Top 10 ways to make sure you’ll never be a pro.

Posted on 11. Feb, 2010 by in Everything, News, Top Ten Lists

Through the various workshops I lead and classes I teach, I inevitably run into a number of aspiring professional photographers.  More than a few of them however, seem doggedly determined to do everything they can to make their dream of professional photography impossible.

I’m nothing if not a helper.  So if you really want to thwart any chance you might have of becoming a pro photographer, here, presented in traditional count-down order, are 10 ways to make sure you’ll never turn your dream into a profession.

10. Don’t show your work to anyone other than family or friends.

  • Family and friends are great for moral support and can really help pick you up when you’re down but do they really know what makes a great picture and what sort of stuff is going to sell?
  • You need to get professional opinions about your work if you want to know if it is good or what what you might need to work on.

9.  Design your web site so that it’s impossible for a photo buyer to do business with you.

  • Through fear of protecting their images from being “stolen” from their web site, many folks make it so you can’t right-click to save a picture or use flash web sites that make it almost impossible to easily save images to a local hard drive.
  • While none of these methods truly protect the images from “theft” they are a really great deterrent to the editor or photo buyer looking for images.  They can’t easily save them to run past other people and they’ll just move onto the next web site.
  • And while we’re at it, don’t put those huge ugly copyright notices over the center of the photo.  If you need to add a copyright watermark, add it to somewhere where it intrudes on the photograph’s story as little as possible.

Common Loon with Chick

8.  Only post your “second-tier” images on your web site.

  • Many folks operate under the mistaken belief that they should save their “good” stuff for when they get that National Geographic offer.  Sorry, but that isn’t going to happen until people can see the sort of great photos you can produce.

7.  Bring only your best images to an image critique.

  • During my photography workshops I always set aside time for people to bring some images for myself and the rest of the group to comment on.  Many folks only bring their best stuff.  I guess it’s fun to hear from the umpteenth time what a great image that is, but wouldn’t it be more useful to bring some images that you’re wondering about?  An image you haven’t already been told 10 or 100 times that it’s a great image?  Take a risk and learn a bit.

6.  Just do photography.

  • I hear from some of the long-time professional nature photographers how they used to be able to make a living out of just selling images.  I wish my life were so simple.
  • The most likely way someone starting out is going to sell an image is along with some writing.  So, you’ll want to learn how to put some words together that can support the images you’ve got.  While you’re at it, you might want to take some business management and marketing courses along the way.

Hadar - Hexagonal Plate Snowflake

5.  Stop learning.

  • Unfortunately, some folks figure that they’ve learned it all and that they’ve got it all figured out.
  • Sorry, but in today’s digital world that just isn’t possible.  New techniques, software and equipment are constantly being developed.  You need to devote a significant portion of your time into educating yourself and keeping current.

4.  Don’t look at other people’s images.

  • I’ve run into a few people who can’t seem to appreciate any photos other than those they’ve created.  Holy narcissism batman!
  • If you don’t look at what your contemporaries are doing, you’re really short-changing yourself and sabotaging your aspirations.  Look around at what sells (because if you’re a pro, you NEED to care about what sells) and hang some of that on your wall.  Learn why it sells and try to use that with your own photography.

3.  Don’t treat your photography like a business.

  • If you want to remain an amateur, that’s great.  But if you want to be professional photographer, you have to start thinking like a professional.  Covering a subject as a pro is a big difference from covering it casually.  You need to prepare in advance.  Have your gear and attitude ready to go.  And when you start shooting, you work it until you get what you need.
  • If you’re under the mistaken impression that you need to be a great, or “one of the best” photographers in your area of interest to be a professional, get over it.  At least as important as the photography skills are your business and self-marketing skills.  Make sure you work on those at least as much as your photography.

Pair of Red Fox kits play fighting in some tall grass

2.  Just take photos; don’t tell stories.

  • For me, a great photo is one that tells a story.  If someone were to ask you about a photo and you couldn’t immediately come up with the story being told, I would argue that it isn’t a great photo.
  • Use image compositional techniques to have your photos tell great stories.

1.  Treat ethics as an inconvenience to be avoided.

  • While ethics are a personal matter and we all have to determine what is and isn’t ethical for ourselves, the surest way to disaster is to have others view you as unethical.
  • Treat people the way you expect to be treated.  Be above board in all your business dealings.  Your clients should never experience negative surprises.  Follow through on your promises.

So, if you’re an aspiring pro and bound and determined to stymie your chances of making it, I think I’ve outlined a pretty clear road map for you.

Do you have some comments or additional items to add to the list?  We’d all love to hear from you.

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25 Responses to “Top 10 ways to make sure you’ll never be a pro.”

  1. David Leland Hyde

    11. Feb, 2010

    My father made a living from nature photography for over 60 years and I am a writer. I can say from observing him that this top 10 comes down to nothing more than excellent advice. Once you are a pro, you still have to keep learning, especially today with everything changing so fast. I would also add that besides not limiting your showings to family and friends, that you learn from people other than your local camera club. Find a mentor who is doing what you intend to do and listen to them. Be wary of advice from anyone who is not earning their sole income from photography, if that is your goal. If they are part-time, which is not bad in and of itself (Eliot Porter was a doctor), be sure that they are published and exhibited and selling their work on the level that you aspire to yourself.

