If you’ve reached the point in your photography hobby where you think you can start turning it into a lucrative career, there are several different avenues you can take towards making that dream a reality. There are a lot of different factors involved that influence whether you can make a real living taking photographs.
So how do you start getting paid as a photographer? People can start out getting paid in photography by deciding what kind of paid photography they want to specialize in, building up a portfolio of work to give them strong exposure, continuing to refine their craft, and building up their online presence through a personal website and social media.
Becoming a paid photographer is more than taking pretty photos—there are other matters such as marketing and networking to consider. Read on to find out more about paid photography and how you can break into the business.
Decide What Kind of Paid Photography You Want to Do
Deciding what branch of paid photography to pursue is arguably one of the most important things you need to think about before you start trying to charge money for your photographs. It is common for amateur photographers to dabble and experiment in various kinds of photography as they try to find their “voice” as photographers, and this is a vital part of the learning experience.
However, once you decide to go professional with your photography, you are better served by focusing in on one type of photography and building your subsequent portfolio and photo books up around that type of photography alone.
This gives you specialized experience in photographing specific kinds of subjects in specific situations, which is much more valuable than a very small amount of experience in many types of photography. When it comes to creative pursuits such as photography, everyone paying for a professional wants a master of their chosen craft, not a jack of all trades.
Note that I didn't specify a target that you have to hit way out there before you start earning money. Choosing the kind of photography and working towards that gives you the best chance to make money doing what you love. It's entirely possible to start making money when you are so green, so brand new, that you are still Googling basic photography terms.
Here is a list of some of the various ways you can get started in paid photography:
- Stock photography: Stock photography is a large avenue of income for photographers who prefer to shoot a wide variety of subjects, both animate and inanimate. Stock photographers get money by putting their photographs up online in galleries where people can purchase the images as licensed reference photos for their own use.
- Art photography: For those photographers who prefer more complex or unconventional subjects, photography is increasingly becoming a more prominent medium in high art, and art prints can go for large amounts of money from the right photographer. Beginner photographers can win money for art photography (or sell their prints) through photography competitions, exhibitions, and gallery showings.
- Wedding/engagement photography: For those photographers who enjoy human subjects and also like social events, wedding photography can be a good career. Being a wedding photographer involves dealing with people during some of the most stressful (yet) happiest periods of their lives, so being a wedding photographer involves people skills as well as photography skills.
- Portraiture: Portraiture is one of the oldest forms of paid photography, and it’s just as lucrative now as it ever was. Like wedding photography, getting into portraiture involves enjoying the company of people and photographing them even when they’re not at their most cooperative (working with babies, for example).
- Club photography: Another path of paid photography where you can make good money in a social environment is shooting promotional photos and other materials for nightclubs, concert halls, and other entertainment venues or bands. Club photography can be a good career choice for those photographers who like to be in the thick of things and enjoy shooting photographs in loud, boisterous environments.
- Real estate photography: For photographers who prefer to shoot architectural elements or interior spaces, real estate photography can be a good way to get some money and exposure as a new photographer. Real estate photography involves shooting different rooms and exteriors of a home in flattering lighting and from flattering angles in order to help the realtor market and sell the home. I got started by taking shots of condos on the beach. Very fun.
- Photographer’s assistant: If you’re wanting to get started in a long-term photography career but don’t have much experience, becoming a photographer’s assistant allows you to get paid and learn about professional photography at the same time, without having to shoulder all of the responsibility of running a business, too.
- Niche photography: There are many kinds of niche photography that a photographer can break into once they’ve developed a solid body of work in that subject. People pay money for artistic photographs of everything from their pets to stillborn children. Someone selling items in an online catalog might pay you to take professional-looking photos of their stock if their own photography skills aren’t good. Finding a paid niche for your work takes a little digging though but you could get lucky. I also got started with this section, taking photos of products to sell online.
