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I want to be a pro photographer in 3-4 years, thoughts?

JCrossJCross Member
edited December 2014 in wedding photography
Hi everyone.

I am a noobie, a novice, beginner... I own a Canon PowerShot G6 and have basically only recently decided to get into photography.

I have yet to learn manual and I am currently reading up on the exposure triangle and getting an idea of what's what.

I plan to skip buying a crop camera and go straight to full frame, this is basically because I do not want to buy only to want to upgrade a year or so from now, although I get why a beginner may be wise to buy a beginners body, I need to go full frame whilst I have the money, it's kind of jumping in at the deep end but my question is this...

I am laid up with health issues right now but am slowly recovering and have time on my hands and I have decided that I want to be a pro photographer when I am well again, I am looking at studying and taking photos for 3 years, maybe 4 years and was wondering if this time frame should be enough to get myself to a level where I could charge for portraits and also weddings.

I know this is a loaded question but from newbie to pro, is 3-4 years a realistic time frame? I hear some say it takes 10 years to get to a high level of skill but I tend to think that is a little extreme, I am looking to halve that with a lot of study and constant practice...

My plan is to order a Nikon D810 next week and also buy a Nikon 24-70mm lens for starters, maybe to pick up an 85mm lens soon after and add the 14-24mm and the 70-200mm after a year, does this sound like a good plan?

Ultimately, 3-4 years from now, with enough lenses and practice I am hoping to start doing Weddings, I am just wondering if this is a tad ambitious? In this time frame I will need to learn editing skills in Lightroom as well as study the business side of things.

Thanks for reading. Any advice would be much appreciated.

I threw together a quick website, premature I know, it's not finished but you can see some of my photos on auto here:



  • I'm not a pro by any means. I took a lot of photos with film, but unfortunately not with a SLR, and then purchased a Powershot S5 IS about 6 years ago. Somewhere around 3 years ago, I attended a seminar at a local university which allowed all cameras as long as they could shoot full manual. It was 4 hours, and I learned to not be afraid to shoot in manual. I proceeded to mess up most of my pictures on a vacation right after that. I worked pretty hard to make sure I would never do that again.

    Last October, a local technical high school offered a 9-class course on digital photography, but because I did not own a camera with a removable lens, I wasn't allowed to sign up. I got the "bee in my bonnet" so to speak, and in February this year, I purchased a Canon T3i and subsequently a couple more lenses and a hot-shoe flash.

    I have been doing a lot of reading, and a lot of picture taking, a lot of them just experimenting with different scenarios and settings.

    In September, my step-daughter got married, and my wife asked me to take a bunch of photos after the wedding photographer left. But I didn't have a good understanding of how to balance flash and ambient, and I proceeded to mess up a lot of them. I vowed, like I did after the vacation mentioned above, to never let something like that happen again. After a lot of searching, I found this website, and all of the great instruction, tips, opinions contained in it.

    So now, what I am doing is volunteering as a photographer to anyone or any organization that will have me. And I have really gained some experience in just three occasions.Even though I have always been my own worst critic - in anything I set out to do - I have received positive feedback, and my confidence got a little tweak.

    I would volunteer, I think it's a good way to get yourself into a variety of situations where you have to remember what you've read, remember past successes and failures in shots, and it really gets you to think about what you need to do to get some great shots.

    I had a conversation with a woman at a local Kinkos - I was having a bunch of photography articles bound - and she told me she was a wedding photographer for 28 years. How she got really good at planning shots, lighting shots, etc? She worked for no money as an assistant to a wedding photographer holding/placing the off-camera lighting.

    Am I a professional? Hardly. Do I want to be a professional? If "professional" means getting some money for the work, maybe. Really what I want from all of this is a great hobby that I get really, really good at, and photos that someone will look at and say "Hey, these are great, and we want you at our next event" (volunteer or not).
  • Thanks dbruno. :)

    The one piece of advice I have had so far is to practice, practice and practice some more and to take many photos in all different kinds of light, sunlight, morning, evening, cloudy days, indoors etc and this is pretty much what I plan to do.

