How to become a professional photographer - an industry expert's top tips

January 15, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Let me start by saying becoming a professional photographer isn't easy. But with the right attitude and hard work you can do it, especially if you pay attention to what industry experts tell you.

I left school with no qualifications, built a career in the business and I'm still enjoying paid work as a freelancer photographer based in Cardiff.

During my time as staff press photographer and picture editor I was responsible for taking on work experience candidates.. Over the 35 years as a staffer, I saw probably about a hundred or so people.

In that time only two (as far as I know) went on to have a full-time career in their chosen field of photography. Several did find jobs in the photography sector but not in the role they'd hoped for. What made those two stand out? 

The horse and goat who share a field together_04As unusual animal pictures go, this is one of the best - a goat who rides on the back of a horseThese quirky animal pictures from 1979 featuring a horse and goat that shared a field, were my first sale to a national newspaper. The goat would ride on the pony's back. <br/> <br/> <br/> Richard Williams Photography

A quirky animal picture which helped start it all. I was a teenager when a neighbour told me about a goat which loved riding on the back of a horse and I went over with my cameras to take a look. (Click the image above for the full gallery)

Looking at the two who did make it their career, I would say their qualities were:

  • They knew exactly what field of photography they wanted to work in and focussed only on that

  • They had mapped out their path to the end goal and done this well

  • They had high levels of technical and artistic skill

  • They were dedicated and now in their well-respected jobs are still committed

Read my tips for taking pictures of royalty even if you're not a professional photographer

When starting out on the road to being a pro here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Are my pictures any better than the average picture you see on Facebook or Instagram? If they're not then you'll need to bring them up to at least that standard
  • Do I have a clear idea of which area of photography I'd like to work in? It's a very big subject with dozens of career paths, ranging from portraiture and weddings to forensic, with commercial, press, marketing, aerial, landscape etc., etc. in between
  • Is it possible earn a living at my chosen genre? I once had a final year undergraduate from a local university on work experience. His entire portfolio and degree submission consisted of pictures of tree bark. They were brilliant images but he had no idea of how he was going to monetise his photography career
  • Do I have a sound technical knowledge? The workings of the camera need to be second nature. It's very unnerving for your subject to be waiting as you fumble around trying to set up your equipment and if you progress to taking pictures of celebrities and royalty (like the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge, above), you won't have the luxury of time
  • Do I have good people skills? This is essential in most areas of photography, putting people at ease when you're photographing them is crucial. A photographer who has no interest and hides silently behind the camera will never get the best out of their subject

If you think you have these qualities listed above, then you're in with a chance.

Okay, so what I else do you need to know about getting started? Read on...

RWP_Archive_AllBlacks_33RWP_Archive_AllBlacks_33Bridgend UK 13 December 1978

Bridgend V New Zealand December 1978

The All Blacks taking on Bridgend RFC at the Brewery Field in Bridgend, a match in which Bridgend,Wales and British Lions full back JPR Williams was injured

New zealand tema included, John Ashworth Graham Mourie
Taking action pictures in low light is always tricky. Read about the race against time I faced when photographing this controversial rugby match in the pre-digital era.

Getting started:  

  • Take pictures, lots of pictures. Photography has never been as cheap or as easy as it is now and a basic smartphone is good enough to give you an indication of whether you're any good
  • Be active on social media. I'm not a digital native, but I'm on InstagramFacebook and LinkedIn. Flickr is definitely worth it when you're starting out too. Post your work and invite people to comment or critique your images
    As you improve you may need to upgrade your camera equipment. DSLR's have been around for years with thousands available second hand from about £50. These cameras offer full manual overide, so you have full control of the exposure and focus
  • Watch Youtube videos, read photo magazines and websites and ask advice from others to gain a full understanding of how exposure, white balance, ISO and depth of field work as well as composition
  • Invest in at least two lenses, again second hand is fine. I suggest a 18-55mm (often comes as standard with the camera body) and a 80-200 lens. These two will give you a good range for covering most assignments. then practise, practise, practise
  • When you think you've reached a reasonable level, offer your photographic services free of charge to local organisations such as charities. Send pictures into local newspapers or websites. You probably won't get paid but ask for a name credit or a link to your social media, this will all help get you noticed. and builds your portfolio.
  • Apply to colleges to do a full or part time course, contact other photographers in your chosen genre and offer yourself as an assistant or for work experience. Again, you may not get paid but the knowledge gained will be priceless.
  • When you're happy with your portfolio, start applying for jobs. Good luck!

My Story is simple, I did most of the things I've just laid out above, except there was no internet, so no Youtube, Flickr or Instagram. 

My first big breakthrough was selling the pictures above of a goat riding on the back of a horse. This was used in the Sunday Express when I was 18 and syndicated around the world. Then came the miners' strike of 1984 which made very dramatic images (see below). There are many career highlights including photographing US President Barack Obama and more recently the younger members of the Royal Family.  

If you've enjoyed reading this, please leave your comments and questions.

The 1984-85 miners' strike was a bitterly-fought dispute and made for very evocative images. Click the picture above to see a fuller gallery



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