One thing I’ve gotten many emails and requests for over the years (as does every photographer) is my advice on how to become a “professional” photographer. Whenever I get these emails, after I get done laughing and crying at the same time, I want to offer some helpful advice, but I simply don’t have the time to write a personalized response. I usually ignore the email, then I feel like a butthead. So I’m finally writing a blog to send to everyone who asks me this. Hopefully this will help some people out.

becoming a professional photographer
Photo by Felix Tsao

Just like many other careers and life skills, photography can be practiced in many different ways. You can be a photographer with a semi-normal “full time” job with benefits – either working for a massive chain photography studio like Picture People or Lifetouch – or even set up a franchise-style photo studio of your own; taking similar portraits with the same nice lighting setup and props and price for all of your clients who desire a predictable outcome and fast turn-around. On the other end of the spectrum, you could pass up the predictable, stable income work and try to push creative boundaries; doing only one-off, highly conceptualized ‘contracted freelance’ shoots. These shoots typically include assistants, wardrobe, stylists, etc. – and the photographers who shoot this way typically strive to create something new with every shoot they do, usually for commercial work, bands, or even gallery shows. Some photographers also try to strike a balance in the middle of this spectrum.

Photography is a much easier career when you are open to photographing babies, families, dogs and weddings; and when you have a natural knack for business and saying no to people. Personally, I am horrible at saying no, and asking for what I’m actually worth, and I have a deep dislike for shooting weddings, engagements, babies, pets… everything that makes you steady money in photography (unless you are fortunate enough to score an agent that can get you very high-end commercial work, but even that has major drawbacks, despite the much higher pay per job – more on that later).

I’m going to try to make this post as much about YOU and as little about me as possible, but I do need to relate some personal stories in here to drive the point home on a few things. First off, as a photographer, you will eventually be asked to shoot a wedding, even if you don’t want to and never intended to shoot them. Even if you do like the idea of shooting weddings, there’s a lot you should know.

professional photography advice
Wedding in Rome, Italy


I have shot four weddings, and all were favors for friends and family. I spent an average of $300 per wedding on equipment (fixing lights and lenses needed for the job, buying extra gear, buying batteries, hard drives, etc) plus gas and travel expense. Not to mention dozens of hours sorting through the thousands of photos, picking selects, and doing final detailed edits to the selects, and cost/time to mail hard drives to the client. The average wedding photographer today charges $2,500 (and a large chunk of that is cost and not profit). Asking a photographer to shoot a wedding for free is the same as asking a caterer to do your wedding for free – buying all the food and prepping it, running around all day setting up the food and cleaning it up. You don’t get to enjoy the wedding – you are working, stressing, and spending money instead of making it.

I don’t regret a single wedding that I’ve shot for free, because for various reasons I wanted to do it– but I will never do it again and I encourage every photographer to understand what they are getting themselves into by doing weddings (or large photoshoots) for free. The best thing you can do when asked is politely explain that your personal cost (no profit included) to shoot a wedding with confidence would be in the $100-500 range (depending on the gear you require, if you have it all already, how long it takes you to edit selects and how many they want). If you’re generous enough to make no profit, offer to shoot it at that cost. I won’t even delve into the ethical ramifications of accepting to do a wedding for free—since you’re hurting the wedding photography industry and perception of the value of good wedding photos, and perpetuating the misunderstanding of good photography being of high value in the age of selfies and high-quality camera phones. Personally, if I were to hire a wedding photographer who was a friend, I would pay them full price or only ask for a small discount. Same for a wedding band, caterer, etc.

This same principal should go for every shoot you do. Never, ever, shoot for free unless it is for a solid charitable cause, or the shoot is for strong personal gain – IE if it is the first wedding you’ve ever shot and you need the photos for your portfolio in order to get more work. If you feel compelled to do a shoot for free, at least consider cost and offer to do it for the price of gas, a minimal hourly fee and maybe a meal thrown in. This way you will feel more valued and less taken advantage of, which will compel you to do better work.

For the first wedding I ever shot I was naïve enough to think the FotB or someone would at least slip me $50 or an Olive Garden giftcard for my time & travel expense. I didn’t even know these friends that well, so even though I agreed to shoot the wedding for free, I figured there would at least be a small token of gratitude offered at the end of the day or a few days later. Nope. As a result of feeling very taken advantage of (since I didn’t even realize how crazy insane shooting a wedding was when I agreed to it) I dragged my feet a lot in getting the 2,000 photos to them. I was broke, so I couldn’t afford to send them a hard drive, and uploading the files to my server was slow going. This was before Dropbox. I took so long to get them the photos that they ended up actually getting pretty upset with me, and it basically ended whatever friendship we had before that. Don’t make the same mistake. Ask for compensation up front, or politely decline.

