When it comes to starting a photography business, there are 101 ways to go about doing it.With dramatically different advice being given all across the board, from so many highly experienced professionals, …how do you know you’re on the RIGHT TRACK?
Here are TEN key items that we think are critical to making your clients happy, and thereby securing long-term success:
1.)Know your equipment like the back of your hand.Bring backup.Practice all the time.
This is the first way aspiring professionals are both intimidated and frustrated.You shouldn’t shoot weddings if you’re in-experienced, but you need to shoot in order to get experience!The wedding industry loves to debate this catch-22.
But it’s not brain surgery or rocket science to master your camera and flash, even to practice posing, practice lighting, etc.Opportunities abound! There is absolutely no reason for someone to go into their first wedding feeling terrified.If you’re in that situation, you’re just not going to do as good of a job even if you ARE a decent photographer.
You can practice pretty much anything WITHOUT ruining some poor bride’s wedding pics.Take small workshops on specific subjects like lighting or posing; this will be a far better investment than most high-dollar workshops that try to teach you everything from A to Z in just one or two days…Also, just go out with friends and shoot, any chance you get.Work on posing.Work on lighting.Practice low-light photography, anticipating candid moments, everything…
Even if you’re already an experienced pro, you should keep your skills sharp.Some areas have an off-season and you might go 1-3+ months without shooting a single wedding.Get out and shoot something similar to a wedding or portrait session, just to keep your eye sharp!
2.)Work with, and value the advice of, other professionals who are currently working in the industry and have proven to be a long-term success.
Again, the catch-22 is not really that difficult to work around.Just study how other pros shoot on a wedding day.Find someone to 2nd shoot for, or even just be a bag-guarding assistant.Then PAY ATTENTION!There are so many subtleties, from brides to equipment, schedules, etc.If you can spend 5-10 weddings just picking up on these little aspects and how a professional handles them, you will be able to go into your first few jobs with FAR MORE CONFIDENCE than if you’re just “hoping for the best”…
This can also be a huge help in the business side.There are so many aspects such as accounting, sales, etc. that you can’t be exposed to by just sitting in a workshop, or reading online articles. ;-)
3.)Make it official.Talk to a CPA or business coach.Set goals.Get a PLAN.
This should be #1 when it comes to actually launching your business, but the previous two things can still happen before you actually launch a business.But the bottom line is that once you’re ready, do NOT just “ask your hobby to pay your bills”.Your spare-time photography interests cannot magically turn themselves into a career.Without a business plan, the most you can hope for is spare spending cash.Yeah, it’s okay to take a few dollars here and there from friends without ponying up for a business license just yet, but the day you start actually doing business with strangers, printing business cards and thinking about your “brand image, …you better be backing up that “officialness”…There is NO FREE LUNCH.The more corners you cut in favor of short-term cash and/or fame, the more you jeopardize long-term survival.
This may sound scary and daunting, but it is just as easy as applying for, securing, and working any other day job.Besides, it applies to a responsible adult life in general.You add up your expenses, you budget, you pay taxes, etc…So instead of just picking a price out of thin air; try this:add up all your costs, both time and money, and break it down to an hourly wage for yourself.Then you’ll begin to get a good idea of what you need to charge.Maybe you still need to shoot for less at first, but at least you’ll have long-term plans and tactics.
4.)Don’t say yes to every single job just because you need the work. Have financial stability on your side.
In fact, if you can afford to, aim to start your business at a high enough price that the business already supports itself.You’ll thank yourself later!Day job giving you crazy hours?No problem, if you budgeted for out-sourcing your post-production in an emergency.But if you’re booking your 20th wedding and you’re still at $900, or even $1900 depending on your area and COL, (cost of living) …you might find yourself in an inescapable downward spiral.
Oppositely, if you have a little bit of financial stability on your side, maybe a nest-egg or a spouse with a decent job, …you can afford to “play hardball” sooner than later.The longer you shoot for cheap just to pay your bills, the more you risk a spiral or burnout.A good tactic is to just blame it on your calendar.Tell potential clients that you would love to give them a discount or shoot for free, however even if it seems reasonable and harmless, (can you take this out of the package?) …it costs YOU time and money because you have to work for that money one way or another.
