By Carrie Swails – Owner of Photography Awesomesauce
It really does sometimes. It’s easy to start out with this photography dream. You have a nice camera, you take a couple nice photos, your friends and family tell you that you should start a business. At the time it seems like this glorious idea. You can quit that crappy low-paying job, make your own money, work your own schedule and do something you really love.
Well…there’s a reality to owning a photography business that I think people just don’t talk about. Sure, people say it’s not easy, but at the same time you see all these photographers out and about on social media bragging about how many weddings or sessions they have to edit, how many clients they have to photograph this weekend, the new equipment they just bought and more. Seeing those kinds of comments makes it easy to believe that running a business can’t be that hard, right? Or it may lead you to believe that success will come sooner in your business then it actually does.
I wanted to write this post because sometimes I feel there’s a contradiction in our industry. Photographers are always talking about how difficult this job is, but at the same time we see photographers who make things look easy. That alone gives us the impression that we aren’t booking enough clients or making enough money. You should never judge a book by its cover and I wanted to include some of the things I did in this post when I first ran my business that made it hard to get started.
Somehow the photography industry has set up these imaginary expectations that we should all be able to become awesome photographers at the drop of a hat and be running a profitable business in a year or less. I think there’s a lot of information floating around out there that adds to these illusions, because that’s what they are. Photographers don’t like to talk about or admit where their failures are, or where they started, or that they ever worked for free. Some photographers want others to believe they were always successful right from the start.
So here’s a few realities of my own that I learned the hard way. I am still always learning and making mistakes. I hope this gives you guys a look into what being a photographer is like the first few years and dispels the illusion that you can make a quick buck.
Reality #1 “Fake it ’til you make it”
Ever heard that line of advice? Some of those photographers posting and sharing about their busy schedules are well…lying. It’s a common business practice to make it seem you are more in-demand than you actually are. It helps other potential clients want to book you if you seem in-demand. Plus, no one wants to admit they’re a big crappy failure. Sure, there are a few photographers out there who are actually very busy. I’m just saying, don’t believe everything you see. You never know if what you are reading from other photographers is true or a marketing scheme. I’m not advocating (or not) using this as a marketing scheme nor am I putting down anyone who does. However, I wanted to point out that some of the things you see may not be true and you shouldn’t let them define how your business is doing by comparing your business to theirs.
Reality #2 Earning a Profit Takes Time
Here’s the reality. You aren’t going to make a profit for a very long time. Yep, I said it. A slow-grown business will more likely have success and last for years to come than a business that jumped in feet first without thinking twice. You know how people always say that loosing weight fast means it’ll just come back as soon as you’re done dieting compared to losing weight slow will help you keep it off? A business is sort of like that. Taking the time to really build your business will eventually pay off.
I have to be honest that you are not going to make a profit right away. You are going to spend more money than you make, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny. I spent the first 18 months of my business building my portfolio and working for free. Sometimes I see photographers start charging after only a short period of time building a portfolio and then complaining they aren’t getting any clients. Clients want to know that if they pay you they trust you can get the job done. Maybe what I did was excessive and maybe there are photographers who could start making profit in less than a year, but they are not the norm. Take the time to build an extensive portfolio before charging. When clients finally start coming in and you’re ready to charge you have all the work you need to justify what you are ready to make and your clients will trust you more, be happier customers, and more likely to recommend you.
I’m just starting my sixth year of business. I’ll tell you that it took 3 years…yes THREE YEARS for me to make a profit. Part of this was due to the idiotic decisions on purchases I made at the beginning. I purchased Photoshop actions and all kinds of things I thought I needed and ended up not needing. I purchased the wrong lenses and equipment many times over. I feel I only just learned this lesson recently.
It’s also important to note that statistically it takes an average small business 3-5 years to start making a profit. Even the IRS in the United States knows and expects this. They don’t expect to see you show a profit on your taxes until after your third year of business. They expect to see you spending more money than you make.
