What Does it Take to Be a Professional Photographer?

An expensive camera? A range of lenses? A studio? A website? A business card? Lighting kit? A business plan? An Instagram account? Well some of these would be useful, others less so, but the reality of being a professional photographer has little to do with what you can buy, or get for free. What makes a professional photographer comes from within.

I’m sure that this is something that all those magazines, podcasts and workshops trying to get you to part with your hard earned cash in return for the ‘advice’ you need to become a ‘successful’ professional photographer, will not want you to believe. But believe me no amount of money spent on workshops or kit is going to help you, if you do not have what it takes internally. If you cannot build what is required within yourself or understand and cope with the mental challenges that you will face.

What am I talking about? Well, there is no ‘one size fits all’ but there are definitely specific qualities that need to be considered.

The first is strength of purpose. No career path is easy or straightforward and that of a photographer is no different. If you are not willing to accept that fact it’s probably best to stop before you get too far down the path, rejection is going to meet you every few metres so best to understand that before you start.

Dealing with rejection is not easy even for the strongest of character but as a photographer you are going to need to not only ‘take it on the chin’ but quite often ‘full in the face’, get knocked down and get back up again, again and again. Much of that rejection will feel unfair, but some will be useful and positive. Deciding which is which, is an essential skill for the photographer looking to progress.

Psychological resilience is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly, to take control and responsibility of our destinies when external forces are impacting upon us. Resilience exists when somebody uses mental processes and behaviours to promote personal assets, protecting the self from the potential negative effects of stress. Resilience is a key requirement of the professional photographer.

Alongside the ability to deal with rejection sits the need to balance confidence with arrogance. A human quality that directly contradicts the idea of the creative desire and need to express the way they see the world to a broad audience. The introspective nature of the creative has to be balanced with the extrovert ability of the marketeer.

There is no 2 + 2 = 4 in professional photography, no purchasable magic elixir. It is hard work and it takes commitment. Every career is bespoke and based on individual expectations. 

You are going to need to remain calm, consciously living in the moment and willing to accept that your future will be uncertain. You will need to embrace change. You will need to nourish yourself intellectually and creatively. You will need to build positive relationships. You will need to practice your craft. You will need to take care of yourself mentally and physically and perhaps most importantly of all you will need to commit to photography as being a major part of your purpose in life.

The role of the professional photographer requires mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and social wellbeing. Without these all else is jewellery.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

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