Going Professional, Where to Begin?

This year I am rounding out a decade of work in professional photography. In that time I have trained numerous photographers who are now multi-year wedding and portrait pros. As such, I am frequently asked where to find introductory materials about getting into the business. 

Couple in Carlsbad, California.

True, there is a wealth of technical information available about how to shoot and what to buy. However, most resources omit the important details that really set professionals apart. Things like having a systematic backup process, book keeping and grade-A people skills, and using multiple cameras throughout events as a fail-safe against electronic error. Just to start out, I want to say those details are best learned in face-to-face mentor programs. However, here are some of the basics I always tell people. You don't have to understand and you certainly don't have to agree, but I figure if you're reading this, I probably have more experience than you and you're better off hearing me out...

WHY AM I SHARING THIS INFO FREELY?

One might wonder why I am willing to give away my "secrets to becoming a pro". That kind of cuts into my own market, right? The fact is that there are precious few people who are actually dedicated enough to get where the seasoned pros are. I presume the same is true in most fields. The majority of up-start photographers remain side-job enthusiasts. No hard feelings: they serve a particular, less demanding clientele, usually at a lower price-point. Clients who discern quality images and service, and who cannot afford to risk their events to chance, however, will pay a premium for established professionals. So in reality there is not that much competition with "young blood". Frankly, if you have enough drive to endure the learning period then you have my respect. I'm willing to help out and proud to compete with you.

Dawn at Dante's View, Death Valley. 2011

IS BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER A WORTHWHILE VENTURE?

Yes, I think so. In the long run a good livelihood can be made and I find the job to be personally and socially rewarding. However, getting to that point of consistency and success may be costly in terms of money, time, and failure. Many people rush in for the cash and find out the hard way that getting in over one's head can result in catastrophic errors, mistakes that screw up clients' lives—at least for a while—and potentially your own. Imagine botching "the kiss" during a wedding because you relied on Auto mode and the camera took a series of terribly underexposed or blurry shots. You could get sued for the cost of the wedding plus thousands of dollars in emotional damages. Seriously.

This is not to dissuade you from getting into the business. But it should sober you to really study and develop your skills before accepting too much responsibility. It's one thing to be a "second shooter" taking fill-shots for $250 per event. It's another to bear the entire burden if images are subpar or missing.

WHAT TO BUY FIRST?

I've written about this subject more extensively elsewhere, but here are my suggestions. If you want the reasoning behind these items, maybe I'll expound on that later. What works for me may not work for you, but if you look through my portfolio you'll discover that absolutely everything in there can be created with this setup, and nothing more.

  • Rule 1: Go with Canon if you aren't already invested heavily in another system. Not because Canon is technically better, but because there is a broader range of bodies and lenses on the market, both new and used, which generally sell for less. Perhaps being an artist means choosing gear that moves you. But part of being a professional means increasing your profit margin. Convert to Nikon FX when you're loaded, if that suits your fancy. Better yet, buy Mamiya and Leica medium-format, and take Ken Rockwell out for lunch.

  • Rule 2: purchase used gear in excellent condition from reputable dealers like KEH and BHPHOTOVIDEO whenever possible. Both have good return policies, KEH even offers a six-month warranty. In my experience DSLRs are incredibly durable. I have no fear of buying "pre-loved" gear and have purchased more than seven cameras and who knows how many lenses without issues. (YMMV) The savings can be enormous: I paid $1500 for my Canon 20D, brand-new, in 2005. Now that camera is available in like-new condition for $300. That model still takes the same amazing images today. Don't be fooled by marketing pitches.

  • Here we come to the inflammatory part, what to buy in particular. If anyone questions items on this list, I am prepared to give a reasonable defense for my inclusions and exclusions. I repeat, there isn't an image in my portfolio that could not have been made with this kit. Ten years and hard work have taught me how to get great images while saving serious money. For instance, the Wacom tablet, while least essential, cuts my post-processing time in half and dramatically improves editing. Also, some would suggest expensive, long telephotos or cheap mid-range zooms. In practice, these are hardly needed for most wedding work, especially when starting as a second-shooter. Prime (non-zoom) lenses produce more of "the look" you are probably going for. 

