Every year hundreds of people buy a new camera and the next thing we know, they are claiming they are ready to start a photography business…that’s what I did after all.
Some of those people end up putting blood, sweat, and tears into learning the trade and they spend time and money on education and really try to make something of it. I was an engineer at GM for 10 years before quitting to do photography full-time so I know what it’s like to start with a hobby, I just had no idea what the road would lead to.
When my wife and I got married, we hired someone who was a hobbyist who did wedding photography on the side. I didn’t do much research (my fault) and I assumed that if you had a nice camera and got paid to do it that you must know what you are doing. Sadly I was very mistaken and have photos to prove it. Thankfully for us, eight years after we got married we ended up getting dressed up again and were able to get some good photos.
I want to give a little bit of insight into what it takes…what it REALLY takes to be a professional photographer. This is not meant to attack anyone that is a hobbyist. If you are doing photography for fun, that’s fantastic, but claiming you are a photography studio is entirely different and I think a lot of people may not really know what that entails. What I’m about to write is a road map of MY story. When I write about what “you” need to do, it’s what “I” needed to do. When I point out the struggles and the lack of knowledge, etc. these are all the things that I went through and I hope that this helps people to better understand what they are getting into. When I started my journey, I had no photography education and I was one of those that hung a sign on my door without having any clue of what it really meant. I had a few professional photographers set me straight and it made a huge impact on me. So when you read this, understand that these are things that I went through. Please also know that this is NOT meant to discourage someone from pursuing photography but it is meant to keep it real.
Lets talk about the technical stuff first:
The first things is that you need to understand how your camera works. The auto-mode doesn’t cut it even if you think it will take good photos. You need to know how your gear works. You need to know how to manage what your camera is doing in different situations and in different lighting. You need to have a solid grasp of where all the controls are along with how/when to use them.
On top of that, you need the right gear. I shot my first wedding with a point and shoot camera (yes, I was dumb.) If you have a canon rebel with a kit lens, you are NOT ready to shoot a wedding. The camera itself is fantastic and will take great photos but you need to have an array of lenses that can cover wide angle to telephoto and you need those lenses to have a constant wide aperture otherwise they will not perform properly in low light. Good lenses could cost double to triple what you paid for the camera. If you don’t have them, you will be using your pop up flash all the time unless you spend the time and money to invest in proper off-camera flashes and radio triggers which will add a significant cost to your camera bag. The $700 for the camera and kit lens now just jumped to about $4500. Don’t forget that if you decide to shoot someone’s wedding, you will need a backup of all those pieces of equipment in the event that something breaks which means you need a backup camera, a backup wide angle lens, a backup telephoto lens, backup flashes, backup radio triggers, etc. You will of course need a lot of classes and education to actually learn how to use all the stuff properly. Not having the right gear and not knowing how to use can cause you to ruin someone’s wedding photos. If you want to learn to shoot weddings, just make sure you know how to use your equipment first.
Then there’s some of the other stuff that people don’t want to think about.
You need liability insurance in case someone trips over your tripod and injures themselves. You need equipment insurance in case that expensive equipment gets broken or stolen. You need errors and omissions insurance in case you shoot someone’s once in a lifetime event and your memory card gets corrupted.
Then there’s the computers.
You will need a fast computer with tons of ram and a large hard drive. You’ll actually probably need at least two internal hard drives, one to be the primary operating system and programs and scratch disk, and the other to store your data. Then you’ll need a backup system because if you have someones important photos, you’ll need storage for those photos. You need external hard drives along with software to run automatic backups of your main drives. Make sure they’re off the floor in case of a flood. Don’t forget some type of offsite backup in case you get robbed. You’ll either want to have stuff stored in a safety deposit box and/or some type of online data backup services. Both of these cost money.
To keep all this stuff running, you really need to become an I.T. person if you want to be able to manage your computers and hard drives and wireless router and/or wireless switch, RAID configured hard drives, etc.
Then you’ll need all the photo editing software which helps you download, view/organize, process/edit, create web galleries, transfer data to and from your website, etc. I imagine that a lot of people use illegal copies of software, if that’s you, then make sure to not complain when someone steals your copyrighted material because that’s exactly what you’re doing to the software company.
