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:.