The business of photography is probably the most challenging aspect of being a professional photographer, so here are some tips for photographers from my experience. Some tips will apply to wedding and portrait photographers, but most of these tips are aimed at commercial photographers and advertising photographers, so please read with this context.
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Starting out (this is the really hard bit):
- Don’t do it. Go and get a “real” job.
Being a self employed professional photographer is hard. Near impossible. For the first while (months, or years depending on the individual) it is financially, emotionally and physically costly with little measurable reward. There is a steep learning curve with stress, hurtful criticism, failure, rejection and usually poverty. If you think that you are not positioned well to handle all this and you’d just like the fluffy, happy side of being an artist then please, take my advice and take photos on the weekends whilst you pursue a career in ANYTHING else.
If, however, you are not scared off by hardship and hurt, read on.
- Let go of your artistic expectations or starve.
Before you are a household name, artistic integrity is a luxury that you may afford yourself in your personal work but only occasionally on a paid job. It’s all well and good to say “This is my style”, but in commercial photography if the client asks for it to be brighter, poppier and sharper, then you’ll do it or you will find yourself watching as someone else shoots your client’s next campaign.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have input – by all means make suggestions and try to steer the shoot to your favoured outcome. The client probably will implement some of these ideas because you were likely chosen for your style, but if the client has other ideas then those ideas end up in the final edit.
- Break your addiction to gear.
Gear is EXPENSIVE. If you have unlimited funds then, by all means, go and buy one of the best of everything. Better is better, there is no doubt about that, but if you are one of the majority of photographers for whom funds need to be inbound rather than out, then what you own is just fine. A better tool makes your job easier, but a great photographer doesn’t need a great camera and lenses to produce a great image. Chances are that YOU can tell the difference between a Hasselblad image and a low end dslr, but most of your clients and their audience can’t, especially for web campaigns.
If you have a bit of spare money, there are better ways to spend it below.
- Learn studio lighting.
“I only shoot with available light” is the mantra of so many unemployed photographers. Most clients expect that you have access to a studio and that you know how to use it. Whether you’re shooting product, headshots, fashion or advertising, you are expected to know studio lighting and it blows me away how many photography students I meet who don’t know how to fit a softbox.
If you’re in Melbourne and need a studio, get in touch with me. I will even give you a 20% discount at Epic Studios in South Yarra if you mention this article. If you’re not in Melbourne, then call studios in your area until you find one that will work with you.
- Get great at post production.
I am not an advocate for fixing in Photoshop; you should get your image perfect in camera. That said, it’s never perfect, is it? In reality, half of our job as photographers is done on-set and the other half is done in post. Colour and exposure correction, skin correction, sharpening, dodge and burn… it is all part of the job and once you acknowledge this, you will already be mentally pulling sliders while you’re setting up your lighting.
- Find your niche.
Notice this point isn’t headed “Choose your niche”. Our niche really chooses us. We can try to steer it, and some people hit the mark from the start, but if you want to be a fashion photographer and you aren’t good with people then that niche isn’t going to choose you because clients won’t come back. The same is true if you want to photograph product but you aren’t great using strobe lighting… You see where this is going. The niche you aim for must coincide with your skill set or it’s not going to happen.
- Build your support community.
Being a creative can be super lonely. On the positive side, it’s that way for everyone, so there are plenty of other creatives reaching out to each other in the form of meet-ups, courses, facebook groups and forums. There are also amazing online communities dedicated to giving feedback and advice. Choose one or more that are right for you and use it. The people you meet in these places are the ones you will lean on for support and advice when things are difficult or confusing.
Just being in the room when other people are creating is often enough to inspire you to push yourself. Ask established photographers if you can carry their bags and set up lights for them. If you do a good job they might even pay you. And in the meantime you can learn from their knowledge and from their mistakes. This is a very helpful exercise!
Stepping up (This is also a REALLY hard bit):
- Set goals.
The rise through the ranks of creative industry is slow at the best of times. To speed it up, set goals. Set a long term goal and then set sub-goals that will help you get there. Make your goals SMART goals (google this if you haven’t heard of it) so that you can action them properly. Write them down, print them out, put them somewhere you will see them every day. It may seem a bit cliché to have your motivational business stuff up on a wall, but the second you lose sight of your goals, you become complacent and lose momentum. Momentum is important.
- Build your social media.