The reality shows me that sometimes we expect too much upfront. We expect things to happen immediately and when they don’t it’s easy to get down on ourselves. If you aren’t making a profit yet, but you are dedicated to being a photographer know that it is going to take time, and expect it to take lots of time. Make a plan for the future for when you expect to be making a profit. This is what business plans are great for.
Reality #3 Getting Legit
Being a legit business sucks. Did I tell you I’m getting audited for my photography business sales taxes? Not because I did anything wrong, but because back in January when I was being all organized and on time I screwed up. I was getting ready to leave for China and I had to mail my annual sales taxes to the state and the city. I was even mailing them in early (how awesome am I, right?). In all the stress of leaving the country I accidentally put the checks in the wrong envelopes. Yep, the state’s check got sent to the city and vice versa. I can’t begin to tell you how much trouble this has caused me. I mailed those envelopes on January 7th, 2013 and it’s now September 11, 2013 and the problem is still not resolved. The city sent the state its proper check. So what did the state do? They cashed both checks and are auditing me because they’re confused about why I “overpaid.” Meanwhile the city wants its check too.
I could have easily avoided all this hassle over a $100 check if I decided to run my business under the table, but that’s just not the kind of business owner or person I ever want to be.
Being a legitimate and official business is probably the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do for your business. Before you purchases lenses, camera bodies, and Photoshop actions you should be getting your licenses and all your official ducks in a row. It’s not fun and sometimes it’s a real pain in the behind; especially if you’re like me and you could have just mailed the checks to the right places in the first place. Doh! Don’t worry, it’s not that bad to clean up. It just involves a lot of bureaucratic phone calls – the best kind of phone calls there ever was.
The reality is, if you’re not running a legit business it’s going to catch up with you later and it’ll be a bigger mess to clean up than it would be to figure it out in the first place.
Reality #4 Behind the Business
I thought being a photographer would be super glamorous. Spending long days staring at my computer, doing my own accounting, and all kinds of other things I didn’t imagine also became part of the job. Now I needed to be good at social media. I needed to be amazing at online communications and making sure people understood the meaning I was trying to convey. I needed to get the fastest speed of internet available to upload photos at a decent rate. As a result I’m the one that causes the neighborhood’s internet to slow drastically during peak hours. I needed to become a writer so I could blog. I have to pay more taxes and I get no health benefits or vacation days. Buying my own health insurance sucks so much and is so expensive we can only afford for one of us to be insured. My husband is currently not insured although this is changing very soon (kinda excited).
I’ll tell you that behind the scenes it’s not so glamorous. The first few years we were barely scraping by and were lucky to have help from our parents. Things are more steady at this point and we can rely on my income to live off of.
Reality #5 Facebook Makes Me Hate Business
Oh Facebook, how I loathe the. I do get about half my clients from referrals just by simply existing on Facebook. Now, I’m not complaining about Facebook’s rules (see last week’s post). I think their policies are their own and they can do what they like. What I don’t like about Facebook is how much harder it makes running a business. Here’s why:
- Sometimes I spend hours on Facebook that I could use working. It makes me less productive.
- I compare my work to other people and think I’ll never be good enough.
- I see other photographers posting about how busy and awesome their clients are and wonder what the heck is wrong with me when I am not busy with tons of clients.
- I join photography groups on Facebook in attempt to try to network and find a community of like-minded people only to get shut down by an industry bully.
- Photographers post mean stuff about each other and it makes me nervous to even be part of Facebook.
- Photographers pass around these memes that in some ways mock clients’ naive questions when they hire a photographer. I don’t like these. Since when did it become an us vs. them mentality? We need these people to want to hire us, right?
- Photographers are always complaining about how hard it is, but are making it look easy.
- Nobody will answer me when I have a photography question because people want to keep their business secrets private.
In other words, sometimes Facebook makes photography seem like a hopeless business to venture into. I have struggled with all of these things on this list at some point or another. Often times I dread checking in on Facebook because it’s not a positive place where I feel that as a person I can grow. I feel like it’s a place where I have to approach wearing full-on knight’s armor to defend myself.
