I’ve waited quite a while to write something about a recent situation. I wanted time to cool off and really think it through before I reacted publicly. This is a reality check. I know many will not like what I have to say, but we can’t walk around being dreamers and oblivious to reality if we want to be a success.
A recent well-known photographer put out some sort of steps to success in this industry. One of the steps bothered me. It basically said to make lots of friends because friends are how you are going to get business. Oh really? So in other words, make a whole bunch of friends and use them? No thank you. Is that morally okay? Use your friends? I could get into that, but I’m going to bow out of that one because another step really REALLY bothered me. That step was something like “offer 100 free sessions”.
Let’s discuss free sessions. Yes, when you first begin as a photographer, you are going to need practice. Practice on your own family and close friends (if they are okay with it), and practice on your pets, and practice on stationary objects. You can even practice lighting on your kids’ dolls and teddy bears. Practice. Practice. Practice. So what happens when you want to build an online portfolio? Well, I’m sure you have some images from those practice sessions with your friends and your own family, but you can offer portfolio building sessions to strangers, not for free of course because it still costs you. If you offer free PBing sessions, you are actually paying those people to photograph them because you do have expenses of your own. That’s really not okay. The best thing you can do to ensure that you are keeping industry standards high and you aren’t harming the industry when you are PBing is by putting your pricing out there. Display your “regular prices” and make those prices what a custom photographer’s pricing should be. How do you come up with your pricing? We go over that in the workshops, but you can also read all about business management because here’s how it is. It’s really black and white. You don’t look at everyone else’s pricing on other websites in your local area. You also don’t pull them out of thin air. You actually do some math based on equations and your own personal situation that you would know in basic Business Management 101. I’ll go into that later.
So if you have on one side of your pricing, “regular prices”…. the other side reads “portfolio building prices” where you can give them a hefty discount. Why should you disclose both pricing structures? So that everyone knows you are PBing. Start your business with honesty – it’s a good foundation that you can grow it on. With PBing prices, they are well aware that you are new and are working on your portfolio but your very low prices are not normal for the industry (thus helping to keep industry standards up) and also they know your pricing is going to change as you finish up your practice and are ready to be a regular business professional. That leaves no surprises. Your current PBing clients won’t be mad when you start into regular prices because they know it is going to happen eventually.
Let’s get back to that idea of giving away 100 free sessions. Do NOT give away 100 free sessions. That is (I’m sorry, I may get a bit rude here) the dumbest thing I have ever heard. If you give away 100 free sessions, where will that leave you? With your starry eyes and delusions of grandeur, you assume that means 100+ people will be turned onto your work, and they will love it so much, they will all become forever clients of yours. REALITY CHECK: Get a grip. Reality is, you are a dime a dozen. There are thousands of photographers in your own backyard, and chances are, you are not producing pictures that are all that different than what everyone else is producing. I’m sorry, I know you hate me for saying that.
A year ago, I had that same slap in my face with reality. I had an art buyer say to me something very close to this after I quoted her industry standard pricing – “I can get anyone to do this for cheap. Your industry is a mess.” WOW… yes, that slapped me so hard. She knew she had the upper hand. Why? Because photographers are giving away everything for nothing and the general public knows this. We are a laughing stock. Photographers are becoming a joke. There are people who are just photographer hopping right now, looking for those who are building their portfolios so that they can get something for nothing.
I love my customers. I have some wonderful full-paying loyal customers. For every great customer I have, though, I will get some of the craziest inquiries. Total strangers offering their baby or child to me to photograph for free. What? Would you call your local hair salon and say, “Hey, I have some long hair, I’m going to offer you the opportunity to cut it and dye it for free.” Would you contact your local car dealership and say, “Hey, I have a driver’s license, I’d like to take one of your cars home for free and enjoy it for years.” It’s not the public’s fault that they get this perception that it is okay to contact photographers and think they are going to get free sessions because yes, they can call around and find a photographer that will do it for free or for very little because the photographers are like vultures – they will do anything to work for free (doesn’t make sense, does it?). They are being trained to think that photographers really will do anything for a bit of nothing…. because there are so many that are doing just that.
So let’s get back to what would happen if you did give away 100 free sessions. What would you actually get out of that? You would work a full year — hours and hours and hours away from your family to go photograph everyone, to edit everything, for what? For free. Yes, you will work a full time job for a year for free. Is that what you want? What about all the customers you think you will have? You will have zero. Okay, maybe you will get 3 customers that come back. Maybe. If you are lucky.
But I got all this exposure from giving away all those sessions! Yeah, you got exposure – bad exposure. We have a minimum wage in the US for a reason – so that people aren’t taken advantage of, so people can actually make a wage and not be used for free. You didn’t even have the decency to respect your own self cause you didn’t even pay yourself minimum wage. Are you that desperate to be liked that you would sacrifice all your time with your family for total strangers? If you teach the public that they can get it for free, you have devalued your hard work completely. You have told those 100 people that you are willing to work for an entire year for free, therefore, what you do is not work, and it is not worth a dime. They will tell their friends what a great deal they got from you. Now you are nothing but the cheap or free photographer. That’s not the reputation you want, and your first impression is what is going to last.
