For many amateur photographers, running a professional photography business would be a dream come true. But now it can be. 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?
You can earn a living from various types of photography, but wedding photography is the most high-profile money-maker at the moment as summer is the wedding season. You’ll almost certainly drive by a church this weekend and see a photographer organizing the bride, groom and guests for photographs. And if you’re an amateur photographer, you’ll probably be thinking, “that could be me!”
Wedding photography is generally recognized 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 photographers have to supplement their wedding 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?
Your bread and butter work is likely to be weddings as a local photographer. 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 favorite 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 is a former Kodak and Agfa Wedding Photographer of the Year. 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 also takes portraits of babies, children and families and 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 wedding photographers listed in Yellow Pages 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 P5,000-8,000 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 part-times 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.
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. Budget around P25,000 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.
You will also need photographic equipment – a reasonable camera and lens, studio lights and backdrops should cost around P25,000. “You can source second-hand equipment through trade bodies’ magazines ” says Jones. “But these items will sometimes have been well-used by professional photographers. Amateur Photographer is worth a look – amateurs generally don’t use their equipment quite as much.”
The actual printing of the photographs is usually left to a specialist printer – you can source one near to you by asking for recommendations from trade bodies or existing professional photographers.
You don’t need a computer for digital printing as many amateur photographs believe you do – although some photographers like to do their filing and invoicing on one. As Steve Barham says, “We’re not quite into the digital age yet although the top studios use it. But the investment for start-ups would be very high and it’s really not necessary. In time, it will be all digital, but prices will have come down.”
Budget for the usual administration costs of any go-ahead small business – stationery, business cards, brochures, phone and fax lines plus e-mail facilities. You may want a web site too. You will need to advertise your services too, Yellow Pages, leaflets and brochures left with wedding dress and other related high street shops and country houses and hotels where weddings and receptions are staged, plus ads in the local press. As you become better known, some of your work will come from word of mouth recommendations.
Buying second-hand cameras and accessories from keen amateur photographers who are upgrading to new equipment is the most cost-effective way of equipping yourself. You’ll find ads in Amateur Photographer from your local news agents. And most amateur photographers will be keen to share their enthusiasm and know-how with you. These are the approximate prices you’d expect to pay for good-quality, used items:
Estimated Equipment Costs
- Camera P25,000-50,000
- Flashgun P12,000 (approx)
- Lens P15,000-20,000
- Light meter P4,000 (approx)
- Reflector P2,500-4,000
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! So carrying a spare for everything is essential. Allow around P150,000 in total for your kit.
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 Barham. If you can create a distinctive and stylish image, you can charge higher prices. As Barham explains, “You’ve got to be different from your competitors. As an example, specialize 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.”
Barham offers a rough guide of what you might earn. “A wedding can generate profits of anything between P3,000-30,000 [see table below]. And a reasonably successful photographer might expect to do 30-40 weddings in a year.”
Bear in mind that there is a limit to the number of weddings you can do – you can only physically be in one place at one time and with most weddings being held on a Saturday, you’ll only really be able to fit in one or two at most in one day.
Like many photographers, Barham boosts his income with additional photography work, such as portrait photography, passports, industrial photography and even copying old photographs to stay profitable. He estimates his workload divides up as “50% weddings, 40% portraits and 10% from bits and pieces.”
A portrait may generate between P2,500-25,000 and you should aim for about six a week. As a target figure, you should expect to earn around P350,000 a year as a reasonably successful professional photographer.
Sample costs and profit – a wedding
Lee Burton of Abbey Weddings in Colchester, Essex summarizes the main costs and profits for a typical wedding. These really break down into two stages, the wedding itself and then follow-up sales on reprinted photographs purchased by family and friends.
- Wedding fee P25,000
- Material costs (processing, album) P6,000
- Average profit P19,000
- Value of reprint sales to relatives P14,000
- Cost of reprints P4,000
- Average profit P10,000
- Overall average profit P29,000
Burton would meet the couple before the wedding, view the church and other locations and then spend the bulk of one day (about four hours) on the wedding itself. After the wedding, the photographs would be viewed and an album chosen. A deposit is taken when the wedding is booked which may be up to a year or more in advance. Payment is made on collection of the photographs which normally takes place a week or two after the wedding.
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.
Consider taking digital pictures, adding web design to your capabilities or restoration to old or damaged photos as a way of as a way of adding value to the customer and increasing your return. Of course new equipment does require additional investment but you don’t need to invest in the most expensive gear to get the job done. A good computer will set you back around P25,000 and digital cameras, printers and scanners are likely to add up to a further P30,000.
“Sheer persistence is the key,” advises Roger Parker who runs MPL Studios in Steyning, West Sussex. He specializes 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! A basic manual machine can be bought second-hand for about P400,000, don’t be taken in by the all-singing and all-dancing machines that cost P4M. They’re not really necessary.”
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.