Congratulations! You got a shiny new expensive dSLR to follow your passion as a photographer. Everyone loves your pictures on Facebook and even your spouse is pushing you to start charging money for sessions. Let's not forget about weddings... Have you seen the money photographer's charge to shoot a wedding? It's crazy money! All they do is walk around snapping pics, partying with the bridal party, smiling, laughing and just having fun. Come on! You know you could use an extra $3k for a few hours at a wedding party. Right?
You probably noticed my sarcasm already in the start of this post. Seriously, the above paragraph rattles around in most young start-up photographers. Normally after a few months of working hard trying to market, book, shoot, post-process, deliver, and deal with the day to day operations of a business - The "joy" of your passion could be squeezed to death. Add some long hours in the learning curve of using all the different hats you will wear in your business and it's no wonder so many start-ups find themselves in a negative balance at the end of the first year. Many end up cynical, critical, crotchety, calloused and complaining about the "success" of other shooters in their market leading to a counter-productive attitude.
But wait. That would never happen on your watch. You already know all the pitfalls awaiting new photographers that venture into business. You already know about sales tax, the amount you are legally able to deduct for meals with clients, all the legal ramifications of flying a drone, the inverse square law of light, P&L statements, all the Adobe short-cut keystrokes, the best ways to market and how to double your money overnight. There is still a long list of stuff you know. Come on, you got this covered. Sound familiar?
If you are a little overwhelmed with this post, or maybe you have a more realistic outlook on life, then you might find the next part very useful. Trust me that the "know it all protogs" have tuned out during the first couple of sentences. Here are 10 areas to cover BEFORE walking the path of a photographer in business. I'm sure many of us are in the process of these or working on it or have it on a short list.
1 - The Business Plan
Have to you ever gone on a road trip without a map? Just let the wind guide you on a journey of discovery? Been there and done that. All around the world, in different countries, with many friends for curious reasons. It was amazing! Several trips ended busted down on the side of a highway, trying to figure out the best way to get back home. Sometimes we returned home broke, tired, hungry and so happy to sleep in the comforts of our own bed.
Your business plan is like that. If you take to the Freedom Road without a map, plan and a direction, your business could be done before it starts. You know, broke just around the first turn, begging for help to get back home safely. Your business plan is about business, not photography. Photography is your inventory, your widget, your product. The plan lays out a direction in description, pricing, marketing, and growth to achieve your goals. This would be a great place to define your version of success. The business plan is a personal statement for your business, made with your personal unique flair. Start working on your plan today and you will discover much more than a simple layout to follow for business decisions. Be sure to review, modify, change and improve it regularly.
2 - Learn to Market YOU
Let’s start this topic on a hard truth new photographers must come to grips with quickly in the first year of business. Social Media is NOT a marketing plan. Let’s be clear on this before the angry mob of experts attack me with virtual pitch forks. Your social media following can be a hub in your marketing wheelhouse, but just because you received over 100 likes on the “only slightly” out of focus image of your cute daughter DOES NOT translate into the phone ringing or clients beating a path to your door for a session. Along those same lines, look at your followers closely. Are they mainly your family, friends, co-workers, etc.? Maybe they are many other photographers just playing around on social media sites paddling in the same boat as you. How many are really your ideal clients?
So this part is about learning how to market yourself, your product, your business and/or your style. It’s going to take time, effort, a plan and a big learning curve. You will research and discover many ways to market your wares in person, on the internet and/or over the phone. One thing is certain, not every plan works for every photographer. If it did, everyone would already have the book and applied the formula for maximum benefit.
3 - STOP Comparisons
This is a difficult point to focus on.. pun intended. It’s important to stop comparing yourself to other photographers. I’m not saying to stop admiring or even stalking shooters that inspire you to create stunning images - ok, maybe stalking *might* be a little creepy - but to halt the expectations that you should be further along in your business, photography skills or marketing plans. Everyone grows at their own pace, for good or bad, for better or worse, we all move at a rate of speed that is different than others. You might be great in people skills, but suck at blogging. You might lack understanding of light but know how to rock a pose. You will excel in some areas and need work in others. Accept these as challenges to push forward and grow. I can assure you that no one was born a great photographer or business person. All of these are learned.
