Starting A Photography Business: 5 Things I Would Tell My Past Self
Have you ever had the following thoughts?
- I wish I knew 10 years ago what I know now.
- I wonder what I could have accomplished with this knowledge from the start.
If I were able to talk to my younger self, specifically the young photographer who was starting a photography business, what would I say? What might you say? Add your thoughts in the comments below.
As for me, if I were limited to share only five bits of advice, I think the conversation would go a little something like this…
1. Understand That Photography And The Business Of Photography Are Not The Same
There’s a big difference between being passionate about photography versus actually enjoying the business of photography. Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the business of photography. I do, I love it. But, I also happened to have majored in accounting and business. This is a background that may be different from many artists approaching photography as a career.
Back then, I knew our backgrounds in business would be helpful. But, I didn’t realize that 90% of our upcoming adventure would consist of business and only 10% of actual photography.
When we started Lin and Jirsa Photography, the three of us knew little about photography. We did not own a camera that wasn’t attached to a phone. In fact, I hadn’t really even used a camera since my high school photography and film classes. Justin, Chris and I decided early to each focus on a specific aspect of the business. With my limited knowledge, I felt like the art of photography was a subject that I could enjoy and become passionate about. I would eventually become our company’s Creative Director, in charge of our company’s photography style and product.
In the meanwhile, I had a long way to go. I began practicing everywhere. Within a week or so of having my first DSLR, I sent Chris/Justin a few pictures to show off my new skills. I’m not sure if Chris was being sarcastic, or just encouraging… I’ll take encouraging. Below were his words sent to me via email nearly 10 years ago. Yes, the pictures were nothing but “crazy” bad.
However, it wasn’t long into our new careers when I began to realize that taking photos represents a very small part of what most professional photographers do on a daily basis. I found it even more interesting how the aspects of business, psychology, and client service could actually improve our photography and imagery. Regardless, photography and the business of photography were two very different things.
I also started to realize the kind of silliness in thinking we should go into the business of photography because we love taking pictures.
To illustrate my point, consider this analogy: “I really make a good cup of coffee. I should probably open up a coffee shop.” Making a great cup of coffee and running a coffee shop are two completely different things. Likewise, if you enjoy cooking, that does not necessarily mean that you should attempt to own and operate a restaurant.
“Making a great cup of coffee and running a coffee shop are two completely different things.”
These analogies sound somewhat ridiculous, but that’s the point. Before we know better, we imagine this is how the world of professional photography operates. In reality, you might love taking pictures. But, that doesn’t mean you should try to open a photography studio unless you can also love the process and business behind running a photography studio.
Trying to sustain a photography business on passion alone often leads to burnout. Most photographers end up quitting and exiting the industry before ever really seeing success because they didn’t realize that they needed to love the business side of photography. Fortunately, Justin, Chris and I all loved business. Some of us more than others. Shortly after launching our business, Justin would go on to focus on the business and managerial aspects of our company, while Chris focused on marketing and lead generation.
Regardless, this need to love more than just the art itself leads to my next point.
2. Have Passion For The Process, Not Simply The Art
In my mind, “passion” is beginning to sound like a four letter word. #$@! I often hear people say, “Follow your passion.” I understand. I’ve said similar things myself. You do need passion, but I would redefine what that passion should be. I would change the quote to “Follow your passion for the process.” You need passion for steps A, B, C, D, and E, as well as all the steps that take you up to Z. It’s not about simply the end result; it’s about all of the nitty-gritty details you encounter on the way to accomplishing that goal.
If your goal is simply to be a professional photographer of any sort, I’m sorry to say that, statistically, you’re not going to make it. The vast majority of photographers end up entering and exiting this industry within five years. This alarming dropout rate is due to photographers not realizing that photography and the business of photography are two separate things. They must enter with a passion beyond the process of simply taking pictures. As mentioned earlier, 90% of a photographer’s job is dealing in the day-to-day business. It’s sales, marketing, communication, getting your name out there, self-promotion, postproduction, workflow, client service, and all of the other components that extend far beyond simply taking photographs.
