I recently came across this post and felt a strong value it what was written so I’m reposting it here. Images and Text by Shannon Holden
A photography career can be truly fulfilling. It is a joy to work with new families, capturing lifelong memories with them, and looking forward to new ones as their babies and children grow. But as you launch into the professional realm, it is incredibly important to be thoughtful and realistic about the road ahead. Your favorite photographer may make her job look easy, but trust me … it’s not. A successful photographer devotes long hours and a tremendous amount of energy to her craft, and the journey to success is not a short, lighthearted trip.
There are a few things that I think are critical for any photographer hoping to build a business around their passion. Some of these things can be a little sensitive to talk about, but you asked!
The first is simple and obvious … know your craft and your tools. I do not believe in the “Fake it til you make it” approach. I believe you should be honest with yourself and your potential clients as you grow and learn, and have faith that one day you will be where you want to be. Especially with location photography, you are going to find yourself in a huge variety of settings and situations. You might end up shooting in a house with no light to be found. Or maybe you will be shooting 4 year old triplets with dirty clothes and a sugar high. You might be standing in the rain racing to get that one last shot before the downpour really starts. (Yes, I’ve done all three of these.) The variables in this business can really cause some stress during a session. The elements you can control in the midst of chaos – your mastery of your camera, your ability to find and manipulate light properly, and your own creative vision – will be the keys to your success. That’s not to say every session will be stressful. But there will be a few, and you will want to come through those smiling just like the non-stressful ones.
Know your camera, your light modifiers, your lenses, and your photo editing software. Know them like the back of your hand. Know what Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO means, and how they work together. Know which lens and f/stop to use to achieve that beautiful background blur, and know what f/stop is best to keep multiple subjects in focus at the same time. Know how the focal length of your lens relates to your shutter speed. Most professional photographers shoot fully manual with their cameras, except perhaps auto-focus. I strongly recommend manual shooting. You must know how to set your camera to capture a scene, and how to reach those settings very, very quickly, before your adorable little subject toddles off to the next adventure.
The second is probably the most critical … be a business person. Any successful photographer (not the starving artist, but the photographer who can actually afford to pay their bills and still pay themselves, too) will tell you that success in this industry is 20% talent and 80% business skills. You absolutely must understand what it takes to run a business and do so legally. Be prepared for the money and time required. Even if you are planning your business to be a small, secondary job, you will probably be surprised at the amount of time you will pour into it. Your cost of doing business is not just your camera and your prints. Your business time is not just your time behind the camera. Consider all these additional and important expenses (and more that I haven’t even listed here):
* Back up cameras and lenses. Ideally, you should have at least two of everything you might need during a shoot. And plan on upgrades yearly. I typically replace my cameras once per year. I have invested close to $40,000 in equipment in the first few years of my business. You’ll probably need twice that if you plan to shoot weddings. And that doesn’t even include studio lighting and equipment, since I don’t shoot with those things. Add another $20-30K if you plan to shoot in a studio environment. And that is also not including money to be spent on props.
* Business registrations, city occupational taxes, sales tax, etc. You must understand how to file all of these, how to stay up to date, and budget to pay them.
* Professional services. Budget for consultations with legal and accounting professionals, especially as you are getting your business and policies established. You’ll want to work with a professional accountant at least once or twice per year in addition to tax time, to keep yourself on track.
* Insurance. You MUST protect yourself and your clients, not to mention your equipment. Plan on about $500-$2000 annually for property, liability, and other business insurance. I also carry a short-term disability policy in case I am unable to work for more than 3 months.
* Computer expenses. Like cameras, I upgrade my computers annually. I have two computers, two monitors, and a bunch of other little gadgets that help me run my business. Time is money, and a slow, unreliable computer will eat up your profits quicker than you can imagine. Losing a client’s images to a faulty computer will be your worst nightmare.
* Education. Unless you are Ansel Adams or Anne Geddes, you will probably have a wealth to learn about photography even after your business is well off the ground. I know I do! Attending workshops and conventions, joining professional organizations and forums, taking classes, buying books, subscribing to magazines … these are all business expenses and time investments you should plan for.
* Marketing. You need a way to help people find out about you. Maybe it is print advertisements, maybe it is direct mail, maybe web marketing. Even word of mouth marketing costs money and time.