  2. hfng

    12. Feb, 2010

    Excellent post. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Amber

    12. Feb, 2010

    I have one of those annoying flash websites, but I also have a blog–both of which are accessible from the splash page on my domain. I also use Flickr–so ultimately, I am still really happy with my flash-based site, and I think that is OK, because it is not the only place I have any of those images.

    Its amazing to me how much #1 of all things seems to fall by the wayside. I am heavily into concert photography and I have found that other photographers do not always–or even often–see you as an ally. They see you as nothing but competition. Through my job I try to foster positive relationships between photographers in my local area who also photograph concerts. There is no reason we can’t all get along!

    • Tim

      17. Mar, 2010

      Yes and no. You still want to bear in mind the number of clicks people will make; if their primary angle of approach is to your flash-site, and then they have to go to flickr to find something navigable, that click is a point against you.

      And I’m sorry but a few-second delay while Flash loads and then inflicts noise on me whilst surfing… OUCH! I ran away *fast*. (Hey, that’s good feedback for you to know, I hope; you’re allowed to criticise my site too if you want.) is an interesting meta-review; very recommended reading.

  4. Matt

    12. Feb, 2010

    Aha! That’s great anti-advice! Lots of truth to the idea that often the only thing between you and success is *you*…

  5. Rich Charpentier

    15. Feb, 2010


    I always look forward to your posts, and every time I see a new one in my RSS reader I know it’s going to be good. This post’s list is great!

    Thinking of #7 I have something to add. Don’t bring everything and the kitchen sink to a review either. If you can’t select your better / best images, why would you make someone else do it for you?

    You would not believe the number of times print clients have brought me hundreds of photos to sort through. Normally they come in to get prints for galleries, but they leave it up to me to make selections of their works……

  6. Steve

    18. Feb, 2010

    Paul, great post. I have no aspirations to be a pro photographer but those of my friends that do – I bet most if not all of them hit 5-7 of your points. I was LMAO through most of the post – but at the end of the day I think I will send them over for a read.

  7. Tom Sparks

    19. Feb, 2010

    Wonderful advise. It is so easy to do no. 1. Lots of praise and very little business.

  8. Lynn Smith

    19. Feb, 2010

    Very well written article. A good time to read and reflect.

  9. Adrian Thysse

    21. Feb, 2010

    It’s great that I came across your post just at the point that I realized I have been treating photography like a vacation rather than a vocation. Thanks for this pertinent (and somewhat painful) post.

  10. Shannon Hudnell

    22. Feb, 2010

    Great advice! I’m going to pass this on to some friends.

  11. rick

    23. Feb, 2010

    Awesome post! I’m sure most of us have been guilty of most of your ‘top 10″ at one point of our careers. Great advice.

  12. Jeff Lindsay

    23. Feb, 2010

    Great tips. I’m still an amateur, but am frequently approached by people wanting to use my photos. If it’s anything that smacks of a good cause, I give them away,,though I’ve sold others. Is casually giving away limited use rights sometimes a bad idea? How do pros handle such requests?

    • Tim

      17. Mar, 2010

      No “still” about being an amateur unless you have aspirations of earning a living from it.

      And there’s nothing wrong with choosing e.g. a Creative Commons license (limited use, much more free than no-rights-allowed). If you’re a company selling a product, your sales department might give discounts to worthy causes (eg charities); I see no difference between that and CC-consult-for-licensing-arrangements with one’s photography.

      You also have to know when & how to say no. I was once approached by a company wanting photos for use on a website selling imported guns via eastern europe-> UK; I declined as I don’t want to be implicated in the arms trade in any way at all.

  13. Docpxiel

    24. Feb, 2010

    Good stuff! Going to share it with my artist community.

  14. Bill Pennington

    24. Feb, 2010

    Simply fantastic advice. I love #2, really made me stop and think.

  15. Phill Price

    25. Feb, 2010

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’m starting to think you’ve bugged my brain.

    Flash needs to die. It has no benefit other than the misguided hope that people won’t press print screen to copy images. The modern web has far surpassed the usability of flash and flash is a memory killer for modern browsers.

    If I go to a site and it’s flash – I’m not coming back.

  16. Carolyn Potts

    27. Feb, 2010

    Having been in the business of getting assignments for photographers my entire career, I’d distill it down to just three:
    1. Dismiss the critical importance of learning how to market your work,
    2. go by what your friends or family tell you as to what images should be on your site or in your portfolio.
    3. don’t learn professional business practices/pricing & licensing guidelines from industry professionals.

    Bottom Line: It is not your talent as an image maker that makes you a pro photographer (and one that can make a living from your skills); it’s your business smarts that you have (or are willing to learn) about running a small business in a highly-competitive market.
    In the past 30 years in the business, I’ve watched some super creative image makers sabotage their own potential success from ignorance in these areas. I’ve also seen many cases of mediocre photographers, but savvy business people, survive for decades.


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