This is a question I receive in my inbox on a regular basis. My typical response is "it depends" and I know that doesn't satisfy the reader who is awaiting a response. Here are a few things that I personally believe should be evaluated and achieved prior to entering on the scene as a "professional".
Do I still squirm at the thought of calling myself a professional photographer? You betcha! It's a tricky question to answer but nonetheless here are my thoughts on the subject from someone who entered as a "professional photog" without any of the following.
There is no set timeline, some achieve these quicker than others. It's all personal discretion. That being said, personal discretion also requires learning from others experiences. I have admitted that I was one of those "open the box and start charging to cover my costs" photogs forever ago. It was WRONG. I cringe now at the thought, even though I can now tell people truthfully "I've been there, I get it." Understand this post is to humbly put myself and my faults before you, to encourage you to a path that I found was a proper way to enter the industry. Not everyone is going to agree, and that is okay. That's the beauty of running your own business. So without further adieu, here are a few things that I personally learned!
Oh, this is such a loaded one. I see forums split on manual vs. stock modes and whether someone amounts to a professional utilizing these. I won't make the blanket statement that you must shoot in manual, some greats don't. However, it is IMPERATIVE that as a professional you have a complete understanding as to the exposure triangle and understand how your equipment works.
Clients typically hire based on work they have seen you produce. They will demand reproduction of the same quality. For instance, I know the quality that Apple has for its iPad. How sorely disappointed would I be and what disservice Apple would have done me if I order an iPad 3, and it's an old brick similar to the Zach Morris phone from the 90's? Producing consistent product meets client expectations. Without clients you have no business.
Legitimate Business Formation
Any time money and/or products exchange hands, there should be a legitimate business formation in existence and proper tax paid. By not doing so, it is not only breaking the law but is undermining the legitimacy of professional photography. Yes, there are thresholds before tax liability may kick in but don't let the internet or your friend tell you this. Let your taxation agency be the one to tell you that you don't owe anything. That's better than being fined.
Further, by taking time to adequately build your skills without the hassle of business (YES, hassle of business...I love it, and it still stresses me out!), you have a higher opportunity of gaining proficiency at a quicker rate. By being able to shoot freely (for free) without the business monkey on your back, you are able to be creatively free.
Without going further into it, the legit business formation should also include the proper acquisition of insurance (Liability, equipment, etc).
Total plug...if you're completely overwhelmed on this, my BizRevamp® online workshop offers personalized legal research. I wish I could offer this advice to every one who needs it, but each jurisdiction is so specific and you don't wanna mess with legal stuff!
Adequate sized portfolio
Oh man, this one I did and I see so many do. If your portfolio is full of only your own kids, you're not ready. There are SO many people out there willing to let you take their pictures for free. Who doesn't want free? I've heard variations on the numbers of pictures you should have in a portfolio. Do I know the right number? No. I just believe it should be of adequate size to demonstrate a variation in locations, lighting, and technical requirements.
Understanding of the Cost of Doing Business
This is such a big one. Do you know your true cost of doing business? This is more of personal one. If you don't know, you're going to undervalue your services and will get burned out. Why would you wanna do that before getting off the ground?
I'm often told " but I can't afford to shoot for free". In my opinion, you can't afford NOT to. In the state of Texas, specifically, for every day you take any funds and hold yourself out as a business, you can be fined $500 PER DAY. I know even now I couldn't afford that, let alone starting out!
Photography, like every other business, requires start up. Requires investment to begin. By telling yourself that you are putting the funds back into the business so it's "legit" without reporting is still not legit (with exceptions that are beyond the scope of this post). Don't get caught. Not only do I think it is wrong, but it could potentially destroy your business before it's really off the ground. I want everyone to succeed. I'm not stating that these are the be-all-and-end-all requirements to being a professional photographer - just a few things that I have learned along the way.
We never stop growing, but having the foundation of the items above is going to set me up for success more than not having them. I want everyone to succeed. Competition facilitates growth. Helping each other facilitates a better industry. Don't let obstacles get in your way. Develop a game plan. These are just minimums to starting a biz, take from this and build on it!