Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Foundations for successful professional photographers

Descriptions about what it takes to be a professional photographer are often quite fluffy and insubstantial. So with my best analytical cap on I've decided look at what it takes to be successful professional photographer.

Let's first clear a few things up. You don't need to own a camera, any camera at all, you don't need lights, you don't a studio and you don't need official qualifications. You can hire everything you need from cameras to studio managers and digital artists. You certainly need knowledge and skill but not necessarily a diploma to hang on the wall.

To be a successful professional photographer you will have to develop four key foundations besides being able to make brilliant photographs and the traditional business skills which apply to everyone running their own company.

The foundations are creativity, professionalism, knowledge and skill sets. Although this article is written for advertising and editorial photographers I am sure you will see how the principles can easily apply to other branches of professional photography too.

As professional photographers we need to see ourselves through the eyes of our clients. What are they looking for and what are they really buying? Why would they choose one photographer rather than another?


Saying that creativity is not enough to be successful will probably sound familiar to you. This is often qualified by saying that you have to give the client what they're after and tailor your creativity to suit the campaign or publication you're working on. All sound advice and true enough. But for me this does not go far enough.

To differentiate yourself from the masses of professional photographers you have to demonstrate your creativity is making a positive contribution and helping your client achieve their aims. If your client is not aware of how important your creativity is to the success of their campaign or brochure then they are not going to properly value your input.

So we come to the concept of managing your creativity. As a professional you are not expected to have off days. Clients want you to produce results on demand. You have to see your creativity as a resource not as some strange form of inspiration that floats down from the ether. It’s inside you and there are techniques for accessing it at will (perhaps the subject of a future article).

As a professional photographer you have to generate ideas and learn to leave bad ones behind. Don’t defend an idea to death. If the client doesn’t like it move on or adapt.

This brings me to innovation. You have to keep innovating to stay ahead of the game.

Creativity is about challenging the status quo, asking questions, changing things, destroying and rebuilding, finding new approaches and new answers.

But remember the context. The ideas you generate, the concepts, the innovations all have to be within the parameters of what your client expects and wants. It has to have substance. Your images are visual communications and your clients are looking to inform and persuade readers. Substance will always trump flashy style. I firmly believe form must follow function.


When it comes to being professional you have to follow best practice. Learn from the experience of your colleagues.

Some of the aspects to consider are your:

  • Values – ethics, environmental considerations, sustainability, conduct
  • Process – the methodology you apply to your work
  • Communication – written, oral, inter-personal – all have to be professional toward your clients, suppliers and colleagues
  • Administration – keeping to regulations, meeting legal requirements


You have to know your craft and keep up to date with the latest developments. The world of professional photography is fast moving and clients want solutions that work for them and integrate with their systems and ways of doing things.

If they have to choose between a photographer who can shoot on location and instantly transfer print ready images to their network or someone who has to have a film developed and scanned, who do you think they are going to choose (given that the two photographers are equally capable)?

Knowledge goes further than just your own craft though. Increasingly photographers have to demonstrate knowledge of their client’s organization and strategic goals. Clients want to work with photographers who understand their brand and can interpret their brief intelligently.

Knowledge is about getting education, training, understanding theoretical aspects. It is also gained through experience. You need both academic knowledge and practical knowledge gained through working in different environments. You need knowledge of business, people, customs, geography, products … you need to know everything about everything.

Skill sets

A skill is knowledge translated into ability and action. Knowing something in theory is not enough. You have to be able to do it and that takes practice.

To acquire a skill you have to work on your techniques. It takes self discipline, effort and determination to succeed. Steadily you build up a portfolio of skill sets which can be applied to meet different challenges, each one another arrow in your quiver.

I hope the above has given you food for thought. Creativity, professionalism, knowledge and skill sets are the four foundations you have to work on to ensure a solid and successful career as a professional photographer.

If you are interested in publishing a more in depth article in print please contact me. In the meantime I would be delighted to receive comments on this overview article.

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