Most of us in this business have a mentor. I’m convinced that the woman who was my mentor was the best one out there. She started out as simply my wedding photographer when I hired her over 11 years ago. She became my teacher, my friend, eventually my colleague and always remained my go-to for advice and input on all things business and photography. I have gotten input from so many people of the years, but she was my only mentor. Despite being only a few months older than me, she had so much to offer. Tragically, at only a few years into her 30’s, she passed away just two days ago. In her honor, I’m sharing the top 4 things she taught me that absolutely shaped and changed me as a photographer and business owner.
- Find Your Tribe: Have you seen those threads on social media? The ones that start out with “So-and-So said they can’t believe I charge $___ for a 5×7! How do I explain to them why it’s worth this much!?” This usually is followed by a long (looooong) parade of photographers encouraging the OP (“original poster” if you’re not a this-facebook-group-thread-is-so-long-I-forgot-to-feed-my-kids-dinner veteran and you’re lost on that acronym…) to “educate” the client. I mean, we’ve seen the memes, right? The ones that breakdown the “real cost” of photography. The ones that breakdown mileage and hours and editing and the cost of insurance, the cost of education, the cost of gas…. (can you feel my eyes rolling?). Those things are all real. Very very real. And you should know your CODB (cost of doing business…. I’m all about the acronyms today I guess!) in order to set your pricing because most photographers are woefully undercharging. But here’s the thing. None of that means anything to the client that questioned your pricing. One of the best things that my mentor taught me was to let that kind of thing roll off my back. Because if you have to convince someone to pay for you, you’re already lost them. Don’t spend your time wording your website, your social media posts, your emails, your conversations with keyboard warriors defending what you do and what you charge. Spend your energy finding and connecting to your Tribe. The ones that get you already. The ones that understand your value without you ever having to explain. Those are the clients that will keep coming back, will evangelize their friends, will do all that explaining in a way you never could and actually be heard by the potential clients out there. And believe me, it’s a much more rewarding experience, both personally and financially. And they will be so much happier as your clients knowing that your energy, creativity, and efforts are dedicated to them. All the wins right there.
- Be Frugal: This seems like an odd thing (or maybe just a boring one) but it’s huge. I was brand new to the business (when I first started taking lessons with my mentor, I didn’t even know I’d be starting my own business yet!) and she counseled me to be very smart about my purchases, my investments, and to avoid credit like the plague. She offered guidance on investment purchases when needed or asked for, but constantly taught me to think about ROI (return on investment…more acronyms!). Did I want a fisheye lens? Sure. But would that be a smart buy for maybe a handful of images per wedding? NOPE (with a big ‘ol p-pop). Because of her guidance, I started (and kept) my business 100% debt free. I didn’t take out a line of credit, I bought everything for cash, and I kept my overhead low. And I have no doubt that is a big reason why I didn’t sink when business was slow or when I had to cut back on work load from time to time. Boring advice? Maybe. But HUGE. Be frugal people. Don’t buy it just because you like it. If I had done credit I might have some sweet lenses and a whole lotta ONA bags, but I wouldn’t be a more successful business. I’d just be in debt.
- Stay Timeless: When I look back at my wedding photos (over 10 years old now), one of the things I appreciate most about them is that they still look good. There’s no wacky editing, not strange colors/filters/angles/overlays/double-exposures/layouts…. It’s classic. It’s timeless. And other than my choice of dress and hair styles, it will stay that way. The photos will remain timeless because that is exactly the style she shot weddings with. Portraits were a source of artistic expression and a place to occasionally try out a trend, but weddings? No way. Timeless was always the goal. She taught me to see trends for exactly what they are – trends. And much like my poofy bangs in the 80’s, my Lisa Frank trapper keeper (holla!) and my everything-has-glitter makeup choices from the 90’s, trends have a way of becoming embarrassing later. Keep the bulk of your photography clean, classic, and straight ahead and watch it stand the test of time.
- Pay It Forward: This is quite possibly the biggest thing that my mentor taught me. She took me under her wing, with no hesitation (that I knew about anyway) and willingly shared with me everything she knew. She brought me on shoots. She helped me setup my own to test new techniques and get more guidance. She pointed me in the direction of places to learn the things she couldn’t personally teach me. She taught me to love not only learning about it all, but to help others as well. She taught me to not see other photographers – even the local ones – as competition, but as co-workers. She would laugh when talks of “stealing work” came up between catty photographers because she’d always point out that there’s PLENTY of work to go around. She never hesitated to refer people to me (she knew her tribe too!) and she believed that “a rising tide raises all ships”. Because of how she treated me, I promised myself that my business would always do the same for others. I have helped to teach or guide several photographers and photographer-hopefuls along the way this past decade and I have maintained a internship for several years. I operate an online forum for educating underwater photographers and I teach through my local photography meetup group when I can. I never became a “cards close to the vest” photographer because she taught me to be generous with my knowledge, just as she was with hers. Her legacy lives on in the work of so many photographers because of it. It’s a legacy I’m proud to be a part of.
Whether your find your mentoring here on Photography Awesomesauce, or you have a specific person you are able to go to, I hope you one day have the chance to pass on what you’re learning to someone else. This business can be brutal and working from home or running your own business can be lonely. Find your tribe, find your connections, find your colleagues, find your voice, and know that you are creating a legacy that you may never be fully aware of. I wish I had told my mentor more clearly just how much she meant to me. But I hope that my work will honor her investment in me.
Happy February, friends.