This is the first a series of articles about some of the issues and challenges faced by photographers who might be new to the business, or those who aren’t exactly new to it, but do feel as if they might as well be given the problems and frustrations they deal with every day.
Over the course of this series, we’ll look at the difficulties and frustrations of gaining a strong foothold in the photography business, the importance of creating your personal online empire, why most marketing doesn’t work when you’re new, how to build relationships that will serve your business, and how to become an effective online marketer of your photography services.
Here in part one, we’ll travel back in time to that first exciting moment when you decided that a life as a professional photographer was the one you wanted to pursue, instead of spending the rest of your life working for someone else where you might end up feeling unfulfilled and full of regrets at not having at least tried photography as a business.
The Story For Most Photographers
It all starts with passion, doesn’t it? Without a deep love for photography and an almost physical need to be a photographer, there’s very little point in starting on the path to becoming a pro photographer because passion is, in a sense, the fire in which your creativity burns, right?
In fact, I bet you’d find it hard to imagine doing anything else for a living and still feeling any real sense of satisfaction.
You may not have realized it at the time, but that passion for photography is also the invisible force that will hold you up and encourage you to keep going forward when times get tough.
Because things will get hard, there’s no doubt about it, and anyone who tells you otherwise or says that being a professional photographer is a walk in the park full of smiles and laughs is simply not telling the truth.
In fact, if you’ve been in the business for even a short time, you probably already know all that, and you’re likely dealing with many problems right now that you had no idea even existed when you gave birth to your photography career.
Let’s talk in more detail about some of those issues…
By the way, here’s an audio version of this article:
The Challenges Of Starting Out In The Photography Business
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For now, we’re still on day one, the day when either you realized something deep inside of you was demanding to be expressed through your photography, or someone close to you said, “hey, you take awesome photos, I bet you could earn a great living shooting portraits or weddings!”
Either way, a flash went off in your head, and your photo business was born, kicking and screaming for attention.
I remember those first days very well.
Along with my girlfriend at the time, I’d just quit a well-paying job as a project manager for the Bank Of Bermuda – a job that also came with the cool benefits of living on an amazing island with equally amazing people. To the shock of those I worked with, I left the comparative safety of the corporate world to become an underwater photographer.
Not exactly the most logical career change, I know.
My life literally changed overnight. One day, my working world was made up of a computer, a desk, and a corporate life. The next, it was a wetsuit, a camera, and the unknowns of the Egyptian Red Sea!
Frankly, the possibility of sharing the ocean with sharks was the least scary part of it all. Actually, that part turned out to be an incredible and deeply moving experience, but the whole shift was still a major culture shock all the same.
Everyone we left behind thought we must be crazy! But to us, it was like they were the crazy ones, to allow themselves to remain imprisoned in a life they constantly moaned about.
“Whatever will you do if it all goes to heck and it fails?” was a common question.
And, right there, I knew I was making the right decision because to not do it simply because of fear would lead only to unanswerable questions later on in life when all I could do is look back with regret.
I may be wrong, but I think only other professional photographers like you can fully understand that there was really no question of whether or not to make the leap from the comfort of sitting behind a desk in an office to the uncertainties of living a life behind a camera instead.
The details of your own personal story are obviously different, but the fundamental feeling underneath it all is most likely the same, am I right?
Should You Specialize From The Beginning?
For most photographers, the big question in the beginning is:
“Well, now I’ve gone and done it! But what in the world am I actually going to photograph for a living? Portraits, weddings, landscapes, pets, commercial, architecture? Or something else altogether different?”
Should you specialize in one genre, or start off as a generalist who takes on just about every job that comes along?
Of all the times I’ve asked that same question to the guests I’ve had on the Photography Marketing Masters podcast, the most common and practical answer seems to be to take on as many jobs as you can in the beginning, even if it’s only to see where your passions really lie and to gather enough money to allow you to invest in equipment and further education.
There’s a couple of things I would add to that, though.
First, and this was said best by headshot photographer Peter Hurley in his great interview with me.
“Focus on making your work as good as it can be – practice and hone your craft tirelessly and without becoming too emotionally attached to your photographs, at least in the early stages because there will come a day when you’ll look back on your early work and cringe. If your work sucks, no one will buy it, plain and simple.”
Secondly, it’s quite likely that wedding photography will seem like a tempting choice at the beginning because that’s where the money appears to be, and it’s become somewhat acceptable among photographers to default to wedding photography as a way to start earning a living.
But, please consider the wedding photography option carefully.
If you’re not passionate about weddings, and I mean you don’t love them so much you would happily spend every weekend at a wedding, then you’re going to find them to be almost unbearable to photograph after the first few. Even if you’re a master of hiding your feelings in front of the bride and groom, and they have no idea you would rather spend the day being stung by wasps than be at their wedding, it will show in your photographs.