    Essential gear for around $3000 (as of November 2013): 

  1. Canon 60D w/ memory cards and spare batteries   ($650)
  2. Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 ($600) - Super-wide to wide
  3. 28mm 1.8 ($400) - Portraits, low light medium-wide
  4. 50mm 1.8 ($80) - Portraits, low-light long lens
  5. Adobe Lightroom / Photoshop ($120/year)
  6. Cheap manual flash and craft-foam diffuser ($50)
  7. Wireless flash trigger for off-camera use ($30)
  8. Dolica Ball-head Tripod ($40)
  9. Backup camera - Canon 40D ($400)
  10. Nylon belt and several LowePro lens pouches, UTG bag ($50)
  11. Wacom Graphics Tablet ($200) 

Yes, that's a lot of money. But I've shot dozens of weddings for about the same amount and, once purchased, the overhead is fairly low. Also, investigate how much you can write off as business expenses for a substantial tax credit. As soon as you've done a few jobs assisting, fill out your system with a spare flash, inexpensive reflectors, etc. Only after that, start thinking about premium cameras and lenses.

Wedding Party at Balboa Park, California

SOMETHING TO AVOID

Expensive classes. I have friends who went to Brooks Institute ($40K) and walked out with little if any practical advantage over wedding photographers who learned from free tutorials online and from mentors. That's not to say an extended formal education cannot help, but in my opinion it is hardly essential to the self-motivated learner in this particular field. No one will ask to see your degree. Everyone will ask to see your portfolio.

CONCLUSION

I consider the most important characteristics in becoming a professional photographer to be dedication, the drive to develop marketable taste, and great people skills. Remember, unless you are a landscape photographer you will work with some intense, emotional people on very subjective projects. Perhaps in that case it wouldn't hurt to have some experience bartending. ;)

Feel free to browse my work for posing ideas, etc., and if you have further questions, don't hesitate to ask. And most of all, keep shooting and learning.

— Michael Spotts:.
www.riverridgephoto.com
All images copyright Michael Spotts:. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 28
Donna J
By Donna J (5 months ago)

Just beautiful wedding photos!
Thank you for sharing them and your advise.
If you're ever teaching in MA please let me know!

0 upvotes
Sad Joe
By Sad Joe (7 months ago)

Best advice - DON"T TURN PRO - I was a pro wedding photographer for over 10 years but moved to vintage vehicle hire a few years ago.

Recently we gained a complaint (our 1st) from a wedding we had driven for: 'Your drivers have jeopardised the work of my official photographers by demanding pictures for your website...I am most unhappy - do something about it'.

Well wind back a little - our driver took 15 pictures, working WITH the pro's the client had pre agreed to them, was very happy with only very positive comments on the day. The TWO pro's took 100's (1x Nikon D3 1x Nikon D800) of pics...

Now this is 1: The truth (really ??) 2: Is trying to get some cash back from us. 3: The pro photographers have co*ked it up and are blaming us. 4: The client is trying to get money back from us AND the photographers using each other as the reason....

Being a professional photographer is a swell way of meeting the worst kind of customers who will cost you money and tell you lies.....

0 upvotes
Timmbits
By Timmbits (Dec 16, 2012)

Your article is much appreciated. But when I look at your porfolio,your talent comes through, however, with most of the pics being so bland, I can't for the life of me understand why you would be so adamant about insisting on canon... if anything, your portfolio is an ad to stay away from it (especially since you seem to do post processing too).
Perhaps instead of recommending a brand, you might share with us what sensor sizes may be acceptable?

Comment edited 45 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2012)

Liya, I see what you mean, but... I have made my living for nearly ten years, almost exclusively with crop-sensor cameras. As you said, my work was "truly truly stunning" to you... with Canon 60Ds! I'd rather put the money into lighting and lenses, and only then a full-frame camera.

0 upvotes
liya
By liya (Sep 14, 2012)

Michael, Thank you for the article. While I don't agree with the part about professionals shooting a crop sensor camera ( I think a full frame sensor delivers a lot more depth unless you are a true photoshop artist and are willing to put in many many more hours into post to achive that ff look ). I think your images are stunning. I really enjoyed looking through your work on your site, especially the engagement/romatic couples photos. they are truly truly stunning!
I regret that I dont live anywhere close to you otherwise I would definitely hire you as our family photographer as well as someone I'd love to learn from.
-Liya (www.dumplingsphotography.com )

Comment edited 40 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
smodge
By smodge (Jul 26, 2012)

In the age of disposable images courtesy of the digital revolution (perhaps these days evolution is a better term)... there is still a huge need for REAL pro-photographers if for no other reason than we know how to accept the responsibilities of capturing that moment for our clients.

