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how-to-make-a-living-as-a-photographer Time Out With Tanya

How to Make a Living as a Photographer Without Selling Your Soul


By Tanya Goodall Smith on July 25th 2015

Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera, and you can come along if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here, so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

A few months ago I came across the Pro Photographer’s Manifesto, 10 Habits of Successful Pros by Boudoir Photographer Christa Meola and it really struck a chord with me (you can grab a free copy yourself by clicking here). How I wish I had been given some guidelines like this before I decided to pursue photography as a career. In fact, I would do a lot of things differently if I could go back in time 5+ years. If you’re just starting out (or finally learning lessons the hard way like me), I hope you’ll follow these tips for how to make a living as a photographer without selling your soul.

1. Work for Someone Else First

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A few years ago I went to a wedding photography workshop to see if weddings were something I might want to pursue. I was getting serious about photography, and weddings seemed like a profitable way to go. I’m so glad I went to that workshop and worked as a second shooter for an entire year before branding myself as a wedding photographer. Do you want to know why? Because after that experience I decided weddings didn’t really work out very well for me.

If I could start over, I would get a job or an apprenticeship with a successful photographer before ever venturing out on my own. Looking back, I see this probably would have been easier said than done. Most photographers I know (at least in my area) work alone so I’m not sure this would have been a possibility. I see a lot more studios hiring associates, so this is good news for someone wanting to learn the ropes of business by working for someone else first. Did you work for a studio or another photographer before venturing out on your own? Tell us how it benefitted you in the comments below.

2. Study Business

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I hear this over and over again from those photographers who seem to actually be making a living as an artist. You have to learn about doing business if you are going to have a business. The creative, artistic and technical aspects of photography are important but the business side of things seem to be an afterthought in many photography or art educational programs. If I could go back in time, I might have majored in business and marketing in college, instead of art. At this point in my career, I’m looking at hiring a business manager to help me moving forward.

3. Value Yourself and Your Work

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Once your talent is identified, you’ve sought an education, honed your craft and built up a portfolio, probably even taken the time and spent the money for a fantastic brand image and you’re calling yourself a pro, it’s time to value yourself and charge accordingly. Don’t give your work away for free.

This is a big mistake I myself have made, and I see so many photographers doing it. This mistake not only undervalues you, but it also undercuts the rest of us. If you’re able to consistently create meaningful art and deliver a valuable product, don’t give it away for nothing. Since art is subjective, its value is based on perception. How are you being perceived by your potential clients based on the value you place on yourself?

4. Identify Your Values & Set Boundaries

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Another lesson learned the hard way for me. Are you so desperate for work you’ll take anything? Even if it’s an event on your husband’s birthday and they called you the night before to see if you were available and they’re only paying you $100? How will saying “yes” affect your relationship with your husband? Which do you value more? Your relationship with your husband or a $100 client?

The more boundaries you set, the more valuable you become. Decide what’s important to you and stick to it. Are weekends and evenings reserved for family? Stick to that. If someone guilts you into breaking your rule, charge a premium fee at the very least. Spell your values out for yourself, so you know how to respond to inquiries. Consider writing your own manifesto or core values list. I wrote one, and it’s so empowering! I’m saying “no” now more than ever, which leaves more time and energy for higher paying clients who truly value my time and talent.

5. View Criticism Objectively

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Here’s a sad, sad story from my youth. I was a senior in high school, headed off to college in a few months, unsure of which major I should choose. Writing or graphic design? A handful of my writing samples were given to someone I didn’t know or trust and now that I’m older and know better, I don’t even think he had any valid credentials. He critiqued them harshly, and the only thing my emotionally immature self got from the whole conversation was that my writing was awful, and I should just give it up. And I did. For a long time.

A complete change of my future came about because I listened to the criticism of someone who likely didn’t even know what he was talking about and ended up just being a total jerk. My point in telling you this is that you should consider carefully whose criticism you choose to accept. While Facebook groups can be a great resource, remember they are full of people you don’t know and trust. What are their credentials? What makes them an expert? How invested in you are they? Seeking valid criticism is a good way to grow, just make sure you know who’s giving it to you and judge the changes you need to make accordingly.

6. Learn From Others

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So, how do you find people you can trust to critique your work? I often hear people say it’s a waste of time to study art in college (and as I previously mentioned, studying business might actually be more profitable) but I will never regret my art school education. Learning how to accept critique by someone with more experience than you who has your best interest at heart is important.

Of even more value is learning how to critique your own work based on what you’ve studied and learned in the past. Rather than constantly asking for others to critique your work, try looking at the work of those you admire and figure out what you love about it. What’s working? How can you implement some of those elements into your own work?

SLR Lounge is such a fantastic resource for photographers of all levels. Our primary goal is to help you learn about photography in a positive community setting and at your own pace. Much of what I have learned about photography has been from online tutorials or workshops I purchased to watch at home. If you’re just starting out, I highly recommend you pick up our Photography 101 Workshop DVD. It will save you a ton of time and headache and give you a good foundation for success.

7. Avoid Debt

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I’m a big fan of staying out of debt. That’s a hole I just don’t want to have to dig myself out of and luckily I have managed to avoid this pitfall as an artist and photographer. Before diving into the world of professional photography, I had no idea whatsoever how expensive it could be and how easily one can fall into the trap of needing the next new piece of gear.

