How to become a professional photographer

Author
Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
Posted
June, 2020

To earn a living as a professional photographer requires a commitment to learning and honing your craft, a portfolio showcasing your style and plenty of networking

'The market for professional photography is shrinking, fees are getting smaller and there's a lot of competition - so making a career out of it means you need to stand out in some way,' says Dr Michael Pritchard, director of education and public affairs at the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).

He explains how this can be achieved through developing your own photography style, but stressed the importance of always being professional and having the right attitude to match your creative talents. You should deliver your work on time, in keeping with the client's brief and by bringing your full range of skills to your photography offering.

If you've decided that this is the career for you and are prepared for the hard work that lies ahead, you'll need to take the following steps.

Get some work experience

As with most careers, you'll find that work experience is the best means of understanding what working as a professional photographer is actually like.

However, instead of spending time looking for work experience with large employers, it's worth speaking to local photographers online via Twitter or LinkedIn - for tips, see social media and job hunting. This is because you're more likely to be invited to assist a photographer for a day or during an event they're covering than land a traditional week or month-long internship.

Make the most of any experience you're offered - even if it's not within the specific area of photography you're interested in. This is the perfect time to ask questions, learn photography practices and build your network of contacts.

If you're struggling to secure work experience or find a mentor, Dr Pritchard reveals that there are other ways to promote yourself and get noticed. 'Submitting work to photography competitions and exhibitions can help to raise your profile, but be selective and only choose those that will add value to your CV.'

You could consider portfolio review sessions, as this will introduce your work to industry specialists and commissioners. 'Often a review session can be the start of a longer term relationship,' says Dr Prichard.

Also, by attending talks and events, you'll get to meet photographers and influential people from the industry. Dr Prichard advises you to keep your work on a tablet device so you can easily show it to others. 'Take business cards to hand out, but don't forget to ask those you meet for their cards,' he adds.

Finally, you could start your own blog and upload your work online. This will demonstrate your talent, ability to use photography software and provide instant access to your portfolio. Utilise the online community by following other photography blogs and using social media to network and hunt for opportunities.

Do a photography course

'The world of photography education is enormous,' reveals Dr Prichard. Indeed, there are plenty of informal ways of learning about photography, through specialist online courses to independent workshops. For instance, the RPS has developed a 10-week online digital photography course in partnership with the Open University (OU).

Dr Prichard feels that if you've got the drive and initiative to present your own work, these courses may be sufficient, but there are plenty of options in the formal education sector for those hoping to further expand their knowledge and develop practical skills at a higher level.

A Bachelor of Arts (BA) in photography - available from the likes of University of Brighton and University Arts London (UAL) - would give you a good solid grounding in photography as well as business skills, he advises. An event organised through your university department will also probably be where you first show your work publicly.

When it comes to choosing a course, it's worth taking the time to select one with the syllabus and tutors that cover the areas you want to learn about. Some courses have specialist modules that may overlap with your own career interests.

At this stage, you can think about which courses may support your next steps should you decide on further study. If you do intend on studying at postgraduate level, make sure you attend a university open day (including virtual open days) to assess the facilities and meet the staff.

You can also explore what can I do with my degree in photography?

A Master of Arts (MA), a Master of Fine Art (MFA), postgraduate certificate (PGCert) or postgraduate diploma (PGDip) would give you invaluable knowledge of the industry while also building your portfolio.

MFA courses are exclusive to creative subjects, and are focused more on applied, practical learning through performance and portfolio than a traditional, theory-based MA. The range of modules offered on an MA course is designed to give you a deeper, more rounded understanding of photography as a whole - its past, present and future.

For example, the MA Photography from Kingston University London's Kingston School of Art (KSA) offers modules concerned with political debates about representation in photography and the photographer's role as an image maker.

To see what's available, search postgraduate courses in photography.

To gain entry to a course, you'll typically need at least a 2:1 degree in a related subject, as well as substantial relevant experience. This could be anything from work shadowing to publishing your own photography blog.

Universities will be interested to see your own work, so you may be called to interview as part of the application process. Compile a creative portfolio of your work and be prepared to discuss it at length.

Generally speaking, a full-time photography Masters will take you one or two years to complete. Part-time courses can last up to three years, with the exception of some part-time MFA courses, which can take four.

As you explore your postgraduate funding options, you may wish to consider the RPS Postgraduate Bursary, which provides £3,500 to one postgraduate photography student each year. This can be for a taught course or research project, with applicants able to apply at any stage of your studies.

The RPS also provides annual funding for two online degree courses at Falmouth University: the BA Photography (top-up) and the MA Photography.

Find a photography job

As a professional photographer you'll usually specialise in a certain field, including:

  • architecture
  • commercial
  • events
  • family
  • fashion
  • fine art
  • forensic - see crime scene investigator
  • school
  • wedding
  • wildlife
  • underwater.

Alternatively you can combine your interests in photography and journalism to become a press photographer - or TV to become a television camera operator.

Each of these roles requires a different style and skillset. Photographers across the industry use a range of equipment, work to different hours in various locations, with travel ranging from local to global.

For instance, as a school photographer you may work within a county or region, while as a wildlife photographer you'll need to travel to habitats in other countries and environmental conditions. Because of this, finding work experience tailored to your ambitions is crucial.

Join a professional body

As the UK's largest photography organisation, with around 11,000 members, the RPS is well-equipped to offer additional support to new photographers interested in pursuing this as a career.

This educational charity not only provides networking opportunities to students and graduates, you'll also benefit from the chance to enter competitions and attend exhibitions - see RPS opportunities.

In addition, you can develop your skills and creativity while focusing your work through its raft of resources. These include access to journals talks, plus a globally-recognised programme of RPS qualifications for every level of photographic experience.

Professional bodies such as the Association of Photographers (AOP) and the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) will also bring more focused professional benefits that will add value to you.

Become a freelance photographer

A MoneySupermarket.com study on The Best UK Cities for Freelancers (2018) revealed how nearly a tenth of UK freelancers worked in the video, photo and audio media subsector.

This shows how a growing number of photographers are self-employed, which is something you'll need to consider when starting your photography career.

Find out what's involved in working freelance before you get started.

You can also delve into this further by reading FreelanceUK's guide for photographers.

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