What it takes to make it as a professional portrait photographer

There are many skills that will help you make a living from portraiture. But you might be surprised that ‘great photography’ isn’t at the top of the list.

“Oh, it’s going really well,” I told her, “I’m really pleased with the images I captured; I’ve sent them off to all the clients and they’re delighted!”

“That’s great,” she said, “and have you invoiced them yet?”

“Errr, no, not yet.”

No wonder the clients were so happy – they hadn’t paid a penny yet. And left unchallenged by Sarah, I probably wouldn’t have sent those invoices any time soon. Not until the money in the bank started to run out and the mortgage lender, gas provider and broadband supplier started to send me excitable letters.

Taking amazing images is just one part of being a professional photographer, but still an important part!

I was too busy interacting with clients, creating photographs and perfecting them in Photoshop. Those were the three things I pictured myself doing as a full-time photographer, after all. I was focused on the art and the creativity and the people, not the business.

But I know what comes first now. I’ve met some mediocre photographers who run very profitable business. And I know many outstanding photographers who live like starving artists. They believe that making beautiful images is enough. In truth, that’s only part of it.

In the end, their money runs out completely and the dream gets swapped for a job with a regular income. No cash coming in, and too much cash going out. Poor cashflow is the epitaph of almost all failed businesses, big or small.

So when I think about what you need to make it as a professional photographer, great photography skills are at the bottom of the list. Here’s what I think comes first:

You need to be a professional

Run your outfit as a business. That means being determined, organised and resilient. Why resilient? You’re going to experience a lot of knocks. Most clients are everything you hope for. But there will be some that you’re certain will book you or buy lots of your images, but then who don’t. Clients who negotiate aggressively. Clients who become non-responsive and silently vanish into thin air. You can’t let these distract you. Deal with the bad but focus on the good.

You need to learn what sells and shoot it

You might love a particular style in one particular genre, but if the market for that kind of image is non-existent, then you’ll struggle to make a living. There’s a compromise between shooting what you love, and shooting what people will pay you for. Markets change over time: what works for you now won’t work in five years’ time. Be prepared to stay on the journey; to notice the trends in the marketplace early and keep learning and evolving.

You need to be financially astute

Learn what kit helps you make money. I want every new body, every amazing lens; of course I do. But buying equipment has to be a well-thought-out business decision. And actually, you know what? My favourite lens of all time is my 105mm lens. It’s 40 years’ old.

You need to be efficient

Learn where to invest time and where it’s lost unnecessarily. Spending four hours editing an image you’re particularly fond of may or may not have a business benefit. Remember that you can have more of everything except time. We all get 24 hours per day. Use them wisely.

You need to think like a pessimist

If one of your memory cards becomes corrupted, if your camera malfunctions, if a lens fails; could you still do the job? You need to balance the cost of back-up kit against the loss of income if you are unable to deliver the work because of a sudden problem occurring. What if a client trips over your bag and sues you? Contracts, insurances and back-up plans aren’t exciting, but they prepare you for the worst. If you’re shooting every day, it’s not a case of if something will go wrong. It’s when.

You need to get over your fear of selling

Learn sales techniques that help you deliver what clients booked you for in the first place – amazing wall art, albums and prints. Understand the value of getting the sale today. If a client is willing to spend £500 today, or might be willing to spend £600 in two weeks’ time, I always push for the former. See cashflow, above.

Oh and lastly? Be an amazing photographer!

Earn the qualifications that give you confidence. Win the awards that impress your clients. Deliver the experience that makes people want to be photographed by you. Do all the things that attracted you to this amazing industry in the first place. It’s the best job in the world!

Business nous rarely occurs naturally alongside the creative and technical skills of photography. If you don’t have the business skills, learn them or outsource to someone who does. Failing that, do what I did – marry a business genius like my wife Sarah. I know, I know – I’m very lucky. Maybe that’s the final component – a little bit of luck!

N-Photo Magazine

This article first appeared in N-Photo Magazine, issue 101.

N-Photo is the only magazine devoted to Nikon photographers. Brimming with expert advice, product tests, tips and tricks, plus beautiful images to inspire your next session, you’ll be motivated to get creative with your photography and learn brand new skills with every issue of N-Photo magazine. Packed full of interviews and masterclasses with award-winning photographers, you will discover how to shoot great pictures, as well as enhance any imagery using Adobe Photoshop and other popular tools with the helpful guides and step-by-step tutorials.

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