It’s Not Just Pretty Pictures: 9 Realities of Becoming a Professional Photographer

Realities of Becoming a Photographer

The perception of being a full time photographer is much different than the reality.  There is a lot more to being a professional photographer than simply taking pictures. In fact, on many days, taking pictures is actually a pretty small part of the job!  In this article, Hunter MaRae shares what she has learned along the way that has helped her business become not only successful but sustainable.

Hunter McRae is an award winning photojournalist and wedding photographer based in Charleston, SC. Her editorial and wedding work has been featured in numerous national publications including The New York Times, Style Me Pretty, Weddings Unveiled and Charleston Weddings Magazine.  Hunter’s career as a photographer has taken her around the world.  From witnessing the poverty and hardships in the townships of South Africa, for example, to documenting the most extravagant and beautiful weddings in her own hometown, she has loved every second of the journey.


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Photo Credit: Stratton Lawrence

Every photographer starts off as an amateur. We love taking pictures and documenting life. We love that the camera serves as an icebreaker that leads us to interesting people. We might even love the time editing our pictures, and find that the process fulfills the creative side of ourselves.
That’s part of being an amateur. You can do as you please, work at your own pace and shoot whatever your heart desires.

Photo credit: Alex Newell Taylor

Photo credit: Alex Newell Taylor

I started off like everyone else, shooting for fun in my childhood and teenage days. I was obsessed with documenting every person and memorable moment in my life, usually with disposable cameras. I graduated to a film Nikon camera when I went to college.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, I tried out different majors searching for a meaningful profession that I could feel good about, yet would also provide financial stability. It wasn’t until a chance meeting in the college bookstore that I left my marketing major behind and took my first photojournalism class.
Thanks to an inspiring professor and my childhood love of the medium, I realized immediately that this was my path; I could use photography as way to make a difference in the world while making a living doing something that I loved.

Photo Credit: Hunter McRae Photography

Photo Credit: Hunter McRae Photography

After careful research and consideration (which taught me that photojournalism is a male-dominated field, challenging for women and most likely wouldn’t lead to financial stability), I made my choice and never looked back. It was exhilarating to finally know and feel the path I was meant to follow. I trusted myself for the first time and trusted that life would take care of me if I followed my heart.

Photo credit: Stratton Lawrence

Photo credit: Stratton Lawrence

That major choice changed the direction of my life and opened up my world. My horizons were expanded quickly with a continuous stream of opportunities: documentaries in South Africa, China and Spain, an exciting internship with National Geographic Adventure in New York, several incredible newspapers in Colorado and Georgia, and working with a successful wedding photographer in Savannah. I had the opportunity to learn and grow from so many talented professionals.
I learned a lot about business from the many talented professionals I was lucky enough to work with. After determining that I needed a change, about five years ago, I mustered up the courage to leave my stable newspaper job and start my own business.

Photo credit: Gillian Perl Wade

Photo credit: Gillian Perl Wade

It was scary, but I’m a very hard worker and I trusted my ability. Now, I have created a business where I’m constantly busy photographing weddings, portraits, magazine assignments, and even some fashion and product photography.
I’m not exactly following the common advice to choose a niche and market that niche only. That route is a strong way to promote yourself and your clients will not be confused about who you are or what type of photography you do. However, I prefer to keep my hands in several different avenues of photography, because it keeps me growing in the field. Everything I do helps my skills grow as a whole, and I’m lucky that my business runs mostly via word of mouth. Each business is different and I have let mine take its course naturally as opportunities arise.

Photo credit: Angela Hopper Lee

Photo credit: Angela Hopper Lee

So, back to you! When you start to shoot for profit, things will change. It will still be fun and challenging, and you will still fulfill that creative side of yourself, but gone are the days of shooting whatever your heart desires and being relaxed with the post-processing.

You are now shooting for a client, and you are under pressure to meet their expectations and complete the post-processing in a set amount of time. When you move into the realm of “professional,” your time behind the camera is no longer yours. In fact, “your” time can become endangered if you don’t keep it in check!

If you’re a hobbyist who loves taking pictures and enjoys editing in your free time, going pro could be the right choice. But first, let me open your eyes to some of the realities of owning your own photography business:

1. It’s a major investment to get started, and you won’t be able to sell your gear for what you paid if it doesn’t work out.

Don’t even think about showing up at a wedding with just one camera body! You’ll need two of everything in case a critical component stops working during the shoot. You’ll want to keep up with the latest technology, and when you go to sell your old gear, it likely won’t hold its value. If you do start small, remember that renting is an option to get you through a big assignment.

