Going Pro: Is it Worth it?

The answer to this question is unique for everyone. I find a lot of my photographer friends make the transition to professional after a life changing event. If you read my path below, you will find my transition was over a longer period of time. The larger leaps towards full-time professional came after a move, my marriage, and then the birth of my second child.

Here are the questions and factors I would keep in mind when determining what you should do and when:

There is a freedom in creating images on your own terms and without the demands of a paying client. It is truly enjoyable to take your camera out and snap when you compose the image you want. When work is commissioned there are expectations to be met and additional opinions in how the final product should look.

My advice, if you do want to become a professional, is to find a niche within the genre you are most comfortable with and enjoy producing. The more consistent your portfolio looks within a certain genre, the more you are perceived to be an expert. This means you will have better luck with the right clients approaching you, willing to spend your advertised rates, and with expectations you can easily meet.

Once you have a successful arm of your business, you can use your unpaid time to explore other genres that interest you and take on personal projects. Without the fear of delivering to clients, your passion (and sometimes largest growth) in the art form will thrive.

Well, this one is a multifaceted answer. While I can’t give you an exact answer, here are my thoughts on what needs to happen first and what should be considered:

  • If you are going to charge, you are acting as a business and need to protect yourself. This means you should follow all necessary steps to form and file appropriate paperwork/pay the fees associated with starting a business in your city. (Sole proprietorship or LLC is up to you. I recommend a single owner LLC)
  • All businesses generate income and expenses- finances you have to report. You need to separate your business’ funds from your personal funds and track EVERYTHING. Depending on your state’s sales tax laws, you may need to pay sales tax on all or part of your sales and services.
  • You should carry insurance- both for your equipment and general liability. Should your equipment cause a client injury during your session, general liability will make sure you don’t go bankrupt covering the medical bills.
  • You will need a website- not just social media. If you have created a social media account to spread the word of your photography skills and advertise prices without registering a business, you are taking HUGE risks and can easily be caught by the IRS or local government for operating illegally.
  • You need to pay yourself, so set a minimum salary you will need to cover your cost of living
  • Other expenses you may need to consider: equipment costs, continuous education, advertising, internet/phone costs, professional services (accountant, lawyer, marketing/branding specialists), production costs, healthcare (if you aren’t covered by a spouse’s plan), etc.

As you can imagine, all of this needs to be factored into your cost of doing business (CODB). Once you determine what your CODB is, you will want to determine how much you need to make to cover these costs and allow for a cushion of savings and investment money. That’s where everyone’s number really differs, but whatever that number is, it has to be met to be considered a profitable and worthwhile business.

Once you determine your goal revenue (total money you collect from your clients),  you can calculate what you should charge by either the total hours you can put towards the business or by the total clients you want to serve. In either measurement method, you want to make sure you are realistic about the time and/or the number of clients you can book in a year. Make sure you price yourself for a sustainable business.

I included more info and examples in the “Doing the Math” section below. In both examples I used six figure revenue numbers that are met by actually being paid to work 40 hours a week or booking 125 clients in a year. It is important to keep in mind that handling this amount of client revenue usually means you are investing (expenses) a lot in your business and are at it full time. For many photographers, a six figure revenue goal usually results in less than half of that being income.

Many pros will recommend creating a set of “preferred” service/offering packages that will cover your goal revenue and caters to the needs and budget of your ideal client. Then, add one more luxury service/offering package slightly beyond what your current ideal client will spend. When you first launch a new pricing guide, you may not get a rush of new business. That’s ok. Offer incentives and special packages to encourage new clients, but never publicly drop your prices. Soon, you should have established yourself within the market for your price point and people won’t need further incentives to book with you. When you finally get a client that spends the extra money for your luxury item, it is time to raise your prices again.

This is another question only you can answer and client demand will reinforce. Here are my thoughts (take or leave them)

  • Do you produce consistent work that your possible clients could pick out from your portfolio and you can reproduce for them with relative ease?
  • Are you ready to charge an amount that is competitive in the professional photography marketplace? (This means not trying to compete with the people that are working “under the table” for lower than fair market rates)
  • Have you acquired the equipment needed to perform the services you are wanting to advertise? (for some genres-ah hem…weddings- backup equipment, additional lighting and tons of digital cards/film will be necessary)
  • Do you have the time available to network and build a positive client experience? (This includes social media, networking events, and building client relationships. Remember, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, so you want to make sure you can shine.)

If you answered “no” to any one of these questions, my advice is to continue as a hobbyist and/or find a professional photographer to assist or second shoot with as a freelancer. This is a simple 1099 tax filing at the end of the year versus carrying the liability and responsibilities that come with running your own business.

If you are questioning if you’re ready, you probably aren’t quite there- and that is ok! Being a great photographer and being a great business person are not one in the same. Usually you are ready for one aspect and not the other. Depending on your background, find a mentor that can help you focusing on developing the skills that need more time.

Photography education has never been more accessible than it is today, and lucky for us the career path doesn’t require a degree. Even as a professional, I never stop learning. Here are my go-to places for knowledge:

  • Online Video Tutorials and Classes: CreativeLive and SLRLounge are two of my favorites
  • Associations: PPA, RisingTide Society, CreativeMornings, and industry specific groups will have local chapters that meet to share knowledge
  • Conferences: The big conferences are ImagingUSA, PhotoPlus, WPPI, etc, but you will find a plethora of genre-specific conferences that offer more fine tuned information and a better experience overall as you can network with likeminded photographers
  • Mentoring, Masterminds and Workshops: These can offer the greatest impact and growth opportunities as they usually have a more one-on-one approach and over days, week, months, or a year. Prices for these can vary and may definitely be a larger investment, but you are paying for someone’s full attention. Make sure you are confident in the expertise of the people you are seeking to learn from.