Recently I was asked to shoot some portraits for a married couple who hired the "jerk-with-a-DSLR camera". Their special day was destroyed because "the photographer" failed to show up!!! A pro would never do that...

For all those gadget freaks who are attracted to photography for the equipment - move on & let the REAL pros do the work. You're either Beatles or the Stones - Canon or Nikon, Afga or Kodak, Hasselblad or Mamiya???? Who the F*&! cares, but an image that lasts a lifetime...oh yeah - that is why I keep doin' what I love.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
1 upvote
ftphoto
By ftphoto (Jun 9, 2012)

Coming from film - large, medium and 35mm format there is always an over emphasis on the latest greatest piece of equipment. I for one do not like the proliferation of expensive "Fast Zooms" when I am far more confident with a prime or two within the same range. If you need to zoom - use your feet.

This was a refreshing and honest article on one Professional's personal experience and recommendations. If you can afford a Hassey or Phase One Digital Medium Format set up then by all means go for it. It won't make you a better photographer / artist however nor allow you to capture images that are "impossible" with lesser equipment (you define that one).

Thanks for a refreshing perspective and one that is quite sensible!

1 upvote
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2012)

Glad you appreciated it!

0 upvotes
Devendra
By Devendra (Jun 3, 2012)

go with canon? which koolaid are you drinking? and then you shoot with Canon 40D?

i stopped reading after that

i wish DPR would monitor this absurd articles from so called "pro"s

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
ftphoto
By ftphoto (Jun 9, 2012)

Something obviously struck a raw nerve with you. Was it the Canon vs. ????? or have you fallen for the snobbery of the bigger is better crowd. Please understand I am not calling you a "snob" in the least. I just don't understand your vitriolic response.

If you consider the the "Fathers of 35mm" with their Leica's were shooting equipment with far less sophistication and inferior optics than what is available today and yet we keep going back to Atget, Abell, Adams and a couple of my favourite contemporary photographers - Michael Freeman and Freeman Patterson and others for their use of light and composition.

Comment edited 25 seconds after posting
3 upvotes
xXposedXx
By xXposedXx (Jul 1, 2012)

I carry at least 3 bodies to any shoot with the lens attached so I don't waste time adjusting settings for the good of my subject in waiting or fleet of moment. The 40D is a good camera and I'd be still happy to use that body if my 7D's or 5D III happen to be in the shop for work.

One should not be disturbed by readers who are somewhat not logical about their comments of others' input.

Advice to would-be pro photographers:
You need to be a very good entrepreneur with any type of client. What you sell depends totally upon what you know about the art of selling and getting the message across to the client with confidence and being able to satisfy a level of questions to elaborate your expertise in managing a shoot with some flexibility.

Whist pro photography pays reasonably well if you have good clients, it can be a fickle trade. There are many avenues for would be professional photographers but few vacancies at the top mainly due to the refined art of selling ones soul....

1 upvote
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2012)

You stopped reading because you think gear makes a pro. What makes a pro is quality work. Look through mine and tell me its not. Better yet, tell my clients from the past decade.

2 upvotes
Turnip Chops
By Turnip Chops (Nov 28, 2012)

Bizarre comment. The camera is irrelevant. The glass will make a difference, but rather a 40D in the hands of someone who knows what makes a good picture, than a Nikon D4 in the hands of a fool!

2 upvotes
Sad Joe
By Sad Joe (7 months ago)

Sorry - but Ive shot 100's of weddings with a range of cameras - a couple of Nikon D70's served me well for several years, I recently sold them off - they had paid for themselves a long time ago. Surely if your running a business making a PROFIT is more important than the latest kit ? Two important points: 1: Within reason its the photographer that MAKES the picture its the camera that TAKES the picture, any camera no matter how fancy is just a light box allowing light in after all. 2: A pro photographer knows that the camera(s) and lens(es) are only a tiny part of running a business. If you can make money shooting with a Canon 40D - why not ?