- Photo editing and restoration: Photo editing and restoration is an aspect of paid photography you can get into if you have good post-processing software (like Photoshop and Lightroom) and the digital skills to manipulate the photos of other people. Photo editorial work is a good career choice for those photographers who enjoy working with any person’s photographs, not just their own.
- Small business marketing: More and more small businesses are finally realizing the need for a strong website with good photography of their storefront, products, and staff. This is where photographers can fill the gap to provide good shots for social media marketing campaigns run by small businesses. Breaking into this photography niche requires the ability to approach businesses for work and knowing how to build or develop websites is also helpful.
As you can see, there are several very different paths you can pursue as a professional photographer, and it doesn’t make much monetary sense for a person who is trying to become a professional wedding photographer to split their efforts between wedding photography and several other types of photography.
Instead, it’s better to double down on one specialization and branch out once you’ve mastered an aspect of paid photography and can comfortably make a living from it. If you’re just getting started, it may take a few years of experimentation before you really figure out what kind of photography draws you most and that you’d most like to specialize in for a living.
Build a Professional Portfolio to Sell Your Photography
Traditionally, before you can get paid for your photography, it’s safe to say you’ll need a body of work to show off to potential clients in order to gain credibility as a photographer. It is possible to put yourself out there with no body of work and earn gigs. Naturally, you want to give yourself the best chance of moving forward and increasing exposure.
Building a strong portfolio involves shooting lots of photographs, but it also involves learning how to edit your shots and choose which images are strong enough to be featured as a professional example of your work.
To build a strong portfolio, here are a few other tips:
- Specialize your portfolio or keep multiple ones. If you’re trying to break into wedding photography, you don’t want to show clients an example of a hodgepodge of various portraiture, still-life arrangements, and other photographs—people buying a wedding photographer want to see what your wedding photos look like.
To build up your reputation, fill your portfolio only with the best wedding photos you’ve taken, and relegate all other photos to a separate (non-professional) portfolio. Keeping multiple portfolios going of your various photographic interests is fine, but for the purposes of making money, you’ll want one professional portfolio that showcases only your best niche work.
- Include photos with a variety of subjects and lighting situations. Making your portfolio varied within the scope of a certain theme (such as pet portraiture or architecture) can illustrate your versatility as an artist while still exhibiting your professional focus on a chosen subject. A portfolio isn’t just a place to show off your subjects or camera quality, it’s a place to show off your composition and post-processing skills as well.
- Make sure your prints are the highest quality you can afford. If you’re setting up a physical portfolio for clients to thumb through, you’ll want to make sure the photos you include are the absolute best ones you can manage to print. This is not the place to skimp on costs, as the portfolio is one of the single largest influences in whether a person will hire you.
- Figure out who is going to be looking at your portfolio. This is why it’s so important to figure out which path of paid photography you’d like to pursue before you really start to focus on building your professional portfolio. If you want to sell your photos to small business owners, you’re going to have to focus on building a very different portfolio than someone who is trying to market themselves to an art gallery or a travel magazine.
- Seek out opportunities to build your portfolio. That may mean offering to do a few events or portrait sessions for free just for the exposure, but when you don’t have a professional portfolio to market yourself with, these free shoots are a necessity. It’s much easier to try and charge good money for your photographs once you have a diverse body of work that points out its value to clients.
- Put your portfolio online. While it’s good to have a physical copy of your portfolio for people to look at in order to imagine their purchased photographs in a final form, having an online portfolio that is easily read through both desktop and mobile devices is the best way to get exposure for your work, and you never know when you’ll need to show off for a potential client.
- Kill your darlings. This is a phrase that was originally aimed at writers, but it applies just as well to photographers. Occasionally you’ll have photographs that you really love but that other people have given you mixed or negative feedback on relative to your other work. You can’t be afraid to exclude photographs from your work if their quality doesn’t contribute to your reputation in a positive way. You can always archive them for your own enjoyment anyway.
- Get critiques on your work. There are plenty of photography forums online and other outlets for professional photographers where you can throw some photos up and get good advice from those who are already getting paid for their photography (though like all advice, anything you read should be taken with a grain of salt). Getting feedback on your work helps to teach you which photographs you take are strong and interesting enough to be included in your portfolio.
