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How to make it as a pro photographer in 2022

By Drew Hopper | March 9, 2022

For many people thinking of becoming a professional photographer, the unconventional nature of the work is probably one of the biggest turnoffs they face in making it a career. After all, we’re constantly told that photography is undervalued, overly competitive, a glorified hobby and perhaps (often unfairly) nothing more than a vanity project.

This was an exciting moment capturing this shot. At the time, I was co-leading my first photography workshop in Bangladesh. I had a few of the workshop participants standing with me and was teaching them about using elements to frame other parts of a scene. Everything aligned perfectly when this man walked in front of my lens at the right time to capture this layered composition. Fujifilm X-T2, XF23mmF2 R WR lens. 1/200s @ f11, ISO 500.

The idea of ​​becoming a photographer can cause tremendous anxiety and disapproval from loved ones and those on the outside, and yet every year thousands of people find ways to make shooting for a living work. Surely if they can do it, you can too.

I’ve been a professional photographer since 2016, and interestingly, photography was never a career path I had ever considered growing up. To be honest, I was completely unaware that it was even possible to generate an income from taking pictures when I first started!

High school wasn’t for me, so I left in year 11 and started to pursue photography. I first enrolled in a diploma in digital photography, which took me a year to complete. From there, I somehow managed to pick up work shooting for a local real estate agency, which was really enjoyable. I loved the creative freedom and the power of the image to entice potential buyers. Eventually, I picked up a job as a freelance photojournalist for a local newspaper. I liked the diversity in the work but struggled with being told how my work should appear, so that is where that job came to an end.

The front cover I captured for Australian Geographic Magazine.  I was commissioned to cover a story on the impact of the Black Summer bushfires on the koala population.  The editor gave me the exciting (and daunting) task of capturing the cover image for the issue.
The front cover I captured for Australian Geographic Magazine. I was commissioned to cover a story on the impact of the Black Summer bushfires on the koala population. The editor gave me the exciting (and daunting) task of capturing the cover image for the issue.

Years later, after shooting some successful landscape images, the editor of Australian Geographic contacted me and asked if I would be interested in going on assignment for the publication. This was one of the best things to have happened in my photographic career to that point and would lead me to becoming a contributor to AP as well.

Having spent the last six or so years working as a photographer, I’m very aware of how critical the advice to a budding photographer can be if delivered at the wrong moment. Hearing poor advice or an uneducated opinion can be the difference between doing it or not, especially for many young photographers.

Rather than telling you that photography isn’t a real career, here are some reasons why I think this advice is incorrect, and why I believe it’s important to have this conversation with the rest of the working world.

Hidden Hustle

For years, and still even today, some of my family and friends think I live in a fantasy realm, floating about each day taking photos on the side while my days are spent sitting around twiddling my thumbs. This is a perception of photography that is hard to overcome, and it doesn’t matter how often you pick up assignments or shoots, many people will often assume you don’t work as hard as the average Joe working 9-to-5 days -in day-out.

Little do they know; we creatives work extremely hard in many unimaginable ways. It’s all about how you hustle. The work that’s hidden from the outside world – those countless hours spent conversing with new clients, planning shoots, or editing thousands of images into the evening.

Like anyone who is self-employed or runs a business will tell you, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind closed doors that help turn dreams into reality. Just because people question your career choice shouldn’t determine you from following your own path. I’m a strong believer that if you work hard, set goals, and commit yourself, the results will show.

This rainforest image was captured in Dorrigo National Park.  It happens to be my number one best print seller to date and remains one of my all-time favorite landscape photographs.  Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 17mm.  6s @ f13, ISO 100.
This rainforest image was captured in Dorrigo National Park. It happens to be my number one best print seller to date and remains one of my all-time favorite landscape photographs. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens @ 17mm. 6s @ f13, ISO 100.

Sense of Community

With the worldwide photography community, being a photographer is most definitely a full-time job for many talented creatives. There is a vast network of photographers from various backgrounds who come together for seminars, workshops, and conferences to share their knowledge, experience, gear, tips, tricks, and skills.

It’s like a creative symbiotic relationship. Through this community, I’ve found amazing opportunities to evolve, collaborate, been offered unique work opportunities, and even support from others when times were tough.

