For many amateur photographers, running a professional photography business would be a dream come true. But now it can be a reality. The photography industry offers many opportunities for keen amateurs who want to make a living from it. If you're thinking of becoming a professional photographer, this is what you need to know to succeed.
What is it?
Photography is often a business for one-man-bands. According to Skillset, the sector skills council for creative industries, almost 50% of the companies involved in the photographic industry are sole-traders or freelancers.
There are several different types of photography, but wedding photography is the most high-profile money-maker at the moment, as summer is the wedding season. The glamour and excitement of the Royal Wedding in April 2011 is likely to trigger a spate of engagements up and down the country, which can be only be good news for wedding photographers.
However, bear in mind that the job of snapping a wedding takes considerable expertise.
Wedding photography is generally recognised by most photographers as being a highly-skilled job – not only in terms of taking photographs, but handling all sorts of people at a potentially emotional time. And wedding photography tends to be seasonal too. May to September is the busiest time – accounting for 80-90% of the work – with the rest of the year being relatively quiet.
Many wedding photographers have to supplement their primary income with additional work such as passport pictures and portrait photography, especially during those quieter winter months. Some also diversify into other lines, such as PR work, commercial and industrial photography. They mix and match whatever is available to earn a living throughout the year.
What does a typical day involve?
As a local photographer, your bread and butter work is likely to be weddings. Well in advance of the big day, you should have visited the church and met the couple.
Most weddings are likely to be in the afternoon, so you can have a leisurely morning - but you will need to be on call from two hours before the wedding. This may involve photos of the bride and family getting ready. But you will also need to arrive at the church ahead of the guests so that you can get snaps of friends, family and the groom arriving. You will be hanging around while the service takes place in preparation for those all-important photos of the happy couple after the service.
Photos at the receptions are also a favourite, and it is likely to be 6pm at the earliest before you can knock off for the day.
Who is it suited to?
Steve Barham has run the Grove Studio in Ipswich for 26 years, and has won over 70 awards in the past decade - including the Agfa Wedding Photographer of the Year award twice. He’s seen all sorts of people come and go as photographers during that time. The startups who have gone on to become the most successful photographers have all had certain key characteristics in common.
“You’ve really got to be a very good amateur with a good eye for a photograph,” tips Barham. “Ideally, you’ll already have handled some photography with success, such as a relative’s small wedding. And you need to have that flair to be able to produce a wonderful photograph – and to do it on a consistent basis.”
There are other characteristics that are essential for this work. “You’ve got to like people and must genuinely enjoy trying to get the best out of them,” stresses Barham. “At a wedding, you’ve also got to look like a guest and not appear in shorts and trainers as I’ve seen some people do. Otherwise, you don’t get any respect.”
Barham can also advise on the disciplines needed to photograph babies, children and families, as he has undertaken plenty of work in this area. He says: “You need to be good, and patient too. You’ve got to appear warm and friendly, especially to young children.
"The trick with children is to treat them as adults. And having something that breaks the ice is helpful too. For us, that’s our little dog, Candy.”
Where do I start?
An easy, risk-free way to break into the profession is to approach established photographers listed in Yellow Pages or Yell.com, and ask for a Saturday job.
Many successful wedding photographers use part-timers on a semi-regular basis to help out during busy periods, paying them around £100-150 to photograph a wedding. This typically takes about three to four hours to do, starting at the bride’s home and finishing at the wedding reception.
If you’re a keen and enthusiastic amateur with your own equipment and a portfolio of photographs, you've a good chance of being taken on as a part-timer. “You need to make an interesting display of photographs of what you’re trying to sell”, advises Tracey Jones, who has worked part-time for a studio in Felixstowe. “After all, a prospective employer can only really judge you on the basis of photographs you’ve taken before - which is why it’s important that you’ve got photos of something like a family wedding you’ve done.”
The summer is a great time to make your approach, as there are plenty of weddings and some of the photographer’s regulars will probably be away on holiday at the busiest times.
Expect to go along to one or two weddings with the photographer before getting your first job. The photographer is going to want to see that you dress smartly, treat guests in a friendly and courteous manner, and can take good-quality photographs.