What did you just work for? Pats on the back. ”Wow, your images are beautiful.” Why are photographers content to work for only pats on the back? That is complete lack of common sense. I have teenagers, and they would never work for pats on the back. Would you go work at McDonalds for free? Why not? If you are willing to run a photography business for free, why wouldn’t you go serve burgers for free?
Let’s go back to your personal teen years. If you were getting your first job, and your boss said, “oh, we don’t pay in money. I will just stand there and tell you what a great job you are doing. That’s okay with you, right?” You would have never taken that job, now would you? You have car insurance to pay? You need to buy clothes? You need money to go out on dates and socialize, right? There is no way you would have taken a job just to hear “You do such a great job.” Then why are you as a photographer, accepting only pats on the back for income?
Oh, you don’t NEED the money? Your husband pays all the bills? Oh, let me tell you, you need the money. You are just not looking beyond today. Those little kids you have running around? They are going to cost you so much more as teens. Braces are around $6,000+ right now. Sports equipment is not cheap. Shoes? Clothes? They won’t want those Walmart and Target clothes once they hit middle school, and don’t get me started on their appetites! haha! Every teen needs a computer every few years. College tuition? oh my…… Why not start some college funds with that income? Why not plan some amazing vacations with that extra income that will create amazing memories for your children, if you don’t “need the money”. Why not put that money in a retirement plan? You think your marriage is going to last forever? I hope it does, I really do…. I hope mine lasts forever too…. but reality is, aren’t we at like 50% of all marriages don’t last anymore? Please think beyond today and don’t get wrapped up in being paid with pats on the back – your own kids won’t accept that type of payment either when they get their first job. They are smarter than that.
To wrap up, here are my 10 steps to starting out in business.
1. LEARN BUSINESS MANAGEMENT. (yes, I think this is the first thing you should learn, even before your camera so you know what you are getting into). Read about it, go to classes about it, live and breathe it. You don’t like business management? No problem, don’t charge for your work, and do this as a hobby only. Enjoy it. If you are in this to be a business, proceed to step 2.
2. LEARN YOUR CAMERA. Learn everything about it. Sleep with it next to you if you have to. Shoot manual only. Learn it til you know when you walk into a room what basic F-stop, shutter, and ISO you will need.
3. LEARN PHOTOSHOP. Read books. Watch tutorials. Learn how to pop an image in PS. Don’t use it to fix photos. If you have to fix it, scrap it. Reshoot it and shoot it right, then bring it in PhotoShop to pop it. Do not rely on photoshop actions.
4. MAKE A BUSINESS PLAN. Calculate your salary. Calculate what your yearly expenses will be. Calculate your pricing for profit. It’s black and white. It really is. The answer is not on someone else’s website. The answer is not pulled out of thin air. Your pricing is black and white, calculated from figures that only you know. You would know exactly what I am talking about if you completed step one. If you don’t know what I am talking about, go back to step one.
5. GET LEGAL. Get a sales tax ID, get a business license, acquire insurance (liability and malpractice), an accountant, and a lawyer. Have your lawyer draw up contracts and any additional legal documents you will need. That costs money? Of course it does. Do you think running a business is going to be free? That’s why you charge money as a business – enough money to turn a good profit – to cover your salary AND business expenses.
6. LEARN LIGHTING. Learn how to shoot in other lighting conditions, not just natural light. Learn off camera flash or strobes. I know some of you are going to fight me on that one, but you really need to be able to know how to shoot in ANY condition even if you prefer natural light. That’s what a professional does – they know their craft, and they are not willing to stop learning.
7. PUT OUT YOUR SHINGLE. Create a website. Design business cards.
8. BUY A BACKUP CAMERA. *gasp*, that’s a lot of money!!! Yeah, it is…. and you are charging money, so you are a professional, and you should have already built that expense into your pricing and your business plan, shouldn’t be a surprise, and shouldn’t be a financial hardship either. That’s why it is so important to plan your business, not just jump into it. Professionals don’t show up on the job without having a backup in case something goes wrong. Your clients rely on you to complete a task and produce a product.
9. EMBRACE YOUR COMMON SENSE. Learn quickly that the internet is only about 10% reality when it comes to the photography industry. That amazing photographer that is touring the world year round teaching workshops and talks about their 6 children and the fact that their husband works too? Don’t expect to learn how to run a real portrait business from her or him. They are not running one themselves. Common sense. You can’t be running a portrait business and taking care of 6 children AND touring the world at the same time.
10. HAPPY BUSINESS MANAGEMENT! You thought I was going to say Happy Shooting, right? Well no, 85% of what you are going to do now is business management. Only 15% of what you do from here on out will be actually taking pictures. Try to come to terms with that at the very beginning, and you won’t be in for disappointment.