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How to become a professional photographer

Photograph by Ushio Kageyama
  • Written byCarys Thomas
  • Published date12 May 2022
Photograph by Ushio Kageyama
Photograph by Ushio Kageyama

Are you looking to build a career as a professional photographer?

The photography industry is competitive and it can be difficult to know how to get started as a budding photographer. We’ve compiled this guide to offer you some top tips on how to forge a path for yourself in this exciting industry. We’ll explore what it takes to be a professional photographer and discuss why it’s so important to find your niche if you want to stand out in a crowded market.

We’ll also share some useful advice from professional photographer and tutor, Peter Cattrell, who has taught at Central Saint Martins since 1986. Peter has worked for a number of magazines and design companies with a focus on portraits, landscapes and architectural photography.

Peter currently runs our Photography Professional Practice And Academic Portfolio Course at Central Saint Martins. Read more about Why you should take the Photography Professional Practice And Academic Portfolio Course.

As photographers we are creating a legacy of our environment, our politics, arts and science, all aspects of our society. We are preserving our public and private present through the photographs that we create of ourselves, of the people around us, and of our ever-changing world.

— Simon Hill, President of the Royal Photographic Society 

What does a professional photographer do?

You might think that photographers spend all day taking photos but this is in fact only one aspect of the role. A photographer’s work also involves editing and retouching images, booking locations, reproducing photos, networking, marketing and other administrative tasks.  

Many photographers are self-employed, which means that a key part of the role is networking in order to establish a client base and secure future work. If you’re looking to work in a freelance capacity you’ll need to be prepared to put the hours in to market your services and grow your business.

What does it take to be a professional photographer?

“I think you have to enjoy the process of photography and really want to do it as the road is not easy,” says Peter. “You’ll need to be resilient and have good business sense. You must be able to work well with people and have the courage to go after your dream.”

Budding photographers should be creative, detail-oriented, and have strong networking skills. You'll need to be committed to a career in the industry and prepared to work hard to develop your skills. It will take time to establish your own photography practice, and if you plan to be self-employed, you must be willing to invest the time required to grow your business.

Read on for our 5 top tips on how to get started:

1# Find your niche

One way to stand out from other photographers is to find your niche. Ask yourself what kind of work you want to pursue or which style of photography appeals to you most. Take a look at our guide on 5 types of photography to master for an overview of some different styles and approaches.

“If you want to be a commercial photographer then be realistic about what area you want to work in and whether it is viable,” says Peter. “It is useful to be a specialist in a particular area such as fashion photography, portraits, food, news, 'events' or social photography, architecture, landscape etc. It depends on what kind of person you are and what interests you most.”

2# Secure some work experience

Work experience is essential for success in the photography industry. Search for opportunities in your local area and consider internships or volunteer work. Any experience you can get will be a great way to boost your CV, make connections and meet potential new clients.

It can be hard to get started in this industry, so it’s important to have a positive mindset and remember that it’s likely to take a while to establish yourself as a professional photographer. As Peter notes, “it is very hard getting started but courses can help a lot as you can hear how an experienced photographer has established their career. Working as a photographer's assistant is a good way of starting - think about accepting jobs that give you experience even if they are not well paid.”

3# Take a class

Taking a class or short course can help to advance your skills, knowledge and confidence. Having a professional qualification in photography can also be advantageous when it comes to applying for jobs and marketing your services.

“A degree course in Photography should open the subject for you and help you find the direction that suits you best,” says Peter, “but it is over three years so short courses are a good alternative, with a lower staff to student ratio. MA's in photography are good for more mature students and you don't necessarily have to have done a BA in photography first.”

You can also improve your knowledge and understanding of the medium by visiting exhibitions, talking to artists and reading around the subject. Peter recommends Photography: The Key Concepts by David Bate for a good introduction to the subject that includes some information about its history.

4# Build your network

As many photographers are self-employed, building a network is an essential part of the role. Try to build connections with others in the industry wherever you can. Think about joining a professional body to stay up-to-date on new opportunities, competitions and events in the industry. The Royal Photographic Society offers lots of helpful resources and runs regular competitions for aspiring photographers.

One way to expand your professional network is to develop a website or portfolio to showcase your work and share it online. Include a link to your portfolio on your LinkedIn or social media accounts, share through email and pass it on to family and friends.

5# Don’t give up

It’s important to be persistent if you want to be a professional photographer. Be open to constructive criticism and take any opportunity you can to develop your skills and learn from more experienced photographers. Experiment with different approaches to hone your technique. But most importantly, follow your passions and don’t give up.

If you're looking for some inspiration, you may be interested in our guide on how to improve your photography skills for some top tips from professional photographer and UAL short course tutor, Mark Aitken.

Becoming a fashion photographer

If you're interested in fashion photography, our Fashion Photography Short Course can help you learn the fundamental skills involved in taking original fashion images for a variety of commissioners.

Students on this course will focus on the practical photography techniques that need to be mastered in order to deliver fashion photos to a professional standard.

Feeling inspired? Our short courses in photography could help you kickstart your career in the photography industry. Take a look at our Photography short courses to find out how they could help you build your dream career.

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