Along these lines, quit spending so much time online “comparing” the photography of others and trying to find your “place” in the race for success. Most of what you are seeing online is only what they want you to see, and no one really wants a bad light cast on their lives so they post all the “good”. Remember, the more time you spend comparing your work to others trying to justify your worth as a person or an artist, the less time you will have to succeed. Everyone gets 24 hours a day. How are you spending your time?
4 - Know your Costs
This one needs it’s own point, although it’s a part of a business plan. It’s so important to your success as a business person that I wanted to hammer this topic a little harder to help drive it home. What are YOUR costs of doing business? I don’t care how long you have been in business, how skilled you are as a photographer, or how talented you are selling in person, without knowing your costs and charging appropriately (aka: profit) you will fail.
This is a very simple unforgiving law of business. Charge more than it cost to produce or you will not be in business long. Don’t just pull a number out of the air and hope it’s “good enough”, don’t compare yourself to another and copy their prices, because you don’t know their costs.
This is the math part of the business equation and shouldn’t be based on emotion, market saturation, client acquisition strategy or years of business. Your cost of business isn’t a reflection of your experience, knowledge or possibility of success. It’s simply a numbers game. It’s possible that others around you charge more because they have more costs. Check your math!
5 - Learn Lighting
This is one of those “Duh” points to know to be a successful photographer. But there are so many shooters that don’t really know light. I’m going to pick on the “natural light shooters”. First of all… It ain’t natural light. Technically, the Sun is not of this earth so it’s alien light! Thats a joke and so many uneducated photographers just walk around looking for great light instead of creating it. Constant light is easier to figure than that crazy “unnatural” looking flash or speedlight, but the only true difference between the two light sources is “time”. If you are not completely understanding this, then an in depth lighting class is in order.
Now this next statement is the application of Mark Twain’s quote “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Ready? Learn and be confident to apply the inverse square rule of light. Yep! The “hardest” thing to know -according to most studying for CPP exams - and use it practically in photography. Learn it first and learning the rest of the light traits, diagrams or patterns are easy! In case, you still want to be “a natural light lover”, all those rules of light apply to you as well. Remember, bad light doesn’t exist, just bad photographers that can’t use light.
6 - Software is the Bridge
The camera is a capture device, film or digital, and has limitations. No camera can capture exactly what your eyes can see or perceive. Post processing is the bridge between the camera and the final image. To make a point, no digital camera captures a color image, only a B/W or luminance map with all the color being interpolated from the Bayer filter array. Please stop the SOOC posts and misconceptions that the file straight out of the camera is perfect. If that were so, we would all be shooting in JPG only. Software companies like Adobe would be out of business and there would be no books on color management. While we are on the subject, you don’t have to process your own images to be a photographer. This was the way the majority of the studios and photographers worked in the film days. I’m not sure why the digital revolution changed the paradigm. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. There are a large number of businesses that will handle that task for you, so you can focus on spending your time in more profitable areas.
Now look at your list of classes you plan to take on the next workshop junket, how many of those are learning about different post-processing methods? Maybe it’s time to revisit consistent color management systems, simple editing workflows or that new software bundle that could cut your computer time in half. Creating the image in camera is just part of the creative process.
7 - Know your Camera gear.
Maybe you are thinking this should be number One on the list. It could have been, if I wasn’t trying to prove a point. The business of photography is about business, not so much about photography. Have you ever seen a “not so great” photograph taken by someone you consider a successful shooter? The immediate reaction in your mind is “I can take a better shot than THAT!”. And maybe you can, but… were you in the right place, did you market properly, were you available to the client and be ready to capitalize that opportunity? Probably not. Now, I’m telling you to know your gear so you can produce the quality images when the time comes to deliver. You can be the best photographer in the world with the most amazing images all over social media and tons of followers AND still be living paycheck to paycheck.
