How to Become a Professional Photographer in London
Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer any more than having a bike makes you a Tour de France cyclist. But how do you go from hobbyist to full-time, at a time when everyone wants to be a professional photographer in London!
Every professional photographer in London started out a bit differently. Some started taking photos before the digital photography era. Others took online classes, while others hang fully-fledged degrees on their office walls. But all professionals learn their trade by picking themselves up after falling flat on their faces.
But not everyone has a mentor to nudge them in the right direction. Which is why I'm sharing my set of recommended steps to get from camera owning hobbyist to professional photographer, with minimal London side-streets to get lost in along the way.
Ready to get more from your camera, challenge yourself, and build a professional photography career? My guide on how to become a professional London photographer will help point you in the right direction with these simple-ish steps.
Just Get Started
The camera’s different knobs and buttons can feel pretty daunting, but the most important thing is to just take the first step anyway, and start finding out what works.
Dig out your camera manual and tuck it in your bag for easy reference, or download the PDF version to your phone. Look up some basic terms like composition and exposure. Flip through your old photos (or shots from a photographer you admire) and make a note of what you like and what you hate about each one. Start following a few photography blogs, or sign up for a beginner’s photography course online.
Take Loads of Pictures
Big shock, becoming a professional photographer in London involves taking pictures, lots of them! But you don’t need to wait until you know the difference between shutter speed and aperture camera settings before you start capturing images. You’ll get off auto mode eventually. Even shooting in auto mode can help you practice a few things — like timing for example, and composition (which is what you leave in, and what you leave out of the photo).
It is really only through massive amounts of trial and error that you will start to improve, so get going.
Get Comfortable with Your Camera
A camera is only as good as the photographer behind it — so how well do you know your camera? What’s the fastest way to adjust the ISO? Does your camera have auto-bracketing, double exposure or time-lapse features? Dig into the features of your particular camera so that when you need to quickly access a setting, you know where to find it.
Along with understanding what and where the features are, it’s a good idea to understand the limits of your photography equipment. Can you shoot with your lens at a wide open aperture and still get a sharp shot? Test your lens by taking a picture of a piece of newspaper or a printout. Most lenses have a 'sweet spot' that’s sharper than the rest, so knowing where that is is essential if you want to improve sharpness. The same concept applies to your camera. For example, how far can you crank up your ISO before the image gets too grainy to use? Knowing the limits of your gear can help you take better pictures, even with an entry-level camera.
Grasp the Basics
Auto mode isn’t all bad, but to really become a professional photographer in London, you have to master the basics that will allow you to get off auto-mode, and start calling your own shots, literally! That means learning the three essentials to exposure: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Each setting effects how light or dark the image is, and how much of your image is in focus. These can take a very long time to figure out, so start early.
Along with exposure, learn the basics techniques of focus and composition. These are the things that will allow you to start taking pictures with creative control. You don’t need to tackle them all at once, but you do need to master the fundamentals to make that conversion from hobbyist to professional photographer in London.
Learn What Makes an Amazing Photo
The secret to amazing photos? Light. Without being able to master lighting, you can’t take great pictures. Sure, sometimes you get lucky and happen to shoot a subject that’s already in great light. But to take on London clients and become a professional photographer, you'll have to learn how to manipulate light in order to make your own luck.
To master lighting, you need to learn how to shoot in any lighting scenario. How do you shoot with the sun behind the subject and not end up with a silhouette? How do you intentionally use backlighting to create a silhouette? How does the look of side lighting differ from front lighting?
Along with learning how to shoot wherever the sun is, learning how to manipulate the light with flash, studio strobes or even a simple reflector is essential for photographers intending to start professionally. By taking a few amazing online photography classes, the right tools and skill set, you don’t have to wait until you happen to stumble on great lighting by chance.
Find Your Niche
Just like every photograph needs a focal point, so does every photographer. While experimenting in every avenue is fine, if you want to become a professional photographer in London, you’ll need to narrow down just what type of photography you will do. From wedding photography to portrait photography, there are plenty of different paths to choose from.
Start with what you love to do, maybe you love shooting sports and would love to spend your days photographing the action. Or wildlife? Or Fashion? But, don’t just base your decision on your interests. Because work availability wise, you'd be better off finding a niche that is in high-demand, but without the photographers to do the jobs. For instance, if you live in an area with a dozen good portrait photographers, but no established architectural photographers. You'll be able to start building a stronger professional photography career from the start if you learn how to photograph architecture, instead of faces.
Once you narrow down your focus, work to hone the specific skills used in that sub category. Portrait photographers, for example, need to learn the art of posing. Commercial product photographers should be able to light a transparent glass and get the glass to pop without odd reflections.
Master the Dark Room Arts
Photo editing can be considered an art in itself. While some of the terminology is the same, operating a camera and running Photoshop are two different beasts. Learn how to adjust your photographs after you’ve shot them, Photoshop and Lightroom are two of the most popular tools for photo editing, but they take some time to learn. Start diving into the basics and then the advanced how-tos on how to take your shots to professional photography quality.
Create Your Photography Portfolio
How did I get my first professional photography booking without a portfolio? And how do I build a portfolio without any bookings? Are two big questions young photographers ask. And the answer is, create the work yourself, don't wait for it to come to you.
Your practice photos are a start, but you may need to continue to build your portfolio by staging a shoot or offering a discounted session to a friend. Then, put together your best shots and find them a home online with one of the many websites for photographers to make your photographs easy for potential clients to find.
Then, work to expand your exposure. Use social media to share your work and spread the word about your new business. Tackling social media is a learning process in itself (believe me!) so don’t be afraid to brush up. Learn about SEO for photographers and apply that not just to your social posts, but to your online portfolio too.
Put Together a Business Plan or Strategy
Most photographers are driven by a passion for photography, but shooting as a professional photographer in London means having business skills too. Building solid photography skills is the first step, developing a business strategy is the next step in actually making money from your photography. Take a look at your expanding portfolio and try to find a common thread — are the images photo journalistic, dramatic or another style? Considering your work, develop a 'brand identity' for your business.
Learning business skills, like photography skills, takes some time. Learn how to set your own prices. Research effective forms of inexpensive advertising.
Never Lose the Passion for Photography
Photography is a continuous learning process — even well-established professionals find new ways to challenge themselves. Whether it’s growing through new business skills or embarking on unique photography projects, always look for ways to fine-tune your skills. Occasionally, when photography becomes your job, that initial fire that sparked the journey fades a little - that is when personal photography projects come into their own. For example, during lockdown, I needed to maintain my love for photography, and so I hit the streets of central London in order to capture what life was like during this weird, ghost-like time — you can see the shots here.
Learning how to become a professional photographer in London is a journey full of discovery and fraught with many pitfalls and detours. But if you get it right, it can be the best job in the world! Stay strong, stay passionate and keep learning.