Photography is hard. It’s a tough business. Actual photography isn’t so difficult – just about anybody can take a decent photograph on their phone nowadays. The alchemy comes from combining the art of photographing and the business of photography into a successful enterprise. And that is hard.
As a new photographer, you probably found yourself launching your business in a very strange professional atmosphere. The world (wide web) is bursting with information on how to do nearly every aspect of what you’re trying to do. Just google “How To Launch a Photography Business” or “How to Make Money as a Photographer” and you’ll be buried in info in no time. There’s a lot out there. Unfortunately, getting a straight answer to a simple question isn’t so easy.
Here are some questions that every pro photographer has faced:
Should I hire an accountant? If so, how do I choose?
Should I buy a better camera? If so, which one?
Should I quit my day job? If so, when?
As you might have guessed, the answers are different for everyone, and we’re not going to try and answer any of these for you today.
In an earlier piece, we polled some of our favorite efficient photographers on the topic of…efficiency. Nearly every one of them came back with the same advice: you can’t do it all, so don’t. The consensus was that you (yes, YOU) will be more successful if you do fewer things. Editing was the top item on the list. Also consider outsourcing your accounting, blogging, album design, website design, logo and branding. Take the things you love, the things that must be done by you—the client meetings, the shooting, the marketing, the strategizing—and prioritize those activities. Everything else is up for grabs. If you don’t love it, somebody else does. If you’re not great at it, somebody else is. And if it’s not worth your time, somebody else is out there just waiting for the chance to do it for you.
Nobody ever became CEO by doing everything on their own.
Mis-identifying other photographers as your enemies or even your ‘competition’ is a very understandable—but dangerous—mistake. The other photographers in your area are not your biggest competitors. You are competing against iPhones, Uncle Bobs, marketplace ignorance, apathy and weakness. Befriend your fellow photographers. Lend them a hand when they need it. Ask for help when you’re in a bind. Embrace the photography community around you and your business will benefit far more than playing Kim Jong Un on your own little Pyongyang. Your friendly neighborhood photographer will become a source of referrals, a shoulder to cry on, and wise council for some of your trickier questions. (See above.) Love your neighbors and they’ll love you back.
Other photographers are not your competition, they’re your allies and your future BFFs.
We get it. Really, we do. That shiny new HasselRed NiCanSony 5D800 Alpha Dragon Mk IV is calling your name. And you’ll definitely get better photos with better equipment. It’s true. You need that camera. And that lens. And that other lens. But hold on just a minute. Where is the EQUIPMENT line-item in your business plan? What percentage of your earnings have you earmarked for upgrades? Are you factoring in your insurance, accessories, batteries, bags, computers, cords, stuff like that? OK, breathe just a little and relax – that new camera isn’t going anywhere. It’ll still be just as shiny tomorrow, and the price will likely drop a little too. We’re not suggesting you refrain from investing in quality equipment. But just stop and think about it. You’ve got a good camera. How’s your off-camera lighting gear? Don’t have any? Hmm… Could you create better images with a better lens, rather than a new shiny camera body? Are you upgrading to impress somebody? Can you afford it? is now the right time?
Don’t buy a new camera when what you really need is a new business plan.
Remember that thing we just said about buying a new camera that you don’t need? Well, let’s talk about buying a new camera that you do need. If you’re trying to break into the business but your camera says “Coolpix” on the side, it’s time for an upgrade. If you fell in love with photography using your mom’s Lumix, and she said you could keep it “for your business,” give it back and get a real professional camera. You can get an entry-level DLSR under $1,000, and build your business on it. Mike Colón uses Sony’s Mirrorless a7S to capture weddings that would make you cry. You don’t have to go broke to get a decent photograph. But this is a business, and your business needs quality tools to create quality work. Build your budget around making reasonable investments in equipment maintenance and upgrades.
You are a professional photographer. So what if this title was earned because you decided this is what you wanted to be, and you became it. I am a professional writer. You are a professional photographer. You are the architect of your future. The point is, you must first achieve a level of proficiency in the medium, then you must charge accordingly. Your gear isn’t free, your education wasn’t free, and your upcoming business expenses won’t be free. So your work is not free. Also, you create great photos, and great work deserves good pay. Take your time, build your skill, and charge what you’re worth. If you’re not sure what you’re worth, you are not actually in business. So figure it out. And then test the theory.
There are three main pricing theories:
A. Market Penetration Pricing is set so low that your customers can’t refuse the deal and hire you on price alone. Many start out here, but it’s a terribly place to live.