This is a pretty sentimental image.  I spent a few months traveling around India photographing everything that caught my attention.  When I view this image it makes me feel proud, something I rarely feel when I view my work!  Canon 6D, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens @ 35mm.  1/400s @ f2.8, ISO 320.
This is a pretty sentimental image. I spent a few months traveling around India photographing everything that caught my attention. When I view this image it makes me feel proud, something I rarely feel when I view my work! Canon 6D, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens @ 35mm. 1/400s @ f2.8, ISO 320.

I can’t say there are many other jobs out there that have that same sense of community, and in many ways, the nature of the industry means it’s more encouraging than a lot of other industries out there in the ‘real world’. Where should you start? For me, asking photographers I admire for their advice has been fundamental to my development. I encourage everyone keen to take the leap to do the same.

Business is Business

Just like any other profession, photography is a legitimate business and one that should be acknowledged and respected. In my mind, there’s not much difference between being a lawyer, doctor, builder, or IT specialist to being a freelance photographer. Sure, the pay check may vary, but it’s not always about finances. Rather, I believe it’s about the service you offer.

This image was my first travel/street photo from Vietnam that went viral online.  Unfortunately, it also happens to be my most stolen image with it being displayed on numerous printed products popping up throughout Vietnam.  It's a bit bittersweet, but I guess it captures the culture in a single image.  Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens @ 185mm.  1/640s @ f5.6, ISO 400.
This image was my first travel/street photo from Vietnam that went viral online. Unfortunately, it also happens to be my most stolen image with it being displayed on numerous printed products popping up throughout Vietnam. It’s a bit bittersweet, but I guess it captures the culture in a single image. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens @ 185mm. 1/640s @ f5.6, ISO 400.

Just like any profession, photographers provide items and/or services to consumers and clientele based on their knowledge and expertise. The main difference is that with knowledge comes expertise, intuition, and imagination, and for many creatives, a deep vulnerability paired with a passion for delivering above and beyond.

At the same time, business is business. I spend much of my working day ensuring my accounts are in order, that I’m up to date with planning, pitching, and marketing what I do. This is the foundation for success.

This image was included in one of the first publications that approached me about publishing my work, and would later feature in a book called India commissioned by Affirmations Publishing House.  The bold composition and colors make for a visually stimulating photograph.  Canon EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 105mm.  1/1000s @ f4, ISO 200.
This image was included in one of the first publications that approached me about publishing my work, and would later feature in a book called India commissioned by Affirmations Publishing House. The bold composition and colors make for a visually stimulating photograph. Canon EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 105mm. 1/1000s @ f4, ISO 200.

Passion Prevails

Everyone’s heard the expression ‘do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’. For me, I get to go to work each day doing exactly that, and it’s the complete opposite of working in a job that doesn’t satisfy me. Better yet, when you live and breathe what you do, it rubs off on your work and your desire to deliver the best possible results. For me, I have an obsessive mentality with photography that keeps the fire burning long after the job is complete.

Of course, there are always aspects of any job that we will dislike more than others. But when you start with something you love, it makes those parts much easier to swallow.

I took this shot on my first ever hot air balloon ride.  I had intentions to document the natural landscape, but when we floated over the urban landscape I was inspired to document this simple yet striking composition.  Canon 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ 80mm.  1/200s @ f4, ISO 1000.
I took this shot on my first ever hot air balloon ride. I had intentions to document the natural landscape, but when we floated over the urban landscape I was inspired to document this simple yet striking composition. Canon 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ 80mm. 1/200s @ f4, ISO 1000.

Nurture what is

At some time in our lives, we’ve all been told that we’ll never make money, or that our passion could never be a genuine profession. And, like so many of the things we become passionate about, photography can be difficult, stressful, and frustrating. But when you think of the joy it can bring, and those ‘pinch yourself’ moments only photographers understand, you’ll know if it’s something that’s meant to be for you.

Ultimately though (and doing my best not to sound like a motivational speaker here), if you want it bad enough, you can always turn adversity into something positive for yourself. There will always be people who find it hard to understand your career choice, but that’s no reason to stop beating your own drum – instead, use it as a drive to raise the bar for your own personal career growth.

Engage in the community, push yourself to take better images and don’t let the knockbacks affect your confidence. If you can do this, you may just have the career you’ve always dreamed of. ❂

About the author: Drew Hopper is an Australian freelance documentary photographer exploring ecological themes, landscape and place. He is committed to documenting social, cultural and environmental stories around the world. See more of his work from him at drewhopper.com.

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