Scattered tips on how to turn photography from a hobby to a professional business

A friend asked “I am an amateur photographer. What do I need to do to turn my hobby into professional photography?” I feel a bit guilty in this context since I have been telling him that he is really a very talented photographer. So now I have to own up to it. Here are some disorganised suggestions, tips and advice.

A rusty old lock and bolt at the medieval chateau

A rusty old lock and bolt at the medieval chateau

Think about what kind of photography you want to do.

Is it advertising? Fashion? Reportage? Travel? Wildlife? Etc

Then think about who buys that kind of photography.

Then try and make a sale.

For example: If your chosen niche is editorial food and drink photography then look at the magazine that publish that kind of material. You could, for example, make a pitch to one of the publications for something that you have. Say for instance you have a lovely set of mushroom photographs you could pitch a mushroom article to a food journal.

However, one of the first things you need to do is to understand the technical requirements for “professional” photograph. This of course not very well defined and it is changing all the time, and depends on the buyer. (One thing you should seriously consider is not shoot jpeg but instead use raw.)

A very good place to look to start understanding technical requirements are stock photo agencies contributor requirements (stock photography submission guidelines). Here are a few to get you going:

Testing the waters by contributing your images to a stock photography site like Alamy is a good way to start getting the feel for it. But be aware: there is huge competition (and poor prices) in stock photography today, so do not set your expectations high in terms of what you will sell.

One other useful thing to do is to read photo magazines and books. A few “photo business” oriented photography books that can be worth your while:

  • The DAM Book, by Peter Krogh
  • Best Business Practices for Photographers

Business

  • Take a serious look at how photography is “sold”. Basically it is typically not “sold” but licensed. There are two main types of licensing:
    • Rights managed (RM): the buyer can only use the image for one specific thing
    • Royalty free (RF): the buyer can do whatever he likes with the photo (not strictly correct) and use it as many times as he wants.
    • Personally I only do RM. I do not do RF.
  • If you are interested in exploring stock photography as an outlet, think about how you want to do it. For example:
    • Join a stock photo agency (some are easy to join, some are very difficult)
    • Sell your own stock (which more and more photographers do, and is not
    • Do you want to work with “microstock”? (This is sites who do RF at rock-bottom cheap prices. Look it up on the internet.) My advice is to avoid them unless you do very specific mass-produced photography (end even then).
  • Always keep your commitments. And deliver in the time promised. Let me repeat that: Deliver on time, or even better, before time. And keep the promises and commitments you do.
  • Two very contradictory things, if you license stock photography:
    • Be critical on your own work. Discard bad images even though you might like them.
    • Customer preferences are a mystery. It is impossible to guess which stock picture that will sell. Sometimes what you think is a totally uninteresting picture will have commercial success.
    • So go figure…
  • Display your work online in a professional way
    • Having a blog is good (even necessary), but perhaps not enough
    • But you might want to explore other more “professional” tools to, like for instance Photoshelter (that I use) or other similar portfolio or sales oriented online services.
  • Understand copyright and intellectual property. It is the key to your business.

Photography

  • Start understanding light!
  • Shoot raw. Don’t shoot jpeg. Shooting jpeg is like taking pictures with a Polaroid camera.
  • Make an effort to learn how to best use the software tools that you need. (I use Capture One from Phase one. Outstanding. Then I occasionally use Photoshop to touch up and double check.)
  • After processing your pictures, leave them for a few weeks and then look at them again. Still good?
  • Make sure you get the sharp focus where you want it in the picture. Trash images that don’t have it.
  • Inspect your pictures at 100% after processing.
  • A few things you should make sure you understand and know how to use:
    • Curves
    • Levels (You really should make an effort to understand levels, and how to use it in the processing. It can be a great help.)
    • White-balance
  • Manage and control the white balance. Buy a grey card. Use the grey card.
  • Control dust. And check images for dust.
  • Calibrate your monitor with a calibration tool (like X-Rite i1 or Spyder or similar). I use X-Rite i1 Pro. If you don’t, then you don’t have any idea how your image will look to the customer.
  • Spend more money on lenses and less money on camera bodies.
  • Use a tripod, when it is dark. (Avoid high ISO.)
  • Use 100 ISO as much as you can. But if really needed you can get usable pictures even at 3200 ISO (or more), depending on your camera body (and what the images are for).
  • As much as you can: compose and expose the picture correctly when shooting. Avoid as much as possible having to adjust & correct in processing. (It will give you better pictures but it is also a big time saver.)

Organisation

  • Organise your images so that you can find them. Use a DAM (digital asset management / cataloguer) tool. I use Extensis Portfolio but it is an application that is no longer supported by its developer. I am currently looking for a new and better DAM.
  • Back-up. I repeat: back-up everything and always. I repeat again: always backup, more than once. (Hint on why: one disk failure that you don’t have backed-up may mean that you lose one full year’s worth of work. How much is that worth?) Of your multiple backups, preferably one should be off-site.
  • File naming: you must decide on a file naming standard. I use a system based exclusively on dates and sequence numbers. Do not use “clever” file naming that contains information about the images, e.g. dog-img0011.jpeg.
  • Work-flow: think long and hard about your work-flow. Having a process that works for you will save you a lot of time.
  • If you want to work with stock the most important thing is: keyword and caption your images well! This is like SEO for photography. It is boring and time-consuming but vitally important. (Many stock site submission guidelines have more info.)

Hope that helps, as Matt Cutts says.

Do you have more tips and suggestions? Write a comment!

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