When we fall in love with photography, we go on an amazing journey of self-discovery and creative expression. Some of us begin to imagine a career as a professional photographer, filled with days of capturing glorious sunsets in remote locations across the globe, or attending glamorous parties and living the high life, all the while getting paid to do what we love. What a dream!
And it can be, absolutely. But for most of us, it takes many years of hard work, long hours, little pay and lots of business and marketing savvy in order to truly realize the dream.
One of the main reasons I started Photomint and decided to write Photography Business Secrets: The Savvy Photographer’s Guide to Sales, Marketing, and More is to counteract all the “feel-happy” business advice out there that highlights the glamour and omits the reality. There is a lot of fantasy concepts floating around, and it’s time to hold them up to the light and talk about the realities faced by working photographers. When you set out to turn your photography hobby into a photography business, you need to have your eyes open and know what the realities are, so that you can make good decisions for your life and your family. In that regard, my new book is not a collection of photography business fantasies but a real look at what it takes to be successful.
In our industry, I see many photographers bragging about their high prices, great clientele, the glamorous jobs, celebrity weddings and shoots, magazine spreads and so forth. If you are in a dead-end job and dreaming about when you can quit and start your real life as a professional photographer, hearing those stories may be just the push you need to start your own business.
However, there’s a lot to consider, and if you go off without a well-researched plan and a financial security net, you are likely to be bitterly disappointed when the phone doesn’t ring off the hook once your beautiful new website goes up.
Lets start at the beginning. Working for yourself, especially at a home office is not always as much fun as people think. The fantasy is that it’s wonderful to work at home surrounded by your family. In reality it is very difficult to get work done while you try to watch your kids and deal with household distractions. Many times you will end up working after the kids have gone to bed making it a very long work day. It takes some serious self-control to stick to doing work and not be distracted. And if your niche involves meeting with clients, you will have to decide where to meet with them, and if you can afford a separate studio or meeting space. Many photographers will go back and forth on this for years. Starting out with a home office and client meeting space, then getting frustrated after a few years and getting a studio space, with the hopes that there will be enough additional income to cover the costs.
Another big fantasy is that wedding photographer earn a ton of money shooting a few weddings a year. There is an amazing amount of work that goes into shooting a wedding that happens before and after the actual event; we calculated about 60+ hours of work for a typical client after the wedding. It’s true that some wedding photographers get paid well, but what is the overhead that they pay and how much of that big paycheck is actual profit? You’d be surprised to learn that many high-end wedding photographers provide products that cost them several thousand dollars, and have staff to help them maintain a high level of service. For example, we may spend $3,000 on a wedding album and parent album, not including the time. Those costs come right out of the package, meaning the photographer does not get to pocket all the money.
That’s why it’s so important to understand your costs and price yourself accordingly. You’d think that would be obvious, but this is a rookie mistake many photographers make, and they pay for it dearly. It’s a sad day when you wake up and realize you’ve been earning less than minimum wage and working 60 hours weeks only to be deeper in debt than before you started your business.
Many photographers believe that they need to keep the customer happy and not charge for their time. That’s short-sighted thinking. Many photographers end up not charging for their time because they don’t believe in themselves. If you don’t believe in yourself and your work, how can you expect anyone else to? When you go out and create images for a client, just because you enjoy it, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t charge for your time. You are running a business, not a charity.
The reality is that you need to charge for all your services or you will lose money and can slowly (and painfully) go out of business. This doesn’t mean you have to itemize every small thing on the bill, but you need to make sure that you are charging for your time and the costs of the products. For example, if you deliver albums in gorgeous fancy bags and proofs in custom boxes, those costs need to be built into the package; otherwise it eats into your profit. If a client calls and wants you to get a holiday card image ready so they can go to tiny prints and order holiday cards, you should be charging for the time it takes you to prep that image. Otherwise you are taking time away from paying clients and jobs. And when you realize that this client is actually taking business away from you to give to another company, it shouldn’t be so hard to justify charging a fee for your time.
There are also a great many fantasies when it comes to getting clients. Many photographers start out not realizing all the hard work that goes into finding clients. You put all this work and time into designing a logo, getting business cards and putting a website together. And then you wait for the phone to ring…Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. It takes time, energy and effective marketing to develop a reputation and a client base. It can take a year or more after starting your business before you have an active client roster. Usually the clients don’t find you, you have to find them. That takes time, strategy and patience. It’s common to spend 1-3 years before earning enough to make a living.
Running a business is difficult. It is not something that should be taken lightly or without thought, planning and strategizing. You started your business or are thinking about starting a business because you love to create, love to photograph, and want to pursue your creativity and art. These are needed traits for the creative side of the photography business, but they also tend to act as blinders, and it’s easy to start buying into the fantasies. Don’t. Take a step back, take the blinders off and look at the realities. By doing the hard work in the beginning, you’re much more likely to have a successful business down the road. Running a photography business is hard work, but it can lead to a very rewarding career.
For more help in starting your business, check out my new book: Photography Business Secrets: The Savvy Photographer’s Guide to Sales, Marketing, and More!
About Lara White
Lara White’s images have been featured in over 70 publications including Professional Photographer, Rangefinder, Business Insider, Grace Ormond Wedding Style and For the Bride. As passionate as she is about photography, she’s even more passionate about empowering photographers to create the photography business of their dreams. She has been a guest speaker for This Week in Photo, Professional Photographers of America (PPA), Camera DoJo, The [b] School, and Rangefinder Radio. She has also been a guest blogger for Digital Photography School, The Photo Life, The Modern Tog, Photo Argus and many other popular blogs. Her publishing credits include Get Published: A Guide for Wedding Photographers and Photography Business Secrets — The Savvy Photographer’s Guide to Sales, Marketing and More. Combining honesty with 10 years of experience, Lara’s popular online educational resource PhotoMint, empowers both emerging and established photographers by providing practical tips, innovative methods and the best approach to sales, marketing and business management for the professional photographer. In its first year, the PhotoMint community has empowered more than 10,000 photographers with proven methods—and insider secrets—that can help you increase sales and build a great business too.