Facebook makes me hate being a photographer. Here’s my reality… I had a photography Facebook page for about 2 years before I realized that everyone else did too. I was in my own little naive bubble. I was friends with the people I knew on Facebook, added clients as they came in, but I had no idea there were photography blogs, other photographers, photography groups, or photography pages of any kind. I feel lucky that I was naive to others when I started my business and that I could start without their judgement or making myself feel bad every time I made a mistake or wasn’t as good as someone else.
The reality of Facebook is that it can help you grow your business, but it can also be detrimental to your emotional health. My advice? Turn off and unlike, leave, or delete things on there that you don’t like. Make it a positive community for yourself by not engaging in situations or places on Facebook that cause you to question yourself or make you feel bad.
If you need a good Facebook photography group, feel free to join the Photography Awesomesauce one >here<
Reality #6 – Booking Clients
Part of this overall theme is about how we see what other photographers are doing and are comparing our own businesses. You see other photographers booking lots of clients and don’t book any on your own.
Here’s the reality about booking clients. It takes a LOT of time to get clients inquiring regularly about your services. I have to be very honest that when I started my business I didn’t book a lot of clients and the main problem wasn’t the price or me, it was that I wasn’t very experienced and my photographs were not that good. Nobody wanted to pay for something that didn’t look as awesome as Photographer XYZ down the street. I don’t blame them. Alas, sometimes consumers actually have good taste!That was probably the number one reason I didn’t book a lot right away. In order to book more clients I needed to improve my skills. That’s why I did a lot of portfolio building sessions. If I didn’t have clients coming in the door, I’d find someone to do a session with for free so I could continually practice. As my skills improved so did the demand for my services. It takes time for your skills to improve and a lot of practice. If you want to be booking more clients the best thing you can do is find people to photograph so you can practice and improve.
Set a goal for yourself to find someone or something to photograph at least once a week. If you’re not booking sessions make sure you are getting out there with your camera and sharing those photos on your website and Facebook. Make it your own personal goal to have a portfolio that is so full of experience no one will be able to deny your services in the future. Spend time educating yourself on better business and taking better photos. There is always something new to learn. Practice these newfound techniques!
As far as booking my own clients goes…as I said before I’m just beginning my 6th year of business. I’m very proud. I would say that it’s only been the last 2 years where I had to spend less time chasing down clients and they were coming to me on their own wanting what I had to offer. The first several years of business I would fight for clients and do just about anything to book them. My goal for the first two years of business wasn’t to have a session every week it was to have one photo “experience” a month with a client, be it free or paid. I didn’t care, I just wanted the experience. Make your client goals small, so they’re easier for you to reach. Sometimes it’s easy to say “I want to book at least 1 or 2 sessions a week” and then when that doesn’t happen you get frustrated. Realize that most photographers are not photographing this often all year round. During May-September I have about one session/wedding per week. Sometimes 2 or 3 a week and then none the next week, or nothing for even 2 weeks. October-April can be hit or miss. This year I have 2 weddings in October and one styled shoot. I have nothing in November, 1 wedding in December, 1 in January and nothing is booked February, March and April for next year. That’s what an average photographer’s schedule looks like. I may get more things booked as times goes on, but the winter months are very sparse and sometimes I go an entire month without any clients. I consider myself a successful business owner at this point, but even I see photographers who talk about being booked up completely months in advance and it makes me feel bad sometimes. Don’t let those things make you feel bad. Everyone’s business is different and building clients is going to take as much time as getting a profit is. It will come eventually, just focus on practicing and make your goals less lofty and more feasible.
Final Reality – Stop Letting Other People Decide What Success Looks Like for You!
In conclusion, I wanted to tell you guys that we need to stop letting other people’s standards for their own businesses define our own successes. Everyone’s situation is different. You may be a full-time photographer with all the time in the world for lots of clients. You may be a stay at home mom who can only take on 2 sessions a week. You might be a mom, a full-time worker, and a part-time business owner which really limits how many sessions you can take on. Success is going to look different to each of these people. The bottom line is we need to decide what success looks like for us. Once we do that we will be much happier with our businesses.