Pro Photography Business: The Sad Harsh Truth

One question I often get from would-be pro photographers is “How do I get started?”

There are multiple ways to interpret that question, but mostly I can look in the eyes of the asker and have a pretty good idea of what the person wants to know. And generally speaking, it’s not the question he or she should be asking.

Too often, what they mean something more like “How can I set up a business so that I can quit my crummy day job and be free?” In which case I start talking about carts going before horses. If your rationale for starting a photography business is wanting to lie around your fabulous Soho loft while picking which jobs you want to do out of the hundreds of people who are banging on your door and begging for your services …

… yeah. No.

That’s not just photography, that’s any small business. And most people have at least a clue that striking out on their own will require a lot of work. Creatives, for some reason, seem to have trouble with that concept. Too many of them seem to believe that being your own boss is simple (Hah!) and highly profitable (HAH!).

Well, here it is: the cold, hard truth. Unless you are an absolute phenom and have been written up in Time or Variety, nobody outside of your immediate family cares about your work. Sorry. That’s reality.

So instead of worrying about the money aspect of it right off the bat, I try to convince would-bes to concentrate on their craft. Do it in your spare time. ALL your spare time, not just the corners where you’re not hanging with friends or playing video games or posting cute pictures of kittens on social media. If you want to be a pro photographer, you need to live and breathe photography.

Develop your eye first. If people want to pay you to take pics, great–if not, take pictures anyway. Keep taking pictures until you have to struggle see the world without a lens. Post your work, print your work, whatever it takes to be seen. Keep filling your days and nights and weekends behind a camera until you barely have time for anything besides your job and your photography.

If you’re at that place, you can start advertising for clients. You’re not ready to run yet: now you’re in a holding position. Because being a great photog is only part of the equation: sadly, unless you’ve got family who will support you, you’ll probably need to hold on to that day job until the money starts trickling in.

You see, it’s not enough to spend all your free time taking pictures. You have to spend all your free time getting PAID to take pictures. And that’s when you can start seriously thinking of putting in your two-weeks’ notice.

Even then, your days are going to be full. You have a business to run–and the product you sell is YOU. You’ll need equipment, a location, and probably an assistant. You’ll have to think about credit cards and debit cards, whether you’ll accept Paypal, what kind of hours you will keep.

There are a lot of “what-if”s involved: what if you have a slow month and can’t make the rent? What if you get sick two days before the big wedding you’re supposed to shoot? What if your client is unhappy and asks the bank for a refund on his or her credit card (yes, banks do that). What if, what if, what if?

Scared yet? Good.

Because going into business for yourself is a scary proposition, and it doesn’t get any easier by ignoring that fear. Like most things in life, the best way to ensure success it to look at the problem square-on, weight pros and cons, and make a decision based on how hard you’re willing to work to be able to do something you love.

And that’s where you start.

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4 Marketing Mistakes Photographers Should Avoid

Do you want more customers for your photography business?

Before you answer, let me throw this stat out: according to the National Retail Federation, customer returns accounted for more than $260.5 billion in lost sales for U.S. retailers in 2015 alone. Obviously, the services we sell aren’t exactly retail merchandise, but it’s still worth paying attention to the numbers.

So let me clarify: you DON’T simply want more customers. You want more GOOD customers. How do you find them? Well, the easiest way is to have a lot of happy customers in the first place … and one of the best ways to get those is to avoid these common marketing mistakes photographers make:

1.       Relying on discounts. Sometimes offering a coupon or discount makes sense (I’ve had great success with Groupon), but it shouldn’t be your first tactic, and you should never make it a way of life. The reason we want more customers is so we can build revenue streams; if you start pulling in a bunch of clients at a lower rate, you’ll end up doing a lot more work without making significantly more money.

Cut-rate pricing devalues your brand: if you were worth more, you’d charge more, right? That’s what people think. You’re not going to build a stable of loyal, long-term customers on a reputation of being “The Cheap One.”

2.       Using cheap/generic marketing materials. Remember those old Hallmark commercials where people would flip over a greeting card to see is you “cared enough to send the very best”? Nowadays, people are checking the backs of business cards for the VistaPrint logo, to see if you’re the cheapskate who’d rather have someone else’s ad on your card than pay even the discounted price. So don’t be that guy (or gal).