    I am fully aware that buying a pro level camera is not going to turn me into a competent photographer over night and I am also aware that some people, even with the best gear may never make good photographers but I think I have an eye, I went to Art school when I was younger and I pretty much feel confident that I am not completely clueless with regard to how to take good images, once I have got the manual stuff down that is and sure, I get that there is a lot to learn and that even pro's are always learning something new regardless of how long they have been taking photos in a professional capacity.

    Someone said I should start to have some grasp on manual after a year, I sure hope so and I am going to put a lot of time and effort into this because I want it really badly but I am not deluding myself, it's more than likely not going to be easy and I can see myself acquiring 10k euros worth of gear within the next few years and that's quite an outlay, I could just decide to do this as a hobby but in all honesty, I could do with a new career and figured why not give photography a shot?

    I guess only time will tell, see how I go in the first year and after that I may try and seek out either a course to take or try and hook up with someone that I can be an assistant to... I would not dream of taking on a wedding until I know I am up to the job and that would mean getting photos right in all different scenarios and conditions... 

    I'm going to give it my best shot and try and build a portfolio in my second year and maybe before I invest in more glass I may have a better idea if I am suited to this or not, I think I will be but it will more than likely come with many frustrations and cost... I think it is important to weigh up the pros and cons and anticipate that it may be a struggle at times and even if I get to a level, there is no guarantee that I will be successful, from what I understand, marketing and having a good head for business is pretty much as important as the photography so that is something I will need to teach myself over the next couple of years also because once I do invest thousands more, I will need to be making some money at some point otherwise it will amount to nothing other than a very expensive hobby... I want to do this for pleasure also but I get that as a working pro this will be a job that won't always be enjoyable, from what I hear, shooting weddings can be very stressful for the first year or so... 

    I guess everyone has to start somewhere, I think I will know within a year if this is meant or not. :)
  • The advice to practice as much as possible is something to really take seriously. I write a lot of stuff down from unusual situations I've encountered. Don't be afraid to be super critical of your own work, even in the face of praise by others. I can always find something I could have done better or paid more attention to. It's the only way, personally, I feel I can improve.

    If you went to art school, you have in my opinion a big part of this already covered. The nuts-and-bolts will come with practice.
  • Thanks dbruno, I guess worst case scenario is that I find after a year this is not for me, I will have bought a full frame and a good 24-70mm lens and maybe an 85mm also, that's enough until I know whether or not I will be able to take this further, with that amount of gear I can afford to call it a hobby and yet I want it to be more... I have about a years worth of reading up on Wedding photography alone, I plan to learn this field inside out. I think I need to put a speedlight on my shopping list along with the 24-70mm lens... I am also going to subscribe to Lightroom to keep costs down initially rather than buy it outright, it's about 15 euro per month which isn't bad at all.

    Mastering manual must be a good feeling, I'll get there just like you will improve also, there's a lot to learn isn't there? :)
  • TrevTrev Moderator
    Some advice for you JC.

    1] Join a local camera club, generally membership to such is around $100_$200 per year, ask questions, and no matter what club you join you will soon sort out what's best, some members will be extremely helpful and are knowledgeable, and usually meet once a month and have outings/workshops in the field.

    2] Obviously practice, but don't be concerned with composition, subject matter, the main thing you need to study is light. Take dozens of shots of say even a beer tin lying on the ground, from all angles sides, top, full sun, semi-shade, full shade, until you learn where light is coming from, how it interacts with the subject.

    3] Practice of course in manual mode as you already know, once you go Program/TV/AV the camera is doing the thinking, you need to use your own computer upstairs to make the decisions of when/where/why you are taking that shot.

    4] Subscribe to some Photography magazines, although these days there are cheaper alternatives like online stuff, but I used to buy 2-3 different magazines a month some 40 years back, and being an avid reader I devoured as much as I could; but yes, do get into online stuff, even downloading and printing out significant parts.

    5] Expect to be doing an 'apprenticeship' for the next 3-4 years, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, sounds stupid, but that's what you need to do, maybe not literally, but certainly you need to constantly handle, adjust, play with camera settings even when not actually taking pics. I know Neil has said in the past he sometimes may even be sitting in his car he still plays with the camera, so he can intuitively change settings with finger/thumb on the fly without taking his eye from viewfinder which I also do to this day.