B. Market Bearance Pricing is set based on what your target customer can afford to pay. This is okay, it is reasonable and you can survive on these rates. But ideally, you want to land at…
C. Cost Plus Pricing, where your rates are calculated based on a number of data points that all converge into your hourly rate. A good rule of thumb is that every billed hour of shooting needs to cover an hour of editing, an hour of marketing, an hour of training, advertising, taxes, gear, etc. Get with your accountant and figure that out.
You may not be able to charge your ideal hourly rate right away, but at least you know where you need to be heading.
There is a common misconception that photographers just click a button and go home, probably to goof off on Facebook. One reason people think this is because it’s often the case. Many wanna-be photographers fail at business because they blow their time on things that don’t build the business. Social media is one area where, if they’re honest, many photographers admit to wasting precious time. If your business is where you want it to be, that’s great! Hop on that FB Photog’s group and bicker it up! But if you’re not right where you want to be, then shut it down. Log off the socials. Check out of the groups. Step away from your Instagram feed. Start doing the things that will grow your business. Network with wedding planners, shoot headshots for a realtor, bolster your blog, connect with a pro you admire and shadow/second shoot with them. You’re never going to grow your business by wistfully watching other people grow theirs.
If that last line-item didn’t apply to you, great! This one probably does. We’ll be brief, because you already know what we’re going to say. Burn-out is a real thing, and it will sap your artistic creativity, dry-rot your soul and deprive your family of the nice person you used to be. If you need to raise prices, take on fewer clients, outsource the non-essentials in order to reclaim control of your life, do those things. Photography is a career, it is not a fanatical religion. Your camera is not The Borg, and if you have been assimilated, it’s time to step back and prioritize. If you’re young and single and free, push a little harder, but take intentional breaks. If you have a family, a neglected goldfish or if your health is suffering, you need to think about your life.
Extricate yourself from the mouse-wheel. You are not a rat, and this is not a race.
We’ve already touched on the balancing act required to upgrade your gear in a timely and wise manner. There’s another dangerous idea that has grown out of the Facebook generation that we’d like to challenge. Marketing is not free. Advertising is not free. Websites are not free. If any of those things are free, they are almost certainly worth almost exactly what you pay for them, if not less. Invest in the things that will grow your business. Hire someone legit to boost your SEO. Hire a great designer to create your brand identity. Hire a pro to build your website. If you go for the cheap options, you’ll attract the cheap clients and your children will have no Christmas. If you pinch pennies wisely, investing in growth-oriented categories, your business will pay you back. Buy ads in your local paper and test the results. Buy Google AdWords and test the results. Buy Facebook ads and…you got it, test the results.
Determine what provides the best bang for the buck and keep investing. (Rinse, repeat.)
Can you look back at a crush you had in high school that you’re so grateful didn’t turn into anything? We’ve all been there. Seriously. Rejection is the wrong client telling you up-front that it’s not going to work out in the end. That’s a gift, man. Failure is a gift too. It’s the universe’s way of saying, “Warmer, warmer…” as you close in on a solution. You’ve heard all the stories about famous failures, right? Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Neil Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Lance Armstrong, Diamond Dallas Page. I’m just listing famous people now, but do you know what they all have in common? They have all failed at some things and succeeded at other things. Just like you. The key is to fall forward, letting every failure teach its lesson as you dust yourself off, smarter and better prepared for the next challenge.
If you’ve never failed, you’re probably not having any fun.
Do you know the difference between bad debt and good debt? That high interest credit card in your pocket, that’s bad debt. That $10k you borrowed from your dad when you set up your business, that’s good debt. If you’re using consumer, revolving debt vehicles to finance your business, you are starting out in a hole that’s really tough to dig out from. It’s better to shoot with a used camera and make a profit than to shoot with a new camera and burn all your income servicing your debt. There are a lot of ways to get into business, but only a few ways to get out of debt. Get creative, use that great brain of yours to avoid financing what you don’t absolutely HAVE to have right now. In a year’s time, you will either be panicking every month as you try to make a credit card payment, or you’ll be plotting where to invest your income to best facilitate business growth. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And the results are worth it.
Stop spending money you don’t have to earn money you can’t keep.
We thought long and hard about this list, and after much reflection, we realize that it should probably be something we add to with each new rookie photographer mistake we encounter. What are some rookie mistakes you’ve made in the past? What are you seeing today’s noobs doing that you were clever (lucky) enough to avoid? Let us know what we’ve missed. One rookie mistake we don’t want to make is assuming that we know it all.