Photo credit: Janie Gonzalez Koike

Photo credit: Janie Gonzalez Koike

2. You need a website.

A logo, website and blog that display your most powerful images and reflect your creative style are critical to success. Many of your clients will never meet you before hiring you, and will choose you based on their research online.

3. You need to market yourself.

If you’re just starting out, build a portfolio with pictures of friends and family. Get the images up on Facebook and Instagram so that they can be shared and spread. If your work speaks for itself, word will travel fast.

Photo credit: Janie Gonzalez Koike

Photo credit: Janie Gonzalez Koike

4. There’s a lot of paperwork and hidden costs.

You may need to begin an LLC, hire a bookkeeper and accountant, and get insurance. I hired local bookkeepers that specialize in photography. On top of the federal taxes, my state requires me to pay sales tax on each shoot if I deliver my client a package of their images. Make sure you factor that into your rates or you could be losing money.

5. Maintaining consistent pricing is tough.

It’s hard to put a price on your art. Talk to your peers and try to get a sense of the going rates in your area. Then, determine your own comfort and skill level. If you feel like you are way too busy, you should probably raise your rates. If you are way too slow, maybe you need to lower your rates a tad to muster up some business. It’s all about finding that happy medium between what you feel like you are worth and what your clients are happy paying. Everyone likes a deal, so you might try adding in a special every now and then.

Photo Credit: Ananda Reavis Bankoff

Photo Credit: Ananda Reavis Bankoff

6. Your time is now your clients’ time.

It’s not just your art anymore. Shoot to please the client, not yourself. They hired you for your unique style and they want you to express that through the images, but ultimately, you need to have a good feel for what they want, and deliver it.

Photo Credit: Scott Galatolie

Photo Credit: Scott Galatolie

7. You may not have free time anymore.

Photo editing and answering emails will become your life in certain seasons. When you own a business, it can often own you. I have to literally pick up and leave town for a while in the winter to be able to say ‘no’ to shoots and slow down to catch my breath. This is a good problem to have, I admit.

Photo credit: Briana Brough

Photo credit: Briana Brough

8. It can be discouraging.

You may court a client only to have them choose someone else. The truth is, you are interviewing your clients just as much as they are interviewing you. Don’t get your feelings hurt. You may not be the right photographer for everyone. You want to feel like it’s a good match, and that your style is what they are looking for.

Photo credit: Briana Brough

Photo credit: Briana Brough

9. There is no normal workday.

Even once you deliver a client their images, you still need to blog about it, share it on social media, and then get back to answering emails from new inquiries.

I often hear, “Oh, you’re a photographer? Your job must be so fun!” The truth is, the photography part of it is super fun! However, that’s a small percentage of what makes my business tick. The majority of my time is spent emailing, in meetings, offering customer service, paying taxes, packaging images, and culling, toning and blogging.

But in the end, it’s the most rewarding job I can imagine. It’s a lot of hard work—sometimes emotional, often exhausting, usually interesting, and ultimately, always fulfilling.

Hunter McRae’s photography career has taken her around the world, with projects from China to South Africa. Now a full-time wedding photographer in Charleston, S.C., Hunter frequently shares tips and insight in articles and photo posts for BorrowLenses.com.

Photo credit: Briana Brough

Photo credit: Briana Brough




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7 Comments on "It’s Not Just Pretty Pictures: 9 Realities of Becoming a Professional Photographer"

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Jay Long
Guest

Very good, enlightening information.

Anthony Rampersad
Guest

Great advice. It’s great to be able to re-trace your steps and see the progression. Especially where the big jumps, or rather, leaps of faith were made. The road will differ for all of us since the available opportunities differ across geography. Still, it’s motivating to hear someone else’s path and story. Great article!

Gregory Salvatore
Guest

great advice, if only more people would research what needs to be done before getting into a photography business. You really need to enjoy it all, even the drive needed through the frustration part to succeed.

Sophie
Guest

Thanks for sharing such great advice. Becoming a professional photographer is a big commitment, especially when it comes to changing your career path. It is, however, one of the best jobs in the world, as it allows you to do what you love for a living!

Jon O'Connell
Guest

Very informative article, which is all too true as I am finding out myself but still love it.

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Ali Paul Photography
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Great post, I love how this takes me back to remembering my days as an amature wedding photographer and seeing how far I have come! Thank you for sharing.

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