10 Things I’ve Learned as a Professional Photographer

It sort of hit me from out of the blue the other night. There I was– hanging out on the couch, watching a hockey game, when I realized I’d forgotten all about my anniversary. Thankfully, I’m not talking about my wedding anniversary, a fact which should be obvious since I’m still alive to tell the tale. No, this was my other anniversary. With the holidays and wrapping up all my end-of-the-year stuff, the tenth anniversary of ditching my law career for one in professional photography had somehow slipped past me.

I mentioned it to my wife, who muted the television, looked at me, and asked, “So– what have you learned in ten years?”

The question caught me off-guard, but it got me thinking.

“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I replied.

So, after much thought, I started a list of lessons learned over the past ten years. It is by no means complete, but here are ten entries from the list that particularly stand out for me.


1. Always Back Up…ALWAYS.

This is one of those “can’t-stress-enough” lessons. Back up a shoot before you edit it. Back up the edits once they’re done. Back up your entire catalog periodically. I even back up my back-up once a month and store it off-site. Have I mentioned that I can’t stress this enough? When it comes to storage media, there are two kinds of people– those who have experienced a data crash and those waiting for it to happen. Into every hard drive some scrambled ones and zeros will eventually fall, so be prepared. This lesson was learned very early on, not due to a drive crash, but due to laziness. Coming home late from a wedding shoot, I decided I’d wait until the next morning to download the cards. In doing so, I accidentally missed one and had reformatted it before catching the mistake. A recovery program only retrieved some of the images. Now, I won’t even leave the venue without backing up the shoot first.

2. Don’t Work for “Exposure.”

We’ve all seen the ads or been contacted by potential clients who “don’t have a budget for photography,” but can guarantee you really great “exposure.” DON’T BE FOOLED! Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, put food on your table, or buy clothes for your 12-year-old son who eats everything in sight and won’t stop growing. You’d be shocked at some of the well-known magazines that try using this tactic. Nobody pays their attorneys, accountants, bartenders, doctors, mechanics, or tattoo artists with “exposure,” and they shouldn’t be pulling that garbage with you. If it sounds like an interesting gig and you want it for your portfolio, go for it. Just don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, expecting that giving it away just this once is going to bring great rewards down the road.

3. Get a Deposit.

This was one of those lessons that I didn’t have to learn the hard way. Coming from the legal profession, I was shocked when I saw how many photographers weren’t getting deposits or even having clients sign a contract. This is part of what I was talking about when I said don’t work for free. Getting a deposit– if not payment in full– before the job not only protects your interests, but it also reinforces for the client that you are a professional and that your time is valuable. That will translate to fewer cancellations, as well as a fewer lost profits.

4. Learn to Calculate Your Cost of Doing Business

This is huge. When I sat down with my accountant at the end of Year 2, I was starting to feel pretty good about my new business. I had regular work coming through the door and just about everyone was paying their fees in a timely manner. After looking over my paperwork, my accountant looked at me and said, “What’s your Cost of Doing Business?” It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had absolutely no idea what it was. Without it, my fledgling business would be destined to be a failing business. Knowing that number became crucial to setting proper fees and getting my business back on track. The American Society of Media Photographers has a great online calculator to help with this.


5. Learn to Think Like a Photo Editor.

In other words, learn to only show your best work. It can be tough when you’re just starting out, because you want/need enough work to populate your new website. It’s more, though, than just making sure you don’t post six nearly identical photos of the same thing. I’m also talking about the task of sitting down with the 527 images that you’ve just downloaded, looking at your own work with an objective, critical eye, and whittling them down to the truly best of the bunch. In my opinion, this is one of those benchmark qualities that helps define the term “professional photographer.”

Being able to temporarily sever yourself emotionally from the work is not always easy, but almost always pays dividends. Showing a client only the best of the best makes it easier on the client when it comes to making their selections, and it also enhances their opinion of you. How? By showing them that you didn’t need 15 shots to get it right.

6. Shoot for Yourself Once in a While.

Don’t do it to build your portfolio. Don’t do it for advertising or social media. Try remembering what attracted you to photography in the first place. Get out and shoot. I don’t care if it’s two hours away or in your own backyard. Just create something without the pressures of clients, deadlines, and payroll. Photography has been a special part of my life for as long as I can remember. I didn’t want going pro to change that. Just because my hobby had become my career was no reason for it to lose its magic. Whether it’s once a week or once a month, it’s important to tune out the noise and the static and just shoot for the sake of shooting.

7. Develop Relationships.

Networking with other photographers is important on a variety of levels. Whether it’s sharing ideas, referrals, critique, or knowing you have someone who can cover for you in an emergency, good relationships with other photographers are like insurance policies. But don’t limit your professional relationships to just other photographers. Get to know the people at your local camera store. When you find a solid print lab or album company stick with them. I can’t tell you how many times my print lab has rushed jobs for me at no additional charge, simply because I’ve been a steady customer and I know who to call. That’s not going to work if I’m constantly bouncing from one company to another, in search of the best deal.


Turn-of-the-century networking? Photo Credit: State Library of Queensland.

8. It’s Okay to Shoot JPEG Sometimes.

I’m sure this statement will draw the ire of some– if not many– but it’s true. Film shooters didn’t shoot RAW before transitioning to digital, and last I checked, many of them were actually quite talented before “RAW” applied to something other than food. Ansel Adams never shot RAW, nor did Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or any of the other “revolutionaries” of photography. Is RAW a  more forgiving format? Absolutely. Does it give a wider range of editing possibilities? Yes. But if you are confident in your ability to get the shot right in the camera, feel free to make your life a little easier once in a while and shoot the much-maligned JPEG.

