Here’s a joke: What’s the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional? Answer: An amateur photographer also has a full-time job. A professional photographer is MARRIED to someone who has a full-time job.
(cue laugh track)
That’s not always the case, obviously, but it certainly has a ring of truth: for most of us, photography is an avocation, not a vocation. But haven’t you at least dreamed of having a business card that reads Your Name Studios and included the title “Photographer”? Because that’s what we are, right? At the end of the day, no matter what we may do to pay the rent, in our hearts we’re first and foremost photographers.
The idea of owning a studio or even being a freelancer is definitely romantic. On the other hand, it takes more than just a good eye to grow a successful business. One of the most consistent mistakes I see photographers make when they try to go out on their own is believing they can do it all themselves. Anything’s possible, but it’s highly unlikely.
This is the case with any sole proprietorship, but it seems especially true for those in creative fields: Music, theater, design … and yes, photography. Maybe we’re too in love with the image of the “starving artist” to really consider our art to be a business … but if you’re going to make a living at it, you can’t afford not to think of it that way.
Having said that, running a business requires an entirely different skill set than taking pictures. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but no one says you can’t ask for help. A good place to start is John Harrington’s excellent resource, Best Business Practices for Photographers. Now in its third edition, the book is a comprehensive guide to starting and growing a successful and satisfying photography business.
Harrington’s book touches on legal issues, but for a more in-depth and experience-based view, check out photoattorney.com. Carolyn Wright is both an attorney and a photographer, and she does a great job helping you navigate contracts, copyrights, and legalese.
Getting paid can also be tricky for a creative … but not getting paid can be catastrophic. This article from Photo.net lays out a number of good tips and technique for making sure you get compensated for your work. It’s also good to cultivate a relationship with a representative of your bank to help deal with risks like bounced checks or chargebacks.
Finally, it sometimes helps to remember that you’re not the first person to do this: look into joining a community of professional photographers like Professional Photographers of America or American Photographic Artists. Being able to converse with others in the business can be invaluable, plus you’ll gain access to resources, critiques, networking, and more. Not only can an association be a source of support, it can also be a source of personal validation.
Starting and maintaining any small business can be challenging, but running your own photography business means wearing a lot of different hats: artist, accountant, office manager, sales agent, and more. While it may not always be as glamorous as your dream, with skill, careful marketing and a professional reputation, you can build the rewarding career you’ve always wanted.