Turning Pro from Amateur Photographer isn’t for the faint of heart

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 2000, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000

I reposted a blog I had done a way back that had gotten a lot of positive feedback from the photographic community.

Seven Reasons Not to Become a Freelance Professional Photographer was the blog.

It was shared 32 times through Google Plus alone. It ranks 5th of the 1098 blog posts I have written for most read. There are 44 comments on this post. Everyone on the post was positive except one that was more of a question. “Is all lost when most of these points have been true?”

My response was, “No. You just cannot continue to fail over the long haul. Again you don’t have to do all of them yourself, you can outsource. My recommendation is to realize to be successful you need to 1) have good solid product consistently, 2) you need to deliver more than you promise, 2nd mile service and 3) WOW them. You need to connect with people way beyond your product. Just think of the TV show Cheers, the people came back to the bar regularly because of friendships on top of the food and good service.”

When I reposted it I had the most negative response I have had for anyone of my blogs. I started to examine why was this person so taken back by my post.

The poster slammed the blog as Listicle.

In journalism and blogging, a listicle is a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article. A typical listicle will prominently feature a cardinal number in its title, with subsequent subheadings within the text itself reflecting this schema. The word is a portmanteau derived from list and article. It has also been suggested that the word evokes “popsicle”, emphasizing the fun but “not too nutritious” nature of the listicle.

After reading a few more comments I started to realize what I think the person was having an issue with from my article. In My Humble Opinion [IMHO] the person was new to the industry and experiencing the difference from being an amateur to now the experience as a pro.

In a workshop with Scott Kelby I loved one of his comments. “If you need a hug you post in Flickr.com.”

You see as an amateur your friends and family will comment on how great of a photographer you are. However, the minute you turn pro that all changes.

I was feeling the same thing this poster seemed to be indicating in his comments that we need to wrap each other in emotional support as pros. My wife pointed out to me that you are a pro, people expect you to have great photos. They don’t comment to you for doing what is expected.

For this article I want to be clear that the difference between the word amateur and professional is solely the difference of hobby versus making a living. My comments are not about the quality of images, because I think there are many amateurs who produce better images than pros. Most amateurs however could use a dose of reality that the biggest difference for the working pro over the amateur is business skills and not photographic skills.

As an amateur you may even join a photo club where you all help one another and encourage one another. I know many of the camera clubs around me have had me speak to them and judge their competitions. I really enjoy doing this and sharing some of my knowledge with them.

Professionals understand that when they go to workshops and meetings with pros for the most part we are getting together to all get better at our business skills. We may be learning some of the same things that a camera club gets together to learn about the latest software, but we need this knowledge to remain competitive rather than just make photos.

Professionals also understand they need to pay for those classes and workshops. The people teaching them are working pros that are giving you information that will help you make a better living.

Going Pro will be a lonely journey for several reasons. Most of all your friends and family comments of how wonderful you are now will seem emptier if they are not hiring you to shoot for them. If they really thought you were so awesome wouldn’t they hire you?

While most professionals will help you not everyone will be as enthusiastic that you showed up on the scene. First of all remember in some areas of the industry like newspapers the opportunities are disappearing. When pros were making $200,000+ for shooting stock years ago and now they can barely make $20,000 doing the same type of work you showing up and taking more of the slice of pie that is smaller is very threatening.

New pros need to be aware of one major thing when they turn pro. Just because you graduated and know how to make wonderful images does not mean there is work for you right away. Every client that hired photographers last year will most likely hire those same photographers. When you do get hired often one of those photographers just lost that job you are shooting.

Now some pros take this the wrong way and therefore will do everything they can to sabotage your career. This is especially true if you setup shop in their town.

Now there is a great group of photographers I have been apart of that do not take this attitude. Now you may find one of our members like that, but I can tell you we do not encourage that at all. This group is ASMP.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 2000, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000

ASMP [American Society of Media Photographers] have championed business skills for photographers better than any other organization that I have been a member of for my career. I joined in 1987 and have learned more through the organization and fellow members than from any other place. Like the photo of the Citadel cadets carrying one another as they might have to do in battle to save their comrade, my ASMP fellow members carried me.