0 upvotes
crasher7
By crasher7 (Apr 26, 2012)

I would love to hear your thoughts on a Professional Fine Art photography career as opposed to an event shooter. I am taking the leap into art fairs, craft shows and showcases. Printing my own work, cutting mats, bagging and building displays. I would be very interested in hearing and reading myths, do and don't and solid sage advice.

0 upvotes
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2012)

I'd love to give such advice, but it's out of my field of speciality.

0 upvotes
Hen3ry
By Hen3ry (Apr 25, 2012)

The first thing to do is NOT to buy a whole lot of gear, but to take a book-keeping course AND a marketing course. Or at least get appropriate books and study them. That you are a decent photographer is a given (if you aren’t, then yes, work on that first). The key is in the word "professional" -- you are going into business. A small business. Probably a one person business. It's a very tough gig. Are you up to it? Can you keep the books, can you market, can you sell, can you take the disappointments and ride with them, can you work on your own, can you survive people looking at your beautiful pix and rejecting them ostensibly because they’re not good pix but actually because they don’t want to pay a fair price? how about your partner, your family?

If "yes", then buy the equipment, make yourself totally familiar with it, do all kinds of dry runs and GET TWO OF EVERYTHING. It's amazing how reliable equipment breaks down the moment you use it in a pro situation! :)

Comment edited 27 seconds after posting
1 upvote
steve88
By steve88 (Apr 23, 2012)

Thanks for sharing all of this info and advice. It's really helpful for those of us who might be considering trying to make a full-time living as a pro. Also, it would be nice if you would consider offering online courses for those of us who aren't in the CA area. Thanks again for the article!

0 upvotes
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2012)

Actually, I do offer courses via Skype or in person. :)

0 upvotes
snake_b
By snake_b (Mar 6, 2012)

I would add a photography focus to the article. Give someone with little or no technical ability that list and they can't do much with it.

0 upvotes
newpictaker
By newpictaker (Feb 18, 2012)

Nice post. I would like to have seen a photo shoot with this gear, though, for inspiration. I see a lot of stuff that says use the 50 1.4 over the 50 1.8, for example. OTOH, I've seen DigitalRev give a pro a Lego camera and take great shots.

0 upvotes
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2012)

Look through my site, all of it was shot with this gear.

0 upvotes
Ulfric M Douglas
By Ulfric M Douglas (Jan 14, 2012)

Short and sweet. Great to include specific items to buy and use instead of generalising.

1 upvote
GMPofficial
By GMPofficial (Jan 12, 2012)

I would like to add that no amount of equipment can give a photographer passion and vision.

Sure great equipment will help a photographer with vision create a stunning photograph. However great equipment in the hands of a photographer without vision will result in high quality dog mess.

My advise is to focus purely on getting the pest out of the equipment you have, like the old saying goes "a bad carpenter always blames his tools".

Once you're getting the best out of your current equipment start thinking about the direction you want to go in and how to create a portfolio that reflects your direction.

2 upvotes
sierraphotography
By sierraphotography (Dec 11, 2011)

I have always loved photography, though I have yet to do it other than for pleasure. I would really like to get into wedding photography. Problem is I have no portfolio, what's the best way to get started, and have people take you serious enough to do something as big as there wedding?

0 upvotes
eNo
By eNo (Dec 1, 2011)

I think you rightly focused on gear, since DPR is gear-focused. However, as you hinted but never expanded on, the personal/business side of becoming a professional are important. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I think you know good business sense, solid branding and marketting and interpersonal skills transcend the importance of what gear you bring in your bag. Just as crucial is the understanding that while producing a solid, quality product (our photographs) is important, it is secondary to the same considerations: branding, marketting and customer service.

One book I would recommend to folks that expands on these points is "Fast Track Photographer" by Dean Sanders. I didn't like how it asked me to change my mindset about "going pro," but I think Mr. Sanders has it mostly right.

BTW, nice pics in your article. You got game. :)

1 upvote
MichaelSpotts
By MichaelSpotts (Nov 23, 2011)

Thanks, Dan. It was approaching freezing and I didn't have a tripod with me (doh!) so I was supporting my camera with my jacket. Brrrrr!

0 upvotes
DanCart
By DanCart (Nov 23, 2011)

That is a beautiful picture of Dante`s view ! The place looked chilly

1 upvote
Total comments: 28