How to become a professional photographer

2nd February 2023
Become a Professional Photographer

The Complete Guild on how to become a professional photographer from The Photo Academy NI.

From Beginner to Pro

One of the most common questions I get asked is ‘How do I become a Professional Photographer?’ It’s fantastic that so many people are now considering a career in photography. With the arrival of digital cameras, the role of a photographer is now a lot more accessible to everyone wishing to pursue a creative path.

Having made the move myself from Bank Manager to Photographer, I love helping others who are considering the switch. When I was at school, we were very much steered towards going to university. Even if we didn’t know what we wanted to do. I distinctly remember feeling pressured at the time and was told ‘no one leaves our school without having applied to go to university.’ So my path into financial services was forged and it’s where I remained for nearly 15 years.

Become a Professional Photographer

Feeling unfulfilled

Throughout these years, my creativity never left me. I grasped at every opportunity to design posters or create displays at work. Having completed all my banking exams, I decided enough was enough. After exploring night classes at a local college, photography jumped out at me, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

My friends would tell you that a camera never left my hand on night’s out, family events or when visiting new locations. I was often told to ‘stop being a melter and put the camera away.’ However, now those images captured are priceless and the signs were always there.

Taken on a family holiday in Nice, South of France with my compact camera


Whilst working full time, I achieved top grades in my GCSE & A Level Photography at college. It’s funny when you are genuinely interested in something, it doesn’t feel like an effort putting the work in. I was accepted onto the new University of Ulster Degree Programme in Photography at that time but decided not to pursue it. I took the opportunity to get work experience with local and national press before setting up my own business, Divine Photography

My career progressed over the years, where I gained confidence and clarity around what area of photography I wanted to specialise in. A number of people asked me to help them with their photography and from there, The Photo Academy NI was born.

So how do you become a professional photographer?

Just buy a camera and a few lenses, right? If only it was that easy. In this guide, I will provide you with my top tips on getting started in the field of photography. It’s an extremely competitive market now but don’t let that stop you from following your dream. With the right equipment, technical knowledge, discipline and business advice, you can make the industry your own.

Anyone who is self-employed will tell you that you probably work longer hours than when you are employed. It can be isolating and challenging at times. You never know what little curve ball is around the corner and there are plenty of highs and lows. HOWEVER, what you do have is autonomy over your own business and success. Add in flexibility when you an appointment or need a day off and freedom in decision making. The role of a photographer won’t be for everyone but with enough tenacity, business acumen and passion you can achieve your true potential.

Getting Started

In this guide, you will be provided with all my top tips on how to become a professional photographer. This will help you decide if it’s right for you and give you guidance on getting started.

1. Ask the right questions

When a student books in with me for the 12 months of Mentoring Programme, we sit down and go through a number of questions. These are meant to probe, challenge and make them think.

We include questions such as: –

  • Do you like working on your own?
  • What are my current skill gaps?
  • How can I stand out in my local area?
  • What is my motivation to succeed?

You have to decide if being self-employed is right for you. Not only do you have to have talent and creativity, you need to know how to run your own business as well.

2. You don’t need a degree to become a professional photographer

One thing I tell all my students is you don’t have to have a college qualification to become a professional photographer. I know I took the time to complete professional qualifications but it’s not a necessity. A photography degree doesn’t make you a photographer. I’ve had many degree students come to me for practical training because they didn’t even know how to shoot in manual mode or understand how to meter light properly with their camera.

What is important is to learn the basics and build upon that. It doesn’t matter what genre of photography you are interested in, if you don’t know how to properly expose your images then you are going to run into problems. That’s why I spend so much time with students embedding the basics of their exposure settings – Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO.

3. Find a good mentor

This is pivotal in your photography journey. If you can find someone who will take you under their wing and support your growth, it’s priceless. Practical hands-on learning cannot be beat. I reached out to local photographers when I was starting out and was lucky enough to find a couple who gave me lots of guidance.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, maybe join a local camera club or attend a seminar where you can meet other photographers. Attend any photography networking events in your area or join an online community.

Become a Professional Photographer

4. Gain practical experience

Don’t be shy about contacting local press and asking if you can work with them. It’s a great way of getting your name out there as a photographer and gaining experience of working with people. It can be hard work and the pay isn’t great at the beginning but it’s a means to an end. You may have to work unsocial hours and most weekends but it’s all part of the learning.

If you are interested in wedding photography, definitely second shoot with other professionals to learn the tricks of the trade. You cannot beat working at a wedding to see if you enjoy this type of photography and can hack the long hours. Wedding Photography is physically and mentally demanding. Second shooting is a great introduction plus it helps build up your portfolio and you get paid!

5. Gear up

Depending on what you like taking photographs of or want to specialise in, the types of equipment you need will vary. You don’t need to spend tens of thousands of pounds to have all the latest gadgets (and there are plenty!). Some photographers start out with good quality, second-hand gear at the beginning. What do you do need to take into consideration when purchasing your camera? Here are some tips to help you get started: –

  • Does it allow you to manually control your exposure settings?
  • Does it allow you to interchange lenses?
  • What is the batter life like?
  • Does it feel comfortable to hold and change your settings?
  • What is the megapixel count?

