The 10 Commandments of Professional Photography

Our world is jam-packed with photographers! Many position themselves as professionals, a claim anyone can make when there is no definitive criteria for qualification. But does it matter? While some see this as a problem in the world of professional photography, others view the low threshold as an opportunity to fulfill a dream.

While you might enjoy that debate, you may have already learned that titles, great equipment and even some beautiful photography means little when it comes to earning a decent living as a professional outdoor photographer. The ability to create great images has little to do with business success. What does matter is how you set up, build product and market your business. Here are 10 important considerations:

Plan and Vision

To realize your vision you must have a realistic plan that guides you along the journey.

If your vision is traveling the world and photographing anything you want with professional grade cameras in exotic destinations, then, you might be better off becoming an international tour guide. While it can’t be said that those dream jobs don’t exist for photographers, they are, at the very least, elusive.

Reality is different! You create a plan by asking: Where do you want your career to go? How do you plan to get there? When you get there, how do you stay there?


Your plan should include clear goals on how you will generate income.

Will stock photography, prints, eBooks, workshops, classes or assignments be part of your product line? Each of these can easily be found among your competition. Will you do things differently?

Prying money from tightly clenched hands is not easy for any photographer these days, so creating product demand is important. Start by listing each of the products and services you plan to offer and how you will handle them to set yourself apart.

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Who do you believe will pay you for your products or services?

The profession of photography has evolved into two markets. One has shrunk and one has grown. The first is the traditional (commercial) market, which includes editorial, advertising and corporate. The second is the photography enthusiast. Understanding each market is vital.

The commercial markets want your images, so you have to make them easy to find. Research continues to show that clients are attracted to photographers who show a specialty, either in style, location or subject. You can shoot like a generalist, but you should market as a specialist.

The photography enthusiast market has grown substantially. Some even suggest that photography has become the number one hobby in America. The enthusiast will be interested in learning from you, perhaps by attending a workshop or reading your books. Here, a loud online voice and great imagery gets attention, but more importantly is that your sales efforts demonstrate what their user experience will be with your products.  A YouTube video showing participants enjoying a great workshop or a video describing your new ebook and what they will learn will only help sell more.


Once upon a time, I mailed slides to clients. Today, when I ask “what’s your deadline,” the answer might be “yesterday.”

Are you set up for rapid delivery of your products? The answer depends on each product of course, but if you sell an ebook, it should be an instant download. Stock photography, also instant downloads…unless you insist on negotiating each sale. While that might be good in some ways, are you missing out on the “I need it now” sales?

Your imagery on a stock photo website, whether a full-blown agency or a co-op site like Photoshelter, has the advantage of search, select, pay and download without you lifting a finger. More importantly, the instant availability makes it easy for clients to give you money.


Are you the world’s greatest photographer? If so, how do you exude that confidence?

There is a difference between acting professionally and being in a profession. How you conduct yourself could make or break your business. If you act like an idiot, clients will think you are an idiot. Set high standards for yourself as the pool of photographers is very deep. Make it easy for clients to work with you while eyeing the bottom line of profitability.  If you make promises, do what you promised. Meet deadlines. Do great work. Do what you can to earn the respect of your clients.

Marketing tools

Successfully selling anything requires well-planned efforts at marketing and promotion and should include online promotion. Different products require different strategies, and even with the greatest marketing tool ever—the internet—careful and well-thought-out strategies should be employed.

Evaluate how extensive your reach is, as in the size of your existing client list, email list and online followers? Promoting to commercial markets can be a combination of direct mail and email promotion. Use teasers to get attention, such as a humorous or stunning image with “Read More” links taking buyers to your site.

For your followers, consider networking with other high-profile photographers and websites, and offer financial incentives to promote your products. I recently released my new ebook, Outdoor Flash Photography, and I contacted many of my colleagues seeking help. I set up an affiliate program offering 40 percent commissions on sales leads. I wrote guest posts for numerous sites. Others offered free book reviews, followed by a few mentions on blogs and social sites.

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How much should you charge?

At some point, you’ve probably asked yourself that question. We all want top dollar, but there are examples everywhere of price matching and cut-rate specials. Stock photography is no longer the product of an elite group of artists, and it shows all indications of being a commodity.  Fine art prints are tough unless you are a noted exhibitor in a gallery handled by art professionals.

If you enjoy a high profile, demand for your products can command a higher price. When promoted effectively, people want a signed book, a good ebook, a rare stock image or the once-in-a-lifetime experience of joining you on a workshop. We live in a Groupon world. The “too cheap to pass up” model works, and there is a reason why. Pricing should be realistic.

Clients are everywhere

You might think you know all the markets for your products, but have you really even scratched the surface?

Social media is one way to expand your sphere of influence among photographers, but is it the best way to approach business? I am talking about reaching out directly to businesses that are related to your niche or area of interest.

A wilderness lodge, a rafting company, a nature center or any outdoor-related business uses photography. Reach out and offer to volunteer for one or more of these businesses, or request an opportunity to photograph for them on speculation (no payment unless the business decides to use your work). I have worked this way for decades, and at some point the money usually comes.

Bartering is another option, where you trade images you take for the business for a sampling of its product. For example, the company’s choice of x number of images from your shoot for two nights lodging at a wilderness lodge or a river rafting trip for two or ten passes to the nature center. What’s more, the images can later be sold as stock.

Attend outdoor trade shows and hand out cards. Offer to shoot nature landscapes of the golf course without commitment and see what happens. Shooting on spec is a great way to earn clients as long as you don’t give them anything free. All business is good business!

Don’t forget to invest in your life

Photography is a lifestyle, not a job. It can be thrilling but all-consuming and can lead to burnout.

A successful photography business these days requires extensive energy and time to simply maintain the status quo. Find a balance between work and the life you share with your family. Since you will likely be self-employed, don’t forget that all good things come to an end. That means, invest wisely for the day you won’t or can’t climb that mountain for a sunrise picture.

Learn, create, and share

Never stop learning and creating.

You are in photography because you love the adventure, the need to create and the joy it brings into your life. Be a photographer for yourself first and your business second. Remember, no matter how great you career, there is always someone you can learn from and someone who can learn from you, so give and take. And remember, a professional is a pro at life and business.

Have any thoughts? Please leave a comment.

Related posts: Photographing With A Purpose, Here’s Why You Should Shoot Stock and Assignments

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