece of advice: he said that your portfolio should be a reflection of the type of work you want to do.
  4. Print your work: Although we’ve shifted more towards online, printing your work can still be highly effective. A printed portfolio can be a great way to show off your images, and it’s much harder to forget about than just another e-mail with just another website link.
Photography classes

Jonathan Knowles

Learn from an award-winning product photographer

Watch the full interview with top product and advertising photographer Jonathan Knowles.
Watch Now
Watch Now
Join Now

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember if you want to become a professional photographer is that your work has to be good enough. Regardless of your profession, it’s the quality of your work that you’re judged on. You may have a phenomenal understanding of the basic concepts, or have outstanding marketing skills, but none of that will matter if your work isn’t of high enough quality. It’s not easy making it as a professional photographer nowadays, but it is still possible. Take the time and put in the effort, but be realistic too. Think critically about your work, and if you find it still wanting — keep working at it!

© Visual Education. All rights reserved. No content on this page may be used or shared by third parties.

Recommended Content

To learn more about photography, why not jump into some of our classes...

Live interviews with leading photographers provide a unique opportunity to learn from industry leaders and find out what it takes to make it as a pro.

In addition to our live talk shows, we also have hundreds of other classes that cover both the theory and practical side of photography.  Whether you're photographing portraiture or products, you'll find a range of classes to choose from. Each of these are designed to provide the essential knowledge you need to make a success of your photography.

Leave a Comment