The collateral you leave with potential customers speaks volumes about you and reflects on your work. A cheap–or, heaven help us, homemade–card or brochure indicates that you are less an artist and more of a pedestrian. Until you do work for them, that card is all that clients have to remember you: make sure you’re leaving them with a good impression.

3.       Marketing in the wrong places. A supermarket bulletin board is NOT a viable marketing medium. Sorry. Have you ever hired a professional by tearing off a perforated number from a “community services” board? Yeah, didn’t think so.

When it comes to something as personal as family or wedding photography, potential customers impact … not the number of a random stranger hanging between ads for lawn care guys and lost kittens. Try offering a discount on family portraits to a local business (or 2) on the condition you can hang a framed pic from the session in their office or waiting room. Much more personal, much more effective. And while we’re on the subject of marketing mediums …

4.       Forgoing a website. No, no, no. In this day and age, people are searching for services at all hours of the day or night. Maybe they’re on the office computer, or on their phones in traffic, or on a tablet while in their PJs. Whatever, skipping the online portfolio is simply NOT an option anymore.

And don’t try to get away with a few posts on social media, either; there’s not that much of a link between having thousands of followers and gaining new customers. Think about it: posting on Instagram is fast, easy, and free. So you can bet every single one of your competitors are already doing it. Use social media for keeping in touch with current customers … not as a way to gain new ones.

 

Making any of these mistakes isn’t the kiss of doom, of course, but they are methods that will make reaching your goal much harder. Invest in professional materials and mediums to gain more and better customers … and eventually, those customers will bring others to your doorstep.

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A Lovers’ Quarrel with Wedding Season

I’m getting revved up here for wedding season. After all my years in this business, I have to admit I approach May and June with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is that unmistakable feeling of “Didn’t I just do this?” It’s a cliché, I know, but time seems to pass more quickly as you get older, and as the years flow into each other you really start noticing the repetition. After a while, doing wedding photography gives me that same feeling I get when listening to hardcore bluegrass music: no matter how good the band, after the 3rd or 4th numberI start thinking “Um … yeah, this is great and all … but do you know more than that one song?”

I reluctantly confess that I have to be careful at most weddings to make sure I’m not going into auto-pilot. Could I phone it in? After more weddings than I can even count, sure. But I would hate myself, and that isn’t what people pay for. I try my best to do even the most traditional shots with a bit of a flare. The customer is always right, right?

But now and again (and more frequently within the last few years, it seems), I get the couple that wants something different for their wedding album. OK, yeah, sure, some of the ideas I would politely call stupid (“You both want to dress as vampires, you want all the shots in black-and-white, with hand-colored blood? Seriously?”); some were dangerous (you’re not getting me to jump out of airplane at all, let alone with a $4800 camera. Who am I, Robert Spence?); and some were simply offensive (“Look, what the groom’s party does with your bride the whole night before the wedding is your business … but if you want it on film, you’ll need to talk to someone else.”).

With all that being said, there are still people who want to remember their wedding as unique because it’s their wedding … not because they turned it into a sideshow. And when it comes to that, one of the best gifts a bride-to-be can give her photographer is a personal shot list.

Now, when I say that, I am not talking about Googling “wedding shot list” and doing a copy-and-paste into an email. I get a lot of those, and honestly, the only thing that keeps me from taking the job and shooting every shot I can think of EXCEPT the ones on the list is pure professionalism.

Well, that and an unwillingness to admit how petty I can be. But I digress.

The truth is, there really are only so many ways you can shoot a wedding: no matter how creative you want to be, there are still going to be a LOT of traditional shots. Which makes it even more relevant to find those shots that make the wedding personal.

What if the band at the wedding is the bride’s younger brother’s first paying gig? What if the groom personally carved the punch bowl out of a block of ice? What if the bride’s grandmother hand-sewed 600 beads to create her veil? Or what if the location is the exact spot where the groom’s parents met?