They say the camera doesn’t lie, and one thing it does not lie about is the quality of the personal connection you have with your subject. Good or bad, you won’t be able to hide it in your images.
Thirdly, please don’t practice on people’s real weddings when you’re in the portfolio building phase of your business! This is someone’s special day, a once-in-a-lifetime event that you cannot do over if anything goes wrong, so please find an experienced photographer to work with first as a second-shooter or assistant. Trust me, it will pay off handsomely in the long run.
This includes those times when someone says they don’t care if it’s your first ever wedding, they want you to do it. I’ve lost count of the number of photographers who’ve been badly burned on that one by an angry bride who didn’t understand just how bad the photos really could be from someone so inexperienced.
Think on this for a moment:
You might regret not taking on a particular wedding for a short time, but a job gone wrong through ignorance and inexperience will haunt you forever.
Developing Your Craft And Becoming Your Best Critic
Going back to the subject of building your portfolio, this is a critical part of your photography business and it never really stops as we grow and improve at what we do.
The one skill that I see most new photographers lacking is effectively editing their own work. I don’t mean editing in the retouching sense, but in the sorting and culling of images to identify the absolute best images from a session or assignment.
Becoming your best critic (not your most critical, which is a bit different) is one of the most valuable skills any photographer can learn, and if there’s one thing I wish I had learned much earlier in my photography career it would be the ability to quickly and accurately identify the best images from a set with utmost confidence.
Not only will this skill make you a better photographer, it will attract more people to you through your blog and website, and will also help improve your final sales revenue and the bottom line of your business.
A Few Jobs And Then… Nothing
Let’s fast-forward the clock a little in your business now, and see what’s happening several months or a year into it.
Up to that point, you seem to have done okay. There’s been a steady stream of projects and assignments, not enough to set the world on fire, sure, but enough to keep your interest and enthusiasm.
Then, one day, you’re sitting at your computer and you realize it’s been a little longer than you would like since the last client. Not enough to really cause serious concern – yet – but long enough that you feel a little uncomfortable and wonder when the next one is coming.
New clients seem to appear out of nowhere in small bursts, but with painfully long gaps in between, and you start to worry – especially if your spouse or partner shows signs of seriously questioning the sense of going into the business to begin with.
Frustration And Doubt Start To Set In
Before too long, real frustration and serious doubts start to set in, with a good helping of stress and worry on the side, and then the emergency marketing kicks in, if it hasn’t already, in a vain attempt to mollify your doubting friends and family, not to mention finding the money to pay the mounting bills.
What do I mean by emergency marketing?
It’s the business equivalent of damage control, or an attempt to shore up failing defenses.
It’s that madcap idea that hits you in the shower on a Monday morning through a fog of desperation that’s then turned into a fully-fledged Facebook post by lunchtime, complete with a hurriedly put together sales page and marketing materials, but which is declared a dismal failure by the next day.
And the fun just carries on.
By the way, if you made it past this point in your business, then I congratulate you!
Honestly, many other photographers threw in the towel long before they ever got this far. Many chucked it in because of mounting pressure from family members, others because they simply didn’t have the passion they thought they did when they started out, and it all just felt like too much hard work or like flogging the proverbial dead horse.
The sad thing is, a lot of photographers remain stuck at this point in their business for a long time, sometimes years, depending on how long they can hold out.
A lucky few of them manage to escape the misery, by realizing something very important that so many others simply miss altogether.
The Realization That There’s A Lot You Probably Don’t Know
There’s a saying that goes something like, “you often don’t know what you don’t know”, and that one simple phrase, when taken seriously, has probably saved more businesses than many people might realize.
I know without any shred of doubt that it saved mine.
But why is this such an epiphany for people?
It seems so simple, that it’s almost like stating the obvious.
Of course we don’t know what it is that we don’t know – it’s called ignorance, and it’s a normal part of the human condition, right?
Yes it is, but the key here is this:
When we realize the truth of it, we very quickly come to the realization that in order to know the things we don’t know we should know (boy, that’s hard to say) we do know it’s time to seek outside help. After all, if we’re unaware of the things we need to know in order to succeed then the only way to get that information is from someone else who does know, right?
This is where the smart photographers look for a mentor or business coach, or perhaps join a group coaching program like my Prime Focus group.
Sadly, others continue to struggle on by themselves, in the mistaken belief that they’ll find all the answers they need in order to discover what it is they don’t know on the world’s largest free library, otherwise known as the Internet.
The Overwhelm Of Trying To Sort Through All The Advice
Have you seen how big the Internet is?
No, me neither, but I don’t need to.
To paraphrase the genius writer Douglas Adams from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, “The Internet is big… really big!”