3. Ignore Social Media
Don’t get me wrong, social media is a great tool. Never before have we been able to directly reach our target audience. There’s incredible power for good in social media. There’s also an incredible power in completely derailing your career and goals. Social media gives us a window to our potential audience. It also gives us a negative window we fall into using to compare our work and career to that of other photographers.
As photographers, we are inherently sensitive creatures. We are emotional, passionate, and driven. We are often in love and attached to the work we create. This is what makes us great at being photographers. It’s what drives us to be artists.
There’s another side of that double-edged sword. While these traits make us great at documenting with emotion, they also create overly harsh self-critics. As humans, we have to constantly fight our need to compare ourselves to others. As artists, we struggle even more in also comparing our artwork. Spending extensive amounts of time on social media can be like adding gasoline to this already intensely burning need for comparison. Days, months, and years can be lost living vicariously through social media. I’m not saying to turn it off completely, but I am saying to turn it off.
Here is what I do. At this point in my career, I realized that nothing on social media is so urgent that it requires me to be on my phone nonstop. Instead, I’ve simply removed social media from my phone, I’ve also set clear rules so that I only check social media once in the morning when I do my posts and generally once at the end of the day.
Here are a couple of techniques that I would recommend if you are considering scaling back your time on social media.
Limit The Number Of Social Media Apps You Keep On Your Phone
I left Instagram on my phone because it’s a useful outlet. I also find it nice to be able to post from time to time when I’m simply stuck somewhere. I have nothing better to do on a train, on a plane, or in an automobile (which is a fantastic movie, by the way).
I’ve removed Facebook and Messenger from my phone simply because I don’t like the distraction. I’ve tried turning off all the notifications, but having Facebook installed on my phone is too tempting to look at, especially when I’ve just posted a photograph, so I removed it from my phone entirely.
Set Usage Rules
If there is something that I need to respond to or if there’s something that I need to check on, I follow a set of rules. First, social media is for when I get into the office. I can check and make my post on my computer if I have a moment of downtime. I might check once during the day and once at the end of the day as necessary to make sure there’s nothing I need to follow up on. Give yourself a schedule and restrictions to help prevent spending more than 10-15 minutes a day doing something that might be ineffective in your business.
Remind yourself that checking social media too often can derail your goals and lead you down a depressing spiral of self-criticism.
USE THE IOS “SCREEN TIME” FEATURE
Set your goals, then use Screen Time on iOS or find a similar app on your Android device. These apps will show you daily usage, the amount of “pickups” per hour and other data that will absolutely blow your mind.
4. Realize That Education Is More Important Than Gear
You might think that I’m saying this because I want you to buy into our education. Well, of course, I want you to buy into our education, but that’s not the point. I’m telling you this because when I started my career as a photographer, it was always about the gear. I would look at somebody else’s work and just say, “Oh man, if I only had that lens, or if I only had their lighting setup, etc.”
It took me several years to realize that great quality imagery has almost nothing to do with the gear that we use. Even further along in my journey, I realized that things like bokeh, a fast lens, and the perfect camera body end up becoming little more than compositional crutches that prevent us from realizing and creating the types of images that we envision.
A $10 book or a $100 course, or even a great workshop could get me so much further in my career than simply spending $2,000 on the next best lens or constantly upgrading my camera body. Get past the gear acquisition syndrome (aka G.A.S.) and step into that phase where you’re continually investing in your education.
By the way, when I say to continually invest in your education, I also mean outside of the world of photography. I’m constantly consuming photography knowledge, but I read books outside of photography as well. It helps to make goals. My goals include reading at least one book per week. I do this either reading on my own or through using mediums like Audible, which makes this goal far more attainable. I’ve been able to meet or exceed my goal each year since 2014. If you add it up, I spend about two hours a day studying either my craft, my business or something of a personal development nature. I try to spend more time when I can.
