This is a question that is asked a lot. There is no definite answer to this as it is left up to personal discretion as to when, and your cost of doing business as to how much.
Here are some things I personally feel are important to deciding when to charge for photography services:
1. Technical Proficiency. There is a lot more to professional photography than the camera. A professional photographer can get great results with ANY camera, in any situation. So a technical understanding of your camera is a MUST. That being said, not all professionals must shoot in manual mode – many of the greatest don’t. But you should have a full understanding of how your equipment works, the exposure triangle, and lighting. You should know HOW to shoot manual, but again not all photogs favor manual over a semi-manual mode. Personally, as a professional, using automatic mode where you literally have no control over the outcome or exposure is not the best practice. An understanding of how to get good results in low light by understanding lens speed and flash photography is also imperative.
2. Consistent Product. Again, this goes back to the use of auto vs at least a semi-manual mode, and an understanding of your equipment. The final outcome you are shooting for is consistency. A professional should be able to shoot consistently (good exposure, dead on focus, good composition) in any given situation. When a client looks at your work they are looking at your “brand”, or your style. When shooting in auto, you cannot guarantee a consistent result because your camera is making all of the decisions for you in regards to your exposure triangle.
3.Adequate Portfolio.Again, this is all about personal discretion – when one photog is ready to charge may be different timing than another photog. How “many” images should be in a portfolio to make it adequate is a personal decision – it is about how well you feel about the consistency of your product. Personally, I wanted 5 of each portrait category (IE newborn, senior, etc) in my portfolio. I did at least 5 weddings before I felt I was ready to charge for my services.
Another thing is weddings – weddings are a whole other ball park. Most portrait sessions can be reshot… weddings cannot. This is a one shot deal to make quality memories of a very special day, and so this is where consistency in your product is very important. I did not shoot my first wedding by myself. I was brought in as a second shooter to the main photog, and it was a very valuable experience that I recommend any photographer interested in shooting weddings invest in. Some photogs shoot one wedding and decide it isn’t for them. The best advice I can give is experience shooting your first wedding as a secondary photographer. This way you aren’t responsible for the “main event” so to speak.
3. Legitimate Business Practice. If you charge money, you are in business. If this is the case, legitimize your business with the IRS by applying for an EIN and file your taxes. There is a minimum amount you must profit before you are required to files taxes on your business, so find this information out. Check with your local government to determine if you are required to hold a business license in your area. Insure your equipment and purchase liability coverage. In certain states one can be fined for taking money for business without being legit.
Also, make sure you have set policies regarding your business. Many people don’t take into consideration the necessary release forms and contracts one should use in this business. At the very least you have to have a “Model Release” in order to use any photos you take of a person on your website or in marketing materials. Note that there is a substantial difference in a “print release” and a “copyright release” – both of which are worth a lot in value, as once your provide a print release to a client, you will most likely not get any more print orders from the client. Many photogs undervalue a CD with permission to print. A lot of professionals won’t even sell a CD or print release. Most professionals do not sell their copyright. The ONLY thing your clients NEED is is a personal print/usage release allowing them to legally make copies. Many people use the term “copyright release” not understanding the value of that term. These two terms are not meant to be used interchangeably.
4. Understand the Cost of Doing Business. This is the best answer I’ve seen to “how much should I charge?” Great video from AdoramaTV on how to determine how much you should charge: http://www.adorama.com/alc/article/13277. Remember – the business of photography is like any other business… with costs and expenses. You need to know how much it costs you to do business before you can know how much you should be charging, or you risk undervaluing yourself and your services.
So I hope this has shed a little light on the things an aspiring professional should gain understanding of prior to charging/entering into business. Again, this is personal advice – some that many pro’s in the field would give. I know this advice was very valuable to me when I was first getting started, so I hope it will also be valuable to anyone else who reads this post. 🙂