9. Learn to Use a Light Meter.

The argument could be made (and often is) that light meters have become superfluous in the digital age. The warm glow of an LCD draws us in like moths to a flame. We shoot. We chimp. We shoot. We chimp. We tell our clients we’re taking “test shots” while we push buttons and turn dials until we finally have the right look. The first problem with this approach is that your client is sitting there, getting increasingly impatient as you fire test shot after test shot. It makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing. If a client loses confidence in me before I actually get started, it’s going to show in the photos. Metering your scene and your lights ahead of time means that you’re ready to go as soon as the client is.

Using a meter is also a huge help when dealing with multiple lights or light sources. Chimping alone is not going to help you figure out light ratios. Making sure that a high-key background shows up in photos as a sharp white instead of a muddied gray requires lighting the background a full stop and a half above the main and fill lights combined. The only way to figure it out quickly and accurately is with a light meter.

10. Put the Camera Down.

This business can be all-consuming if you let it. Getting the gig. Shooting the gig. Editing the gig. Delivering the photos. Blogging it. Tweeting it. Updating your portfolio with it. Advertising. Marketing. Networking. Workshops. Getting the next gig. Starting all over again. Never underestimate the power and ability of the people in your life to help keep you sane and get a decent night’s sleep every once in a while. They can be your lifeline, so while you’re depending on them, don’t forget that they’re depending on you. Put the camera down every once in a while to enjoy life and the people who support you.


  • Alex

    “Shoot JPEG sometimes” – I shoot both. If JPEG is fine, then why to even bother processing RAW manually? These days cameras are pretty smart and once you’ll adjusted it properly (I do not remember I did even try to process FUJI X series RAW) you you’ll end up saving a lot of time. Of course, it depends on the targeted auditory you are working with and… cost/time/etc. :)

    • $48565746

      There is only one valid reason not to shoot RAW: If storage and memory were so forbiddingly expensive you just couldn’t afford the space RAW occupies. Which, of course, is not the case.

      Always shoot RAW. If you like, shoot RAW+JPEG. If you’re satisfied with the JPEG, throw away the RAW file afterwards.

  • Sam Jost

    Huh, Ansel Adams shot in Jpeg? Did he use a Polaroid for his famous pictures, forsaking the negative?
    I’d say a Jpeg is like a print or polaroid image while a raw is like the negative or dia, so I don’t think this point is valid.

    • Jim Johnson

      Yep. Film=RAW.

      That is the reason that raw files are often referred to as “Digital Negatives” even though they are not the negative of anything. They are the digital equivalent of the film frame.

      I have no problem saying that shooting Jpeg is valid (if you know how to make it do what you want), but the argument here is not valid.

  • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

    “Film shooters didn’t shoot RAW before transitioning to digital”

    Huh? Every film photographer I’ve ever heard of did. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I don’t know of any professionals who skipped the film part. Even if they didn’t process it themselves, they had someone do it for them.

    That being said, I don’t have any problems shooting straight to .jpg, and I did it for years (because I couldn’t afford a new computer that could process the .cr2 files). Nine times out of 10, I don’t edit my raw files anyway, because I strive to “get it right in camera”.

    For Canon shooters, with the full-fledged raw converter provided free with your camera, there’s really not an excuse not to shoot in raw.

  • George

    All fine except the stupid remark about film shooters not shooting in RAW. Negative film had even more dynamic range than RAW files have today so in essence they WERE shooting in RAW, and it was as RAW as one can get. I am sure your statement made sense in your head but it sure sounds like silly nonsense in the article, so I suggest a quick edit.

  • AleX

    Wow. Pretty wise & useful thoughts. About JPEG: SLR is for Raw, iPhone – for JPEG. This is my way.

  • http://www.clairestelle.com/ clair estelle

    some interesting ideas and thoughts as a photographer, a great post!

  • Martha

    Good tips for the business side of things. I was expecting more of an artistic top ten which I think could also be interesting.

    I have to say, I’m still not able to fathom why you would ever opt for a JPEG, but I ALWAYS shoot RAW + JPEG for this single reason: I had a card from an event shoot fail me at one point, and I was only able to extract the JPEGs with recovery software. Either shoot to two cards if you can, or shoot both formats, no question.

  • http://www.duncansoar.com Duncan Soar

    I would absolutely agree with point no. 4 – this is key to working (and surviving) as a professional, and is linked to point no. 2. Setting a value for what you do is essential, as is sticking to it… If you end up under-quoting for your work, then at the end of the day you’ll find yourself working twice as hard for the same amount of money as you would if you’d stuck to your guns and turned down the cheap jobs.
    Re point no. 8 – as others have pointed out, shooting raw gives you a similar latitude as HCB would have had shooting neg. He didn’t just ‘get the shot right in camera’ but was painstaking about his printing, using the full range of stops available in the negative to create beautiful images with full detail in both shadows and highlights. For documentary work such as his I would have said RAW is essential, otherwise you’re seriously limiting your options. For more controlled lighting work, fair enough, you could probably get away with jpeg. But why bother when RAW files aren’t much bigger and storage is cheap?

  • Alex

    never shot JPEG!