- Don’t include photographs that need explanation. You might be really attached to a certain photograph because of the difficulty the shot took to accomplish or some other aspect of the work, but if the photograph’s power and quality can’t speak for itself, it isn’t strong enough to include in your professional portfolio.
- Sequence your photos in accordance with a theme. Doing this makes your portfolio look more organized and professional. Photographs in a portfolio can be ordered by primary colors, compositional design, the mood evoked, or some theme that is particular to the subject of the photographs. Telling a poignant narrative through the sequence of your work can be the thing that ultimately drives a client to hire you.
- Develop a signature look. This could be derived from your choice of subjects, your composition, or any other design element. It can take years for a fledgling photographer to develop their signature photography style but you should work hard to define your style. This can lead to you standing out from the crowd in a world where everyone has a camera.
Building a decent portfolio that has a high enough quality to earn a living through photography can take months or years of hard work and dedication to honing the craft. If you want to start getting paid for photography, you should always carry your camera. That way you don’t ever miss out on a chance to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
You may only add one out of every hundred photos you take to your professional portfolio, but it takes those other ninety-nine practice photos to get to the perfect hundredth shot. At the end of the day, one of the best ways to build a strong portfolio is to just build it, photograph by photograph. That means practicing your art consistently.
In Paid Photography, Learn More to Earn More
Paid photography is a competitive field to work in, and in order to be competitive, you need to stay on top of your skills. Constantly seeking out ways to refine your photography skills and get more practice in will ultimately lead to you building up a successful career.
Seeking out opportunities to learn more about photography also builds your credibility as a professional and gives you a chance to network with other photographers. These kinds of socializing activities are just as important to becoming a paid photographer as taking the pictures themselves. Many aspects of paid photography are very socially driven and determined by personal connections.
Especially at the beginning of your career, you’re more likely to get paid commissions through referrals and word of mouth than you are through marketing, so it’s important that people see you out in places where photography is being performed and discussed.
Here are some ways you can refine your craft as a photographer in order to justify getting paid:
- Take photography courses. Many college campuses and art museums teach photography at some point in the year, so it can be worth it to enroll in as many of these learning opportunities as you can. Not only will you get the enjoyment of talking shop with other photographers who are interested in the same skills as you are, but you can also potentially learn something that will follow you the rest of your career every time you step into a classroom.
- Offer to take photos for free (or cheap). One easy way to educate yourself on portraiture is to volunteer to take photos during the holidays, on vacations, and at other times when people or the communities you belong to are gathered together. The opportunities to educate yourself in photography through practice are endless if you’re willing to do a little work pro bono.
- Ask people if you can take their picture in public. This can take some guts to do but finding interesting subjects in public and asking them point-blank if you can take their picture can lead to some fantastic portraits. You can also take candid photographs on the street, such as in the style of Vivian Maier, but taking photos of strangers without their consent is a matter of some ethical debate amongst photographers, regardless if they are occupying a public space or not.
- Watch YouTube videos and read online tutorials. The Internet is a vast wealth of information on a limitless number of subjects, and photography is no exception to that rule. Learning as much as you can from other photographers is a surefire way to pick up tricks and hints for improving your photography that would be much more difficult to learn on your own.
- Get involved in digital photography communities. Like online tutorials and YouTube channels, photography forums are a good way to interact with other photography professionals. Here you can both learn from other photographers as well as network with photographers that you like and admire.
- Practice makes perfect. It stands to reason that the more photographs you take, the more skilled at photography you’ll gradually become. This is how every artist in history has ever honed their skills, and if you want to be good enough at photography to get paid, you’re going to have to put in your time practicing just like everyone else.
- If you feel stuck, try something completely different. If your self-education in photography is starting to feel stagnant, switching it up and trying to photograph a subject that is completely foreign to you can give you some fresh inspiration. Changing up your subject or style temporarily can make it easier for you to get back into your groove as an artist when you’re feeling caught in a rut.