Part of knowing your gear is also knowing your ability to control the same equipment to get the shot. An inexperienced photographer with the most advanced camera will still get bested by a old, wise photographer using gear from last decade. You know the guy in your mists, the one with the gaffer tape holding parts together on a camera that is several generations older that current flagship. No need to upgrade your gear every time a new and improved. Remember topic #4 and upgrade if your gear can’t handle what you are shooting. Maybe a little off topic here, but know your gear and quit fumbling your settings, most of your functions get set once and then it’s just mainly ISO, shutter speed and aperture to control exposure.
8 - Don’t drop your Insurance
No one wants to spend money on insurance. Let’s be honest, insurance is not sexy. We like to compare cameras, lenses or flashes during get togethers with other shooters. This is so important for your business and peace of mind. Insurance is one of the last things we consider when throwing together the idea of joining the ranks of the coolest photographers. Well, the last thing until something breaks or you get sued. Don’t count on your homeowners policy to cover your $30k bag of gear stolen from the car or worse all the wedding images from the last several years. You might be amazed how quickly your personal insurance coverage will get dropped or the dreaded “not covered” letter once the agency finds out you are running a business in your home. Don’t just think about replacement of your gear if broken or stolen, what about liability for your activities as a professional photographer? If the groom trips over your light stand power cord at a wedding and the ambulance is called… who do you think will be in the crosshairs for medical bills, lost wages or even re-stageing the wedding? Think the wedding venue will cover you?
To drive this point home or at least close to your home… Insurance isn’t sexy, but neither is being homeless when your personal property is included in the lawsuit because you are a sole proprietor business model without proper coverage. Get it, review it annually and don’t drop it.
9 - Education is Key
Ansel Adams once stated “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” Your skills are the most important asset of any venture. Well you are reading this, so you are interested in learning. The learning process never stops. There are always new techniques to discover and learn to improve yourself as person, photographer and business person. I say that because, learning and working as a photographer will always teach you more about yourself or the world around you than just a mechanical method to create salable image products. You will have to push and find the areas of the craft you need to improve upon, as well as, different instructors that will help create your unique and personal style. It doesn’t happen overnight so keep learning and attending workshops, meetings and seminars.
I do want to post a little caveat here. Just because someone has a website doesn’t mean they will have the right information for you or even be a person that can deliver good content you can apply in your photography. Do your homework before investing your hard earned dollars for a class or that six day conference. Did I mention that investing in yourself is a cost of business? Yes. Deductible, but you still have to have profits to pay for it. Think about it.
10 - Practice
Do you know how to ride a bicycle? Ever hear of the “Tour de France” multi-day bicycle stage race? So what's the main difference between those riders and you? They are just riding bicycles through the countryside, right? The main difference is practice; hours, weeks, months, years of practice. The overnight success of most anyone happens over a 10-15 year span of practice. You need to practice your craft every day not just once in a while. Practice doesn’t make perfect like the famous quote goes, practice makes progress, and you need to progress every day towards your goals, in both business and your photography. While education is very important to learn, only practice - and lots of it - will make you proficient and a master. Knowledge is nothing without action, so don’t be a professional student. You know the ones, they are attending every meeting, seminar, workshop and class in the 300 mile area but you never see any progress in their images, or worse, never see any activity. Get out there and practice what you have learned. You might just move that progress meter in your favor.
I hope this post has raised some thoughts and helps you find your path in life with photography as a positive companion. These are just my ideas and not the golden list to follow. Trust me, I’m not positive of the road to success but I know many ways to fail. So take me advice with a little grain of salt, then add your own spice to the recipe for your sweet photography business.
Rob & Terri
trawick images, inc.