I’ve had all of those scenarios show up on different shot lists. The ice bowl was gorgeous, the wedding locale was picture-perfect, even 24 years later, and the band was incredibly … adequate. But I paid special attention to all of those features, because they were personal.

And the veil? The beads weren’t all perfectly aligned, and honestly it was a bit short. But when you saw the arthritic hands that created it, well, it was enough to make you cry. My favorite shot of that entire wedding is one showing those hands cradling the hands of the bride, with just a slight glint haloing off the engagement ring.

Yes, I’m bragging. You would, too.

My point is this: as photographers, I feel most of us are more likely to sense when the Emperor has no clothes. In other words, that perfect shot living in the client’s head doesn’t really exist. But at the same time, we see things the world at large tends to miss. Without sounding egotistical, the best advice I give potential clients is, Tell me what you think you want … then TRUST ME.

I’ve done this before.

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Five Things to Remember Before You Open Your Own Studio

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.

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3 Great Ways to NOT Get Paid for Work

I have a small blurb that gets printed on the bottom of every invoice I send. It simply says, “I’d love to give my friends a discount … but my enemies don’t use my services.” That’s my philosophy, and I try to stick to it: my rates are extremely reasonable, so except in rare cases, I don’t give discounts and I don’t do free work.

But everywhere I look, I see freelancers practically (and in many cases, literally) giving work away. Especially with newbies, it can easily become a trap that sets the tone for your entire business. If you want your business to succeed, however, it’s a trap you should avoid at all costs.

Why on Earth Would I Do This for Free?

Why would a creative give away work? How about “It seemed like a good idea at the time”? As ludicrous as it sounds, there are circumstances where it might appear practical.

In the retail industry there is a tactic known as “loss-leading,” where a store will offer a popular product at a ridiculously low price in order to drive traffic. A grocer, for example, might offer a 12-pack of soda for two bucks. They know they’ll lose money on the purchase, but they also know that people coming into the store aren’t likely to leave with JUST soda: the “loss” usually “leads” to more sales overall.

Larger companies will often approach independent contractors with this same offer: “There’s no budget for this job, but it would get your foot in the door and set you up for more work down the road!” To a struggling freelancer, it can sound like a dream come true, but it’s more probably a nightmare. The job gets done, but nothing else materializes; instead, work is dangled in front of the next photographer in line, along with the same veiled promise of more.

Essentially, this leads to doing a buncha work and still going broke … and frankly, you can just as easily skip the work and go broke sitting at home and binge-watching Rick and Morty. My advice? Walk away from any job that only offers a theoretical future payoff.

“Let Me See What You Can Do”

Another scam that even big-time agencies fall prey to is the Myth of Spec Work. Basically, some potential client comes to you and says “Let me see what you would do IF I give you this job (or account).” Translated, that means they want to see a design (or several) and well-fleshed-out-if-not-finished creative ideas so they can decide whether to hire you … all on your dime.

This is a very common practice in the creative world, but it’s a game I won’t play. I get a lot of flak for it, too: “Surely you can’t expect us to pay for work sight-unseen?” Well, no, but that’s why I have a portfolio. Look at the work I’ve done for others and understand I can and will do the same quality of work for you … but don’t expect me to take time away from my other clients (who ARE paying me) to do freebies for you.

So what if you’re so new you don’t have a decent portfolio? Well, I’d argue you really aren’t ready to go into business for yourself. But even so, if you need portfolio pieces, why constrain yourself by the limitations of spec work? I once had a client approach me wanting some really boring product shots done on spec; I turned them down, then took the shots I thought they really needed (which were much more dynamic and engaging) on my own. Those pics are the ones that went in my portfolio.

“We’ll Pay Your Invoice … Oops! Just Kidding!”

The worst way to lose money on a job is probably when you lose it yourself because of something stupid or careless. Remember, just because you got paid doesn’t mean you’re off the hook: particularly if the client paid with a credit card or an online service like Paypal, it’s easy for them to revoke the payment (what’s called a chargeback) if they find mistakes or inaccuracies after the fact.

Having said that, some unscrupulous clients will play the chargeback card whether they have legitimate cause or not. The banks tend to protect their users by default, but if the chargeback is unwarranted, you have the option of disputing the charge. 

