This is a question I get asked quite often. Sometimes it comes in other forms like “HOW can I start my own photography business?”, “what do I need to DO to become a photographer?” and sometimes it’s not a question at all but a statement: “I want to run my own business”. Whenever I am approached with this, I tell people that I don’t have all the answers. Far from it! All I can tell you is what my experience has been, and what I’ve learned through this journey. That’s all I know. It’s what I can bring. So, this “advice” is simply my opinion based on what I’ve lived, what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen. Take what you want and leave what you don’t :).
advice #1: Make sure you are passionate about photography, not just the idea of it. There is no doubt that the photography industry is becoming mainstream. SO many people (including myself) have been breaking into the industry within the last few years. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe because it’s the “in” thing, maybe because DSLR cameras are so much more affordable than they used to be, maybe (and hopefully) it’s because they are passionate about photography. I think that one of the first things you need to ask yourself when thinking about going into the photography industry is “why”? What is the driving force behind it? You need to make sure that you’re in love with photography, not just the idea of it. Often times people will say to me “wow, you have the best job ever” followed by “I wish I could have my own business”, “you’re so lucky that you get to create your own schedule”, “I would love to work from home and be my own boss”. More times than not, people love the idea of owning their own business first and foremost. Rarely do I have people say things like “I would LOVE to be able to document people’s lives”, “gosh, I wish I could tap into my creative side like that!” “photography is my passion and I’d love to be able to make a living from it”. Do you see the difference? Sometimes I fear that people may go into the photography business out of default. They want to own their own business and they see photography as an “easy in”. Let me tell you: if you are not PASSIONATE about photography, do not go into the business. Recently, I brought my husband Joe on as my second shooter. Throughout my time as a photographer, I have been teaching Joe along the way. It wasn’t until Joe told me that he LOVED shooting that I decided he would officially be my second shooter. Because if he didn’t love it, it just wouldn’t work.
advice #2: Seek out a photographer mentor to shadow and learn from. Okay, so you’re passionate about photography. Great! Now what? Before you start your own business, I highly recommend finding a mentor to shadow/shoot with. This is something I didn’t do, that I wish I had. For one, I was scared. I didn’t want someone who’s work I admired to see MY stuff. gulp. It was one thing to put my work out there to non-photographers…it was a different story putting myself out there to a professional in the industry! So I went at it alone, stumbling along the way, and making countless silly mistakes. Now I embrace other photographers. I see so much value in learning from one another, embracing new ideas and accepting constructive criticism. You will grow SO much as a photographer if you seek out others in the industry. Then you get to learn from our mistakes and hopefully not make TOO many of your own ;). Even doing “shoot swaps” with other photographers can be very beneficial. You get to see how another photographer shoots AND you get to see how your clients feel by putting yourself in front of the camera. Bonus!
advice#3: Shoot, Sleep, Repeat. Your camera needs to become your best friend. You need to take it on a dates regularly. Shoot anything you can. I used to go in the backyard and shoot our crumby plastic chairs from all different angles just to practice my “bokeh” effect. Then you need to contact anyone and everyone who you can shoot…for free. Yes. You need to put in your time rookie! For the first couple months, I did free shoots ALL the time and I couldn’t have been happier. I was building my portfolio, getting experience, and doing what I loved.
advice #4: Don’t rush into the business. Again, I am speaking from experience here! I was SO excited to get started with my business that I just wanted to get out there. While that was a great attitude and took a lot of courage, it also made for a sloppy start. I built my business on the fly. I remember I had a client ask me about my senior packages and I was thinking “senior packages? I don’t have those!”. There is SO much that goes into the photography business other than photography. You have to brand, design a website, come up with pricing, market, network…the list goes on. Praise God that I made it through those first 3 months. I’m glad that’s over with ;). But I think that things would have been a lot smoother had I gotten my ducks in a row. Having said that, be careful not to fall into the “perfection” trap. When starting a business, it’s important to dot your i’s and cross your t’s but make sure you give yourself a deadline. As creative professionals, our ideas are often endless. This can bite you in the butt when it comes to trying to get yourself out there. I know for me I’ve been working on a new website for months now. The layout and look has changed more times than I can count. When you’re first starting out, it’s important that you get SOMETHING out there, rather than waiting until you have the perfect look.
advice #5: Invest wisely. If you’ve done your research, you know that the photography industry is not cheap to get into. The list of equipment seems never-ending at times. I check one thing off the list and two more things get added. The catch 22 is that usually we don’t have a whole lot of money to invest when we’re first starting out, right?! There’s two ways you can do it: start small or go big. This really is just a matter of personality and preference. I started small. I bought a used macbook pro, a Canon 50d w/ 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, a couple CF cards and adobe photoshop cs4. It was all we could afford and it worked. Did that yield the best images? No. But I didn’t know the difference at the time, nor did my clients. I was happy to be shooting and getting paid :). Now about a year and a half in, I shoot with the Canon 5d Mark ii and prime lens: 35 1.4L, 50 1.2L, 85 1.8 and LOVE them. My kit lens still sits in my camera bag…in case I ever need it for something. My advice for investing is to prioritize. There are so many things you can spend your money on, so you have to decide what’s most important to you. Is is branding? Is it a website? Is it a great lens? Is it your camera body? Is it your computer? Is it software? Is it advertising? You have to make the decision that will best benefit YOUR business.
advice#6: Find your niche. Most likely when you first start out, you will dabble in a little of everything: family, couples, seniors, babies, maternity. But overtime you will find what your thrive at and what you don’t. This is when you find your niche. For me that’s high school seniors, couples and weddings. I’m not yet at the point where I exclusively offer those but those are the areas I focus most of my attention on. Finding a niche allows you to prosper in one area(s) rather than being a “jack of all trades”.
advice#7: Market, Market, Market. I would say that I spend 20 percent of my business shooting, and 80 percent of my business doing business. So here you are: a passionate photographer who has had knowledge breathed into them from other photogs, with a business plan in place and equipment in hand BUT no clients to shoot. Marketing is essential to the business. I mean like ESSENTIAL. How you decide to go about it is up to you. It’s just a matter of what works for you and what doesn’t. In my opinion, social networking is the way to go. Everyone and their mom (literally) is on facebook. Here you have a free platform to show your work and market yourself. Use it! I have yet to join the twitter train, but will as soon as I get an iphone :). I am currently advertising in one magazine, and have already made my investment back. However, I’m not totally convinced that this is the best route overall. The other route is networking. Some people are FABULOUS at this. Unfortunately I’m not one of those people, but I’m working on it! So what works for you?
I hope that my experience will help you in yours. I’d love to hear your feedback, comments and questions. Lots of love to all you aspiring-photogs out there!