Tips for getting your first paid photographer job


In a recent conversation, a new photographer asked me a question I had forgotten that I had also had when I was starting out. It was difficult to find a lot of actionable information, so I’ll do my best to provide it.

If you’ve been an amateur photographer for some time, there’s no doubt that at least you’ll have considered becoming a professional. The allure of doing what you love and making money for it is strong for many of us, but it is a difficult path to take if you are looking to earn a comfortable salary.

My story

I had been a photographer for about five or six years when I decided to go professional. I was in love with crafts and addicted to reading, observing and practicing everything around it. Some time after the first year or two with my camera, I had made the conscious and vocal decision to family and friends that I would never try to go pro. I told them that I didn’t want to lose my love for my hobby and that it was too competitive, with an average annual salary too low. What I was actually saying was this, “I don’t think I can do it and I’m too scared to try.”

I have recounted how I came to take the leap a few times and with considerable depth. You’re not here to read this, so I’ll summarize as it helps inform the tips to some extent. I finished my studies, I interviewed for wanted jobs and got one. I then had a meltdown when I realized that the life in front of me was so far from what I wanted my life to be like. I had worked in an office sales position before returning to college, and most of the reasons I went to college as a mature student (albeit only in my early twenties!) It was to get away from the drudgery of my chosen career path. . While I loved sales, I loved nothing else. So once I got two degrees and couldn’t meet the financial expense of a doctorate just to keep running away from office jobs, I was stuck. I finally decided to do all-in-one photography, with a sink or swim attitude. To be clear, it was a swimming or drowning situation; I had student loans, credit card debt, and needed to buy a house with my girlfriend.

In my first week as a ‘full time tog’ I found the most successful photographer I had any connection with, and asked them if they could call me and chat. of life as a professional and give me advice. We talked for several hours and I jotted down four pages of notes. It was extremely helpful, but it was missing a vital piece of information that I didn’t realize I was looking for: how do you get your first paid job? I was looking years later and trying to figure out how I could have a successful career, but I was not looking at this difficult first step. I felt stuck and nervous, certain I had failed before I even started.

Nonetheless, I eventually got my first paid job and then repeated it in a number of different niches I wanted to settle into despite no work experience and for all intents and purposes with no wallet and no contacts. In fact, I’ve done this enough times now that I think I have a rough idea of ​​the formula, but I warn you, it’s not a quick and easy win.

Identify a niche

There is some value if you are in a situation where you need to make money in photography ASAP, like I did, by casting a wide net. In my first year as a photographer, I photographed giant forests, a wedding, actor portraits, a range of watches, and a Christmas party. There is no shame in doing what it takes early on to get the numbers on your account. You don’t have to show the world that not everything you do is your niche. However, you still need to identify a niche and do your best to break into it.

To identify your niche (s), determine what you’re good at and what excites you. Hopefully there is a cross between the two. Next, determine if it’s commercially viable. Getting beautiful model portraits is high on most photographers’ list, but making money out of it is extremely difficult. Try to be as specific as possible about what you want to do. For example, with the portrait, I decided to aim for headshots for aspiring actors. For starters, the narrower your goal the better, as you have a higher chance of finding a paying customer. You can then, of course, expand your zone later.

Prepare a portfolio (even if it’s small)

This step may vary depending on its difficulty. If, as an amateur, you have turned in a certain niche (head photos, real estate, jewelry, etc.), you are ahead of the game: you have to organize your best work in a small portfolio to show this you are doing . If you are looking to make money in an area where you have no experience (I have done this three or more times) then you need to start creating.

Find the type of work you want to do, then find some of the work that has been done in that area. Then you need to create your own shots at the highest level possible. If you want to photograph babies, find a friendly baby with a parent you know and take as many photos as possible. Create elaborate sets, experiment with styles a bit, just create the best work you can. You don’t need 50 sample images to show potential customers; even five would do.

Brute Force your way

Once you have some work to show people, you have to start knocking on the proverbial doors – a lot of them. I decided that my love and knowledge of watches, combined with my love and abilities in macro photography, allowed me to photograph watches for businesses. So, I gathered a few of my watches and put in some shots to build the aforementioned little portfolio. I then wrote a completely honest email; I didn’t pretend I was an experienced commercial jewelry photographer. I said I’m new to this industry, explained why I think I’m a good fit for it, and showed some of my pictures. I said I was offering discounted rates while I was building my portfolio and now is a great time to get some cheap but great marketing imagery. I’ve contacted hundreds of companies, from startups to titans of the watchmaking world, and refused to give up until someone hired me. I contacted anyone related to watches remotely, asked anyone I could find if they knew anyone, and called for all the favors I had ever accumulated. You usually have to be a scrapbooker to enter this first gate.

If you know your images are of a standard worth paying for – and that doesn’t mean the pinnacle of photography in your niche – then you just need to find the right client. The world might seem small when looking for work, especially with no experience, but it isn’t. Eventually someone will take a chance on you, and you need to deliver more than ever before.


  • Identify an area of ​​photography that you enjoy but that offers opportunities for paid work. Be as specific as possible. For example, you want to take drone images of pretty houses or portraits of pets.
  • Create or organize a small portfolio of your absolute best images – photographs that illustrate your greatest work. It doesn’t have to be big; even five images will do.
  • Get your foot in someone’s door at all costs. Contact every person you can find in your target area, ask every friend who might know someone, and call in all the favors. You must go deeper than others are ready to find that first mystical client.

How did you get your first customer? Share your experiences and tips in the comments section below.

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