11 Things they never told you about Starting a Photography Business

There are so many blog posts out there about starting a photography business.
Only a couple of them are actually any good.
The rest are written from a perspective of self interest or are just downright and dangerously wrong.
You need to ask one question when reading a blog about starting something and that’s this “have you actually done it?”.

If not, then in my opinion the writer doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about.
That may be harsh but when it come to this I find it to be true.

You see, I actually did start a photography business and I’ve been doing it for a few years.
I received help and did a business start up course.
What I didn’t have was funding, which would have made the world of difference but I digress.
I’d like to share with you some of the things that I have learned.

Let’s start with some tips on starting a business

1: Learn your craft.
Suppose this is obvious but you’d be surprised.
Modern gear may be great but if you’re stuck on auto then you’re not going to be ready for all the crazy things that you will have to deal with for real. If I have idea for an image I know exactly what I need to do to make it happen, can you say the same?

2: It’s a Business!
You need to learn about business, learn about invoicing, tax liabilities, being properly insured etc.
Also marketing is key. If you think you’ll spend all your time as a photography business owner taking photos then let me burst that bubble right away. You won’t. You’ll spend it doing marketing and other general business tasks. Then some more marketing, then chasing epople for money then some more marketing.

3: Know your costs
How much do you need to make to cover your living expenses.
How much will you sell your work for?
You need to know your costs of doing business and your costs of goods served.
Without this how will you know if you are pricing things correctly?

4: Build a portfolio
Actually this one is forever, you need to be always adding to and updating your portfolio.
While we all may want to go out and shoot everything and anything, and I think creatively we all need to, that doesn’t mean that it should end up in your portfolio.
If you plan on doing property photography then why would you also show wedding photos or product photos or photographs of pets? You wouldn’t
Pick a niche or an audience and then give them images of that subject and only that subject.
For example. there was a guy who’s website I visited.
His site had galleries of family portraits, weddings, PR and erotic models.
His photos were great, all of them in each genre. But would you want your children to be photographed by someone who also did erotic work?
I wouldn’t and I’m not suggesting any impropriety there. It just doesn’t fit and shouldn’t be there.

5 Build a customer database
And while you are at it an email list.
In the beginning this is going to be a potential customer database.
Learn about your customers, what do they need, what have they done, did they win awards?
So much of being successful in photography is about building relationships with people.
Not everything is about selling to people. Some of these relationships will result in referrals and some could open the door for collaborations.
Don’t forget that you have to refer others too.

6: Find recurring revenue streams
Ok, this is the one that they don’t teach you.
If you are coming to this from an employed role then I’d say, don’t give up the day job.
Keep doing it until your business income replaces it. More of a phased out kind of thing.

I didn’t have that luxury. I went into this with absolutely nothing, and I’ve struggled really badly at times. I’ve also been in a really vulnerable and fragile place when it comes to customers not paying on time.
I find with businesses, EVERYONE pays you late.
Actually I think that is the number 1 threat to small and micro businesses.
There are times when I’ve racked up a lot of money in a week on paper and then by the end of the month couldn’t pay my bills, and then couldn’t the next month either caused entirely by my clients not paying me. Which means I’m spending time chasing them for money instead of chasing new work.
And yes I hear you saying “but you should have taken a deposit”.
In theory yes, but in practice I find that hard to do.  You are sometimes held to ransom in a take the work or leave it kind of way and if you work with certain types of client or industry they are not accustomed to paying up front.

I’ve met a lot of business owners and a lot of freelancers and they all share a common problem.
They have regular bills but an irregular income.
The solution is in the problem.
Get a regular income.
I don’t mean get a part time job. I mean get recurring work from a handful of clients.
Even if you’re offering something totally different to those clients.

There are times when I’ve had this (I shot night club photos amongst other things) and life was easy and everything worked and there are times when I’ve not had this and life was unbelievably hard and nothing works.

7: Stay away from content mills/ Freelancer / Discount sites
They will kill your business.
They are full of folk who don’t value your services and also you need to pay commission to them which takes a huge chunk out of your already meagre pie.
I refer back to my 5th point. Build your own database instead.
And I hate discounts.
If you want my work for less then get me another customer.
I see a lot of “Cheap Photographer” ads and requests around.
Why would you want that?
Photography for business is an essential, Photography for consumers is a luxury.
Why should it be cheap in either case?