johnnyswim music photography

Fashion/Commercial/Music/Fine Art Photography

I can’t speak much more about the wedding/baby/dog/family/portrait side of things, because I try not to do that work because I don’t love it. I can offer a lot more advice about the other end of the spectrum though, because that’s what I’ve strived to do as a photographer. If that’s you, too – prepare to fail unless you have a natural talent for extraordinary composition, lighting, posing, prop and location/setting concept, etc. Or, you could just mimic what is popular by trolling Instagram and fashion blogs, and if you’re good at stealing other people’s concepts and lighting ideas, you’ll do just fine. Also, you must have a bunch of beautiful friends at the ready to do portfolio building (free) shoots with. Only beautiful people will sell your portfolio to high-paying clients. This is the saddest and dirtiest truth in the photography world. You can have a stunning photo of an ‘ugly’ person, and if you’re trying to do work in fashion, commercial, music or fine art, people are not going to take a second look at your work. They want to see beautiful people in these industries, and that you know how to photoshop already beautiful people to look impossibly perfect. Now, if you only want to do travel photography or editorial/non-profit work, you are totally safe with normal looking people in your portfolio.

alexz johnson music photography becoming a professional photographer
Alexz Johnson in Austin, TX

Another thing you’re going to want to have in this arena of the photography world is an agent. I’ve only had an agent once, and I hated it, because she got me work that I didn’t actually want. I was getting paid, and published, but it was work I didn’t even want in my portfolio. Boring commercial work. She didn’t understand or care about what I actually wanted to be shooting – to her, money was money, and photos were photos. I know other photographers who love their agents, but only the ones fortunate enough to have landed some of the best photography agents in the world. Even they have complaints – but they mostly love the work. I don’t know the secret formula for landing that kind of agent, because if I did, I would have one. I do know that most of my friends who have landed great agents didn’t actually seek them out, the agent found them. One more reason it’s critical to have a solid online presence with your work, and always be working – even if you’re faking it ’til you make it. If you’re in a dry spell, invent your own shoot with model friends that looks like a commercial or music shoot. Always be publishing new, compelling work.

live music photography
The Temper Trap @ The Roxy

Most people have found me through my music photography work, and a lot of people ask about that as a career. Let me tell you, this is the most financially restrictive (nicest way I can explain that you will be broke) kind of photography around. Now, if you love music, it’s very personally fulfilling and can be fun. But prepare to be homeless. Literally nobody will pay for music photography unless it’s the cover shoot for an album, and even bands with big budgets are getting “creative” and shooting with friends or shooting their own stuff because they think it’s cool – and they aren’t wrong. Live music? Forget it. If you have connections to local newspapers, they may want one shot from last night’s U2 concert that they are actually willing to pay a few hundred bucks for. But local newspaper photogs never meet the band, don’t get to enjoy the concert (3 song limit, gotta love it), and are usually given assignments for shows they don’t even want to see. How fun!

The real fun in the music industry is getting to work with bands and artists you actually love. This doesn’t pay well, and it is hard. Very, very hard. I have succeed at this a few times, but it took years to get in with the people I wanted to work with. There are also huge downsides to working with bands/artists you love, especially if they know you are/were a ‘fan’. With some artists you can still have dozens of solid ‘connections’ and be on their radar and still never get hired. This is because either they already have a list of people they use, or they just don’t pay (or can’t even afford to pay) photographers. For the artists I worked for, I was just in the right place at the right time after years of putting myself on the radar. Once I finally was hired, I was never paid enough for it to become a more full-time thing*, and had to move on to other work in order to pay my rent. It’s heartbreaking when you’re doing what you love, but it can’t pay your bills. Music does not pay the bills. If you want to make money in photography, don’t plan to work exclusively in music.

*Except for that tour I did where I tour managed, drove the van, ran VIP, ran merch, did stills & video and played cajon for part of the set. I was paid well then! 🙂

tour photographer crowd music festival
On stage before a show in Amsterdam

Travel photography

This might actually be the hardest to succeed in photography niche of all. Why? Because not many photographers are cut out to be the next Annie Leibovitz, handling huge budget shoots with A-list celebrities, and most actually know that. But every single photographer in the world now thinks they would make a good travel photographer, including amateurs with iPhones, thanks to point-and-shoot cameras and camera phones with photography apps with software built-in to color correct, straighten, do HDR landscapes, sharp macro and tilt-shift shots, portraits with nice skin tones and airbrushing, and professional filters – without even needing to touch a professional editing program.

I am still, 10 years in, trying to break into the travel photography industry. Honestly I haven’t tried that hard though. Since I haven’t “made it” yet, my advice is probably worthless, but from what I’ve seen of the photographers who have made it, there is a formula: you have to go on a few self-funded trips, and treat the trip like a photo assignment. Try to get a broad range of subject material, but also try to stick to a coherent theme too, like the hipster culture in Austin, TX or the music scene in Havana, Cuba. Travel publications just want to see one incredible sample from you – i.e., a set of 10-20 photos from one trip, a small story to go along with it, and a broad range of subject matter from that trip: food, locals, attractions and off-the-beaten-path stuff. If they are impressed, they will keep you on a list for future work and potentially ask you what your travel schedule looks like (a lot of them don’t even want to pay your way to do specific pieces anymore, they like to have a network of photographers that are constantly traveling on their own dime who they can hire pseudo-locally). It’s usually very low pay, but generally is enough to cover trip expenses, so the upside is you technically can get “free vacations” out of it. To make travel photography a true career, you would need to become a full-time employee of a travel pub or media outlet. A lot of the top websites, magazines, and media outlets don’t hire outsiders. They hire people in a full-time position that may or may not include 9 to 5 office work as well. It can take decades to get these coveted jobs.

