So you’ve decided to enter the world of professional photography! Congratulations. It’s exciting isn’t it? And a little scary too. Especially with all of these seasoned photographers talking about how tough things are. I think there are a few things you should know, so I’m writing this just for you. With this said though, I always warn people that my posts can be pretty blunt. To keep that light I’ll ask if you have your big-boy pants on (Big girl pants work too). Here’s why. If you don’t then some of what I’m going to write will be insulting. You won’t be able to see through that and you’ll get mad. If that’s going to be you then stop reading now. We’ll be friends anyway. But if you think you’re ready, keep going.
The first thing you need to know is this. As with most businesses, the fun stuff is only about 25% of the time you’ll spend. The rest of it is actual work. There is nothing easy about succeeding as a photographer. (That is, unless you have a rich uncle who is underwriting all of your costs). Building a business that lets you charge enough to make a profit after all of your expenses are paid is the hardest part. Learning to take great pictures is also tough. You need to do both. So get ready to spend some time being humbled, getting better, being humbled again, getting better again, etc. And be ready for a lifetime of that.
There are those who have jumped in because you take good pictures. I think the thing you need to understand is that’s a good start, but you have to dedicate yourself to becoming a master of your craft. Here’s why. People aren’t hiring you for good pictures, they’re hiring you for great pictures. These days they can get good pictures for free. Taking great pictures is one part luck and nine parts skill. The settings are rarely perfect. The light is flat. The people are NOT always attractive. The dresses clash with the paint on the walls. The church won’t let you shoot with a flash or work downstairs. The bride gets drunk. (If you’re a bride and you’re reading this somehow please don’t get drunk. It makes it REALLY hard to take good pictures of you.). The groom’s mom is 100 lbs overweight, is wearing a sleeveless white dress and has said she wants some really nice pictures for her husband. If you’re the master of your craft then none of these situations present an insurmountable challenge. If you’re not, your pictures will suck, your clients will not be pleased and you will fail. (And - you also discredit the industry as people will assume that all professional photographers are just amateurs who charge).
There are those of you who’ve jumped in because the day job just wasn’t working out. Congratulations! You have a day job again. Working professional photographers spend most of their time doing actual work. Between editing events, having sales meetings with prospective clients, bookkeeping, rewriting marketing materials, working with vendors, etc., there is a lot of “slog” that has to happen between the “fun times” taking pictures. You’re your own boss now and there’s definitely an upside to that, but in that capacity you have to discipline yourself to actually doing these things. Otherwise when the tax bill comes at the end of the year you’re going to get an awful shock. (and the health insurance and the ... you get my point).
The biggest mistake most of you will make is undercharging. This is a tough topic to understand and I don’t have enough time or room to really explain it but suffice it to say that if you’re going to work an 8 hour wedding or a 3 hour location portrait shoot you need to charge enough to cover the time, plus a portion of your costs as a photographer and then have enough left over to help you pay the bills. I know you’re charging a low price to help you build a portfolio and a referral base (your life blood as a photographer) but you need to understand that if you’re charging too little, that referral base will simply refer other people who only want to pay that price. You have to be disciplined about continuously creeping up your pricing or you will quickly get pigeonholed as a cheap photographer.
Photographers who are successful over the long haul understand that more than half of their profit is going to come from post-shoot sales. For this reason, they are protective of their images. The images you shoot belong to you - not your clients. When they hire you to take their pictures they’re paying for your time, not for your images. You can include a disk of images with your packages, but you need to understand that when you do that you significantly diminish the chances that you will succeed. At the bare minimum, recommend to them that they buy any “enlargements” from you. They can go to Wallmart and get all the 4X6’s they want, but if they want an 11X14 or a 16X20 they want that to look great on their wall and the way to ensure that is by working with you. Your monitor is calibrated. You have access to professional quality labs that print on archival paper. You or your lab can properly mount the print. And most importantly, you can make money on it.
Here’s the thing. I’m certainly not trying to discourage you. I want you to succeed. There are a lot of things Pictage and others can do to help, but you have to understand that a lot of your success will be determined by your willingness to do the hard work I’ve touched on here. There are a lot of great resources and a lot of folks who can help and one of the most critical pieces of advice I’d give is to listen to what they have to say. (Especially on "closed" forums where they can be completely candid).