Doing the Math

For those that might be interested in more information on the two ways to calculate what your per client revenue goal should be, here is how to do the two calculations.

Take the monthly/annual goal revenue and divide that by the number of hours you can possibly put towards your business in that time. —You’re not done yet.— Not every hour is in front of or billable to a particular client and some services require more of your time. So, you need to weigh how much time you are spending in acquiring a client and putting into the final delivery for that type of client before you can determine what you need to charge for a particular service and/or product.

For example, your annual goal revenue is $120,000. You are quitting your full time job, so you have at least 40 hours a week (2,080 hours per year) you can put towards the business. That’s an hourly rate of about $58. Now, you can’t charge a client $58 for an hour session because it takes far more than one hour of your time to complete all of the work associated with one hour of photography. The total time to serve a particular client will vary based on how much you outsource and your workflow, but we are going to use 3 (acquisition) + 2 (planning) + 1 (travel to/from) + 1 (shooting) + 3 (post production/delivery) for the example. So, every shooting hour with a single client is roughly 10 hours of work. This means your goal should be $580 in revenue for every hour booked with a client.

Now, if you’re an event photographer working a span of hours with the same client, your hourly goal will be a bit different since you aren’t working to acquire that same client for every hour of the event. Maybe the breakdown is more like, 3 (acquisition) + 4 (planning) + 2 (travel to/from) + 8 (shooting) + 16 (post production/delivery). This means the average client that wants to hire you for 8 hours of photography is actually in need of 33 hours of your time, so your hourly event rate is closer to $240.

In this calculation you come up with a target number of clients you can successfully (or want to) serve in a month/year. Now, divide that number from your monthly/annual goal revenue. This will give you a revenue goal for each client. If you happen to be a photographer that serves clients with very different needs (i.e. weddings, portraiture, and commercial), you should make individual revenue goals for each genre you serve and divide that by the total clients you can possibly serve within that genre.

For example, if you are primarily a wedding photographer, but also capture families, you might only be able to serve 25 wedding clients in a year, but you could easily handle 25 family clients per quarter. If your goal is $100,000 total in revenue (remember, that’s not profit), and you think the workload is split pretty evenly, you would charge $2,000 per wedding and $500 per family to meet that goal.

My Path to Professional Photographer

My photography journey started with a passion at a very young age and a father who happened to be a professional photographer. I knew I wanted photography to be a part of my adult life, but it wasn’t until my time in the Disney College Program for hotel/restaurant management that I knew for sure that my heart wanted to pursue it professionally. I changed schools to specifically target my goal and enrolled in Brooks Institute of Photography. But, life’s challenges (aka money problems) got in the way. I dropped out and started my first official career as a Restaurant Manager.

Through the next five years I continued to be a hobbyist. Living in New York I was able to help my friends build modeling portfolios, captured gigs with my friends who had a band, and in 2005 my friend asked if I would photograph the Hindu ceremony portion of her wedding events. I never charged anyone during this time and saw it as my education. They offered me a chance to explore a range of genres and grow my skillset, so I could produce consistent imagery.

In 2006 I moved to Orlando for my full time profession and was ready to apprentice with a local photographer. I was hired at $10 an hour to assist a wedding photographer that specialized in South Asian Weddings. (I guess that one and only wedding I had in my portfolio made me destined to join her team.) It fit with my full time job, so I didn’t have to sacrifice my livelihood while growing as a photographer.

After two years with her- three months as an assistant, moving to third shooter, and then second shooter after three events- I was making more money and producing consistently in a variety of lighting conditions. I was ready to start my own business, running it part time while I carried on my full time position and still second shooting. Between 2008 and 2010 I worked to build relationships with fellow wedding vendors and relied on word of mouth to grow my business- there wasn’t an advertising budget.

At the close of 2010 I proposed merging my business with my mentor and starting a new brand. She was about to have her fourth child and I was planning my own wedding (and also still working full time). Running and growing a business was about to get harder for both of us, so combining efforts and splitting duties to cater to our individual strengths was a solid idea. She agreed, and Sona Photography was born in January 2011, specializing in South Asian Weddings. Together we flourished and managed to become a recognizable name across the country in our niche.

In 2015 I had my second child and it became a bit of a challenge to manage two kids, work my full time job (from home), and manage my half of the business. Something had to give, and my husband and I were in a good place to let go of my full time paycheck. I was finally a dedicated professional photographer (but also a WAHM).

With the extra time away from a computer screen and in front of my boys, I was able to explore a genre of photography that I loved- documentary family photography.  As I continued to grow this passion, I started offering my services to my friends again to build a new type of portfolio, this time as a documentary family photographer. Whenever I portfolio build, I do not charge- even though by all accounts I am a professional photographer. By the summer of 2018 I was ready launch a new brand, The Inspired Storytellers, which pretty much brings us up to present.

More Questions?

A rising tide lifts all boats. Our industry is on the verge of becoming completely unsustainable because it is a saturated market where photographers (many not running a lawful business) are racing to zero to earn win over clients that value photography less and less. We need to arm each other with the tools to make smart decisions for ourselves and our businesses so we all can thrive in our chosen profession.

Feel free to reach out to me with any additional questions or comments you might have on improving the information found here. I’m not a photographer educator, so I don’t keep an email list and try to sell courses or workshops. If you are in the Winter Garden/Windermere/Orlando area, you can catch me in person at our local Tuesday’s Together gathering for the Rising Tide Society.

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