This may be hard to hear, but very few people actually succeed at launching a business when they’re fighting against the clock AND $$.You stand a much better chance fighting one battle, if you have the other one in your favor.
5.) Be careful with the shoot-and-burn business model.(In Soviet Russia, business model burn YOU!)Â
Shoot-and-burn is a business model just like any other; it can be highly profitable or it can run you into the ground.If you have your expenses and workflow streamlined, and you use SEO or something to bring in a high volume of clients, then you may do fine.HOWEVER, without the right strategy behind it, shoot-and-burn can put you in that same deadly spiral.
The situation is similar and the results are that same spiral- If all you ever deliver is a disc, or a web download link, you may not get very much response.Many clients will just toss that disc on a shelf, or download to a hard drive, …and never actually DO anything with those images aside from Facebooking a few.
A much better way to go is to simply de-emphasize the disc, and begin to emphasize real, timeless products.It doesn’t matter WHAT Apple or Amazon is selling these days; a physical album still rocks a coffee table’s socks off.And the socks of EVERY guest who comes over to their house…So do prints on the wall.Yes, the world is all turning digital, and if you can make an all-digital business model work for you, then that’s great.The point is just to ensure that, whatever you’re delivering, you are enabling and encouraging your clients to share their wedding photos for generations to come.While a DVD or a slick web slideshow is nice, my bet is that in 20-30 years whenthe kids or grandkids want to see what we looked like on our wedding day, we’ll take pride in pulling out a physical book.
6.)Show what you can deliver; deliver what you show.
Don’t just build your portfolio at workshops, over the shoulder of other pros.Don’t just showcase your best ten photos out of the thousand mediocre shotsyou actually deliver to a client.Offer potential clients a 200-300 image collection from a single wedding, start to finish, to prove that you can deliver consistent results.And in general, try not to showcase an image that you don’t know how to light, pose, etc. all by yourself.Conversely, avoid delivering photos that aren’t consistent with the style and standards you display in your portfolio.
This isn’t just a bash on shoot-shops and model-filled portfolios, in fact shoot-shops are a GREAT opportunity to progress your style, learn new things, and just play around without the pressure of a REAL wedding day.It’s also fine to regularly try something new in photoshop.However, the problem is your clients come in your door expecting a certain style.If you dramatically change your shooting or editing style between the time a client books you and the time you deliver photos, you could be in trouble.Your photography can always get BETTER, of course, and our tastes are frequently evolving.But be honest, and be consistent.
7.) Get your “brand” on it’s feet, and then just focus on making your clients happy.
The past ~5 years have seen a HUGE rise in both “brand image” and “social media” among professional photographers.On the one hand YES,how you represent yourself, especially online, has a huge impact on the survival of your business.But on the other hand, after a while all you’re doing is just impressing other photographers with your cool flashy website, or your photography awards etc.This is something highly controversial, but the bottom line is that you must be a businessperson, much moreso than an artist.Spending an hour every other day just tweaking a minor detail in your website is not a valuable use of your time.Spending two hours EVERY day just surfing “the competition” (or “trolling” random communities) is downright wasteful.If you have a business question or something, just hunt down your answer and get back to work.Limit yourself to just an hour or two per week, for following other blogs, “drama”, all that stuff.Learn time management!!!
Just take all that time and effort you save, and put it into your clients.Correspond with them plenty, especially AFTER the wedding day.”No news” is NOT good news!!!Deliver ahead of schedule.Throw in a small gift, something that helps the client enjoy their photography, share it with others, and reminds them that YOU were their wedding photographer.Jamming a few business cards into the envelope when you toss that ugly Memorex DVD in the mail does NOT qualify as “encouraging buzz”.It doesn’t matter how slick your “web presence” is; sooner or later an under-whelming delivery and overall client experience will catch up with you.
