How To Quit Your Job &
Become A Professional Photographer

People ask me all the time how they can become a full-time professional photographer. I cringe at the question, because I know they don't want to hear a truthful answer. They want me to tell them to do this and do that, and once they do it, they can quit their day job and live a life of photographic luxury. I hate to have to tell them that it just doesn't work that way.

Suppose you decided one day that you'd like to be an electrician. You wouldn't expect to take a few pointers from a licensed electrician and then be able to out and wire someone's house, would you? Of course not. What you'd need to do is get a job with an electrician and work for several years learning the business. Then you could strike out on your own. Photography is no different in this regard. It takes time to learn everything you need to know if you want it to be your livelihood.

If it sounds like I'm discouraging you from the outset, you're right. But I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't tell it straight. You have to see it for what it is first, then if you have the desire to continue, you'll do fine. If you start out with thoughts of glamour, you'll never make through the tough parts.

But you're serious, you tell me. You think you have talent and the determination to make it a happen. Read on.

Keep in mind that pretty much everything I'm going to say applies mainly to the nature and outdoor editorial market-licensing photos for use in books, magazines, calendars, etc. You might only want to sell prints at art shows or photograph weddings. Selling prints doesn't require a large stock of images, just enough to fill the booth. And shooting weddings doesn't require any stock files at all. If you wish to be professional photographer in any field other than the traditional nature and outdoor editorial market, my advice here won't be helpful.

Oh, I can tell you the best way to get into the commercial and advertising photography market. First, learn a good bit about how to take pictures. Second, get a job as an assistant with a commercial photography firm. Third, do your job well for several years while absorbing everything you can and saving your money. Fourth, quit your job and open your own firm in a different city. If you think you're going to jump straight from learning which end of the camera to look through to competing against established commercial firms, you're in for a big disappointment. And I'm afraid the same principle applies greatly to the nature and outdoor editorial market as well.

Making a living from selling editorial photos has more to do with the business and marketing aspect than with image quality. Sad to say, but true. You say you have talent? You have a unique creative vision? That's great. It will help you as a professional photographer. But the reality is that it won't make a bit of difference if you don't have the marketing mindset to go with it. You might have the most awesome photo in world of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, but an editor can only choose what he or she has in front of them. Getting that photo to them has absolutely nothing to do with photographic talent. There seems to be a general feeling among beginning photographers that being a pro is glamorous, the best possible job that one could have. Admittedly, it beats flipping burgers and maybe even programming computers, but it is a job just like any other. To be successful requires a tremendous amount of non-glamorous work just to scrape by.

I know exactly how you feel about photography and wanting it to be more than a pastime. Believe me, you are not alone in this. Unfortunately, that's one of the bigger hurtles to overcome. There's just so much competition out there. To succeed as a full-time outdoor and nature photographer in today's world requires a commitment that most people are either unable or unwilling to make. I worked part time for over fifteen years before quitting my day job. Most photographers are in the same boat. They depend on the income from their day job to support them. To get over the hurdle and become a full-time photographer requires more time than they have while working that day job. They're stuck in a classic catch-22. Big-time pros like Art Wolfe, John Shaw, the late Galen Rowell, and others in that category are not necessarily any better photographers than you or I. But a big difference among many of them is that they established themselves before there were a billion other photographers out there.

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Another common thread I've seen is that many full-time nature photographers were already well off financially before they quit their day jobs. They didn't have to depend on their photo income to support them from the outset. And by the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't quit my day job because I had finally made a ton of money and could afford to. I did it because I was miserable and it was affecting my marriage and health. I decided that I'd rather be a poor and happy photographer than a middle-class contractor.

I'm not saying that it isn't possible to be financially successful as a nature photographer, just that it will require a lot of time and perseverance. One problem is that in the early stages if you give too much thought to doing photography full time, you'll hinder the creative and learning process. Taking creative pictures is a passion. Selling photographs is a business. Being able to do both well is extremely difficult.

