I’ve touched on this sort of thing before, but it certainly bears repeating: being a photographer and running a photography studio are not the same thing. They’re not mutually exclusive–many people do both–but being good at the one doesn’t inherently make you good at the other.
Don’t believe? Try switching it around. Think of someone you know who is a whiz at accounting or business management … someone who is good at business. To your knowledge, the person has never touched a camera that didn’t also feature a ringtone. This Ansel Adams Wannabe comes up to you and says “Hey guess what! I’ve decided to open a photography studio!”
You: That’s great! I didn’t know you were a photographer!
AAW: Well, I’ve never tried it … but I know how to manage books and balance a ledger and everything. I figure the rest I can just pick up as I go!
It sounds crazy, right? Being good at business isn’t enough to build a successful photography studio. But the reverse is true, too. So as a public service, here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I opened my studio:
1. You don’t get to be just a photographer anymore. When you open shop for yourself, great photography is your product. But there still needs to be machinery in place so people can get to your product.
Even before you take that first picture, you’ll find yourself juggling a dozen or more roles: CEO, Appointment Setter, Marketing Director, Brand Manager, Customer Service Rep, Bookkeeper, accountant, Collections Guru, Window Washer, and more. Oh, and somewhere in there, Photographer.
Your mad skills will be what people see, but the sooner you understand you’ll to need skills in multiple areas, the sooner you can start getting better at all of them.
2. Of all your skills, “people skills” are the most important. At the end of the day, photography is a people business. Even if you primarily shoot natural landscape or urban images, your clients–the ones you have to deal with to get work and to get paid–are going to be people. Consequently, the better you can work with, listen to, and take care of those you do business with, the more success you’ll see.
3. Referrals are your life’s blood. Word-of-mouth testimonials make up the most powerful source of new business for photographers. People are much more comfortable trusting the recommendation of a friend than a web ad or direct mail flyer. That means part of your job is to make your current customers WANT to refer you.
It’s not enough to do outstanding work: you have to actually encourage people to talk. That doesn’t necessarily mean a formal referral program: sometimes it can be as easy as letting folks know just how much you appreciate them telling their friends about you.
4. Getting into new gear can kill you. I have a friend who’s into cycling. She rides on weekends, maybe once through the week–yet she has thousands of dollars’ worth of cool gear. She’s constantly drooling over magazines and catalogs–she calls it “bike porn”–looking for her next purchase.
I know a few photographers like that, too.
I know, I know: it’s easy to get caught up in buying fun and exciting new toys “for business”. Better lenses, better lighting … it’s all simple enough to justify, but there comes a point of diminishing returns. I’ve wasted god-only-knows how much money over the years buying gear that ended up collecting dust in a corner somewhere … so be careful with those extra expenses.
5. When it comes to your own horn, Toot! Toot! Toot! OK, nobody likes to brag. But the simple reality is that even in the age of social media, nobody is really going to care what you’re doing unless you give them a great reason to. And that, in a nutshell, is the definition of marketing.
Portfolios are necessary in our line of work: showing people what you’re capable of is probably the best way to tip them over from being a contact to being a customer. Thing is, though, if no one knows you exist, they’re not going to look at your stuff. Get out there and market yourself, and let your portfolio market your skills.
Running your own photography studio is fun and rewarding. Just remember to test the depth of the waters before you take the plunge.