The Business of Photography :: 5 Tips to Help the Beginning Photographer

I’ve had several calls and emails over the past year from people looking for advice on running a photography business.  People are wondering if they are ready to make the jump from amateur photographer to pro.  And pros are wondering why they’re not as busy as they’d like to be.  Most times I’ll arrange a call or spend time emailing answering many of the same questions, so rather than take more calls or type more emails, I thought a blog post would be helpful.

1)  It’s a business, so you have to learn to run it like one.

I know it sounds obvious, but it seems to be the primary reason why so many people close up shop within the first couple of years.   Getting a basic understanding of how a business operates is imperative to your success.  You have to be ready to manage many different things all at the same time: collect and pay sales tax; pay taxes; write a business plan; file for the right licenses; be on top of the bookkeeping/accounting;  be insured;  do your marketing/advertising;  make proper projections; purchase/learn/use several different software programs; deal with computers and back-up drives;  handle phone calls/emails; manage your online presence (websites/blogs); deal with social media like twitter and facebook; understand and optimize SEO and website analytics; keep learning and growing.  And that is literally off the top of my head.  These things happen simultaneously.  And each one takes time.  Did you know one of my blog posts averages 3 hours?  This one is probably around 5 because I have SO much in my head, it’s hard to get it all out lucidly, so I keep writing and editing, writing and editing.  For the first few years you are a staff of four.  You are your own CEO, CFO, CTO, and CMO.  And you’re doing all of this while possibly working elsewhere or running a household with children.  Running a small business from your home is the ultimate juggling act.  If you have an appreciation for the fundamentals of business management, you’ll be way ahead of the game and hopefully become profitable much sooner than I did.

You must plan ahead and think about what you are embarking upon,  or you’ll get caught off guard and be left scrambling to try to salvage your business.  I’m not trying to paint a dark picture here, just trying to make sure everyone understands that with the low barrier to entry, photography business are started up daily.  You will have a lot of competition quickly.  Take 5 minutes and Google your area plus “photographer.”  Skill levels vary, but one thing is for certain, there are a lot of us.  It reminds me of the real estate boom 10 years ago… it seemed like everyone was either already a Realtor or fast on their way to becoming one.

Recently I was asked what photography classes I would recommend for someone still in college.  I told them to find a Business Management course instead.  Not what they wanted to hear, but it’s practical advice.  For those who aren’t already in school, I highly recommend looking into a small business management course through your local community college for a minimal monetary/time commitment.

2)  Practice, review, and then practice some more.

I practiced for a full year before I even attempted to build up my portfolio.  During this first year I read and shot whenever I could.  I was constantly reading and practicing.  I would discover something new and immediately try it out.  I learned so much online, but the biggest help came from seriously reviewing my own sessions.  A process I refer to as post-mortem.  I looked at the images I loved and make a note of the light and my settings.  For the images I didn’t like, I figured out what went wrong, or what I could have done to make it right, and then make a mental note for my next session.  After about two years in business I started reviewing other photographer’s work  – I figured if my post-mortem works with my images, why not apply the same review process to other photographs?  I use this method of learning a lot these days.  I’ll go to a blog and instead of looking an an image that is particularly striking and feeling a bit inadequate, I’ll step back and ask myself, “what makes that image so striking?”   I am not advocating imitating someone’s work, but rather using it for inspiration.  And yes, I do go onto some sites and feel a little inadequate. I think all photographers do, but it keeps me pushing forward, so I see it as a positive thing!  :)

Practicing gives you practical experience and builds up your confidence; it’s something I see being skipped by photographers all too often.  I can’t even count how many photography sites I’ve seen where the photographer is charging full price for under-exposed and out of focus pictures.  I sincerely think it’s in your best interest to put in the time learning rather than trying to hit the ground running.  Once you’ve had lots of practice and review, and you start to feel comfortable with your photography, it’s time to charge people for the work that you do.  By comfortable I don’t mean you have to nail the exposure every time, and all your sessions are sheer genius, but rather that you feel good with your technical skills and your art.  If you don’t feel good about what you produce, then you will never feel good about charging for your work.  And photography is hard work.  It just looks glamorous on the surface, but as I mentioned above, there is a lot that goes into owning your own business and you quickly realize that shooting pictures and editing them in Photoshop is about 25% of owning a photography business.  For me, all the hard work is worth it.  I absolutely love what I do and adore my clients.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  But it’s not easy.

3)  A strong photography business begins locally, not online.

All too often I see people spending a lot of time online.  They cruise all the photo blogs, follow tons of photographers on twitter/Facebook, and spend lots of time on photography forums.  I think the belief is the more popular they become in the photo community the more business they will have.  But you have to ask yourself who is hiring you?  It’s probably not that other photographer in New York, is it?  What would happen if you focused your time and energy on your local community instead?  Or what about spending more time learning your craft?  I know this concept is vague, but you have to figure out what works for you.  I am just suggesting that you unplug a bit more.  It’s actually quite helpful because you’re not online comparing yourself to other photographers or possibly getting your feelings hurt by someone on a forum (if you’ve been on any online forums, you know what I’m talking about – the web is awesome, but it’s also easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood.)

Unless you’re a destination wedding photographer, you’re time is better spent cultivating local relationships rather than online ones.

4) Keep things in perspective: you don’t need to move mountains.