The best advice I can offer is not to worry about being a professional photographer right now. Concentrate on learning how to take pictures the way you want to take them. Let the passion rule. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Don't worry about whether anything you shoot is marketable or not. Start reading everything you can get your hands on. Browse the bookstores looking at photo books. Subscribe to photography magazines, but take everything you read with a grain of salt. Join local photography clubs and groups. In the Carolinas, a terrific group is Carolinas Nature Photography Association www.cnpa.org. Participate in online forums, but keep a HUGE grain of salt handy for the forums!

When I first got into photography, I enrolled in a photography class at the local community college. At that time, there were very few nature photo tours or workshops offered anywhere. So I thought the college class would be a good learning experience. I dropped out after a couple of classes. I wanted to learn how to photograph nature, not develop film or shoot photos with a pinhole camera. That was perhaps the first important lesson I learned in my career, the notion that the best way for me to learn how to take nature photos was to get out in nature and photograph. Today, there are many more opportunities for nature photography instruction. The choices in photo tours and workshops are bewildering. When choosing what to do, be sure you travel the paths that lead to what you want to accomplish in photography. If you truly want to be a nature photographer, get out in nature and take pictures!

The idea is to immerse yourself in photography as much as your time and budget allows, WHILE HAVING FUN. If you start out thinking about quitting your job, you'll never make it through the important parts. (You'll also starve unless you have some bucks squirreled away.) Trust me, as you're out there having fun and learning everything you can about taking pictures, you'll be learning things that will help you down the road when you photograph full time. If you skip the fun stage—the learning stage—and make your early decisions based on the business end of it, you won't be able to compete with the billion or so other people in the same boat. Your photos won't transcend the realm of mediocrity. They'll have to compete with those hoards of ordinary photography enthusiasts. One inquirer told me she wanted to capture shots that "make one feel like you, the viewer, were there to see it yourself." Well, that's exactly what you have to do to elevate yourself above the crowd. And I believe that the only way to do that is have fun for a while before letting the business mindset corrupt your vision.

It may seem like I'm contradicting myself. After all, I told you earlier that having creative photos meant nothing without proper marketing, and now I'm telling you that you have to have unique photos to succeed. There's no contradiction here. It takes both to be truly successful. You need to learn how to make these creative and unique images, but having them does not automatically open the road to business success. On the other hand, if you're a business-marketing wizard, you'll find your opportunities limited if you have only poor quality images to sell. Which is more important of the two? You're not going to like the answer. A person who is talented at marketing will make more money selling mediocre images than would a person who has outstanding photos but is not good at marketing.

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At this point you're probably thinking, Well, that's fine, but you haven't told me anything about how to market my photos and how the business side of photography works. You're right, I haven't. And I'm not going to, either. Here's the thing. Until you have a large collection of good photos, you'd be shooting yourself in the foot if you dive into the photo business. Any doors you might open will close quickly if you can't keep up with the market. So I recommend that you concentrate first on taking pictures and building a decent stock file of photos. Images that are at least as good as those you see published.

And now, you ask, What about when I do get a good stock file? Are you going to tell what to do, then? I suspect that if you spend the time it takes to build a good collection of photos, you'll also be learning things along the way that will help you in the business. By the time you're ready to jump in, you'll probably have a good idea of how to proceed. But if you don't, contact me and I'll try to help. Also, I plan to add more info to this page later on and I might get into some details about running a photography business. So check back.

OK, enough of the negatives. How bout some positives? There's really nothing like having a job that allows you to spend a lot of time in the out of doors. And since my office is in my home, I can wear whatever I want to work and do pretty much as I please. Admittedly, I spend WAY too much time on the computer and not enough time in the field. But I have to say that I can't imagine a better way to make a living. Well, maybe being the pool boy for Scarlett Johansson would be better, but I imagine my wife would have something to say about that!

So, if you are serious about getting into this crazy business and competing with millions of other photographers, I say go for it and give it your best shot (all my puns are intended). I wish you the best of luck.