How to Transition from a Photography Student to a Full-time Professional


The transition from a student to becoming a full-time freelance photographer isn’t something that happens overnight.

In this article, we look at the gradual transition approach that works well for students who eventually become busy freelancer photographers after graduation. 

Start at the Beginning

It’s beneficial to be a media or photography student on campus but there’s nothing to stop you pursuing photography as a hobby, which may go professional later on. Don’t let the fact that you may have a different major put you off giving it a go. 

To become an accomplished photographer capable of capturing some impressive shots, it’s necessary to invest the time to improve your skills. Like any skill, it requires dedication and commitment to the craft to gradually improve over many months (or years). To this end, planning a certain number of hours per week behind the camera (and learning to master editing software too) is a good start. 

You’ll Need the Right Equipment

If you start early enough, the reality is that camera equipment will become dated over several years. Nevertheless, there are some tried and true pieces to your kit that are essential to own. It’s worth stating that many budding photographers become overly enamored with the latest cameras and especially lenses. Periodically updating your camera gear is necessary but avoid losing yourself in the latest gear rather than focusing on your mastering your craft. 

It should go without saying that a high-quality DSLR camera is necessary to grab those high-quality shots. A point and click camera just won’t do it justice. Also, drop the idea of using an iPhone as a make-do solution because you’ll have to relearn from scratch when making the switch to a real camera later. You’re not taking selfies here – no one will take you seriously if you don’t invest in yourself!

The better cameras and lenses allow you as a photographer to capture people, objects, and scenery in its truest light. The photos can be adjusted using software later to rebalance the light and color levels. However, focus on taking the best shots possible to avoid the crutch of using software to overcome equipment deficiencies, poor staging or to adjust for bad photography techniques. 

As you become more sophisticated in your craft, other photographic equipment in your arsenal may include a diffuser, reflectors or standing lights.

Dealing with Deficiencies in Lighting

It’s worth mentioning that to create professional photos, lighting is very important. Digital photography suffers from greater dependence on light sources, otherwise, photos suffer from too little illumination. 

Time of Day

If you’re taking shots on campus initially or in nearby places, select a time of day to get as much natural light as possible.

You may not own some studio lights or they’re inconvenient to use outside of private studio setup. In which case, use a reflector to illuminate a subject’s face when needed.

Night-time Shoots

Night-time shots look dramatic; however, a high-quality DSLR camera will be required to get decent photos.

Be careful with any planned night shoots. Use the equipment on your own first to see the pre-edited results before using the same photography equipment on a client’s shoot. Doing this avoids getting a disappointing outcome that needs rescuing using the editing software later. 

Finding First Clients

There are many people on a college campus besides the students. It’s perhaps natural for a student to only focus on their peers but broaden your perspective. 

Potential Clients Are Already on Campus

People who work on campus or near it will often require a photographer who is affordable and can produce quality images. Usually, they’ll have a budget to work with and it allows you to build a substantial and varied professional portfolio long before you graduate. 

Create Your Portfolio Before Client Work

To prove what you can do, build out a personal portfolio of professional shots. Publish these on a blog and be ready with business cards or to share your Instagram account showcasing your photography. 

If you’re unclear what types of images work best in a portfolio, check out this photography portfolio how to solution for some useful tips. Format is a website just for photographers to help them launch a portfolio website filled with their stunning photography. It makes setting up very quick and easy.

Don’t Be Afraid to Collaborate

Start intentionally making contacts in the photography world early on. Just because someone is a student who’s a better photographer than you, it doesn’t mean you cannot reach a mutual agreement to refer clients when it makes sense to do so.

Also, understand that photography either in your town, city or state is quite a small world. The photographers will often know each other and sometimes network together. Even in specific areas like fashion photography or wedding photography, the top photographers are well known by their peers. You never know when a fellow student will become a big name later or someone of influence, so it pays to collaborate early and establish good relationships. 

Decide What Your Area of Focus Will Be

Photography is a competitive field. After all, it only costs a few hundred bucks to purchase enough equipment to get started. 

While you may find it useful to be a Jack or Jackeline of all trades initially, it’s better to know where you wish to focus your career. This way, while you may take on wedding photography or portrait studio assignments to gain experience, build a reputation and contacts, and earn some much-needed money as a student, it’s necessary to not lose sight of your bigger goals. 

Therefore, if photography of dramatic buildings is your forte, then be sure to make time to photograph what you enjoy the most. Similarly, if capturing street life in-the-moment gets your juices flowing and produces the results you’re most proud of, get out on the streets as often as you can to snap away. 

Build Up to the Point When You Graduate and Finally Transition

Graduating and successfully transitioning into becoming a full-time freelance photographer should be your goal. Work towards it steadily one step at a time. 

You want to have a steady flow of repeat clients and have developed avenues to regularly find new clients too. This will ensure that there’s enough income flowing in to live on it once the student loans are all spent.

It’s certainly useful to formalize your business early on to make the subsequent transition a seamless one. It’s possible that later being off-campus, the new deals won’t flow as well because you’re not seen around anymore. Purposely establish more contacts outside of the college world to address that and build cash savings to handle the early months as a full-time photographer where assignments and income will come in fits and starts.  

The salary range for a freelance photographer commonly falls between $33,000 and $47,000, with some notable outliers above that level. If you can specialize and work with better-off clients or in industries where high-quality photography matters the most, it’s possible with a good reputation to earn more. Also, after you’re well established, think about offering photography courses through a site like Udemy to increase your earning power. 



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