Professional Photographer Tips


So you want to become a full time professional photographer?  These are my tips, advice, and the skills you need.

Learn how to read a histogram. 

Study classic art for inspiration with composition ideas and colors.  My favorite painters were the Pre-Raphaelites.  I like their use of color and how they painted with light.

The heart of professional photography is lighting.  Learn how to see it, and how to make the most of it.  A true professional needs to understand how to see the direction of light, how to place their subjects so the lighting brushes their face, or back lights them, whatever the desired result.  
You must learn this because as a professional you will be required to shoot in different lighting scenarios.

It has been said to me that to create a successful photography business you need to have a niche.  I prefer to have a diverse portfolio including commercial and wedding galleries. The diversity allows you to not be dependent on the niche market.

Learn how to read a light meter.

If you are afraid to show your portfolio to sell your services, quit now. Selling is required.

Hire a lawyer in your state to write your contract.  You need to include things such as refund clauses, date changes, copyright agreements, image deliverables, and permissions to use photos to advertise on your website.   Invest in a lawyer.

Make sure you have adequate business insurance in case your equipment gets damaged or worse someone on site gets injured.

Your website should show your best photos in a powerful way.  Larger photos look better.  

Your website is no good if it is difficult to navigate.  Think about how easy or difficult it is to go to different pages.

If you have a wedding business you should come with two photographers.  This allows for one to help with lighting, and the other photographer creates two unique perspectives.

Make sure your website is not too large, causing your pages to load slowly.  For every second of delay you loose 30% of viewers. Run it through free online website speed checkers such as Google Insights, or GMetrix.  Shrink your photo file size with TinyPNG without any noticeable loss in quality for free.

Makes sure you understand SEO or hire a professional to handle your SEO.  Your website is no good if no one can find it.  Take advantage of local directories such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing.


Learn the technical side of photography first.  It's important.  You are not a professional if you shoot in P mode and capture great compositions.  If you struggle to learn the correct exposure, pick a place to shoot a photo.  Shoot that same photo at sunrise, on a cloudy day, on a bright day, and at sunset.  Keep changing your settings under each scenario.  Eventually you will learn the numbers.  

You are not exploiting strangers if you ask to take their photograph. Especially if you offer to pay them, or send it to them.  That's how I got this photo in Nicaragua.

Don't count on photoshop to fix your Jpegs when they are overexposed.  It's better to underexpose and bring out the highlights later than to overexpose your photos.

Shooting in raw does not make you a professional.  Jpegs are perfectly fine most of the time. What makes you a professional is getting the correct exposure in your camera so you don't have to rely on Photoshop.

Good lenses are important.  They are your photographic eye.  Have a variety of sizes.  Learn how to take your lens on and off quickly for an event, and where to store it safely while you are working.  I use a waist belt.


Sometimes when you are desperately trying to get a shot but nothing seems to be working, you just have to turn around.  I was trying to shoot the mountain range in Sedona when a storm came through.  As I grabbed my gear and ran to protect it, I turned around and saw this beautiful red tree.  When the rain stopped I got this photo instead of the one I was after.  It's been my most popular selling photo.

When you are shooting portraits outdoors, look for a clean backdrop such as a large, green bush, or a clean wall for your client to stand in front of.  Also, make sure your client is standing in the shade.  You don't want them squinting in your photos.  Once they are in the shade you need off camera lighting to brush their face.  That's what takes you to the professional level.  Anyone can stand outside in natural light and take a nice photo.  As a professional it needs to be better than ordinary with the lighting.

Study and use the rule of thirds.  It really does work.

Good use of Fence

Good use of Fence

When you are shooting, put your subject into it's surroundings.  For instance, when you have a fence, the left photo puts him is in the surrounding, and it looks very professional.  The right photo looks like anyone could have taken it.  You need to be a step above "anyone can take that photo" when you are charging money for your services.

Weak use of fence

Weak use of fence

Critique your own work harder than you would others. Did you crop it correctly?  Did you crop at the waist, the knees, or the feet? Where should you crop it? Is there too much negative space?  Can you cover up 2/3 of the photo and still have the main shot?  Is it tack sharp?  What did you focus on? Are your colors rich and powerful or are they muted and grainy?  What could you have done to make it better?

Some of my best travel photos are just mundane life such as:  A grandmother and her grandson hanging out in Costa Rica; a man lying on a bench in Nicaragua; a boy on his bicycle in Nicaragua.  A girl in India. Take photos on your time off that interest you.  That keeps your juices going for photography, and fills your portfolio.

Pablo Inspired

Everything in art and photography has already been done.  You can't be original.  But you can take another's idea and put your own twist to it.  That's art.

The best photo journalists are the ones who anticipate when the moment is going to happen.  They grab the best image that way.

Build into your pricing strategy the understanding that for every photo you shoot, 1/3 of your time will be spent post processing it.  That includes deleting, feathering, and adding a vignette to your photos.  Price wisely.

Don't be afraid to turn down work, or to cancel a job if it's not working out.  It's better to give a refund than to get a bad online review.

You will get a bad review.  Don't take it personally.  Always respond to bad reviews professionally and in a detached method without emotion.  You have arrived when you've received a bad review.  

Understand that you will need to spend time returning emails, setting up meetings with prospective clients, creating invoices for clients you've already shot, taking phone calls from new inquiries, advertising sales people, and manage to do all of your accounting work too.  Running a photography business is way more than taking photos.  You may have a passion for photography.  But, you need an understanding of business to be a successful, professional photographer.

As a full time professional you are competing against mothers and others who are photographers supported by their husbands or a job. They don't NEED the money.  Many who 'shoot on the side' price their jobs low, which hurts the full time professional.  The only way you can compete with this is to offer a product that is so much better, or so much more unique, that someone values your work enough to pay more for it.

Strive to create a photo that stands the test of time.  

The only way to become a pro is to keep practicing, practicing, practicing. 



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