8.)Always raise your bar.
Surely plenty of people are still a little annoyed by the aforementioned notion that “it’s not about your photos, it’s about your business”…Well, rightfully so!FocusingÂ solelyÂ on businesssuccess tactics, and not on your craft, is reprehensible.Not that anybody ever gives this exact advice, but everyone seems to take it that way.The bottom line is that yes, cameras are everywhere now, and uncle bobs are everywhere.But make no mistake: STUNNING PHOTOS WILL ALWAYS BE STUNNING.Even though most clients don’t know the difference between “good” and “stunning”, neither do they recommend a mediocre restaurant just because the waiter was super charismatic.Indeed, to survive in the LONG run you must still stand out from the crowd. Â In 50 years, would you rather be remembered for the money you gained, or the images you gave?
If you’re worried that because of digital you will soon be completely unable to create unique work, or even if you already have a few “wannabe” fans who copy everything you do, well…STEP IT UP!Get out there, and crank it up to ELEVEN!Even the greatest photographers in the world still have room to improve.That is what makes this artistic pursuit so enjoyable; you never have to worry about maxing out.There is no perfect photo, but there ARE endless “perfect moments” to be captured…
9.)Be understanding, accommodating, even bend over backwards once in a while.
(…So you don’t have to bend over the OTHER way…)
Another very popular piece of advice among business communities is to always play hardball, to talk your way out of booking difficult clients, and refuse to bend your styleeven the slightest bit for a “cheesy request” or something.You know what?A “tough” client might be close friends with another potential client with tons of money to spend.Or that newlywed couple’s “difficult” MOB (mother of bride) might end up ordering two parent albums and a huge canvas.You get the idea.Don’t be a snobby artist, be a customer service specialist.
So, just think twice before you “go with your gut feeling” and turn away a potential client, or cut ties with a slightly dissatisfied client.Even if they DON’T end up placing a $3,000 print order, well, …there’s still this little thing called Yelp, and this slightly bigger thing called Facebook.And if your business isn’t already well-established, a negative review on either of those little websites could do much more harm than good.
10.)Hone in on a target.
Once you’ve got your business up and running nicely, you’re really confident in your artistic / technical abilities, and you’ve got a small handful of happy past clients, …Hone in.Not necessarily just by saying “I specialize in weddings only”…More along the lines of what types of people in general you enjoy doing business with.Young hipster folks driving Mini Coopers?Outdoorsy granola-crunching REI campers?Luxurious Prada-wearers?You get the idea.Not that you should break the previous rule-of-thumb and start turning away everyone who doesn’t fit your target.Simply put, if you know WHO you’re targeting, you can reach them easier and yes, make more money and achieve more long-term security.
BONUS!Â 11.)…There’s no room for the negative .Be a part of a productive, positive team.
If you’re doing everything right, there just shouldn’t be any time left in your day to waste on negativity, or “haters”.Even if you do wind up with a spare hour here and there, why not get off the stupid internet and spend time in the real world?With your family, friends, and fellow photographers who actually care about you as a real person?
Dollar for dollar, hour for hour, it is FAR more productive to be an active part of a smaller group of fellow professionals who are in your same stages of early business.Your expertise might be workflow, theirs might be pricing or sales. You can second shoot for each other and try new things together, etc.
And yeah, sometimes you gotta vent.Or as the discussion often begins, “I usually don’t do this but I just felt I had to speak out, because…”Honestly, not much good comes of “ranting” or “speaking out” even.Why?Because negativity and attacks just don’t incline your “opponent” to change.Most people really only change their minds when it’s someone close they know and respect.Which is why you should just put your energy into the few people who you CAN help, in your real life.Because at the end of the day, success is about people skills, artistic talent, and productivity.How you spend the bulk of your day, and who you associate with, will make or break your career.
Disclosure: Matthew Saville is a full-time professional working as the post-production manager and an associate photographer for Lin & Jirsa Photography. Matt has been photographing weddings since 2004.