Regarding your choice of lens, it really depends what your shooting style is like and what you are taking photos of. Will you be working in a lot of low light situations? Do you like images to have a more obvious background blur behind the subject? Will you be taking photos of people, landscapes or buildings? What is your budget? Taking all of these into account, you may opt for a zoom lens or a choice of prime (fixed focal length) lenses.

I cover all of this in more detail in my Online Beginners Course if you are interested in purchasing your first camera or lens.

6. Put in the practice

I can’t emphasize this enough! It doesn’t matter how many training courses you go on or what equipment you have. Unless you put your learning into practice, you won’t improve. What you are aiming for is to master all the different settings and modes so that you can more quickly adjust and grab the shot. If you regularly experiment and embed your learning, you become more proficient and that’s what it takes to become a professional photographer.

Try taking a photograph every day for 1 month or a year. Set yourself a challenge to try new topics or techniques to boost creativity. Why not join in our monthly photo competition or the 52 Creative Weekly Challenge taking place in 2023.

7. Define your style

You will probably quite quickly establish what you enjoy taking photos of. Some photographers love working with people so they specialise in weddings, portraiture or newborns. Maybe you prefer landscapes or buildings. If you have a love of animals, pet or wildlife photography might be your thing. Or maybe you love working in a fast paced environment so press photography could be your genre of choice.

Then you need to develop your own style. Photography like art is subjective. Some people prefer warmer or cooler tones to their work. Other photographers like airy, light images whereas others are drawn to a more low-key, darker style. Create a Pinterest board just for you. Save images that you love and then establish a common theme. My one piece of advice would be to avoid current trends and follow your own path. Not all images have to look the same. Fads fade but your images will live on so have confidence in your own personal style and the right customers will come.

8. Develop a portfolio

Having a varied portfolio of your work is key at the beginning. If you contact other photographers or anyone seeking work experience, they will ask to see it. Set up a Pinterest Board that you can share with others or even a cloud based gallery of your work.

9. Know your worth

One of the most common thing that a lot of people do when they are starting out is worry too much about what others in their field are charging. I was guilt of this too but I’ve learnt over the years to not get so hung up on it. When you run your own business, you need to work out your Cost of Doing Business. Once you have calculated this, then you know what you need to charge to make a profit. There is no harm in doing some research to give you a benchmark but don’t get fixated on checking all the time to see if they have changed their prices.

I’ve seen too many photographers not charge enough for their work and they end up closing their business. I would also not recommend undercutting your competition to get work. We are all in this together and if everyone did this, we would be working for buttons. Know your worth and be confident to charge a fair price for your work.

10. Get social

It’s important in today’s world to be visible online. Set up a separate business profile for your photography work on socials and post regularly to your stories and page. Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest and LinkedIn are popular platforms with photographers. Upload both stills and video to share your work and build interest.

11. Collaboration is key

Get to know other photographers in your area and build friendships. The role of a photographer can be a lonely one as we spend a LOT of time staring at a computer editing. Don’t see them as a competitor, see them as a friend. I’m more for collaboration over competition. It’s good to have someone to talk to or ask questions when you are stuck. Plus you can also refer work to each other so it’s a win, win.

12. Market your business

There are lots of different ways to market you and your business. Enter competitions, advertise your business online, attend exhibitions and local fayres. Network at events and share your story on social media. Collaborate with local businesses to get your name out there and build business relationships

13. Network

Consider joining local or national networking communities. Some hold coffee mornings, online meetings or in person events. Get yourself some business cards or set up a virtual business card on your phone and pop along. I know it can be daunting at the beginning but it’s another great way to promote your business. People buy from people so what’s to lose by getting yourself of potential clients.

Top tip – nail your ‘elevate pitch’ as it’s call. Practice clearly and succinctly sharing what you do in under 1 minute. That way when you first meet someone new you can efficiently share your story and how you can help them.

14. Join a professional association

There are a number of professional bodies that you can consider joining. Here in Northern Ireland, I am a member of the PPANI (Professional Photographers Association of Northern Ireland). I am also a long standing member of the Society of Wedding & Portrait Photographers (UK based) and The Guild of Photographers (UK based).

They are a great way to meet other photographers, learn new skills and build up a support network. I would say if you are joining to be an active member. Enter monthly competitions or weekly challenges. Attend seminars and events to get the most from your membership.

15. Customer Service

It’s one thing I pride myself on and that’s good customer service. Knowing that my clients are happy means I have job satisfaction and the potential for new business coming my way. Most of my referrals come from other customers so if you look after your clients properly, they will promote you for free!

Be professional at all times, get back to new enquiries within 24 hours, deliver within the agree timescale and keep in touch with your clients to let them know what’s happening. Be honest and open and thank them for their custom.

Keep a record of what you have discussed and agreed – I would recommend using contracts when you have your business established to protect both you and your clients. Deliver on expectations and handle any complaints with due diligence. Consider using an online client management app or software to help you efficiently manage your leads, communications and invoicing.

Still want to become a professional photographer?

I hope you found this guide useful and has maybe make you think a little more about exploring the option of becoming a pro. It is an exciting and fun career to have. You get to meet lots of people and pursue your creative purpose. It’s not just as simple as pointing the camera and shooting but if you have the passion, dedication and drive, it can be a career for life.

If you are interested in booking in for some mentoring on a 1-2-1 basis or signing up to our 12 Months of Mentoring Programme, you can contact me via the website or on Instagram.

Wishing you every success on your photography journey!