Once the photographer’s convinced you'll do well on your own, you’ll probably be asked to photograph the next small wedding that comes along. This is a great way for you to build skills and acquire trade know-how until you are ready to break out on your own.
Industry bodies such as the BIPP run respected training courses for budding photographers, run by experienced professionals. You can also access training from specialist companies, such as the Trained Eye, which offers a range of short courses for both wedding and portrait photography. A quick Google search should bring up a list of training courses in your area, and you should have sufficient choice to shop around.
How much does it cost?
Photography is a business you can run from home - but you'll need to set aside some space for administration and storing equipment. If you're going to be a wedding photographer, you'll also need a relaxed and informal area where you can talk to couples about their wedding plans. If you're planning to take passport photographs and portraits, you'll need a studio as well.
Many home-based photographers convert a garage to provide all-in-one studio, admin, storage and reception facilities. A double garage attached to your home is ideal for doing this. If you want a studio with a professional feel, which contains high-spec equipment and complies with building regulations, you'll probably have to budget around £7,000 for your conversion costs.
Alternatively, you can rent a small shop with a display area and a small studio, prices vary depending on your location. But, of course, a shop will give you a higher public profile and you may not need to spend as much on marketing your business.
It goes without saying that you'll need photographic equipment, and here it's crucial that you shop around and know where to look.
A top-of-the-range professional quality camera typically costs at least £2,000, and you may want to add other pieces of kit such as a telefocus lens (which typically costs between £200 and £2,000), a separate flash gun (£200-400), a tripod (£100) and a remote trigger (£50). When you also factor in things like studio lights and backdrops, it can get very expensive.
However, if you do your research, you don't have to break the bank for photography kit; indeed you can get a reasonable camera and lens, studio lights and backdrops can cost as little as £5000 if you know where to look. Trade bodies such the MPA and BIPP run their own second-hand catalogues, but be warned - these items may have been well-used by professional photographers before you.
A good alternative equipment source is Amateur Photographer, which offers good prices on equipment previously used by amateur enthusiasts. Amateurs generally don't use their equipment quite as much, so you've got a good chance of getting something near-new. You should also check out sites such as the Flash Centre, which offer a range of discounted equipment packages.
Ideally, you’ll buy two of everything, plus three lenses (standard, wide angle, portrait) – professional photographers work on the basis that something could go wrong with any piece of equipment at any time!
Printing and additional costs
The actual printing of the photographs is often left to a specialist printer, such as Digital Lab - you can source one near to you by asking for recommendations from trade bodies or existing professional photographers. If you want to buy your own printer, you can pick one up for a major retailer such as Canon, or visit a price comparison site such as System Insight. You'll also need to budget for the usual administration costs of any go-ahead small business - stationery, business cards, brochures, phone and fax lines plus e-mail facilities and a decent web site. You should allow between £1,000 and £3,000 a year upwards for this.
How do I promote myself?
Like any business, you'll have to devote time and money to advertising - particularly when you're just starting out and building your reputation.
Many wedding photographers choose to advertise through traditional channels such as Yellow Pages and ads in the local press, as well as specialist websites such as Find a Wedding Photographer. You may also want to consider giving out leaflets and brochures; these can be left with wedding dress and other related high street shops, as well as country houses and hotels where weddings and receptions are staged.
If you want to network and meet potential clients face to face, you may want to check out wedding fairs. however Paul Spiers, of photographymarketing.co.uk, warns that "wedding fairs have the highest cost and can be very hard to get into. One of my clients was recently told by the organisers of a large wedding fair that she could fill the room three times over, just with photographers."
Overall, Spiers estimates that a photographer focusing solely on weddings should expect to spend around £1,500 on advertising in their first year.
When it comes to portrait photography, Spiers says that "the work is nearly all generated by direct response marketing, such as direct mail or having a promotional stand at a location with a high footfall. These are of course very expensive, but also very productive if done well. Costs vary greatly depending upon location and average footfall.
"I would estimate a budget of £3000 - £5000, just for promotional stands. All in, a portrait photographer could reasonably expect to spend £8,000 and £10,000 per year on marketing."
These costs can seem prohibitive, but there are also several low-cost avenues you can explore. Spiers says that "generating work from the internet can be done for very little money, if you are prepared to work hard at SEO yourself," and there is plenty of potential in social media. For example Twitter can work wonders for your business, provided you're selective in who you follow, deliver relevant information about your business on your feed and offer proactive information in retweets and responses.