Along with all these and other expenses, you need to get paid! How much is your time worth? And not just your shooting time … your driving time, your editing time, your ordering and packaging time, your bookkeeping time, etc. After my first year in business, when I was charging $25 for an 8×10 and a $75 session fee, I thought I was doing pretty well. Then with a trusted business adviser, I did a little math. In that first year, I made, on average, $4 to $6 per hour for my time. BEFORE taxes! With some sessions, I actually lost money. OUCH!! I was paying my babysitter more than I made for myself! And so, while it was hard to raise my prices after that first year, and hard to lose some of the clients who could no longer afford my work, clients whom I liked very much personally, it was necessary. I had to either price myself so I could earn a decent salary or I had to shut down my business.
Respect your Fellow Photographer
This business will offer a lot of competition, some of it friendly, some of it not. Some colleagues you meet may have been burned by a competitor, so don’t be surprised if they seem a bit guarded. Most photographers I know would love to offer insight and knowledge to an aspiring artist, but it can be very challenging to do so. Many, like me, are working parents, working very hard to maintain a delicate balance between career and family. As a business owner, our free time is so precious, and we usually want to save it for our spouses and kids. So while we would love to answer a question or two when we can, often the questions we get require a lot of time to address, time we simply don’t have to spare. For this reason, I highly recommend finding an online community, where most of the answers you seek are often being discussed at length, and you can find multiple perspectives on your topic.
Operate with Integrity. Realize in a business like this, your prices and policies affect the market as a whole. Research your competition in an honest way. Don’t call them pretending to be a potential client just so they will send you their rate sheet, and don’t hire them for a session just so you can learn their posing and location ideas. Most of the information you need is out there on the web. Gather it, analyze it, and learn from it.
As a custom photographer, you are not competing with the inexpensive chain studios, so don’t price like them. You are offering a much more refined service, with 500% more time involved. Factor that into your rates. If your market’s average price for a session is $200, and an 8×10 print is $60, don’t price yours at $75 and $20 to build your business, or even because you are “just starting out.” Doing so undercuts established photographers and hurts the industry … it makes it harder for all photographers to earn a living. One day, perhaps soon, you will be among the photographers priced at the average rate, and you’ll understand how frustrating it is to the see the quality of the market declining. And what is sad for the clients, is that the quality of the art declines with it.
If you feel you aren’t ready to charge the average market price, either take more time to develop your skill, or consider offering an “introductory rate.” Set your rate at the average, and offer a “50% Portfolio Building Discount” for a limited time, with a defined end date. You are doing yourself a favor in this point, but not cutting your future earning potential. Your clients will know that you are in a stage of career development (and again, I believe in honesty on this point), and they will understand when the special pricing ends later. You can then avoid the painful process of doubling your prices one day when you realize you can’t meet your business’ budget needs.
If you choose to seek a photography mentor, look outside your area. If you live 6 miles from your favorite photographer, they probably aren’t going to feel comfortable training you to be their future direct competition. Know that this isn’t personal, it’s just wise business on their part. Instead, talk to photographers in nearby markets, perhaps 30-40 miles away, or even pair with someone online who works in another city. Once you are established, building networks and friendships with other local photographers can be great. By then you are on an even playing field, so the doors to relationship will be much easier to open, and chances are that your colleagues will welcome your acquaintance.
Lastly, be YOU. Find out who you are as a person, as a wife or a friend or a mother or a child of God. That will be one of the first steps to finding your voice as an artist. And in doing so, make sure it is YOUR voice, and not a copy of another artist you admire. Inspiration is a wonderful thing … let it be the launching pad for YOUR art, not the foundation for art you lay as a thin veneer over it. Let new ideas from other artists feed your creativity, but don’t let them bog you down in trying to keep up with all the latest trends.
Plan time into your schedule, a LOT of time in the early days, to just shoot. This goes along with Technical Knowledge as well. Make hundreds or even thousands of photographs. Analyze them to find ways you can improve them. Join that Photography club or online forum where you can share your work for constructive criticism and feedback. Keep up this habit through the years to keep your skills honed and your perspective fresh.
Be honest, be bold, be genuine, be loving, and be humble. Your clients will appreciate you more for it.