To join ASMP as a member you must get a sponsor who is satisfied that the applicant meets the eligibility requirements for Professional Membership, namely:

  1. Good moral character and reputation, and
  2. At least three consecutive years of experience as an imaging professional.

Now if you are just starting out we have an associate’s membership where you have pretty much all the same access as a member, just not voting rights. If you haven’t proven you can run a successful business for three years straight we don’t need you making business decisions for the organization.

We see the new photographers much differently. We work to find another chair and welcome you to our table. We take you under our wings and do everything we can to be sure you are successful.

The best things I learned right away from the start with ASMP were the importance of good business practices. I learned about how to figure out my cost of doing business. I learned that when I create estimates that often the client would try and negotiate for a lower price or more services for the same price.

ASMP worked to protect my copyright by helping to inform congress what this means to photographers to have copyright protection.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 1250, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000

My fellow ASMP members didn’t give me a group hug like I would experience as an amateur on Flickr. It felt like they took the legs out from under me and they did. They were carrying them just like you see in this photo. They helped me by challenging me on my low prices. How are you making a living on that price?

The one thing that really made me sad about the comments the poster made was “no matter the pay” he wasn’t going to be swayed to stop shooting. You see he is the type of new pro that needs ASMP.

His attitude of “no matter the pay” means he will accept just about any job because he loves to shoot. After all he said, “It’s in my blood and who I am.”

Through the years I along with my ASMP colleagues have helped countless photographers learn how to make a living and even a great living. One of those I took under my wing was a young lady who when I met her was a nanny and going to school full-time.

I had her assisting me and talking with her answering all her questions. She took on a client that had her traveling all over the state shooting travel magazine packages for the publication.
The magazine had traded out with hotels to keep costs down. So every town she went to there was a hotel she stayed in for free. So it appeared in many ways the magazine was thinking about her.

It was when we spent a few hours going over her expenses and what they were paying her she discovered she was making way below minimum wage.

It was when her car started to have mechanical issues that she realized she could get it fixed and continue doing the work. She wasn’t making enough to cover the true costs of owning a car.

This is when she realized that continuing with this magazine she wasn’t just making below minimum wage, she was paying them to shoot for them. YES!!! You heard me clearly.

Her mother rented her a car so she could go and do the assignment, but the assignment didn’t pay enough to cover the rental car fees and all the other costs associated with doing the work.

Today that young woman is not only doing better she is doing great. She not only is making a good living she has a staff working for her of more than three people.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 1100, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000

ASMP members know that the photographers who do not understand business principles are not only going to go broke they leave the industry worst off. Now those clients think that the rates they were paying to those failed photographers was reasonable. We need you equally lifting up the industry just as these guys are doing in carrying the log. They cannot do it alone.

Turning pro from amateur status is when you start to have adult conversations. This is when you will not like everything you are hearing from a seasoned pro who is really trying to help you out, but you see it as them trying to get rid of you.

Young photographers can learn something from professional bull riders. They started out on riding young calves before graduating to bullocks and then bulls. Between the ages of four and six they hone their skills by “mutton busting” on sheep. You see bull riding is thought to be one of the most dangerous sports in the world. An estimated one in every 15 bull rides ends in some sort of injury.

I can tell you that many pro photographers feel like one in every 15 assignments ends up in some sort of injury. We like to call that scar tissue which builds wisdom.

I recommend joining ASMP and/or NPPA that has in the last few years changed to help freelancers even more with business practices than when I joined in 1985.

Nikon D3S, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 1600, ƒ/6.3, 1/320

Remember when you turn pro you are expected to have great photos so don’t go looking for a group hug like you got as an amateur.

In military training young men come together with a very diverse mix of our american landscape. Those differences melt away through their training which pushes their limits to each person realizing that those strangers they met on day one are their along side them even willing to die for them.

You will see if you look hard enough seasoned pros taking on a lot of fire and struggling to stay alive. ASMP members know that each of us has gone through our training of at least three years. We know we are all battle tested and helping one another.