5 Steps Towards Becoming a Successful Photographer

That murky, in-between phase as a photographer, when you're unsure if you're ready for the pressure of paid assignments and yet eager to accept the challenges and rewards that go along with them, can be really confusing. Whether you're a blogger looking for additional ways to generate revenue, or, just really enjoy taking photos and are wondering what it's like to go on assignment, your focus should be as much on honing your skills as it is on building a business. That way, when someone eventually does want to hire you or purchase your images, you're ready. Now, this isn't necessarily the 'right' path to take; these are just some of the things I learned while finding my own way as a blogger with a camera.

Bring your camera everywhere

Lily Rose  snaps a photo of a chihuahua in Sayulita, Mexico.

Lily Rose snaps a photo of a chihuahua in Sayulita, Mexico.

It's obvious, but worth stating anyway: the only way you're going to be able to tell if you're interested in treating photography as more than a side project is to use your camera more often. Your first challenge is to start giving yourself assignments. Wake up before the sun rises or go for walks at golden hour each evening. Visit interesting places, places you wouldn't ordinarily go - botanical gardens, zoos, sporting events, and food or craft markets - and document your experience. Practice your workflow for editing and backing up so that when you have to do it under pressure, it's second nature. 

Your friends and family are great guinea pigs! Offering to take headshots for LinkedIn profile photos or to take their family portraits or a few engagement photos is a fun, low-risk way to practice your skills and build your portfolio.


Get involved in the community

Taking photos with new friends on an Instameet in Central Park 

Taking photos with new friends on an Instameet in Central Park 

Photography is as social of an activity as you'd like it to be. Sharpen your skills by practicing with others. Start by researching other photographers online and go to their shows in small town galleries and at universities if you admire their work. If you can find a mentor, ask them questions. Get their feedback on your portfolio (more on this later) and offer to assist them on a shoot. Working with others helps you learn little tips and tricks you wouldn't necessarily get from asking questions or reading in a book or online forum. Join photography meet-up groups and Instameets to shoot and explore with like-minded people.

Start to look for other photographers whose work you admire and connect with them online. Communities such as Pinterest, VSCO, Flickr, and 500px are great places for discovery and inspiration.

Act (and look) like a professional

(Clockwise) Canon camera and lens,  Lo & Sons  Claremont bag, truDigital tripod, Apple iPad Air,  Ollo Clip  iPhone Lens,  Apple Lightning to SD Card Reader

(Clockwise) Canon camera and lens, Lo & Sons Claremont bag, truDigital tripod, Apple iPad Air, Ollo Clip iPhone Lens, Apple Lightning to SD Card Reader

Part of being taken seriously when transitioning to pro is looking the part. In my kit, I have a sturdy bag, several lenses, a backup battery and memory card, a tripod, a shutter remote, and lenses for my iPhone. My Lo & Son's Claremont crossbody purse makes it so it's not obvious I'm carrying camera gear. In addition, I bring an iPad when I travel so that I can upload straight from my camera to it and edit selects (in Snapseed or VSCO) to post on social media. It's so important to nail down your editing workflow - from camera, to Lightroom on your computer (or apps on the iPad), to hard drive + cloud. It's also important to regularly schedule back-ups of all of your visual assets. I try to keep three copies of everything - computer, external hard drive, and my PhotoShelter account (cloud storage).

If you're thinking about getting serious about photography, rent a body/lens from a nearby camera shop before you buy. Professional level cameras are expensive and you'll want to invest in a device you feel comfortable with and enjoy using.

Establish your brand

one carry on website.jpg

No one will know what you're capable of unless you show them. The easiest way to do this is by creating a portfolio of your best work. Review your old photos and look for any recurring themes by which you can sort your portfolio. This exercise will also help you determine the kinds of clients you'll be marketing your services to. Be critical when selecting images for your portfolio, because it's likely your first clients will be assessing whether or not you're the right person for the assignment based on this.

In addition to a clean portfolio, you should have a presence on social media channels to show off your work. This is an extension of your brand and your identity, and will help prospective clients find you. Platforms like VSCO and Instagram are perfect for this. The handful of photos I've had published in magazines were actually discovered on other websites I had shared my images with.

Before you commit to a paid subscription for a package including cloud-storage and a portfolio website, test all of your options with a handful of photos first. Sites like PhotoShelter, Squarespace and Format all offer free two week trials (and don't be afraid to ask for an extension on that trial period to be sure you're ready). Look for plans integrating e-commerce, too.

Build your business

Come up with a base package (or several packages) to offer your future clients (for example, a set number of royalty-free downloads at a set rate). When looking for clients, I started with businesses close to home. I checked their websites and social networks beforehand to get a feel for their visual style to be sure I could deliver something that fit their style. I first targeted smaller venues like coffee shops, the Airbnbs I stayed in (Airbnb does contract photographers, too!), boutique hotels, and local shops because they are often in need of great photos to show off their product (especially for their own social media promotions) but lack a big budget to make it happen. That's where I found opportunity. Happy clients also make excellent referrals to new clients, too.

If you're ready to take on paid assignments, you'll definitely want to start creating contracts with clients and get insurance. See this ASMP post on contracts and this FStoppers post for more advice on insurance.

Do you have any tips to share? I'd love to read them!

One Carry-On was gifted a Claremont camera bag by Lo & Sons. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Marie Frei

One Carry-On is a blog managed by Marie Frei, a travel expert and photographer with a passion for exploring off the beaten path locations. The blog covers honest and personal stories about living and traveling as an American abroad, shares her global appreciation for culture and design, and promotes traveling to far-flung destinations with a carry-on as fun, affordable, and easy.