I wanna be a pro !

This is a mail I get a few times a month so I decided it was maybe time to dedicate a blog post to it.
Of course professional photographers are living the dream.
We fly around the world in private jets, dring champagne with the stars.
Have several beautiful models around giving back-rubs and bringing you all the food/drinks you can wish for……

Ok snap out of it…..

As with many people we just work very hard, maybe even harder than some other professions.
The flying around gets boring very quickly, remember that for example I fly economy class (economy plus when it’s available), and that’s tight, especially when sitting there for 7-9 hours in a row, you arrive on your location and before you see something from the area you are off to work or in a convention center, after the work you often have 1 day off and it’s off to the airport (or other form of transportation) and back home, were the next day you are welcomed with an old friend called jetlag but there is no time for that because you have work…….
Well ok, you can change this yourself sometimes, for me it’s a rule (which I put on myself) that when flying more than 4 hours I will stay in that country for at least 3-4 days free time so I can see something of the area, and if that’s not possible I try to keep some days off when I arrive back home, and yes to be honest it’s a dream job, I wouldn’t want to do anything else, this is my passion and dream.

Working full time
I’m lucky as a photographer. At the moment my average week runs at 80 hours from which for a good part is paid.
Well that’s a weird statement I hear you ask yourself, well actually it’s not.
IF you want to make it as a photographer and stay in business you will have to realize that working just for the paid assignments will not cut it, unless maybe your name is Mario Testino or David Lachapelle…. at the moment my work is 40% paid and 60% unpaid work I do to build my own portfolio, web presence and networking.

Earning loads of money
Yeah of course we all want this, but again snap out of it.
Some photographers are earning a nice income, but again unless you are at the absolute top you are probably better off with a normal good day job (less hours more money).

So why do you want to be a Photographer ?
Because it’s the best job in the world, you get to do what others consider not working, well let’s rephrase that, as a photographer you’re doing what you love (most of the time), what others consider hobby is your work, and in my book that’s the best job in the world. Normal people look forward to their retirement because they can spend more time at what they love to do, Photographers look forward to the next day at work what’s better than that.

Ok I will give up my day job…….
Well that’s what the mails are about.
And it’s always a bit hard to write back to those people that they should not do this.
How much I love my work and wouldn’t want to do anything else reality is that again I’m very blessed and lucky. But I didn’t get there with just luck. Over the last few years I’ve invested loads of time into my “career”, I’ve done a lot of sessions to build my portfolio (and still do), invested huge amounts of time in learning online, from others and simply put soaking up every piece of information I could get. but most of all I’ve met the right people and have build a solid network with those people.
So if someone asks me if they should give up their day job because they are bored with it and want something else my answer is always to not do it unless they already have a solid back up and go back to something if all goes wrong. Especially in now a days you are very lucky to have a solid income and giving that up is a very big risk in a market where a lot of “photographers” are doing all the work for free.

So it can’t be done ?
Yes it can.
I will give you some pointers that in my PERSONAL opinion are the ones that will give you a heads up.

1. Build your brand
If people don’t know that you exist they won’t call you.
On the topic of calling, no-one hardly does that any more, a good and strong web presence is key.
Social media, fora and blogs are todays tools for promotion and being successful.
Be prepared to spend at least 20% of your workweek to online activities.

2. Build your network
Without a good netword of people who like you, you WILL fail.
Again there are loads of photographers out there fighting for the same job, and trust me they will hire that nice guy that can shoot ok over that not so nice guy that can shoot better. To be honest some clients wouldn’t know the difference between a good photographer and a mediocre photographer. But they all know that guy they love to hang out with and that shoots those nice images.

3. Be unique
Well this is where it often goes wrong.
First realize that it’s ok to be inspired, it’s ok to loan ideas, images, lightsetups and ideas.
However make it your own, own it.
If you copy an image make it better, if you are inspired by an image but you can’t make it better, try to make it different. Same goes for photoshop and “looks”, for example it’s very populair at the moment to make your images look vintage, when you see someone doing this with a certain grunge background which you love than don’t copy that exact technique but try to make something unique that has the same feel but is still different from your sample. This way you won’t be the copy cat off… but you will be the alternative to. And that’s a WHOLE lot better especially when you are cheaper or are in the local market for your client.

4. Keep working, prepare to be dissapointed
Build confidence, and keep going.
You will hear a lot more often, “sorry we’re not hiring you” than “yes, you can work for us”

So what to do ?
Make the jump without a doubt, but make it in small steps.
Start doing small sessions for models that need their portfolio updated (or other subjects), but make sure you don’t over sell yourself, always say that you’re just starting and not a pro, this way people will be much easier on failure, but also much more enthusiastic on well executed images.

When you have build your confidence, start a good and clear website with a professional look and texts.
Although you are still working for your boss you want to sound like you’re starting your business.

Use a reasonable pricing system, the time for free work is over, money has to be earned and remember there is a family to support, your future has to be build, investments have to be made, taxes paid, mortgages, rent for an office, etc. etc. And trust me the hidden costs have killed many businesses that started very successful.

Now when your business takes off it’s time to maybe start doing less work for your boss. However when you’re working in the model photography you would be surprised how many sessions can be done in the evenings, weekends or holidays. I hear you think…. “pfff when I’ve worked from 9:00-5:00 and I have to plan shoots from 6:00-10:00PM and do the photoshop work, but still have to be at the office at 9:00AM that’s too much” sorry…. stop reading and enjoy photography as a hobby.
Photography is fun, but sometimes work times are really long, and there will be weeks were you can relax and maybe watch some movies or take a small trip. But you will have to be prepared to work for at least a few weeks in a row very long days.