As you become better known, some of your work will come from word-of-mouth recommendations, so your advertising spend may drop in time.
How much can I earn?
Your potential earnings really depend on many different factors, not least your range of services and your ability to market yourself as a top-notch photographer.
"Style is important", states Steve Barham. If you can create a distinctive and stylish image, you can charge higher prices. He explains:
"You've got to be different from your competitors. As an example, you might want to specialise in black and white photographs, and use white frames. And the continental style of framing - which is one larger and two or three smaller pictures all in the same frame - could prove very popular for you."
If you want to focus on wedding photography, profit margins are high, but there is a limit on the number of weddings you can do - you can only physically be in one place at any one time, and because most weddings being held on a Saturday, you'll only really be able to fit in one or two at most in one day.
Given these constraints, you may have to boost your wedding income with additional work - anything from passport and industrial photography to copying old photographs. Steve Barham, of the Grove Studios in Ipswich, estimates his workload divides up as “50% weddings, 40% portraits and 10% from bits and pieces.”
A portrait photographer may earn lower profits than a wedding specialist - typical figures vary from £30 and £500 - but you can aim for far more jobs, perhaps as many as six a week.
As a target figure, you should expect to earn around £20,000 a year as a reasonably successful professional photographer.
Sample costs and profit - a wedding
To get an idea of fees and profits we spoke to Steven Brooks, who runs his own photography business based in Kent and Norfolk. Brooks says that, while some "cowboy photographers" will shoot a wedding for as little as £500, most serious professionals will command a far higher fee.
Below is a summary of the key figures he outlined:
Wedding fee £1,200-1,400 (plus a booking fee of between £300 and £350 - due 30 days in advance).
Material costs (processing, album etc) £200-£500
Average profit £1,000
Reprint sales to relatives used to provide a major source of revenue for wedding photographers, but Brooks says that "the advent of point-and-click cameras means that loads of people are snapping away at a wedding, so there is less demand." He says that, while the cost of reprints is low (between £1 and £3 per item), so are the margins.
Overall, Brooks says he expects to earn around £1,500 in overall profit for each wedding. However, it's far from easy money; as part of his service, Brooks meets the couple before the wedding, views the church and other locations, holds a pre-wedding meeting and also a post-wedding meeting of between two and four hours. On the day itself, he spends at least 12 hours on the job.
Tips for success
Weddings aren’t going out of fashion and neither are photos of your dearly beloved. So there is always work to be done - as long as you don’t position yourself too close to other photographers. Relationships with schools or other associations will help in ensuring that a steady stream of local work comes your way.
If you can add things like web design, or restoration to old or damaged photos, to your repertoire you will add value to the customer and increase your return. Of course new equipment does require additional investment but you don’t always need to invest in the most expensive gear to get the job done.
“Sheer persistence is the key,” advises Roger Parker, who previously ran MPL Studios in Steyning, West Sussex, specialising in both weddings and portrait photography.
“It’s not easy as there’s so much competition. But once you’ve got established, you will start getting more work by word of mouth recommendation. I’ve been in the business for 30 years and we do still do advertising and promotion but not nearly as much as we used to have to do.”
And once you are established it can be worth looking at processing your own work instead of sending it out to a printer. As Parker explains, “In terms of profit, it can add on an extra 30-40% - although you have put in the time to achieve this. It’s not a matter of turning on a machine and pressing a button!"
You could also approach local PR companies, magazines and book publishers and newspapers to supplement your income with freelance work.
Tips from the pros
Get some training and qualifications before starting – go on the foundation courses offered by the professional associations for portrait photography, wedding photography and sales and marketing skills. The way you sell yourself is especially important in a competitive market.
Join a professional association. They will give you support and advice and provide a source of useful contacts. Submit your portfolio to the association to get some letters after your name. This will give you confidence and impress your clients too.
Make sure you’re fully insured – accidents and mistakes do happen. Talk to your local insurance broker about professional indemnity, public liability and product liability insurance.
Buy the best equipment that you can afford to purchase. As with anything else, you get what you pay for.