    Then, after all that, you may be ready for the real education after because you **never** stop learning, the day you do, go out to the car park and hold a garage sale of your gear. :)

    6] As Dave (? dbruno) says, be critical of your own work, study it. There is not one event/wedding/shoot I come back from, look at my images when editing, and find at least 3-4 shots I think I could have improved on, positioning of hands (I am a wedding photographer 99% of time) and could have improved on that, or, look at the lighting, and think man I could have moved this light slightly to left/right or changed my own angle.

    7] Go online and look at other photographer's work, that's a massive advantage in this era of instant gratification of being able to 'see' something you otherwise may have had to wait days for like getting prints back or looking at other people's prints in the past.

    8] Repeat all of the above ad nauseam

    I am sure there is more advice people may offer, but getting basics right is critical, after all you cannot build a skyscraper on quicksand, you need solid grounding in basics.

  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    We need to distinguish two things here:

    1. being pro-capable. i.e., being able to deliver professional results. 

    2. having a client base that will enable you to support yourself as a professional photographer. 

    Re #2:  This isn't something that comes easily. It takes a lot of business savvy, and an eye for a niche and opportunities ... and also the will to network and meet people and businesses. This might very well be the most difficult part of being a professional photographer. 

    Re #1:  Being pro-cabable .. i.e., being a professional photographer. But in what field?

    For example, I lurk in some of the Facebook groups that deal with Real-Estate photography ... and I tell you, some of the photographers there are incredibly well-versed in getting results that look jaw-dropping awesome. 

    So while I might be relatively okay with on-location portrait photography and weddings, I'd have to move carefully into that field if I ever chose to do so. There's a different skill-set there. 

    Same for product photography. The people who do product photography really really well, do it on a level that is beyond my immediate capabilities.   

    So while I have a huge amount of gear, and a comparatively thorough knowledge of some aspects of photography, it would take me a year or two to build up a worthy portfolio in a radically different genre. 

    So back to the question ... is this possible? To be a pro photographer in 3 - 4 yrs.  You would have to be unusually dedicated and talented, imho. Unusually dedicated to put in that much time to learn as much as you can .... and build up a client base. 

    I am sure it can be done. I am sure there are photographers' names you could pull out that successfully accomplished this. But with an ever-changing technology, and an ever-changing market, I'm not sure it is easy. 

    In 4 years, the technology and markets will already have shifted. 
  • TrevTrev Moderator
    Very salient points Neil has made. The changing market/technology has shifted to such a degree that any 'Uncle Bob' with a DSLR these days can take clients for cheaper prices.

    A very good business acumen is needed, and not just that 'I am a good photographer' unfortunately. Places like FB (where all the shit photos in the world seem to be plastered and get rave likings) and other social media is also heavily influencing people's decisions.

    It's going to be a long haul anyone starting out, and having dedication is but a small stepping stone in that journey.

  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    edited December 2014
    I'm a little jaded with the "industry" that is the large photography conventions. There is this "machine" that runs on selling the dream to newer photographers that they can make it, if they just follow this advice / attend that course / buy these DVDs / subscribe to whatever.

    If you visit the large photography conventions - there will be thousands upon thousands of photographers piling into the lecture halls - most of them in business less than 2 years.  And you just know, looking around you, that the majority of them just aren't going to make it. 

    Their markets might be over-saturated. 
    They might not have the personal skills.  (I would even include limp handshakes here.)
    They might not have the imagination to figure out new niches and markets.  
    They might not have the capital to invest in their business - gear / marketing. 

    So would I dissuade anyone?  Nope ... but I would tell you it is a tough way to make a decent living. 
  • TrevTrev Moderator
    I also need to mention that once you have got your 'taking photos' down to an acceptable degree, there is all the time you then need to be able to edit them thoughtfully, carefully and without them being overly 'photoshopped' because having to shoot something professionally for profit you would need to have the latitude of a RAW file, but then getting the best from that file.

    That is another learning curve.