When this is successful and you’re earning your money make sure to keep at it for at least a year and save all the money you earned with photography without spending it, if you can stay alive that long talk to your boss and ask for a year off, and if that’s not possible try to make sure there will be away back in some form, and let’s be honest if you can make it on your own you will probably be the kind of employee your boss won’t like to see go. Say goodbye to your old work but keep the door open and dive into the world that is called photography, the buffer you build in that first year will stay on the bank and will function as a back up plan or to survive on when times are bad.

Photography truly is the best job in the world (well at least for me), but when you’re starting out and love photography as a hobby do remember that to survive you will need A LOT more than just passion and love in today’s market.

Feel free to join the discussion or give your stories and ideas.

17 replies
  1. Erikjan Koopmans
    Erikjan Koopmans says:

    Hi Frank,

    Thank you for sharing this very informative blog post. After owning a restaurant for 10 years i jumped into the photography business last year. A business which is slowly building for me and a decision i haven’t regret for a minute.

    Me and my girlfriend were very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel the world for the last 8 months. Career wise maybe not the brightest decision but if you consider it in terms of experience and creativity i think we will profit from it on the long term. Within two weeks we will arrive home again and the serious stuff will start. Luckily for me i come from the restaurant business so 80 hours a week for me were more rule then exception.

    Your blog post is very helpful. Especially the (So why do you want to be a Photographer?) part 🙂 Keep up the good work!

    Erikjan Koopmans

    ps. Don’t wanna spam your blog but http://goingpro2010.com/ has been very useful for me also.

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Thanks erikjan,
      It is without a doubt fulfilling and a great feeling if it works out, and to be honest I think that as long as you survive and can build a small buffer you should do what you love.
      Who needs loads of money in reality, it does make it all a bit nicer and easier but if you have to work for 40 years in a job that is killing you, you probably die with a lot of money in the bank and a not so interesting live…..
      However when you choose what you love, you will look back on your life with joy and excitement, what more to wish for.

      The idea of the blog was more meant to warn people not to think it’s easy to make it 😉 but man is it worth it if it works out, but when it fails you can loose everything, like any venture by the way.
      I was brought up in a family were always were small companies so I never knew any different, when you are raised in a normal working class environment it’s I think a lot harder. In the Netherlands I hear a lot of people going under after 1-2 years when they have to pay taxes.

  2. Greg Howard
    Greg Howard says:

    Love your style Frank. We went full time three years ago and it’s been the hardest yet most rewarding time of my life.

    Cheers, Greg

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      It is, the freedom you have is great, although the hours are longer it doesn’t feel like working in an office, I have to add I never did work in an office, I started my own business right out of school. But I do think I know the feeling 😉

  3. Koert
    Koert says:

    Very good advice!
    Having had my own little business for a while it always amazed me how much time you need to spend on “other stuff” like the books or marketing as opposed to doing the things that make you money.
    I’d like to go “pro” at some point but I’ll make sure I’ll be very well prepared. Your own business is not something you would want to rush in to I think.

  4. DaveT
    DaveT says:

    Excellent advice – an honest appraisal of the situation from an insider is gold dust. Thank you Frank.

  5. Mark Kaye
    Mark Kaye says:

    Hi Frank, concise and insightful as always. A good read. I have often struggled with the turning pro issue. I’m not a pro, it’s my hobby. I do have a professional looking website (I hope!!) but my day job pays very well and making the leap is quite scary for me. I know I would take a big income hit initially at least and that is the primary concern. The flipside, of course, is that you have to take risks in life to work at something you love! My portfolio is, I think, okay. Not great, just okay. I’m still learning. Aren’t we all 🙂

    I’m just starting to get into DSLR videography as well, which is an interesting twist.

    Keep up the great work 🙂

  6. Robert Lewandowski
    Robert Lewandowski says:

    First of all, thanks for sharing Frank! 😉
    Now the thing that I would like to add:

    I think that when you’re a hobby / part-time photog you have the freedom of chosing you clients and the assignments. You don’t NEED the money, you do it for free or in case it’s a paid assignment you have some extra cash.

    However, when you do need the money, and the customer/assignment is not quite right for you, you do have a dillema:
    You could say no, I won’t take this assignment because I don’t like working with this client, or the client is asking me to create something that’s the opposite of my style and have no food, or you could give into it.

    I think it’s important to think about this before you start out as a pro.
    The “bad” clients/assignments could spoil all the fun that you had when you were a hobby photog when you don’t have your own rules on how to handle this kind of situation.

    How do you guys handle this?

    • Frank Doorhof
      Frank Doorhof says:

      Well that will always be a “problem” but actually it’s not really.
      You will have shoots that are dream jobs and you have shoots that are well…. not dream jobs but you are still able to shoot and get paid for it. What I thought of being dream shoots 5 years ago are now the shoots I maybe don’t look forward to but do because they put bread on the table. You will always have that.
      Where I will say no however if, if the customer wants me to do something that is not fitting my style or is a subject I would never shoot.
      For me I will never shoot erotic images, I don’t have a problem with nudity (personally I don’t have a problem with erotica) but I will never shoot something that is shot to “excite” men, whatever they pay me.

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