At some point, you will of course need a website. You’ll need some way to display your images to show prospective clients. That means you have to find a web host and register a domain name and pay for those annually. You’ll then need to learn how to edit and maintain that website. If you want music on it you have to get a license for royalty free music for it so that you’re not violating another artist’s copyright. You’ll also need to update the website with new content which is easiest done on a blog which means you need to take time to learn how to setup and modify a blog along with the time it takes to maintain the blog and figure out how to make it searchable on google.
To avoid become irrelevant, you’ll want to make sure that people’s images show up on your blog, facebook, and now don’t forget there is twitter, pinterest, tumblr, fartknocker, bumble-buttpicker, and whatever other social sites will come out. Don’t forget to make sure to resize and watermark those images because people love to take them from you otherwise. Also, with your website, if you bought a pretty flash template, don’t forget lots of your viewers view it on an ipad so they can’t see that. So now you need to make a separate website that is HTML so that it’s ipad and iphone friendly.
On your website you will need a contact form so you’ll have to figure out how to set that up and have it forward responses to the email address which you will need to setup and maintain. If you view your email on multiple devices it will help to spend time understanding the difference between pop3 email and IMAP email.
What about all the legal and financial stuff:
You need to get a sales tax license and learn how/when to pay sales tax. At some point you’ll need to figure out what type of business you want to be because there is a big difference in being a sole proprietor vs. an LLC vs. an s-corp you’ll need to understand the difference and figure out which one is going to be best for you and your family from both a legal and financial standpoint.
If you’re an s-corp you then have to have either pay a payroll service so that you can get paid from your business or you need to learn how to do that yourself through quickbooks. Oh yeah…you have to learn how to be a bookkeeper so that you can properly log and file your income and expenses and then hire an accountant to make sure that your taxes are being done properly. If you decide to save some money and do a lot of the bookkeeping and payroll yourself in quickbooks, then you’ll have to learn how and when to pay your state sales, use, and withholding taxes, how and when to file a 940, 941, 1020, and 1017. Of course you can always hire a payroll company to do that for you…it’s only money!
Speaking of legal stuff…what about paperwork? You need to have contracts for weddings and it’s definitely helpful to have them for portraits as well. That means you need to buy contracts from somewhere and modify them yourself and have them checked by an attorney. You need to make sure that you and your clients are on the same page and that everything is clear for both parties.
If you have paperwork, contracts, invoices, receipts, etc. then you will need to have a filing structure to file everything. You’ll obviously need some type of dedicated space in your house away from children and pets to have an office with your computer(s), camera(s), paperwork, etc. Speaking of kids and pets, either of those can complicate meetings with potential clients. If you have either, you’ll need to figure out how to meet with people so that neither will interfere with meetings. That’s difficult when you work in your house. If you can’t work in your house because you have kids and/or pets, then you’ll need to find a place to have an office and meeting area so you’ll now have to pay rent somewhere that is separate from your mortgage along with utilities, internet, phone, security system, etc. It’s only money though.
Also, don’t forget that if you want to shoot weddings you need to have reliable transportation because you can’t go shoot a wedding in an old unreliable car. Try explaining to a bride on her wedding day that your 10 year old car broke down so you can’t make it…yikes! Thankfully that’s never happened to us!
Somewhere in all this you also have to learn how to be a graphic designer because your logo and business cards aren’t going to create themselves. Of course you could hire someone to do that…it’s only money. Hopefully you understand the difference between RGB and CMYK because you can really mess things up when you send things to print if you don’t know the difference.
Business cards are great but nobody is going to hire you until you have some decent sample images to show. The only way to get sample images is to build a portfolio and if nobody will hire you until you have a portfolio then that means you’ll be working for free or for cheap for a while until you’ve built up a portfolio. That means you have to find people, setup and coordinate shoots, shoot photos, download and edit photos, etc. and all the while you’re hardly making any money if you’re making any at all. Oh yeah…somewhere in there you need to learn how to become a photo editor because you can’t just give people photos out of camera so now you need to learn Photoshop. If you’re going to do this seriously and you’ll have lots of photos to edit, you’ll probably need the $600 version of Photoshop because Elements won’t cut it anymore. You’ll also need to understand the difference between shooting raw and jpeg because the workflow is totally different and if you go with Raw you’ll spend another $300 buying Lightroom along with whatever time and money it takes to learn how to use it.
