The Honest Truth: What It Means to Be Pro as a Photographer in 2023

The Honest Truth: What It Means to Be Pro as a Photographer in 2023

I’ve spent a long time trying not to cringe when I announce myself as a professional photographer. I’m not quite sure why this is.

It could be attributed to a deep, incomparable modesty or an unquenchable thirst to strive for better and develop my image-making to match and exceed the zeitgeist. Perhaps it’s the fact that my filing system leaves a lot to be desired and I’m completely useless when it comes to staying abreast of the latest tech and trends in digital photography. I fear the latter rings a little more true when I read this back. 

Nevertheless, I make my living from photography, more specifically food and lifestyle photography, and like many of us, it’s been a long old slog getting to where I am today. I’d say I sit very comfortably mid-table when it comes to my success in the industry: an image going to print here, an overseas booking there, rent and bills being paid, and a whole lot of soul-searching in between. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the "professional" in me isn’t one of especially high-ranking technical prowess or a networking genius. It lies far more fundamentally with a characteristic I’ve been able to relate to all my adult life: reliability. I’m not one for tardiness. Invite me for a beer and I’ll be in the pub 10 minutes before the agreed time, meaning I usually have to get the first round. Email me with a shoot proposal and you’ll have my thoughts, rate card, and availability usually before the end of that working day. Ask for a 72-hour turnover on deliverables and, well, guess what.

This trait has served me incredibly well in my years as a self-employed practitioner, and I think it goes hand in hand with anything anyone holds dear to them. There’s a certain energy involved in doing something you love that’s different from knowing you should “probably go for that run” or “take the bins out.” Whether it’s a hobby or profession (in the photographer's case, usually both) one tends to be eager to start the day, make progress on a portfolio or get home as soon as possible to crack on with editing. If you can be reliable in whatever it is you do, then I think half the battle is won. Clients will always go for repeat business with photographers they know and trust and who can deliver the goods consistently.

There’s no stepping-out parade for turning professional. You don’t get a Blue Peter Badge or a certificate in the post. It’s not branded onto your forehead, nor is it particularly relevant as you grow, learn, make mistakes and move up, down, and side-wise in your career. I guess it just kind of happens. There’ll be days when it suddenly dawns on you and you’re super proud of your work, the people you meet and the influences you are able to take from those in the business. On other days, work is scarce and you need to push hard, make contact, explore new avenues and spend a lot of time wondering whether you are at the stage you really thought you were. This is no bad thing, it’s just part of the game! As true as it is that there’s no secret door into professional land, there’s also no completing it. You’ll need to move with changing tech and artistic trends or simply find other ways of pushing your work and your experience to those willing to pay for it!

At this risk of making this article sound like clickbait, I’ve plumbed the depths to come up with 5 pretty simple ways in which anyone trying to take those next few steps can engage and maybe even take solace in. No tech advice, no software hacks. Just good, honest processes that anyone can get stuck into. If even a handful of these speaks to you, then I think you’re on a decent track to stepping out into pro land.

1. Know What Level You’re Operating At

Don’t compare yourself to the 1% shooting enormous worldwide campaigns if that’s not where you’re at. Sure, it can be a goal, but let’s not run before we can walk. There’s enormous scope to earn money in photography, and you only need to find your own small space within that world to get going. Don’t be scared of a discounted rate, a shadowing session, or a downright freebie if you’re just starting out. The work really will grow as your portfolio does, so make creating images you’re proud of the main focus. Enjoy what you’re doing and remember, be reliable!

2. Embrace the Side Hustle

If you’re where I am, then this is super important. There will be quiet times. It’s important to have backup plans when this happens. Being a self-employed photographer can be a difficult game. Often, you’ll form bonds and partnerships that create regular work, and it’s joyous. However, there won’t really be anything in place to protect you if companies go bust, clients shift their creative intentions or relocate, or if your time with them simply runs its course. Lots of irons in the fire really do help here. When one goes cold, there can always be four or five others burning bright. Stock photography, tutoring, mentoring, or content-writing can all be really great side hustles from everyday shooting.

3. Enjoy the Bread and Butter 

Your day-to-day. The stuff you love to do, the stuff you smash out of the park every time and that gets you super inspired. Revel in it, bathe in it! It’ll show in your attitude to clients, it will come across in your final edits. If you’re a wedding photographer, you’ll have a long day shooting with people you’ve never met. That is a chance to impress a ton of people you’ve never met! There won’t be many individuals asking what aperture you’re using or the burst rate on your D850 body (there’s always one, I know). But there really will be people picking up on your character, charm, wit, or whether you're in a stinker of a mood. You know what you’re doing with that camera, so enjoy it and it will rub off on those around you, thus creating a stronger foundation for work inquiries going forward.

4. Let Your Hobbies Guide You

I’m a food and lifestyle photographer because I adore food, cooking, and cooking culture. I love fine dining, baking sourdough, rolling fresh pasta, eating sourdough, stinking cheeses, Italian food, chopping onions with a crazy-sharp knife, medium-rare steak, Italian food, and wine! Oh, how I love wine. Italian wine especially.

My love for food and drink drives my photography, but not necessarily vice versa. Having this separate passion is important because, as we all know, when your hobby becomes your job, it’s not always peaches and cream with butterfly kisses. On the days when the camera stays in the bag, I can still head to the kitchen and cook for no one else but myself for the sheer delight of it. The beauty of this is that the camera will undoubtedly re-emerge later so I can shoot it all. It may go towards portfolio work or be uploaded to stock sites. It may never see the light of day. Either way, it’s something I can control and doesn’t have to have any effect on my professional life. It keeps photography exciting and inspiring on a personal level.

5. Be Curious!

If you’ve seen images from a new ad campaign or in a YouTube video that have impressed you, give them a go! Try different lighting techniques or ways of distorting your camera’s view. Head out and shoot street for an afternoon! Try not to get too bogged down in pigeonholing yourself. Yes, consistency and creating your own style are so important in the professional world, but that isn’t to say you can’t still simply enjoy using your camera and keeping things fresh.

Time takes its toll on every one of us. It’ll age us, change us, and force us to make changes to our lives as the world around us (and perhaps more importantly within this piece, the culture world) changes. You’re going to have to roll with those punches to make a living in lens-based media, but just remember not to go idealizing a distant future where the golden summit of Mount Pro is inevitable and everything else is downhill. It just doesn’t work like that, speaking as a professional.

Michael Barrow's picture

I'm a food and lifestyle photographer, currently living and working in London.

I’ve worked as a writer and educator in photography and maintain a deep and unhealthy relationship with food and cooking. As such you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties.

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I really enjoyed this article, Michael. Your first two points in particular really resonated with me.

It's so true that not all of us have to work on global productions in order to find success. I think social media has really imbued people with an inaccurate definition of what it means to be a successful working photographer. You can make very good money shooting the most ordinary of projects. But since those projects aren't sexy, hardly any photographer talks about them, and thus, people underestimate the ability to make a living with their camera.

Regarding embracing the side hustle, I couldn't agree more. There's an immense amount of pressure to put food on the table with your craft. Once you've established a solid client base, this pressure is somewhat alleviated, but when you're starting out, I would argue that it would be reckless to not have at least a few other options to bring in some revenue. There's no shame in this, and I think it's dangerous to put ourselves in a situation where we either sink or swim.

Thank you for writing this piece!

Thanks Kevin! I'm glad it rings true. It can be a lonely world working for yourself. Nice to know we share similar experiences