8: You are not paid for owning a camera
Photography is competitive as a business but not in the way you think.
The common train of thought is that because everyone owns a camera you’ll find it hard to compete.
In my experience that’s not really been the case.
It’s not about newbies undercutting me.
I find that I actually compete with apathy.
“We don’t have a budget for Photography”
There are so many times when I notice there to be no photographs of things. And it’s a conscious choice.
People in my group on LinkedIn don’t have proper headshot photos despite being marketing or sales managers for blue chip companies. i.e. They have the money to afford it.
Award ceremonies and events don’t have professional photos of their winners, which means the winners can’t use that for their marketing and sort of defeats the purpose of getting all dolled up and going along.
It takes a hell of a lot of groundwork in marketing to be successful in this business.
Actually, probably in every business.
If all of your competitors were doing that then you should be worried.
But they aren’t.

9: Build image libraries and make use of them
I’m not just talking about putting this stuff out there onto stock photo sites.
It’ll take a hell of a lot of micro stock sales to pay your rent.
Instead I mean build your own collections and put them in front of buyers of that type of image.
This kind of ties back into recurring revenues.

10: There’s no such thing as failure
And by that token there’s no such things as success.
There are only outcomes.
It doesn’t matter how successful you are you need to constantly be doing the marketing legwork or else you are forgotten.

11: Burning all images on a DVD isn’t offering a service
Photography is a service business. So do just that, offer a service.
In fact, offer a world class service.
Because A: why the hell not? and B: it brings you more work and lets you charge more.

Ok, here’s a few things that I didn’t say.

1: You need a fancy website and good SEO
If you plan on becoming a Wedding Photographer than yes you probably do.
If you plan on doing anything else then I’d say that no, it’s a waste of time.

And I know this is probably a little controversial but I find that people do not search for photographers.
Nobody wakes up on a Monday morning and thinks unprompted, “hey, you know what we really need this week, we really need a family portrait session”
Same goes for companies that use photographers. They don’t need to search Google because they are already bombarded by suitors.
There are photographers right at the top of the game who have awful websites. They have 1 picture with an email and phone contact number and that’s it. Yet they are more successful than you or I will ever be and why?
Because they built relationships with those who hire them and constantly promote their work directly to that market.

At the start of this post I mentioned self interest.
These types of post tend to come from folk trying to sell you websites or associated services.
The general business advice everywhere goes along the lines of buy a camera, build a portfolio, make a website/Facebook page and work will come rolling in.
It doesn’t happen.
You need to do the marketing and for everything it’s going to be direct marketing.

2 Gear
I’d argue that you could build a successful photography business and not actually own a camera.
Instead renting whatever you needed for whenever you needed it.
I’ve seen so many show up to things rocking Nikon’s latest and greatest and giving it “hey we’re professionals”
Thing is, if you have £10,000+ worth of gear then you better be factoring that back into your prices.
You’re going to charging a couple of hundred for each shoot to just break even. If you’re not then you are probably making a loss. Unless you’ve got huge volume.
My gear compared to these folk is old, obsolete and trashed and yet A: my photos are better than theirs, B: I’m quicker and more accurate in my work and C: I’m still in business.

3: Social Media
I’ve made more money and got more work from Twitter than anything else.
Yes. Twitter.
Not Facebook, not Instagram, not Snapchat.
And would you like to know what I tweeted to get that work?
I’ll bet you do.
So here you go.
“@Username Hi, It was great to meet you”

This goes back to building relationships again.
You read loads of stories like “Jeff posted his work on Instagram and got hired to shoot the new advertising campaign for Mercedes”.
I’ll bet that either that story isn’t true or it neglects the part that Jeff was cold calling/emailing sending promos and smoozing the bejesus out of the photo buyers.

4: Products
Nobody ever talks about products.
If you are a wedding photographer you’d be selling an album to the couple but what about selling prints to the guests or offering extra prints or wall art?
You don’t make money by selling your time, that’s an employee mindset.
As a business you need to be selling products so that you can double or triple your sale without having to work more hours.

This is a bit of a long and ranty post but all of it needs to be said.
I find the quality of information lacking and if you plan on starting a photography business then these are the types of things you need to know.

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from starting a photography business, it can be a rewarding career and for me I have seen things I’d never have seen otherwise and met people of all walks of life that I’d never have met.
It is continually an honour and a humbling experience.

It is also really tough and sometimes pretty painful.

If it’s worth it for you is a question that only you can answer but I hope that I’ve given an insight into some of the realities and challenges.

There’s a question that you can answer for me and that is, should I make this into a course?



One thought on “11 Things they never told you about Starting a Photography Business

  1. Hi Andrew. Great post, very well said, and from my point of view yes, you should make it into a course. You clearly know your stuff (much more than a lot of other blogs I’ve read on the subject), and a lot of people would benefit from it, even if they decided not to go pro in the end because of it. Good luck!

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