As we’ve said before (often), photographers are artists … which almost by default means we’re not the most business-savvy people in the world. Unfortunately, we also seem to work best alone or in small groups, which translates to running our own studio. You see the conflict there, right?
And that’s hardly the only stumbling block to owning a photography business. All told, there are so many variables (business sense, marketing issues, industry trends, new technology … you get the idea) that trying to map out a business strategy to reach your goals can seem like an unreachable goal in and of itself.
The path to becoming a successful photographer can’t be iterated in a set of universally applicable, step-by-step process. It is unique to every situation: I can’t tell you what to do right, because my journey has been different than yours will be.
Having said that, there are certain things I can advise you NOT to do: mistakes I—and a number of other photographers I have talked to—have made that ended up working against us. Obviously, even out list of common mistakes won’t apply to every situation, either…but they are a bit more common.
- Letting your “artistic vision” get in the way of customer service.
Years ago, when I was teaching classes at a local community college, I would point out how tough the market was. “Statistically speaking,” I’d intone, “Five years from now, only one person in this class of fifty will actually be making a living in a graphic-arts related field.” Then I’d look out over the sea of students, and I could see the same look in all their eyes:
“I’ll be that one!”
Now, I’m never going to be the one to say it’s not gonna happen. You think you can make it, great; there’s nothing wrong with hope, per se. The problem, as someone once said, is that hope makes a great engine but an unreliable compass. One of the first things you have to learn is that the number of photographers who can sell on their name alone is so small, it might as well be zero. You have to offer more than your idea of what is great.
While focusing on producing great photography is a worthy goal, that alone isn’t enough to make customers return. We’re talking about customer service, where your photography is more than just the final product. It’s an experience customers can enjoy (and recommend) that extends from the initial call all the way through delivering the photos—and beyond.
Is your website intuitive to navigate? Is your location easy to find? Is your studio comfortable for customers? Are you really listening to what your customers want during the shoot? Do you follow up with a card or call after everything is done?
These sorts of things may not seem important to you right now, but they’re what turn one-time customers into long-term clients.
- Not staying ahead of finances.
You have all your equipment, right? So your only ongoing expense will be rent on your studio. Sweet!
Believe it or not, that was a slightly (very slightly) exaggerated expression of my point of view when I started. Oy, was I naïve! Buying batteries alone almost put me out of business that first year.
For starters, studio upkeep goes way beyond just rent: HVAC, electrical, water bills, taxes … they all make it harder to just break even every month. Then there are the things you can’t anticipate, like equipment failure, a specific lens needed for a job, paint—I can’t tell you how many times I have repainted my sweep this year alone. And did I mention batteries (Hint: spring for rechargeable ones early on).
Another thing I didn’t count on: the winter slump. I had good momentum going into the holidays, but after that, business dropped all the way to the basement. In other words, no income.
Luckily, I had been frugal, and had a little bit set aside. I thought I could ride it out … until three (THREE) of my pre-holiday clients filed chargebacks against me! The bank sucked all those “paid” funds right out of my account and hit me with over $100 worth of fees. And I never even saw it coming.
- Listening to naysayers
By the end of Year One, I was actually living in my studio, living on Ramen noodles and practically begging for work. And everywhere I looked for support only produced discouragement. Colleagues, friends, family … everyone had the same message: “Give it up and get a ‘real’ job!”
And I almost did; I almost gave in. Luckily for me, I was a bit of rebel back then: the more people said it couldn’t be done, the more I started thinking “Oh yeah? Well I’ll show YOU.” I worked on perfecting my craft. I read everything about photography I could lay hands on. I started sending cards to people I’d photographed, asking for referrals.
The biggest surprise for me was the response I would get by calling prior customers and asking if they were still happy with the final product: half to two-thirds of them said something to the effect of “We loved it. In fact, I’ve been meaning to call you about more pictures!”
All these years later, I’m still here. Had I listened to “good advice,” I wouldn’t be.
Like I said, I can’t tell you what to do. All I can do is point you in a direction. There is money to made out there … but every situation is different. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works for you.