beach tropical caribbean travel photography advice
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Here are a few helpful links for additional info: How to Break Into Travel PhotographyHow I Became a Travel Photographer

non profit photographer
Assignments in Togo, West Africa in 2011 & 2012

NGO/Non-profit Photography

Again, just expect to be literally homeless and broke if you want to get into this. Or find a wealthy benefactor. Or move to a third world country where there are multiple NGOs on the ground and apply at their field offices. There are a few incredible photographers that dominate this field, and only a few Non-profits that really have the money (and budget) to pay well for photos. Charity:water, World Vision, etc. All the work I’ve done in this field was charity work. I completely funded my travel and my photos/videos taken were a gift to the non-profit.


Still interested in a photography career?

If you want to shoot weddings and have a studio, great. You have a shot at a career if you can find a market that isn’t already saturated with photographers. If you want to be a freelance music/fashion/commercial/non-profit/travel photographer and I haven’t scared you yet, here’s what I’d recommend doing: find a way to make a solid income doing something other than photography that you enjoy, and support your photography career on the side. IF you’ve saved up enough money for at least a 6-month dry spell, and you are swamped with high-paying assignments that you love, then quit the other job.


Here are some answers to specific questions that I’ve received:

Q: What is the best thing I can do to promote and market myself to get in front of editors or other clients?

A: Have an amazing website and internet presence where editors and prospective clients can see big beautiful images immediately. That is a baseline. Then target who you want to see your work. I don’t think that ‘broad spectrum’ marketing works super well. Just find out who you want to work for and then try to send them emails/actual mail and then finally a phone call once the email/mail has gone through. If you’re unsure of how to setup a beautiful website and solid social media accounts, there are many books on those subjects. For websites, there are dozens of cheap solutions to have a nice photography site, like using WordPress or Squarespace. The best advice I can give for social is don’t make it personal – post only beautiful, compelling images and posts that have to do with your career and photography in general.

Q: How do I make the greatest amount of money possible as a photographer?

A: Most photographers who I know that would identify themselves as successful also have income from speaking engagements, books, interviews, creative side projects and selling stock work. Don’t put your eggs in one basket and make sure that you are diversified in terms of revenue and your client base. One of the good things about photography is flexibility. There are no rules really, you can shoot only real estate photography or you can shoot everything under the sun and be a speaker and author too!

Q: How do I become a better photographer? 

A: Follow as many successful photographers as you can, read their blogs, watch their videos and learn everything you can about their creative process, lighting setups and ideas, editing techniques, etc. Then shoot as many photos as you possibly can. Treat every shoot like the most important one you’ve ever done and as a chance to step it up. When I was first starting out, I brought my camera into every concert I went to (which was a lot) — even the ones where no cameras were allowed. I would sneak my camera in through a “fake bottom” purse. At one show in particular I had the nicest camera in the room, everyone else just had awful little point and shoots and iPhones, and it was a dark room, so everyone was using flash. The artist, a Miss Zooey Deschanel, stopped the show at one point and told the audience she couldn’t continue unless the photo taking stopped. Knowing that I was fine since I wasn’t using a flash (I never use a flash for concert photography, and neither should you) I kept taking photos discreetly. One of the photos I took that night somehow became the main photo on Zooey’s wikipedia article for years and was used in countless articles about She & Him (her band). Just bringing my camera and taking photos (even when I wasn’t supposed to) helped me grow a lot as a photographer. A good rule of thumb when you’re learning (and you want to bring your camera everywhere and taking photos of everything) is to ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’.

professional photography advice
Zooey Deschanel in Nashville, TN

Q: Who are your favorite photographers? 

A: Joey LawrenceJeremy Cowart, Annie Leibovitz, Florian Schneider, Joseph Cultice, Jason Bell, Michael Desmond, Eric Ogden, Michael Muller, Danny Clinch, Eric Almas, Trey Ratcliff, Esther Havens, Casey Curry, Andy Barron … just to name a few.

photography advice
More failed travel photography.

Final thoughts

I can’t tell you how often I want to (and do) temporarily quit photography. My family gets mad at me because I won’t even bring “my nice camera” that “takes good photos” to family gatherings anymore because I tell them I’m just done taking photos for a while. Even when you love it, you will probably get burnt out at some point. That’s why I cannot stress enough – just like with a professional career in sports – you should have a Plan B if you plan on being a photographer. A side business, another skill set or career or passive income from rental properties, or something you could fall back on or do on the side. It’s very, very difficult to make a living doing nothing but taking photos, especially if you’re picky about it and want to only work in a niche. I know some of the top photographers in the world, and although they aren’t struggling, the aren’t rolling in it either. Many of them re-invest a ton of their income into new equipment, bigger studios and funding personal projects and what’s left over is a modest middle-class income. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but they are very few.

Ps. If you have any questions I didn’t answer, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to this post!