Once you have a portfolio then those graphic design skills that you probably don’t have will really come in handy because somehow you need to design marketing and promotional materials with all those new sample images you shot and edited. If you’re anything like me, you’ll design something that you think is great that actually looks like a giant turd. You will realize how turd-ish it actually is when you look back on it a few years later. I wish I still had my original logo so you could all have a good laugh. Since you don’t have the skills yet and can’t afford a graphic designer, you do the best you can. Now that you’re armed and ready with sub-par marketing materials you need to figure out how to get clients. I cringe when I look at my own stuff from when I started…all of it was TERRIBLE!
Hopefully you have a great personality because when you first start out, your images really aren’t that great (at least mine weren’t). Somehow you need to find people that are in need of your services. Without any other leads, paid advertising is where most people start. Now you get to spend thousands more dollars to compete with the 250 other local photographers to advertise on the same websites, magazines, etc., somehow hoping that prospective clients will pick you instead of the myriad of other competitors. You also need to get out there and spend valuable time that you probably don’t have to network with people in the industry and community to start to get recognized. Don’t forget, many of those 250 other competitors are doing the same thing so somehow you need to leave an impression so everyone will remember you instead of everyone else.
If you work your tail off and start to do everything right and people start calling, now you get to kick those sales skills into high gear. Oh wait, if you’re like me and just about every other artist or photographer, you don’t have any sales skills because you probably have never had to sell anything let alone sell yourself. Hopefully by this point you’ve already put a TON of time and effort into thinking about what you will actually sell, going to trade shows to figure out what products you want to offer, understanding what the cost of goods to produce that item is along with how much time it takes you to design/create each product and then working that into some type of pricing structure so that you know you won’t lose money when you sell one of those items.
Once you figure that out for all the different items you want to sell, you then need to do a lot of planning and math to figure out how to bundle and package the items so that it makes sense for people to buy them. Before you can really do that though you have to spend some time to do some market research so you can also understand what other people are offering and how much they are charging. Once you have all that done and have it organized, formatted, and printed nicely, NOW you’re ready to meet with a client and explain to them why they should hire you instead of the other 250 people in your area.
Once you have the samples in place, marketing and website in place, you did the networking and advertising, you got a client in the door, you booked the client… NOW you need to start educating the client on how to prepare for the shoot and what’s to come. You’ll spend lots of time with emails and phone calls and sometimes even more meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page. You’ll also have to learn proper haggling skills so that you don’t give away the farm when someone tries to negotiate. Remember that you put lots of time and thought and research into your pricing so don’t budge on it because a client came in and said that they can get the same items from another photographer for $1000 less. That photographer might be losing money so never gauge what you are doing solely off what someone else is doing.
If you’re like most you will charge a meager amount of money because you are really excited to have your first paid gig. I remember that feeling, and it’s pretty awesome! But, you will soon realize that if you charged $1500 for the wedding and worked 60 hours between the meetings, phone calls, shooting, editing, creating website/products, etc. you’ll realize that you just grossed about $25 per hour and you might feel good about that until you realize that EVERY single other thing that I’ve mentioned up until this point came out of your pocket so you’re actually about $20,000-$30,000 in the hole. You will also be paying for the products that the client ordered so you have to take out expenses from that $1500. Don’t forget about taxes because that’s about 1/3. If you have a healthy photography business you will probably have 1/3 in job related expenses and 1/3 in taxes so you just made about $8 per hour and that still doesn’t factor in all the overhead and other expenses including equipment, advertising, software, graphic designers, accountants, etc. At that rate, you’ll need to shoot about 50 weddings just to break even and that will take you a few years to get that many clients especially if you still have a full time job like I did.
You quickly realize that it’s just not worth it for that much money and you realize you need to raise your prices but it keeps you up at night because it was hard enough to book clients for $1500 because the way a client sees it is that you only worked 8 hours on their wedding day so they just paid you $187.50 per hour which is a crazy amount of money per hour to make! They don’t factor in the other 50 hours you worked along with your overhead.
You may realize that to actually make a profitable business and to bring income home for your family you need to double your prices. Unfortunately when you do that you will lose your entire client base and need to start from scratch.
