***The Perspective of 9 industry-wide experts
I was 22 and fresh out of photography school.
The world of portrait and wedding photography was mine for they taking (as they say), and I envisioned rainbows, sprinkly-cupcakes and puppy dogs in my photography endeavor.
I had the technical skills (YEEHAW F-stops and Shutter Speeds).
I felt I was pretty creative (plenty of grass-stains on my britches from gettin-down low!)
I thought I could just start a photography business with no experience and succeed.
All I had to do was finish my website (again), and the clients would flock in, I’d have my dream career, and I’d live happily ever after (READ: move out of my parents house).
That was delusional Lisa.
The Lisa of today knows the “rest of the story.”
…Of floundering to get clients.
Of finally GETTING clients, but realizing I was losing money.
Of the fear of gossip and rejection when I finally raised my price the first time (and then the second…and then the 3rd).
The heartbreak and feeling of shame when leads would say to me “you’re too expensive.”
There are so many things I wish I would have known “back when,” and so many things I wish I could say to my 22-year-old self.
Mainly, the “2 M’s”. Messaging & Mindset.
Messaging meaning how to actually COMMUNICATE how valuable your photography is to your clients, and why YOU are the only person can do what you do how you do it.
Mindset meaning without CONFIDENCE, you’ll never have the courage to get past fear and actually do what you need to do…CHANGE that pricing…SAY your pricing…
I go more in-depth on these topics in other blog posts (and this free master class), so I’ll let you scroll to past articles for that.
The thing is, I’m not alone in this. I talk to photographers every day who either have gone through these types of things, or ARE going through them now.
And so I’ve gathered insights and advice from 8 of the top photography & business leaders in portrait and wedding photography.
While I asked them a question about when they were starting out, this is truly advice you can take and run with no matter where you are in your business.
When you were first starting your photography business, what do you wish you would have known? Did anything surprise you about starting a photography business?
Jenika McDavitt – Psychology for Photographers
When I first started photographing people, it surprised me how infrequently my major concern of the moment intersected with theirs. During the shoot I thought about light, location, and composition, along with keeping up happy conversation. They were concerned – almost solely – with how they looked. (Early on, I lost count how many candid shots were lost because a client reached over to slick back their kid’s hair as I opened my shutter.) Deciding what products to offer, I thought about paper and finishes. But when they decided what products to buy, none of these things were their first or even fourth considerations.
Some of this is unavoidable – it’s your job to think through certain things and create beautiful images and products. But never forget that figuring out your client’s first priorities (and making those things your priorities too) will always get you the farthest in business.
If you can build their confidence in the moment, and take their focus off their lip gloss and onto the people they’re with, it changes their experience. If you prioritize making sure the images are flattering to them, and show who they really are, it can change their self-esteem. (Reality check: People will put a bathroom selfie as their profile photo, toilet in the background and all, if they think their chin and arms look good. You can have the greatest composition with golden light and leading lines, but if they are self-conscious about how you captured them, that photo will probably get buried. Do beautiful work, but don’t care so much about your own photo goals that you lose touch with theirs.) When it comes time to sell the images you made, find out what they hope to experience, feel, and do – then focus on ways you can meet those needs. Don’t just introduce your whole entire line and say “so, what do you want?” Winnow down for them which products get them what they really want, and describe each in terms of how it achieves the goal they just told you about.
Explore their experience and have empathy for them, and you will always last longer in business (not to mention change more lives.)
Learn more about Jenika here.
Nigel Merrick – Prime Focus Lab
Although I’m originally from the UK, I started my portrait business in 2004 when I moved to Memphis TN after 4 years of running an underwater photo-video company where our clients were vacationing SCUBA divers in the Egyptian Red Sea or the Cayman Islands. Essentially, they were a captive audience because we spent an entire day with them on a boat.
In Memphis, not only did I start a land-based photography venture from scratch, I had to do so in a new country. A quick reality check revealed that I no longer had a captive audience but needed to create actual marketing to attract and convert prospects into clients.
Like so many other new photographers, I didn’t know much about business and marketing at the time, and I mistakenly assumed that building a website to showcase my photography would be enough to get bookings.
Looking back, I wish I’d understood more about the power of the emotional elements of photography in marketing. For example, telling the stories of the photos and my subjects, in words, would have allowed me to connect with more people in a deep meaningful way where they could more clearly see the intangible value of what I had to offer.
This would have dramatically shortened the time I spent struggling every day to get new bookings and is a key marketing principle that I teach photographers today as a marketing coach.
Find out more here.
Cole Joseph – Cole’s Classroom
When I was first starting my photography business I wish I would have spent more time & money really spoiling my clients and giving them a client experience that made them TELL EVERYONE! Don’t get me wrong…we built a very successful business from just hard work and word of mouth, so it’s not like our clients didn’t have a great experience, but, I would have gone even MORE over the top to really WOW them and stand-out and not only rely on taking great photos and quick turn around times etc…
That’s what all the good photographers do, so it’s more important than ever to really be different and stand out!
Find out more about Cole & Cole’s Classroom at this link.
