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- First and foremost, should you even consider turning pro? "That's a difficult question to answer," Jay told me. "The great alpinist Mugs Stump once said 'Nothing is impossible until it's tried.' In my experience, that simple aphorism is fantastic advice. You can never know whether it's the right time to start a photography business unless you get out and start trying to market and sell your work. If you have the perfect blend of stubbornness, humility and willingness to work hard, odds are you'll do pretty well."
- I want to turn my hobby into a business, but am I ready? Will I make it or fall flat on my face? "You never really know until you try," Jay suggests. "However, it never hurts to start by sharing your work with others to see how they like it. If you can, have a professional photographer, photo editor or art director give you an honest critique of your portfolio. In today's market, having a large social network—whether it's a ton of engaged Flickr followers or an active Twitter network—is a big plus. It provides you with a base of support for the work you're doing, as well as a network of contacts to call upon as part of your marketing efforts. Additionally, by using a web site like Kickstarter this large social following can help fund an innovative project that might not fit within a traditional publication's needs."
- I'm ready to give it a shot. So where do I start? Should I enroll in school, assist an established pro, or just hang out my shingle? "Assisting an established photographer who really believes in the profession," Jay suggests, "and who is willing to teach is an immeasurably valuable experience. But even more, I'd suggest starting by asking yourself a lot of questions—really try to drill down to why you want to be a photographer, what types of images do you want to create and who might be interested in purchasing your photos? To increase your odds of success, work hard to figure out what problems your potential customers have that you can solve—either through your photographs, your customer service or your expertise. There are billions of photographs in the marketplace. Unless you have a truly exceptional vision, your skill as a photographer will not likely be what determines your success. It will be determined by all the intangibles you bring to solving a problem for your customer. In some cases this is being reliable, in others it might be your ability to communicate an idea visually. Photography is the medium, but the important question to ask is 'what will my photographs do?' Once you've answered that question, the remaining details will sort themselves out."
- What about pricing? This subject seems so daunting. Professional photographers charge a lot for their work. So where should I start my fees? "At a minimum," Jay says, "you need to charge enough to pay for your expenses (travel, studio, gear, insurance, taxes) and provide enough money left over for you to maintain your current standard of living. But that's the minimum. Really you need to understand the market, articulate and demonstrate the uniqueness of your service and negotiate a fee that compensates you for the value you bring to solving your client's problems. I know that sounds somewhat vague, but pricing one's work is one of the most difficult aspects of being a professional photographer. There are very few clear answers. Having a network of other professionals to talk to, such as the American Society of Media Photographers, can help provide specifics for your market and your discipline of photography."
- I've only got so much free time to build my business. So with it, should I focus on improving my photography technique or improving my business acumen? "In working with and meeting lots of photographers over the years," Jay says, "I have yet to meet a successful photographer who is not both an excellent photographer and a savvy businessperson. I believe that in order to build a profitable photography business one needs the pluck and savvy of an entrepreneur running a startup, a craftsman's approach to photography and a restless artist's desire to learn, grow and experiment. I believe we are just at the beginning of a great time for both the art and profession of photography. There are many challenges professionals need to negotiate to survive today's marketplace, but at the same time there are more opportunities for new photographers than ever before."
When you get right down to it, being a photographer is a wonderful career, though it is not all fun and games. It's a lot of hard work. "Being a professional photographer is fraught with risks, sleepless nights and loads of hard work," Jay says. "That said, there is no doubt that making a living—even part of a living—off of one's creative vision is an immensely rewarding experience. My camera has opened doors and allowed me to have experiences I would have never have had otherwise."
To learn more about Olympus Visionary photographer Jay Kinghorn, visit his blog at jaykinghorn.com. You can even learn from him in person at one of his upcoming ASMP seminars on running a successful photography business. Visit http://asmp.org/education/event/info?id=206 for more information.