I hear you groaning, but stop it. The world has changed, for better or worse. We are chosen now for more than just our skill and professionalism: we are now influencers and are chosen partly for our social reach. Work on your Instagram and Facebook followings. Upload content, be active. If you aren’t sure how to do this then google it – there are many instructional articles, videos and tools to help you achieve all this. You could pay someone to manage your social media for you, though that is costly and only saves a little time.
- Create a personal project.
Having a project keeps you fresh. Make it something different from what you shoot for money – make it creative, challenging, fun and of interest to you. Make it something you need to improve. I, for example, usually shoot fashion and advertising in the studio. I do this so often that I need to work on keeping my skill in available light. I love meeting new people and going new places. So I’ve recently created At Home With Me, a project that is purely shot with interesting and fun people in their homes with no makeup, no retouching and no studio lighting. Pick a project that is personal to you and change it when you’ve had enough. Next year I’ll probably do something completely different.
Your portfolio is great and you have some bread-and-butter clients so it’s now time to start marketing for bigger, better clients whose brand is situated in your career direction. Marketing can take different forms such as paid advertising, direct emails or phonecalls, search engine optimisation, search engine marketing or social media marketing. Research each option to decide which will be the most effective for you, but make sure you are doing something to attract new clients.
Spend more of your time growing your business by outsourcing some of the more time consuming parts of your job. The most obvious outsourcing opportunity is retouching. Chances are it is cost and time effective to have someone else retouch your images whilst you seek more work. It’s also likely that you can find someone better at retouching than you, who enjoys doing it more than you do. You could also outsource some of your marketing (social media, SEO, SEM) and perhaps your accounting and bookkeeping. I have great people for all of this and if you’d like their details please contact me and I’ll see if it sounds like they could help you.
There are some tools that can make your life easier, make your business more efficient and give you more time. Here are some great ones that I use:
IFTTT – This is helpful with social media, uploading your images to many platforms at once. I have it set to re-post my instagram uploads to all my accounts on other platforms.
StudioNinja – Having a client management software take care of your calendar, invoicing, contracts and automated emails is invaluable. StudioNinja is easy to set up and has a beautiful, clean interface. As a bonus, it integrates with Xero. Use my referral code for $5 per month discount: MA100464R
Mailchimp – EDMs are an effective and inexpensive way to communicate with your subscribers. Mailchimp makes html email creation easy and allows you to schedule the sending of your campaigns.
You may have other great automation tools and I’d love to hear about them. Give me a shout if you think I’ve missed one.
- Raise your expectations.
Expect more of your work. Push yourself to be better. Expect more of your team (makeup, hair, styling, retouching, marketing) and if they aren’t rising to meet your new standard, replace them with better people. That might sound harsh, but this is your career and friendship and business must be kept separate. Keep producing test shoots and push your boundaries. Play with new techniques. If you’re not getting better you’re going stale, so keep striving.
- Get better gear.
I just heard a simultaneous orgasm from all the gear heads. Yes, it is at this stage of your career that the gear you use DOES matter. You’re competing against people who are as good as you, working with teams as good as yours. If you aren’t using industry standard equipment at this point then you are dropping behind. Get a great camera and adorn it with great lenses. If you’re a studio shooter get great lighting. If you can’t afford to buy good gear yet, then hire it or borrow it from a friend (remember the support community you built?). At this point you may even decide to take out a loan, but do so with caution – debt is a killer of the creative.
- Say “No”.
Re-implement your artistic integrity. Just a little bit. At this point it is important that the jobs you accept are taking you in the right direction and representing you in the way you need to be shown. Reject low paid offers from start-ups if they won’t look good in your folio. Say no to a job that will preclude you from the job you WANT. Run a mile from clients with bad reputations or bad branding.
Reaching the top (now you can take it easy)
Now that you’ve made it to the top you can relax. Coast along on your reputation and… HAHAHAHAHA Yeah right. There is no relaxing. You must keep getting better. There will always be a younger, hungrier, more driven, more energetic, more creative version of you trying to take your clients and your money. Keep gearing up. Get better processes, make your team better, keep up the test shoots, be more creative, push your clients harder and educate them to expect more from their shoot than just pretty pictures. Give your clients more than a shoot, give them a marketing tool. Give them sales. Give their brand energy. Feel more confident in your creative direction. Charge more money. Produce bigger shoots.
Now go. You’ve got this.
- Don’t do it. Go and get a “real” job.
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