3 Best Pieces of Advice My Mentor Gave Me When I Started My Photography Business

3 Best Pieces of Advice My Mentor Gave Me When I Started My Photography Business

When I first started out, I had no idea what to do and how this whole photography business is supposed to work. However, I was blessed to have a mentor who is a legend in my industry this side of the world where I come from.He founded a huge production company that has multiple locations around the region and has an army of creatives and producers under him. Over the years, younger photographers would come and ask me for advice and I would simply tell them what he said to me. Here are the 3 best pieces of advice that he gave me and after many years they are still the foundations of how I run my business.

Business Overheads: Manage Them, Otherwise You Will Not Have Anything to Manage in Time to Come

Let us get down to business. Becoming a professional means you are running a business. Young photographers starting out have a lot of passion and some natural talent however many of them lack business acumen and basic cost management. One of the reasons why people go out of business is because they have run out of money to sustain the business. I asked my mentor what would be the number one advice to those wanting to start a photography business. He plainly said, manage your overheads.

He told me it is as simple as the cup of coffee I just bought for him to seek his advice. I spent a few dollars on it and I need to know where every dollar goes to and what it is meant for. He told me incurred as little overheads as possible. Speaking from the experience of someone who knows the stresses of having to pay the bills for a few buildings and giving payroll for about a hundred odd people monthly. That is a level that many people might not even reach but he went on to say how many of his peers running smaller firms than what he is running are closing down their business because they are unable to cover their overhead costs.

That big fancy studio space/office that photographers dream about, is what puts them out of business usually. Not being able to pay your landlord is real life and they are not going to give you a discount based on how good your portfolio is or how much passion you have in your heart. Only when your business is stable and sustainable, you should then consider a studio space but not right at the start.

If you really need studio space, go find a rental studio. Chances are you will not be using it every day or sometimes in weeks. For rental studios, they are able to give you everything you need and more because their business model is renting studio spaces. Let them worry about rent and maintenance. Just use it and forget about all the stresses of running it. Spend that time getting more work and make more connections. Another way would be to co-share a space. It is more economically that way and you have partners to help you when you need that occasional help.

Buying too much equipment can be another problem. We might need that one special lens for that one shoot and may never use it again. In that case, rent it. It is much more cost effective if you do so. Take, for example, a lens that cost around $2000. You can rent it for $50 for a day. If you buy it, you would have to use it at least for 40 odd shoots to make your money’s worth. Only buy it if it is essential to your usual workflow and you cannot do without it.

Bottom line is, it is more than just your amazing portfolio, crazy technical skills, or a room full of gear. It is about money management just like any other business. If you run out of it, you are out of business.

Perceived Value: Clients Pay You According to What You Are Perceived to Be Worth

The second piece of advice my mentor gave me, as he sat across the table with a slight chuckle seemingly recounting his many episodes with clients, was this: clients pay you accordingly to how much you are perceived to be worth.

This is a scenario that you will definitely encounter. For example, your client says they only have $500 for this job. Usually, it is too little for the time you need to spend doing it. However, you need to grow your clientele because you just started out and you said yes thinking it will lead to more opportunities and bigger budgets in the future. More often than not, this is not how you should approach this. See the problem with it is that there is a reason why they look for you in the first place, they think you are a $500 photographer. Many new photographers make that mistake of devaluing themselves and try to work for less. When the client has a $5000 budget in future, they will instead look for a $5000 photographer. They will not go back to the $500 photographer unless they have another budget of $500. Your perceived value to that client is already pegged at $500 and it will be hard to increase your fee with that client.

In this case, you have to grow your value by getting good work and a stellar clientele over time. Learning to say "no" is a powerful tool that you can use to create value for yourself. Allow that job to pass by if the budget is not favorable and tell them how much you are able to do it for and when they have that budget, they can come back looking for you.

Another way would be to do it for free. Yes, I said, free. That is almost like a curse word in the creative field. However, if that client is a big brand name that is going to open more doors for you, you can consider doing it at production cost. State your charges to them and tell them you will tell them you will be doing them favor out of goodwill. In this way, they owe you a favor. This turns the tables in the relationship and it gives you higher bargaining power in the future. Usually, big brand names do small promotions that are low in budget that are not very difficult or time-consuming. These jobs could be your doors to the big jobs in the future. This is one of the most powerful advice that I have learned that has paid dividends in many forms.

Priorities: Stop Chasing the Money, Let the Money Chase You.

I know what you are going to say: "but did you not just speak about knowing your value and all that business talk about money?" The third piece of advice that my mentor gave me was simply, follow your passion, stop chasing the money, let the money chase you. I heard him tell many young photographers to a point that everyone in his office knows this.

