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|| News Item: Posted 2012-08-02

Success: Mastering the craft of photography
By James Madelin

(Second in a series on becoming a professional photographer.)

In my last article I challenged you to reconsider scratching that itch to want to make money from your photography. It’s not as good an idea as you think. If you didn’t read it, I strongly suggest you do (

We’ve all seen photos taken by pros that have left us thinking “Sheesh… I could have taken that!”. You’ll be surprised to discover that beyond the basics, being an excellent or even a good photographer has very little to do with succeeding as a professional photographer.

This article gives you three invaluable tips on becoming a pro. None of them have anything to do with photography itself but cover how to get started, mastering how to work for free and getting away with it, and how much to charge.

Getting started is easy. You simply have to want it hard enough. You have to want it so hard that when you’ve made more than a thousand phone calls and emails over a year, or more, and been turned down by most if not all of them, you keep going. Keep pestering. Keep shooting. Keep networking. Keep finding people better and more successful than you to tell you how to improve your craft. It’s that simple.

I know several extremely successful photographers who all share stories of the long hard challenging graft they endured to get to where they are today. You’re no different. It’s going to take years of attempts, tries and failures before you’ll succeed.

By ‘craft’ I don’t mean learning how to read the light without a light meter (but do master the “sunny 16” rule by all means). I mean the craft of the professional photographer: marketing, promotion, client management, production, administration, branding.

When you finally find someone who wants you to take photos for them, you may well find they expect you to do it for free. Or for a huge discount. Don’t turn this valuable opportunity down and don’t treat it lightly either. Treat it as if you were earning thousands for it. Do every bit as much work as if you were looking forward to a four-figure pay cheque. And when you’ve done the work, invoice your ‘client’ a four-figure invoice.

With just one catch: discount your invoice to zero or the paltry, damaging and insulting sum that you agreed on.

This will have several surprising effects. First and most importantly, it leaves your ‘client’ under no misapprehension that they just got something for nothing. You’re smacking them in the face with the true value of the work you’ve just done and reminding them of what an enormous debt they owe you. Less obviously, you’re honing your own true skills of the pro photographer; pricing, planning, producing, negotiating (perhaps by role-playing with a patient friend) and finally administering the paperwork required to complete and invoice an assignment. Then move on and never ever work for them again, unless they are prepared to pay you your full worth next time.

Which I’ll come onto now. How do you know how much to charge? This is the number one question on every budding pro photographer’s mind; it is so simple that before this brief article is finished, you’ll find it easy. Scary, but easy.

You need to work out your cost of doing business. This involves some spreadsheets and some numbers. If you can’t do this, I’ll be blunt; you’ll never make it as a pro. Here goes with some cost calculations.

Let’s rely on the caring support of a spouse while you establish yourself and target a first year salary from your pro photography career of $40,000. On top of that add $15,000 for the gear you’re going to need. On top of that add $1,000 for insurance (liability and gear). Add $2,500 for marketing, branding and advertising costs. Add $4,000 for computer gear. There’s more you’ll need (like a car) but let’s stop there. That’s a total of $62,500 you’ll need to earn from your business.

But wait, you’ll want to grow your business right? To do that, you’ll need to spend more (on everything) next year than you do this year. So let’s add a measly $10,000 you’ll need in profit to expand. Or perhaps so you can earn a little more next year, like everyone else with a job. So $72,500 on the low side. You’ll want to work no more than 48 weeks this year, allowing for some holiday, so we divide $72,500 by 48 to get $1,500 a week. And it’s as simple as that.

Every week for every year you’re a photographer you’re going to have to bill at least $1,500. If you have a quiet week, the following week you’ll have to bill $3,000.

It’s that simple. If you don’t do this, your business is going to slowly die. If you’re really stubborn, you’ll probably drag a few other photographers down with you (but that’s another article).

So now you’ve got a simple way to work out what you’re aiming for and a couple of great tips to get you on the way. If I still haven’t put you off, good luck and work hard.

If I have then you can look forward to a life full of the wonders of taking photos for the love of it. Having seen both sides of photography as an amateur, then a pro and now an amateur again, I can’t think of anything better.

The ‘Sunny 16’ rule -
CoDB calculator -

Want to get in touch? Find me on Twitter @jamesmadelin or

James Madelin is a professional photographer and lighting workshop tutor based in New Zealand, he is the inventor of the popular orbis® ring flash. You can see his work on his Sports Shooter member page:

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