the 5 Stages to becoming a professional photographer

The 5 Stages of Becoming a Professional Photographer

the 5 Stages to becoming a professional photographerWhether you’re just starting out or having been photographing for years, it can be helpful to identify and understand what stage of the process you’re at. This allows you to better understand what has to be done in order to work your way up to the next level of success as a photographer.

At Hobby to Pro, we have created this outline of 5 stage that every photographer needs to go through in order to become an true professional, in both the craft of photography and the business side of things.

Take a read through the stages below, and be sure to let us know what stage you’re currently at!

Stage 1: Hobbyist

Description: This is the honeymoon phase of photography, if you will. Like the holding hands, butterflies, all-you-can-think-about phase of falling in love, this phase is intoxicating. Everything you do comes from a place of passion and excitement, and you can’t wait to get home to your beloved camera.

Skill Level: Beginner. You are starting to understand the basics of how the camera settings work, and friends and family may begin to compliment your photography. You are not yet sure how to evaluate your work, but you are interested in finding out how to improve.

Learning: You continuously practice and improve. You devour every photography article online and watch every YouTube video you can find on how to take better pictures. You learn the basics, like manual camera settings and simple lighting and composition.

As you begin to improve and get a better handle on how to control your camera, you may start to get requests from friends and family to take pictures for them.

Equipment: At this stage, you may be using an inexpensive or hand-me-down DSLR camera. You most likely do not have any lighting or studio equipment yet.

Stage 2: Amateur

Description: The Webster Dictionary defines amateur as follows: “one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession.”

In other words, you still are not photographing professionally at this stage, but you are beginning to photograph friends and loved ones for free or at cost – your reward simply being the enjoyment of the session.

Yet, as you begin photographing more sessions and continue practicing, a light bulb turns on in your head – what if I could get paid to do something I love?

This light bulb gets you thinking about what you would have to do in order to make money with your photography. You may begin putting together a simple price list and business cards.

Skill Level: You are becoming more confident in how to use your camera settings and how to do basic editing. Your work steadily improves as you continue to educate yourself on best practices.

Learning: At this stage, you continue to research photography skills, but also begin getting into slightly more advanced topics like photo editing and posing. You may begin doing some initial research on how to start a photography business.

Equipment: You are using a decent DSLR camera and are beginning to invest in additional basic equipment like speedlights, reflectors and different lenses. You are most likely having your prints made at a big box store or pharmacy and not with a professional print lab. You may begin to use Photoshop to edit your photos.

Stage 3: Part-Timer

Description: At this stage, you have decided to make the leap to begin offering your photography as a paid service. You may be working full-time or part-time at another job, while offering your photographic services on the weekend or evenings.

This is a very exciting time, as you begin earning your first money from your passion. You may be getting referrals from satisfied clients, and you might even be getting so many requests that you consider taking this new venture full-time.

Skill Level: Your work is improving, and you are seen as talented to the average person. However, you may still feel a bit uncertain about some creative skills and working with certain types of clients. This stage can also throw new challenges your way as you bring in more clients. Are you running out of time now to photograph, present the images and edit and retouch? Are your prices correct? How do you handle a dissatisfied client? As you grow, any weaknesses in the business side of your photography will become more apparent.

Learning: At this stage, you are becoming much more comfortable with your camera skills. Though you enjoy learning to continue improving your craft, you are spending much of your time researching the business side of photography – things like pricing, marketing, and legal, just to name a few.

Equipment: If you are photographing in your home, you invest in some backgrounds for your new home studio. You may decorate and arrange your space for client meetings. You may invest in a better camera or lenses, as well as some professional-level lighting equipment.

Stage 4: Semi-Pro

Description: At this stage you may be still part-time, or you might have made the leap to full-time. Either way, you have persevered through the bumpy patches and are now a true photography business owner.

You are beginning to realize that it’s time to put some procedures into place so that your business can function smoothly and grow. You are beginning to realize the true extent of what it takes to run your own business. You may even have hired an assistant to help with sessions, to answer the phone, or to help with sales.

You are beginning to get more into marketing and trying new ways to bring in clients. You may try creating postcards and mailings, and perhaps dabble with online marketing. You are building your social media presence, and growing a supportive following there. At this point you have a professional website where you post your best work, and perhaps even a blog.

Skill Level: You are very comfortable with your work, and it is better than the average photographer. However, you know there is still room for improvement. At this point you will still run into some unchartered waters – sometimes business related and other times photography related. Just when you feel confident in your area of expertise, one of your clients will ask for something you’ve never done before- like photograph a family portrait of 50 people at their reunion! It’s a fun and exciting (though sometimes exhausting) time.

Learning: You admire some of the professionals you see in magazines and across the internet, and strive to improve your work to reach their level. You are researching ways to make your business more efficient and professional – things like workflows, premium pricing techniques, and marketing strategies.

Equipment: You have most of the equipment you need to run sessions successfully. You may still be using some beginner products or have pieced setups together, and you may be looking into some upgrades.

Stage 5: Seasoned Pro

Definition: Now you have a few years under your belt and not too much can throw you off. You have experienced some highs and lows and can confidently run a professional studio – from marketing to sales, bookkeeping to photo editing, and everything in between.

At this point, you are making a comfortable living doing what you love. Your business is growing steadily as you are now a household name in your area. Your business is large enough where you may have other employees or photographers working for you, or perhaps you are even running multiple studios!

Looking back, it might be hard to remember your humble beginnings… just you, your camera, and a dream.

Skill Level: Your photography is now at an expert level. You have mastered light, camera skills, and nuanced effects. Your photography has a signature look and feel to it that clients choose you for.

Learning: Although you are an expert now, you realize that it is important to never stop learning. You read up on photography news to ensure you stay on top of the latest photography trends. You continue to practice your craft and strive to keep things fresh with your work.

Equipment: At this point, you have all of the equipment you need to be successful. You may invest in new, high-end cameras and lenses from time to time, and you may look to replace equipment with newer upgrades. You take interest in finding innovative new equipment to try that can take your work to new levels.

It’s  your turn!

Please help us understand where the Hobby to Pro community is at in their journey by responding the the poll:

What photography stage are you at right now?

Seasoned Pro

Poll Maker

  • Vickie Earls

    This was very informative also. I have been called Ametuer, but this is saying I am Semi-Pro and working on my equipment stage.

    Thank You!

  • D Stevenson

    Thanks for the information. It helped me confirm the level where I currently am in my photography. I’m wrestling with committing to one photographic genre so that I can start getting paid for my photos. I’ve started working on learning and practicing portrait photography and am leaning toward pet photography since I don’t see a lot of that being taken and offered in my geographic location.