That might be too much work so you consider shooting portraits instead of weddings. That means you now need new samples, new business cards, a new website, completely different marketing and advertising, different products, different packaging and pricing, and an entirely different sales strategy. At this point you have so much vested in the process you need to figure out how to make it work but you just don’t have the time, the energy, or the money to do these things. Hopefully you still have your day job to finance your business as it typically takes a couple years to turn profitable. I think we lost money our first 2-3 years. However, if you have a day job, then you don’t have the time to do even half of the things above unless you work 90 hours per week. There was no free meal for me. I worked 90 hours per week for nearly 3 years while I still had my GM job. When I quit my day job, I realized just how much I had to learn/do so I continued to work 80-90 hours per week to get it all done. It’s now been 9 years but it seems like it’s never done.
There’s always some new software, new equipment, new process or technique that has to be learned. You need to go to workshops, seminars, and conferences to stay current on all the latest things and then you need to come home from those educational endeavors and implement those things into your business by spending more time and resources that you’re not getting paid for.
Equipment, computers, and software need to be updated and repaired. You will also need to learn how to deal with rejection as lots of people that you want to hire you will not hire you. If you work hard and do a great job, your clients will be happy but it’s nearly impossible to make all the people that aren’t your clients happy. I once got an email from a relative at a wedding telling me that my photos showed that all I was trying to do is say “look how artsy I am”.
The good part is that when you work for yourself you get to make your own hours, take a vacation when you want to, and not be tied down by anything. That’s what people think at least. You soon realize that you are not a photographer, you are a business owner. Photography only takes up about 13% of my days. The rest of the days are taken up with all the other things I mentioned above. When you are a small business owner, if you are like most, you don’t have the freedom that you thought you were going to have because you work FOR your own business. There are no paid vacations. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Speaking of that…there’s no health or retirement benefits either. I went from having great health and dental insurance, 5 weeks of paid vacation, holidays, sick days, and a nice 401K to…absolutely nothing. We have to make our own retirement plan, pay hundreds of dollars a month for terrible health insurance, dental insurance is really not even a worthwhile option to consider, there’s no holiday pay or sick pay, and if you go on vacation, the work doesn’t get done so you have to work twice as hard before and after your vacation to make up for it. Most people want a vacation in the summer when the weather is nice, but most people also want photos in the summer when the weather is nice. If you decide that you want to save money and just drive somewhere in state and go camping but while you’re gone for a week you miss out on $5000 worth of business…that camping trip cost $5000. You’ll have to learn to justify that. If you have a spouse with income all these things I’ve talked about are easier to swallow but if you are the sole income provider, these are all the things that make it hard to sleep at night when you are starting your business.
I know you might be super excited about taking pictures and you’re crazy fired up about the new DSLR you just bought, but this is what it takes to REALLY run a photography business so just be aware of what you’re getting into and PLEASE don’t think for one second that it was easy for me or that it will be easy for you or you will be in for a rough road. Instead, you should prepare yourself to be a photographer, a graphic designer, a marketing person, an advertising person, a networking person, an image editor, an album designer, a computer repair person, a cleaning person, a packaging and shipping person, a writer and editor, a bookkeeper, an office manager, a sales person, a secretary, and all the other things that come along with being a small business owner. I wish somebody would have explained all this to me when I first started because even if I went down the same road, it would have helped me to understand that being a photographer in reality has very little to do with actually doing photography. If you are ready to become a photographer there are lots of educational resources available through PPA that will help you on this journey but what I wrote about here is what most professional photographers went through or are currently going through. If you are a hobbyist that is doing this for fun, by all means, go for it but please make sure that you sell yourself that way so if someone hires you for a once-in-a-lifetime event, they have a good understanding of what your skills are.
All that being said, I think this is one of the most amazing and rewarding careers that I ever could have been in and I feel SO blessed to get to do this every day. I get to work for myself which means I get to be “the man”. I get to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with my family. I get to work with my wife. We get to bring joy to people during their most special moments in life and capture images that they will look back on which will provide happy memories for generations to come.
Photo by: Denise Demarchis
To make this a little more lighthearted…this is a montage that’s been going around the internet. I don’t know who made it but I think it’s perfect and really funny.