You don’t need the newest and the best to be a professional. Yes, it’s important to have the necessary tools to get the job done. This is one area where learning from the experience of others (or working for someone else first) could help you determine what you need.

8. Set Measurable Goals

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Every successful person I’ve ever met works with intention by setting goals they can measure. How do you define success? How will you know when you get there? How are you going to arrive if you have never set forth a clear destination? Set goals and deadlines for yourself and meet them. If you didn’t meet them, go back and see what wasn’t working and make a change. If you need someone to help keep you accountable, share your goals with a trusted friend or coach.

9. Treat Your Business Like a Business

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My photography business started out as “something to do in my spare time to earn extra money.” Then it quickly became a time sucking black hole of working for free. Sound familiar? Being perceived as a mom-tographer with no real need to be profitable or competitive with “real” professionals will only change when you start treating your business like a business. This is a harsh reality and I’ve heard it from so many. That being said, do you really want to be in business, or would you rather be more of a hobbyist? Decide now before you get sucked into that black hole forever. (Note: It’s ok to keep your photography a hobby!)

10. Don’t give up

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You have no idea how many times I’ve had an entire month with no bookings and been ready to throw in the towel. Then an amazing opportunity comes my way or I get creative with a personal project or have the chance to go with WPPI and connect with all of you and remember why I chose photography in the first place. Discouragement comes and goes, but photography has been one of the only constants in my life since I was 14 years old. I always come back to it. Making a living at it is something few manage to do. If you’re really determined and smart you’ll make it work without selling out or selling your soul.

Other articles you might like:
DO YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO LIVE A CREATIVE LIFE?

TOP WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS SHARE THE BLUNT, REAL TIPS AND TRUTHS OF THE BUSINESS

COMPANIES THAT SAVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS TIME

3 MOST COMMON MISTAKES OF SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS AND HOW TO AVOID THEM

CREDITS: Photographs by Tanya Smith are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Andy & Amii Kauth

    7 – 10 really hit home; good stuff!

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  2. Robert Barnes

    I think those people who are successful do not tend to need to be told to “not give up”.

    I have noticed that truly successful people in every endeavor have persistence/obsession front and center in their lives.It is obsession/ambition/drive that creates that urge to keep on despite adversity.

    Changing direction usually means that the drive and ambition was insufficient to keep going in that particular direction.
    This is not to disrespect those who have tried and changed their minds but to point out that ALL fields have their challenges and that leaving there field means one got enough information to see that it was not for them.
    Much as you learned that weddings were not for you.

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    For some reason, I cannot save this article; it goes to the home page. This is great advice!

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  4. Julie Boyd

    Great article Tanya! I definitely wish I had done #1 and #2 before trying to start my own business right out of college, but luckily it is never too late to go back and educate yourself more – which I am doing now.

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  5. Samuel Sandoval

    Another way to approach is to be firm with your pricing.

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  6. Brandon Dewey

    great advice. Not going into debt and studding business are both very important!

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  7. Paul Empson

    Your advert is blocking the Mark as Read button… and a little more iffy script is off on this page… in both IE & Chrome

    Very good article though…

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  8. Matthew Saville

    11. Marry a spouse with a stable income and benefits.

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  9. Graham Curran

    I have the same problem with the page.

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  10. Andre Queree

    There’s something wonky with the page – I can’t mark it as read, save it for later or like any posts. :(
    Good article with some useful tips though.

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  11. Peter McWade

    Did not let me mark as read. Good read and one I keep listening and reading. Im not quite ready to take the plunge. I have a great full time job right now. So hobby it is for now. Learning loads.

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    • Alexander Europa

      I can’t Mark as Read either. Great article though! Tip 8: Set Measurable Goals is what I am in the process of working on right now as I make the transition to “professional” from hobbyist. What do I want to achieve? How many clients do I want to book this year? How much money do I need to make in the next 2-3 years to offset the cost of gear, traveling, and time?

      I’ve also considered switching my major to business (I’m a part-time student while on Active Duty), but I know a lot of very successful entrepreneurs who believe that they were successful specifically because they didn’t pursue a business degree. They say that they’ve seen business degrees kill creativity-not in photography, but in marketing and similar areas. Maybe the best of both worlds is to major in finance (or even something completely unrelated) but to take a few intro business classes on the side to get the majority of the information.

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  12. Ernesto Gonzalez

    Definately all items in the list are worth to read and think about. I don’t do photography full time even though I would love to. When I work I give my heart out, I learn from the best in the industry that most closely matches my style and adapt. Giving up is something many of us like humans we are, at some point consider but something or someone deter us from doing. Value your work is important and having many photographer willing to drop prices to a bare minimum is rather unfortunate and diminishes the value of your work.

    How about client education? What’s right and artistic to you has no value to others. Most folks don’t know and don’t care if you a great DOF to separate the clients from the background. They simply like the pics of this new photographer with more than corney photos. and the list goes on and on.

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    • Tanya Goodall Smith

      I think client education is a great one and should be added to the list for sure! Thanks for sharing. How do you go about educating your clients?

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  13. Rafael Steffen

    Thanks for the great advices.

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