[REWIND: LESSONS FROM A QUITTER PODCAST | WHY YOU DON’T NEED PASSION TO CREATE A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS]
5. Know that Client Experience Trumps All
Client experience trumps all. What does that mean exactly? Well, once again, this is one of those things that I didn’t quite understand during the first few years of operating our studio. Instead, I thought that our clients cared mostly about awesome lighting and the dramatic images that we were creating. I just so happened to give my clients a great experience as well. For the most part, we rarely received complaints in our early years, and when we did have a client issue, we were easily able to resolve it. This lasted for about three years. Then, we started bringing on associate photographers.
Our associate photographers were very talented, but on occasion, they would receive a client complaint. I found it so odd because I would pull up the images and look at the photographs. The images were usually amazing with great lighting, great compositions, and beautiful expressions. Everything was on point in these photographs. Yet the clients would say they didn’t like the photos. It was very difficult to figure out exactly why until something clicked about six or seven years ago.
We began to realize that it wasn’t the actual photographs that the clients loved or hated. It was the experience that came along with it. Now, this sounds silly, but I want to give you the psychological reasoning behind this. Think of a photograph that you love, any photograph from your own personal life that you absolutely love. Just think about it. Now pause for just a moment. Which image has particular meaning to you? What do you look back on? What image can always make you smile when you look at it? Think of that photograph.
Now. Once you have that photograph in your mind, I’m going to ask you some more questions.
What is the reason you like that photograph?
Does it have anything to do with the way that it was lit, the way that it was shot, the technical settings on the camera, or the way that it was post-processed?
Does it have anything to do with the technical side of that photograph?
I’m going to guess most of you are probably going to say no because most of us think back to a photograph that has meaning and purpose, that has a story. It holds emotional ties that we appreciate because of the historical meaning of the photograph. Whatever’s happening inside of that photograph is what we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about the feeling that we had when dad gave us a hug and sent us off to school. We’re thinking about the emotions that we had as a child, spending time with our family. We’re thinking about the good times that we had with our friends. We’re thinking about those moments during a wedding that was just amazing with incredible highs. We think about all of the wonderful emotion attached to these images. We do not think about the artistic or technical side of the photograph.
This is a process called anchoring.
We anchor ourselves whenever we have an extremely high or an extremely low emotion. We anchor ourselves to a memory, and when there’s a photograph associated with that memory, that photograph becomes a very poignant part of that memory. When we look at that photograph, we’re taken back to that emotional anchor. The problem here is that it’ll take us back to that emotional anchor regardless of whether it’s a positive or negative emotion. This means that if we give our clients a negative overall experience while taking these photographs, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the images are. Seeing that image will take the client back to the negative emotion that they experienced while the photograph was taken. We’ve essentially set a negative anchor in their minds and we’ve placed a photograph behind it, which is going to take them straight back to it each time.
This is when we begin to realize that we had to teach our associate photographers to understand the significance of client experience, the way that the clients feel when their photographs are being taken. What we say, how we operate, the way that we communicate, the way that we encourage clients and act as friends (and almost as psychologists) rather than photographers during the shoot, all of it matters. The way that we make them feel is what they’re going to remember, and if that memory ties into an image that is beautiful and has great expressions, then perfect. When they look back at that, that’s what they’re going to feel. Even if there’s a small technical component that we photographers notice as being a little bit off, they’re likely not going to notice it because they’re not thinking about it. Their visual eye isn’t as trained as ours. On top of that, they’re rooted in that positive emotional anchor.
That’s what I wish I would’ve known when we first started out.
I hope you all have enjoyed these five points that I would tell my past self. If you appreciated this content, I recommend taking a look at SLR Lounge Premium or checking out our complete workshop pathways. We recently launched the Complete Wedding Photography Training System. In addition, we are currently releasing the Complete Photography Business Workshop Series. These are complete educational pathways that sum up our entire 10 years of experience to get you to the place where you want to be in your photographic career at an exponentially faster pace.
I’d love to hear back from you. I’d specifically love to hear any of the things that you might tell your past self in business or in photography when you were first starting out. Please comment in the comments section below.