Most people I chat with ask me about work life balance.  My response is always a variation of  “your life is greater than your business.”  It all comes down to, “what will you regret in the future?”   Not spending enough time with your clients?   Or not being online enough?  What about missing out on your children growing up?  Or your relationship with your spouse?  It took me a few years to figure this one out, and I don’t have it mastered by any stretch of the imagination, but I have discovered that stress does not make me the mama I want to be.  To help reduce my stress I hired an assistant and it has helped immensely!  It’s given me the freedom to say  “I don’t need to do that now,” because I know I have someone helping me.  So when my kids come over to say “look at what I can do” for the 100th time, I can actually watch them happily because I’m not half checked-out thinking,  “OMG!  I’ve got SO much work to do!.”

Taking moments when I’m able has helped me feel like have a better balance.  I’ll take 2 minutes to read a quick book to Crazy #2, or snuggle with Crazy #1.  I’ve discovered doing these little things helps me just as much as it helps them.  I can get caught up in my work and wanting to move forward quickly, but my kids are my reality check.  It doesn’t matter if I’m an amazing photographer or a mediocre one, because they don’t care. They care that I’m there with them and that I’m happy.  Two things that were sporadic at best during the first couple of years in business.

Naturally this only applies to photographers with children – if you are fortunate enough to have discovered your love for photography at an early age, or have kids in school full-time, then I say move those mountains!

5)  Operate on a cash-only basis: don’t go into debt starting your photography business.

It’s so easy to rack up credit card bills to pay for photo equipment or other expenses.  You can justify it by saying “I just need to book one really good client to pay for my new camera!”   But that quickly turns into “I NEED new business cards and a new blog.”  Of course you do, right?  I mean those two things will get you more business, won’t they?  Um… probably not.  Face it, we are visual people and artists (we love the pretty things!) but your potential clients aren’t going to notice a big difference between a new blog that cost you $3,000 or a free one from WordPress.  Prettier pictures and entertaining, thoughtful blog entries will mean more to your clients than a fancy schmancy site.

If you justify your purchases by saying you NEED something to make more money, then you’ll be in debt for at least the next 5 years.  There is always something shiny and new on the market.   You have to train yourself to think in terms of cash.  If you don’t have it in the bank, don’t spend it.  There are tons of alternatives to spending money you don’t have.  Instead of purchasing that $2,400 lens, try renting equipment from a local camera store or www.borrowlenses.com.  Workshops are SO expensive and with the added cost of your travel expenses you could easily exceed $3,000.  Check into free (or virtually free) classes from your local community center, local PPA, or even SmugMug’s user groups.

I learned this way of thinking from my husband.  When I finally had a chunk of change built up and was ready to make a big purchase, I asked him if he thought I should buy the Canon Mark II or hire a designer to build me a new site.  He totally caught me off guard when he asked “which will get you more business?”  Ding ding ding!  HUGE moment for me.  From that point forward I make all of my purchasing decisions with that question in mind.  And for the record, I didn’t get the camera or the site at that time.  Neither would get me more clients.  My old 5D was just fine and so was my blog.  Eventually I upgraded both, but only when it was really time.

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So there you have it – my take on starting up a photo business!  When I first came up with the idea to this beginning photography blog post I mentioned it on my photography Facebook Page.  I got several emails or messages with really good questions.  Some of them I had seen many times before, but a few were new and refreshing.  Since starting a photography business is a gigantic subject, I wasn’t able to cover all of the questions asked.  So I’ll be doing one or two more blog posts here and then answer some of the remaining questions in my photography newsletters that go out about once every 8 weeks.

One last thought: Please be considerate to established photographers when asking for help, advice, or to intern.  Remember that at one point in time they were exactly where you are now and had to work like mad to get where they are today.  Some of the questions may seem simple, but actually took them lots of time and money to figure out, so try googling questions first before you ask.  You’ll be surprised at how much information is already out there.  If you do contact a photographer,  remember that each email, phone call, tweet, or FB comment takes time.  Time that they could be spending with their family or making money.  If you don’t hear back from them right away, be patient, it’s not you.  Life is busy for all of us.  And if you do hear back, a little “thank you” goes a long way.  And if you’re looking to intern, may I suggest you consider asking someone who is outside of your immediate hometown?  Many of us have our own secrets, and training someone to do the exact same thing probably isn’t in anyone’s best interest.   I think a lot of photographers would love to help, and you could get on-the-job-training, but you have to target the photographer correctly.  In the Bay Area, I would find one at least 40 minutes away.  In Boulder, CO?  Maybe 20 minutes?

UPDATE  02/2012:  Please see my post regarding coaching published February 2012.  If you want to really learn how to set yourself a part and gain confidence, I highly recommend doing this.  The cost is the same as a new lens, but a new lens isn’t going to get you more business.  ;)  Article:  Do You Stand Out in The Photography Crowd? 

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Please keep in mind that these are just my thoughts on the business aspect of photography and are drawn from my experiences.  Someone who is 10 years younger with no kids will have a totally different perspective.  And I’m also learning… always… what I believe today will probably change over time, but for right now, this is where I am with my business.  I encourage everyone to post thoughts, tips, or questions in the comments section below.

If you like what you’ve read, please don’t copy and reuse it, but rather link to the article instead.    :)

Hope you all had a fabulous Labor Day!