Over the past 9 years of shooting professionally, I have received no less than 100 emails from people asking for advice on how to get into the business. Remembering how I felt at the beginning, I try my best to take the time to share what I've learned and be of help when I can. Here is what I usually tell them to do (in order of importance):
FIND A MENTOR
Google a bunch of photographers in your nearest metropolitan area, look through their portfolios and make a list of the top three who's work you respect. Write each an email expressing your interest in learning about photography and offering your services as a dependable, hard-working assistant. While each photographer has his own idea of an assistant's value, you can be sure it will not be much compared with the amount of labor you will provide. (I left a $65,000/year burnt-out career in advertising to assist Dan Forer with overnight shoots for $5/hour and loved it.) What you will get in return is hands-on knowledge of how to shoot for a living. One of the three photographers you assist will certainly be a nutcase who makes you reconsider your career choice and another will be a highly-organized chap who takes a full day to set up each shot. The third will hopefully be someone with a style and demeanor you can respect and grow with for a little while. Lastly, you will know when it is the right time to go on your own, if that's what you choose to do.
GET YOUR MINIMUM EQUIPMENT FOR $2,148
Since most assistants have limited funds, you only need three things to start: a point-and-shoot camera, laptop and software. (Sure, you can't shoot a double-page spread for Vogue with a p/s camera but you won't be getting those jobs now anyway.) My choice to start would be a $600 Panasonic DMC-LX3 for many reasons but mostly since it shoots RAW, the only format you should ever consider shooting for the remainder of your existence. Unless you are in love with your PC, you should certainly get an Apple MacBook for about $1,099. My personal choice for software is a legally-licensed version of Adobe Photoshop CS4 for $640. There are many reputable retailers for this stuff but I have been dealing with B&H to get great prices and avoid state sales tax since I started.
JOIN THE PHOTO COMMUNITY
One of the best things I did was join ASMP. The online community, blogs, tutorials and other stuff was mostly non-existent when I started back in 1998. They negotiate discounts for all members, especially for students and even offer health insurance, sample contracts, legal advice (with caveats, of course) and tons of other benefits that make the membership fee a tiny price to pay. As for fraternizing with your local competition, I am all for it. When I started, I left a few voice mails for fellow photographers as I was looking for advice on equipment. When some wouldn't return my calls, I knew who the insecure bastards were.
EVEN IF YOU'RE A CAVEMAN, YOUR ART HAS VALUE
Well, the caveman's art probably has more value than yours because people pay a lot of money to see that stuff. And if all cavemen retained their copyrights, imagine the licensing fees they could have been collecting all this time. All kidding aside, when you start shooting on your own, don't ever do a "work-for-hire" assignment (unless it is for a ridiculous amount of money, which it never will be). Even if you grant your clients a liberal usage license, you should always own the copyright to your work. Since 1997, I think I have lost only one job because I wouldn't do WFH and I consider it a blessing. Ask any photographer, songwriter or filmmaker about WFH and they will most likely agree with me on this.
Of course, there are 1,000s of details on the above points but these you will pick up along the way. Photography has been the most rewarding (and longest lasting) job I have ever had and if your attention span has made it this far down my blog, you can probably make a living as a professional photographer.