    As Neil said, I don't want to dampen enthusiasm, but a dose of reality needs to be injected here.

    With all of that, good luck.
  • TrevTrev Moderator
    Bang on, that would be correct.
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    Josef .. a big question. What is the path that you have planned out for yourself to achieve this in 3-4 years?

    Not just gear and your photography technique, but a business plan? 
  • MichaelVMichaelV Member
    edited December 2014
    Look on Craigslist for a photography assistant position with a local wedding photographer.  Do at least 5 weddings with them and see how you like it.  Dont invest in any equipment or do anything else before you have done at least 5 weddings as an assistant.  Also look for other photographers besides wedding oriented.  Do as much assistant work as possible before moving forward.  The idea is to see if you know exactly what you are getting into.  

    After you have done some assistant work take a complete photography course at a local community college.  In New York City area, there is certainly no shortage of places which offer complete photography courses.  Look for online reviews of the courses first and be picky.  Dont invest money into any courses with negative reviews.  Also take a course on Photoshop.  

    Good luck!  The market is saturated with very established photographers these days.  I think the one thing which sets photographers apart is personality.  Read the wedding wire reviews and you will see that most do not talk about the photos they received.  They talk about the personality of the photographer.  I actually just read through some reviews of well known photographers.  I did not read one review where they talked about the actual pictures.  It was all about them being on time, well organized and easy to work with.  Not one person said anything about the actual photos received.

    A lot of photographers tend to be great technicians, but not great at selling themselves.  They will get great pictures, but when it comes to dealing with people its different.  The truth is while the art of photography is a lot of fun the business of photography is very stressful and trying.  The stress of the business gets to a lot of photographers and that dulls their personality so to speak.  Most photographers are artists who want to get away from the usual day job, but the business of photography is very similar to that stressful day job.  Its a lot of fun running around Italy with your gear getting artful pictures.  However, its a bit different trying to coordinate and shoot a couple's wedding in Long Island during the summer.  Every day after the wedding you get an email stating "Where are my pictures".  
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    edited January 2015
    An article posted on SLR Lounge: http://www.slrlounge.com/photographers-vs-money/
    Where Photographers Are ... vs ... Where the Money is.

    This might help give a realistic expectation of what your potential income might be as a photographer in the USA.

    It will also help with a business plan regarding how much money can feasibly be plunged into the new business, vs how much you can expect to earn. 

    "The estimate is that photographers made an annual salary average of $37,190 in 2013, and that the top 10 percent of them made $66,130. Where had the highest mean pay? Washington D.C. at $66,130, California at $53,280, and New York at $49,480. The top metropolitan areas should come as little surprise for most, with LA up top, NYC second, and a little oddly, Minnesota taking third place."
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    edited January 2015
    I'm curious about what they regard as "New York". New York the state, or New York City ... because $50k isn't much of a living wage in New York City. You'd barely be able to cover rent, utilities and food with that.
  • Those salaries do sound low. I think the problem is that they are averages, not means. So all the NYC photographers earning bottom of the barrel salaries bring the average way down so that it may be a very inaccurate reflection of what successful and quasi successful city photographers earn. I don't mean the NVNs and Joe McNallys. Just those making a living. Anyway, yes, you're not going to get rich unless you do something different. That's why everyone's doing workshops and online classes and writing books and becoming educators to all the hopefuls. The master is Bryan Peterson, author of Understanding Exposure. He is brilliant because his market is the serious amateur. There are a lot more of them than pros and most educators are going after new pros and wannabes. Bryan goes after amateurs (and some pros) and doesn't charge a lot and they're lining up to go on his destination workshops and I think his online school is successful too. Then there's the whole product racket -- selling stuff like light modifiers to other photographers.
  • Skipperlange, 

    Average and mean are the same thing/calculated the same. Did you mean median?
    And yes, the salaries seem very low but keep in mind that there are a lot of very low income photographers out there and they will bring the mean/average down. Not everyone earns money like a Ryan Brenizer :) 
  • Thanks Rudy, yes I meant median. Yes thanks also, that was the point I was trying to make, that the many many photographers who make pennies bring the average way down. I think median would be better snapshot of what working photographers make.
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