How to Become a Professional Photographer: A Q&A with Cherry Beesley

I’ve been in love with photography since childhood, and I still have to pinch myself when I realise that I’ve been able to make a living as a professional photographer with just my camera, my eye, and my love of natural light. Call me biased, but I Simply have the best job in the world.

If you’re interested in forging a career with your camera and becoming a Professional Photographer, then read on, because I’m offering some insight from the trenches to inspire you.

Cherry Photographer Headshot in mono

First of all, how do you become a Pro?

I may as well start with a very blunt truth. There is no formal qualification. You can take classes to learn the technical aspects but there is no course, certificate, or badge as a quick route. You don’t graduate and become an instant Professional Photographer.

For years, I dabbled in photography work here and there. Family portraits, that kind of thing, around other commitments (I also had a day job at the time). But I still remember how amazing it felt to start to earn money from my photography. My career Simply built from there, humble beginnings.

At that early point, I didn’t feel I could call myself a pro; more an enthusiastic amateur; after all, I still had another job. In the industry it is a point argued and debated as to what makes you a ‘Pro” but general feeling amongst many other Professional Photographers is when you are able to carve out a living for yourself and it is your main source of income. Much like footballers who elevate to pro status when money becomes involved.

I have one secret that has helped me improve my skills over the years.

I’ve always done photography for the love of it and being able to tell a story using my images, first and foremost. I believe it is that love that has led me to improve my craft at every point. If you recognise a passion for photography in yourself, then you already have an advantage over other people. That passion will mean you practice when you don’t need to, and you’ll naturally become better.

Are photography classes worth it?

I attended evening classes when my children were young, at a time when I was rediscovering my passion for the lens. Knowing the confidence and insight it gave me, sharing knowledge and mistakes with other student photographers and teachers. I heartily recommend taking a photography class.

But more than that, I recommend getting into the habit of taking your camera with you everywhere you go, training your eye to spot those fleeting moments where a great image presents itself. When you think about it, there are a million perfect photographs all around you. All you have to do is make sure your camera is close at hand and learn to spot an opportunity. That can’t be taught, it takes practice.

Find a friendly photographer, and watch them closely to learn the tricks of the trade.

I’ve always been a people person, and I’d say that’s opened a lot of doors for me. It’s enabled me to put clients at ease before I take their headshots, and it’s also helped me befriend established Professional Photographers.

Early on, I was happy to work with Professional Photographers for free, even just carrying their equipment. I might not have been getting paid in cash, but watching how they operated, what they did to secure the work, and how they behaved and approached each commission, was the equivalent of being paid in valuable, practical experience. Try it.

The portfolio paradox.

One of the ‘chicken or egg’ problems, often the case for creative professions, is that potential clients usually want to see evidence of previous work before they will use your services. And when it comes to specific commissions, for example, product photography, people want to see that you have experience of capturing the genre previously, and the portfolio of evidence to prove it.

They want to see more specific examples than the contents of your generic, night class folder.

So how do you get the relevant experience to nab the next job?

If, for example, you do want to specialise in wedding photography, you might convince a friend to let you to cover their wedding in exchange for images that you can apply to your portfolio. A solid set of images will be worth their weight in gold to secure that next gig. Oh, and have some business cards ready, to direct people to your online presence.

An avenue for me has been the charity work I’ve done. I have helped several community projects over the years with their Commercial Photography including staff headshots and images that encapsulate their services and tell their story visually. It’s a great way to give something back to people and ultimately gives you some relevant samples to show your next potential client when they ask.

Network, network… and then network some more.

Somebody somewhere right now is wracking their brains and trying to think of the name of a photographer who can take some pictures for them. The trick is to be the person who springs into their mind. Network hard.

I’ve found that Simply being interested in people, asking questions, and getting to know them, is a great way to be the person they think about first when they need a photographer. Coming in with the hard sell early on can leave some people cold. For me, networking is simply an extension of asking people about themselves. The work follows from there.

There’s some truth in being in the right place at the right time, and getting lucky, of course. But the more places you put yourself, and the more times people see your work, the better your luck will get, and the more right places you will find yourself.

There’s no one pathway to success.

Apologies if you were hoping for specific, precise steps designed to take you straight to the top. In reality, there are a million different routes and they all depend on who you are and what you want from your career in photography.

Some people choose to invest in a studio set up and take what comes their way (not everyone has the funds to do that, of course) whilst others choose to specialise in one particular area. I decided to opt for more variety in my career and I specialise in Commercial Photography, capturing a business, its story and people. This means I cover everything, from architecture and property to products, headshots or interiors. I love it, and I love that every day is so different.

In short, there’s no straightforward route for gaining a viable photography career and becoming a professional photographer. But when you think about it, that just means there are many paths you can take, which Simply makes things more exciting!

At some point, it’s your work that has to do the talking. So, make sure you’re passionate and driven about creating incredible scroll stopping images.

A lot of people, and I include myself in this, are great talkers. But photography is literally a discipline where people can establish your credentials at a glance. A true people-pleasing sales expert might be able to talk their way into a gig or two, but very soon, the talk won’t cut it. The work must speak for itself.

Even if your clients don’t know the first thing about photography, they will know within a few seconds whether your work is good. If it isn’t up to standard, they may still pay you out of awkward politeness, but that is where the professional relationship, portfolio examples, and positive recommendations, will end and your career.

So whatever else you do, spend your lifetime improving your craft, and working on ways to improve it even further. That’s something as a professional photographer I’m still doing now.

Oh, and Simply – Good luck! You can watch my video that gives you more insight in to how I got started

POrtrait personal Branding headshot of Cherry Beesley

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