The key thing to remember is, you’re not here just to do great work: you’re here to get PAID for doing great work. Keeping that as your focus is key to growing a successful freelance business.

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My Wedding Client Wants a Refund: Now What?

One of the biggest draws to photography as a profession also happens to be one of those things that can get you into trouble: creative vision, artistic license … call it what you will, we’re always looking for that perfect shot, the one that transcends the mundane and puts the “extra” in extraordinary.

If you’re doing portfolio pieces, this is fine. But in certain commercial scenarios–weddings are a prime example–sometimes the client wants ordinary. Some people simply can’t see beyond clichés … and if the final product doesn’t match their vision, well, it’s wrong, plain and simple.

Now, if you’ve done even a couple of weddings, you’ve probably already learned to leave a good chunk of your creativity at the door and go for standard shots. That’s usually the best and easiest way to get the job done. But sometimes, for whatever reason, the client still isn’t happy and starts demanding money back. So what do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

Validate the claim.

The first decision thing to do is decide if the complaints are justified. Did you miss a key shot? Is the final product up to professional standards? If you really did screw up, a full or partial refund might be in order. Even if you don’t feel it’s your fault, sometimes the fight isn’t worth the aggravation: it might be better to cut bait and get on with your life.

Dig in.

If you feel you held up your end of the contract, and if the fight is worth it, it’s OK to stand your ground. If the client is as determined as you are, this will lead to a couple of likely scenarios: a chargeback (if the client paid by credit card) or a court battle. In either case, your best friend from here on out is the evidence you can provide.

Get your story straight.

I’m going to assume you were already savvy enough to get a signed contract before you started. That will be hugely beneficial … but it’s also a good idea to get your entire argument down on paper, too, preferably in a carefully worded letter to the client. List all the client’s complaints as evidence that you understand the charges, the add your justification for each item.

This is also a great way to wrap your head around both sides of the case. In truth, the judge may never look at your notes (although an arbitrator in a chargeback dispute probably will), but they are admissible in court, and the fact that you wrote the client with explanations shows you tried in good faith to resolve the conflict.

Keep the tone of the letter civil, and be as objective as you can. Skip the insults, and try not to make judgement calls. Stick to the facts: the more rational your argument, the more believable your version of events.

Bring up the contract.

Most disputes of this nature are going to be conceptual rather than contractional, but if the client is accusing you of missing important shots or not being available hours after the wedding was supposed to be over, feel free to fall back on the language of the contract. Again, remain as calm and collect as you can: let the contract speak for you.

Accept the inevitable.

If nothing you’ve done thus far has placated the client, and words like “court’ or “lawsuit” are being bandied about, there is no need to keep beating your head against the wall. Acknowledge that a court date will most likely ensue, then set it aside until that time: anything else you need to say can be said in front of the judge.

Obviously, this won’t keep the client from continuing to contact you. And while you don’t need to argue anything the client brings up, you do need to respond to any communication; a simple “I received your letter, but stand by the response in my letter dated 00/00/0000″ acknowledges the client’s correspondence without an argument … and without leaving yourself open to charges of “I tried to contact him, Your Honor, but he ignored my letters!”

 

At this point, you’re mostly waiting for your day in court. One other thing: if the situation is dragging on, you can always offer to settle. That doesn’t mean you’re admitting guilt–and you should go to great lengths to not–but rather you’re willing to compromise because it’s in your best interest.

Of course, if the client were willing to settle, the idea would probably have already come up. But there’s always the chance the client underestimated the amount of hassle involved, and is now in more of a mood to negotiate. Just make sure to get the deal in writing, and be certain it fully releases you from all claims past, present or future pertaining to the event. Make sure that once any money is paid out by you, you’re able to wash your hands completely of the client.

Finally, I won’t say a lot about lawyers, but I will say this: I’m not one, so don’t consider any of these actual legal advice. What I am is a professional photographer, and my professional photographer advice is simple: it’s not about whether you can win a case, it’s about not having a case to worry about.  With a little forethought and common sense, you can easily avoid situations now that could take a whole lot of resources to resolve in the future.

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