- Constantly seek feedback. Whether you’re looking for feedback from clients or looking for feedback from other photographers, critique on your work (no matter how blunt or painful) can be one of the best ways to quickly jumpstart your photography skills by pointing out your worst compositional or technical mistakes right away. By doing this, you can make sure that you don’t waste time taking mediocre photographs that include these flaws.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. Learning what does and doesn’t work in your photography means trying some techniques that you wouldn’t normally try to see if you can get better results from changing things up. If you’ve developed a bit of a reputation for good photographs, don’t rest on your laurels—constantly be pushing the edge of what you can do to improve your work.
One of the main things that separates a hobbyist in photography from someone who is edging into professional territory is the quality of their photographs, and that is dictated by two things: experience and education. Education doesn’t mean having to pursue photography in a college (although that can be useful)—education means nothing more than the constant pursuit of a better technique.
Experience is the simple practice of the craft combined with the art of putting yourself in the right place at the right time.
Build Up Your Online Presence as a Photographer to Get Paid
Other than constantly striving to be a better photographer through making the images, the other half of being a paid photographer involves exposing yourself to people who might want to pay you for your photographs. There are three major ways you can build up your online presence as a photographer:
- Archived stock photos: Websites such as 500px, SmugMug Pro, Shutterstock, and iStock Photo all pay photographers for stock photos that are archived online and sold to people who want to buy the license to them. The commissions from these sales can be a way for you to get a passive income from your photographs while you pursue more direct commission work.
- Build a professional website for yourself. Directing potential clients to your Facebook page is the sign of an amateur—instead, one of the first things you should do when you decide to take your photography to a professional level is to build a website that can act as a digital portfolio of your work and also give clients a way to contact you to ask you about your work. Many site builders such as Wix are both economical and simple to use.
- Maintain social media accounts. On top of your professional website, if you’re a photographer you’ll also want to keep a steady stream of your best photographs shown through your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. This kind of exposure is what generates potential client leads. Instead of focusing on drumming up business through traditional lead gen, focus instead on telling a compelling narrative about yourself and your work to drive intrigue. People will find the can connect with you if they can see themselves or their needs being met in your work.
- Start a photography blog. Not only can a photography blog be a great way to showcase your work, but it’s also a good place to show others what you know about photography. This can eventually lead to opportunities for paid photography such as teaching workshops, tutoring photography students, and other chances to monetize your craft.
- Post consistent and dynamic content. Nothing will detract from your exposure more quickly than starting an online presence only to fade into obscurity as your passion for your blog or website wanes and you move on to other things. Being a professional photographer means building up your endurance. That means posting new photos and content on a regular basis to slowly gather up a following rather than acting like a flash in the pan.
Businesses are increasingly going online for the bulk of their sales, and since their work can be performed from practically anywhere, photographers are one of the first industries that should jump on the train of digital nomadism to increase their profit and decrease their overhead. Showcasing your work in an online portfolio is a lot cheaper than trying to open a photography studio in a brick and mortar location.
Even if your focus is on analog photos rather than digital photography, having a strong online presence that you’re constantly reinforcing with newly created work and portfolio additions can mean the difference between getting paid and only developing to the point that you can pursue photography as a hobby.
To Start Getting Paid in Photography, Put in the Work
Some amateur photographers who enjoy taking pictures may think that monetizing their skills can be a way to turn a quick buck, but the truth is that the photography business is a lot more complex than that, and it takes real effort to build up the photography and networking skills necessary to pursue photography as a paid career.
This hard effort contributes to increased chances to make it big. The most important aspect is to put yourself out there and simultaneously build your skill and online presence. It's possible to get lucky and learn on the job but starting from scratch and getting the deal of a lifetime is unlikely.
If you want to make a living as a photographer, learning how to market yourself, refining your photography to a professional level of quality, and building up your portfolio are the three most important things you can do to find clients and start getting paid for your work.