However, unlike the Earth, as it was described in the same book, the Internet is not “mostly harmless”.
The Internet is both big and a mess.
It’s like the world’s largest teenager’s bedroom with all kinds of junk randomly thrown all over it, the important stuff buried under what seems like more rubbish than any normal person could ever hope to create in a single lifetime.
Joking apart, there’s no denying there’s a lot of information out there in cyberspace, but the sheer volume of it and highly variable quality leads to mass overwhelm – who in the world has the time to go through all that lot and figure out what’s right and what’s wrong?
I know I don’t, do you?
Worse still, at the risk of going all Kung-Fu on you, if you don’t know what you don’t know, how will you even know what you’re looking for?
That’s where a coach comes in handy, or someone who can look at your business objectively and show you the things you should be doing right now to get things moving.
Don’t Know Where To Focus The Marketing Efforts?
Of course, one of the big problems new photographers face is knowing where to focus their marketing efforts.
What are they going to market, who will they market it to, and how will they get their message across in the first place, and through which channel?
With so many channels to choose from, it can be hard to know which ones will work the best. Website, blog, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, email, video, direct mail, billboards, TV and radio ads, newspaper ads, the list just goes on and on.
And the really scary part is that they all work some of the time for some of the people.
To loosely paraphrase again, you can use some of the marketing channels to reach some of your audience all of the time, but you can’t use all the channels all of the time to reach all the people.
In other words, you need to pick and choose the marketing channels based on who it is you want to reach and what you want to say to them.
To make things even worse, what works for one photographer may fail dismally for another photographer for no apparent reason, except that the two photographers are at different stages in their business or have developed different levels of authority with their audience.
As a new photographer, or even someone who feels almost new to the business, how in the world are you supposed to figure all this stuff out?
One thing is certain, a lot of those Facebook groups so many photographers seem to love so much aren’t going to be an awful lot of help, and can turn into a bad case of the blind leading the blind. In the worst of cases, I see photographers who complain that they’re struggling one day suddenly become experts on everyone else’s business the next. Frankly, the so-called peer-to-peer advice we see in those groups is downright dangerous sometimes.
But, as you’ll see as we go through this series, it’s not all bad news, and there is a way for you to get a really strong foothold in the marketplace with your business, one that has a great chance of success if you stop focusing on the latest tactics or copying what everyone else is doing because, if you take the time to notice, they’re mostly in the same knee-deep mess you might be in right now.
Pricing And The Temptation To Give Away The Farm
So what else causes new photographers a real headache? Pricing, that’s what.
This is such a huge topic, we could dedicate an entire series to it, but it all boils down to common sense about what you need to charge in order to make a living, and how confident you are in both your photography and your ability to communicate your prices to your clients.
The temptation in the early stages is to start at the cheap end of the spectrum, to give away the farm thinking people will appreciate the extra value (newsflash, they won’t), or to jump into the battle arena of discounting, which is really a roller-coaster ride to the bottom.
The best advice when starting out, or if you don’t yet have a strong business, is to price your work at its true value, but to offer very limited-time discounts to a select few people. This will retain the value of what you do, and get you enough clients to enable you to build or strengthen your portfolio.
The Competition Looks Like A Huge Obstacle
One of the driving forces behind fear over pricing is the competition, or at least the perception of the competition.
Because, in reality, you are your only competition. Forget what everyone else is charging, if only because they probably have it all wrong too, and focus instead on what you’re supposed to be doing.
If you ever watch a track race, you’ll notice that the runners who almost win, but then wind up coming second, are the ones who keep looking sideways at the other competitors.
Don’t do that!
There’s only one thing you should be watching, and that’s your own personal growth towards your goals. There’s a whole lot more solid advice on this in my interview with Dr. Stan Beecham.
How Can We Get Past Just Family And Friends As Clients
All well and good so far, I hear you say, but we still need to know how to get past having just family and friends as clients because no one else knows who we are yet.
How in the world are we supposed to get noticed by the people we want to serve and who fit the model of our ideal clients?
I know it might seem like an impossible task or a Catch-22 situation.
How can you get noticed by people if they don’t already know you?
This is where the very powerful tool of content marketing comes to the rescue. You may or may not have heard the phrase before, but it’s actually been around for a very long time, and was the workhorse of many marketers long before anyone had heard of the Internet.
But, before you can start jumping into content marketing in the online world, you need to build an online presence, a platform, if you like, from which to communicate with your intended audience. In the early days of the Internet we would have used the word “broadcast” instead of communicate, as that was the traditional advertising model, but we now live in a much-improved world of two-way communication with our customers.
You still need a platform to do that and to create authority in the marketplace and, in How To Build An Online Marketing Empire For Your Photography Business, we’ll look at what a personal online empire means, and why it’s important to the future success of your business.