Matt Hoaglin – Matthoaglin.com
We started our business 11 years ago and didn’t know how to price our services or products. So we looked around at what the other photographers in town were doing and priced ourselves right in the middle. Looking back, that makes no sense, as their expenses were totally different than ours and we didn’t even know if they were profitable! We could have been basing our pricing off a failing model. And years later we found out they were failed models. Most of those photographers are not around anymore.
Eventually we learned how to price for profit and for our expenses. Through our PPA membership, we attended studio management classes, with Successware (not sure if they are still offered) and that was a turning point for us. Not only are we priced where we should be, but we feel confident charging what we charge because we know why.
Equally important, is learning to put profit first. We learned this much later and wish we had known this from the very beginning. You should set up accounts to put things like profit away (start with 1% of gross sales, for example), a new equipment account, sales tax payable, etc – so when it’s time to spend that money, it’s already there. Really we are just hiding money from ourselves. This gives you a financially healthy business and peace of mind. The best book on the market on this subject is Profit First by Mike Michalowicz. It is a must read.
Find our more about Matt and Matthoaglin.com at this link.
Lori Nordstrom – Simply Blessed
I wish I knew these top 5 things NOT to do!
# 1. FAIL TO PLAN
It’s said that when you fail to plan, you plan to fail!
Most of us start in this business the same way. We’re so excited about our hobby that has turned into something that our family and friends are praising us for! We hear things like “you’re so talented!”, “I love your work” and we start photographing our friends and friends of friends and we’re having a great time doing it! Then one day we wake up and wonder where the heck the last year of our life went! Anyone feel that way? I know that I did!
A business plan is important, right from the beginning.
#2. BE TOO EAGER FOR A STUDIO SPACE
So many photographers go through this whole idea of “I’ll finally be ‘for real’ when I get a retail location!” Instead, really look at the value of what you have to offer right now! I promise you there is value in however you decide to do business. Look for that value and then learn to communicate it to your client!
#3. HIRE EMPLOYEES WITH NO JOB DESCRIPTIONS
This was a biggie for me. When I opened up my first studio in 2000, I jumped in big. I bought a large building and I also went digital that year! It was a huge time of crash-and-burn for me. I was up all night working and was just dying for help!! Soooo, I started hiring people, and basically the only thing that I said was “help!!”. I’ve always heard “Hire the personality and train the task”, and I totally believe in that! However, you have to KNOW what you NEED and have job descriptions put together before you can train that task!
#4. GIVE AWAY THE FARM
Yep, we’ve all been guilty of this! me too. We get started in photography, and get into the “portfolio building” stage and we GIVE. STUFF. AWAY. We all do it! We not only give away a free session, but we feel we aren’t good enough to charge appropriately so either prices are way, way WAY too low OR we think we need to throw things in! With this FREE session! Don’t do that!! Your client “GETS” to be the model for your portfolio. Offer to show and sell her the images after the session.
#5. THINK LIKE AN ARTIST INSTEAD OF A BUSINESS PERSON
I think it’s great to be an artist, and even for that to be your first love. But when the time comes to run your business and run it profitably, you have to start thinking like a business person. This is SO hard – for 99% of photographers! We love what we do so much that we just think it’s all going to fall into place, but to make your business work for you, instead of the other way around, you’ve got to start thinking like a business owner. Putting systems in place, planning, and knowing your numbers will change your business and your life dramatically.
Jared Bauman – ShootDotEdit
One of the things I wish I had known was how relational the photography business really is (for that matter, probably most personal service businesses!). I thought it was vital to spend lots of time on my branding, my website, my portfolio, etc. And while these things are important, the vast majority of your business will end up coming from the relationships you establish with your clients and fellow vendors, and the people they refer you. It took me years to truly lean into building relationship as a priority.
Another area I wish I had known more about is focusing on what is truly important in your business. Giving your clients what they want is most important, but I started by giving my clients what I wanted. Clients want a great experience on the day of their event. They want their images quickly so they can enjoy them and share with family and friends. Over the years, I learned I needed to set up great systems for all the rest, like editing, blogging, and marketing, so that I could spend the bulk of my time focusing on what my clients found most important.
Learn more about Jared and ShootDotEdit at this link.
Paul & Melissa Pruitt – Photographer Entrepreneurs
When you were first starting your photography business, what do you wish you would have known?
Show less work and only your best work. This is what you will be judged by. To be successful, it is 90% business, which includes marketing and sales and 10% of the photography itself. Not everyone is your client and be ok with that fact. You are worth being paid for your eye and expertise.
Did anything surprise you about starting a photography business?
How easy it was to separate myself from the competition, because the majority of the photographers in my marketplace don’t focus on the marketing and business side of photography. Once you understand your business is like any other product or service in the marketplace and that you can control how you are positioned on that virtual store shelf, then you open up new possibilities to attracting the clients you really want.
Find our more about the Pruitt’s and Photographer Entrepreneurs at this link.
Ben Hartley – Six Figure Photography
Ben has a special recorded message answering these questions for you!
Don’t miss out…there’s a toy dinosaur involved!
Find out more here: sixfigurephotography.com