It may seem like the overused mantra "follow your passion" that everyone speaks about when they want to get into the creative field. However, the second part of stop chasing the money, let the money chase you became a reality to me. As a creative, the money side of things can be a psychological barrier. I realized the moment you focus on the amount you are going to be receiving, You become less enthusiastic and less creative. It hindered me from accepting jobs at the start that could have been a platform to more. However, when I decided to stop looking at the money, and just enjoy the process, I saw an increase in the quantity and quality of the jobs of I received. My mentor knew something about this, I saw how passionate he is still at a much older age and it worked amazingly for him in terms of his business.

Those simple words of wisdom that I received over that cup of coffee have paid back many times over and has been tremendously helpful over the course of my business. Hopefully, these will be helpful to whoever wants to follow their passion.

Eric Chen RR's picture

A highly sought-after advertising photographer based in Singapore. Eric's keen understanding of branding has gained the trust of many top tier clients ranging from Samsung, Lexus, Toyota, ClubMed and Leica just to name a few. He has also amassed an audience on Instagram (@ericchenrr) that follows him on his travels around the globe.

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Slow clap. Awesome, article and information. Even Inspirational, Thank you.

Thank you Bill!

great article! the advise that was given can and does apply to all businesses.

Yes you are right, it is basic but often looked past or not even realised by people starting out.

The 3rd part of left me a little lost I guess. Go after what you want to shoot and hope money follows?

Hey David, what my mentor meant was that keep doing the good work and not focus on the monetary rewards. Eventually, when you keep doing good work, someone will pay you to do what you have already been doing. :)

Great article Eric

Thank you! Much appreciated. :)

This article made me want to meet your mentor and ask him more questions. Bookmarked.

Hope this helped you! It is actually very simple advice but often overlooked. :)

Great advice.
I would also add: Don't panic.
Fear drives us to poor decisions. Success takes time. A solid foundation is built on blocks of stone carefully carved out over time. As you grow that foundation will support a prosperous business.

Yes, that is so true. Fear is one of the biggest barriers in business. Overcoming it builds the ​character that is required for future growth.

Sharing valuable information like this is noble Eric. I applaud you!

haha thank you my friend, but nothing to applaud really. Just hope it helps someone! Cheers

Awesome article dude!

Haha thanks Shavonne! Gonna try posting more soon. :)

One of the nicest article I have read in recent time. Great advice. I practice similar things

Thats awesome! Great to hear that I am not alone. :)

Great article!

Thank you!

Amazing article Eric!! People often thinks (Including me) that all you need to star a photography business is pure talent and art. But when you are for some years in this business you realize that there are so many things to take into account.

Yes! There is so much to learn, but it grows you in so many areas.

"State your charges to them and tell them you will tell them you will be doing them favor out of goodwill. In this way, they owe you a favor."

Generally speaking, I disagree. I don't see "...owe you a favor" as ever happening just because one did a job for free or at an absurdly low price for the job.

There might be circumstances in which you solve a problem at much less cost or in much less time than the client imagined possible and you get a rep as a "problem solver." I that case, they knew the job was impossible, but you pulled a clear Ethan Hunt and the client knew it.

But if you've already set yourself in their heads as a cheap photographer, then they won't think they owe you a favor because you did a cheap job cheaply. And if you did a straightforward expensive job for little pay, then they just think they "got over" on you.

There is a place for doing a job "free," and that's when the job itself your idea, your concept, and you convince them to finance your project. That can happen on collaborations with MUAs, models, venue owners, and such, where everyone gets the benefit of your work without paying you for it--technically "free"--and so do you.

And there is always work that is purely charitable, but even in the case of charity, it should be your idea: A charity you personally support and would send money (maybe do send money), except that your work helps them more than your money.

As a retail portrait photographer, I do "free" work--convincing locally owned salons that have the clientele I want as my clientele to permanently display my work. I'll suggest that they send me some of their best-looking clients for some free work that will make all of us look good on their walls. Everyone wins, but since I'm gaining clients, I'm winning more.

I think building a relationship is the important part? Sometimes, people just need some help in their work or business. A small favour here and there goes a long way. I agree with your suggestion as well! Great advice. Thanks!

Great words, friend!

Thank you! 🙇‍♂

Great article. Being a gear head is fine for amateurs, not so much for Pro's.


I wish I had a mentor to guide me through legal obstacles photographers routinely face, including licensing, contracts (how to negotiate them, how to understand and draft them, and make counter-offers), copyright and how to register my copyrights, understanding work-for-hire, employees vs. independent contractors, etc.

Yes, that is so so important. I totally can resonate with what you just said.

Excellent article - relevant, useful, timely.