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5 Common Mistakes To Avoid if You Want People To Pay You for Your Photography

Many photographers dream of turning their passion into an income — or better still, their full-time profession — but it isn't easy in such a competitive space. Here are five common mistakes you ought to avoid when looking for clients.

The first month I decided to make photography a full-time pursuit was superb. I had organically picked up a couple of jobs through word of mouth, and I had a number of prospects on the line. I didn't earn a great deal of money, but it was promising, and I knew the future was bright. Then came two years of stress, fatigue, 90-hour workweeks, and bi-daily existential crises.

In the second month of my new career, I realized I was starting from nothing. That's not "nothing... but my dad's company has hired me for a £400,000 contract," I mean I was in debt from university, I had no contacts in the industry, and no knowledge of running a business. I started canvassing for work and I was truly going all out on this. After a few weeks, I hadn't secured any work, and I felt utterly helpless. I remember wondering how on earth anyone gets anyone else to pay them to do something, particularly something like photography. Over time, I learned I was making mistakes that if avoided would have sped up the process of growing my business. In this article, I will list my top five.

1. Not Networking Enough

I went into the world of business with a preexisting hatred for the concept of "networking," that is people trying to introduce themselves to other people for purely selfish reasons, standing around drinking stale coffee from beige plastic cups in a low-grade hotel's conference room. Yes, that sort of "networking" event does exist, but it's not what I found to be valuable. Instead, I would contact anyone and everyone in the niche of photography I was interested in, even if there might not have been any obvious way in which I could work with them. If I saw something I liked in my little corner of product photography, I said hello. I attended not networking events, but events for people in my specific area and got to know many of the players. I honestly cannot begin to count how much work came from this sort of network building, developing and maintaining (more on that later) connections in my area of an industry based on nothing but how interesting the people were and what they create was.

Over time, people would recommend me to their contacts (which is the most powerful form of marketing possible as far as I can tell), and then, I'd do the same. Moreover, if I saw an opportunity for two people I'd met to work together in some capacity, I'd act as a middleman and connect them. This form of networking was not only more fruitful and more genuine, it formed relationships with people whom I now consider friends.

2. Not Demonstrating Your Value

Many of us would have heard of old sales adages and scoffed at their faux wisdom. I worked in sales for several years before I moved into photography, and the training would have me cringing until I got a cramp. You'd often hear pieces of advice like "'no' is just a request for more information." It's uncomfortably basic, but there are strands of truth to these things. One that I've found in photography isn't when somebody says "no," but rather when they don't think they can afford it.

I work with a lot of smaller brands, and they are truly the ones I most enjoy working with. Not only are they more open to creative collaboration and ideas, but when you do great work for them, you can have an impact that actually improves their brand. I've helped Kickstarters get fully funded and I've had brands credit their growth to my work (which is mostly them exaggerating to be nice, I'm sure), and it's precisely these accolades that act as proof of value. Many prospective clients — I'd go as far as to say most of them — will sit on the fence about spending money on me to create for them. The reason is almost always because they're not sure what they'll get in return for their money. Yes, they'll get images or videos, but what's the real return on investment? Will it raise their profile as a brand and help them make sales? They're a business, so that's their primary goal like it is mine.

So if you are struggling to secure people to pay you for your work, perhaps you need to demonstrate your value better or improve your value, by which I mean adding more to what you do for the client, not by reducing your price, generally speaking.

3. Not Seeking Out and Accepting Challenges

As creatives, so many of us are cursed with Imposter Syndrome. We don't believe we're good enough, we don't believe we're real photographers or videographers, and so on. While this is common and often useful humility, it can hold you back too. Throughout your time as a photographer, I can guarantee you'll be offered opportunities that feel out of your reach and comfort zone. You must accept them unless there's quite literally no way you could do it. Say yes, and then figure out how after. Once you're accepting challenges thrown at you, start seeking them out too by approaching prospective clients that you consider to be out of your league.

4. Not Over-Delivering

If there's one habit I can wholeheartedly endorse, it's over-delivering on work you do. By over-delivering, I simply mean doing more for the client than you said you were going to do. The benefits of this are numerous. First and foremost, it'll please your client and make them feel that you were worth hiring. This, in turn, increases the chance that you'll get repeat work, which is the lifeblood of most businesses, and it's something I cherish. If clients hire me more than once, I'll break my back for them. Another perk of over-delivering is word of mouth recommendations of your services, which as mentioned above, are highly valuable to any business.

5. Not Maintaining Relationships

This is an area of my business I still need to improve, as it's both fulfilling and powerful. Once you connect with someone — client, prospective client, or otherwise — make sure to keep in touch from time to time. Deeper and stronger relationships with the right people are of course valuable themselves, but I have truly lost count of how many times I've contacted somebody I haven't spoken to for a while to see how they are, and they suddenly think of something I might be able to help with. 

What Do You Think Is a Common Mistake Photographers Make When Searching for Clients?

This is far from an exhaustive list. It's not even a complete list of mistakes only I've made at some point. So, I'll pass the question over to the many veterans of the industry we have on Fstoppers: what mistakes did you make that held you back from securing more clients? What is a mistake you often see in others?

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Alex Cooke's picture

"This form of networking was not only more fruitful and more genuine, it formed relationships with people whom I now consider friends."

Bold of you to assume we're friends.

Joel Hazel's picture


Robert K Baggs's picture

Extreme acquaintances?

Alex Cooke's picture

Work proximity associates?

Howard Shubs's picture


Edward Knuff's picture

Excellent article. Thank you.

photano's picture

i am definately guilty of number 3, imposter syndrome, never thinking my work is good enough

Indy Thomas's picture

Just scroll through some pro websites and you will see you are OK. But it is always good to not get cocky and always work to get better. makes the work more interesting too.

Scott Wardwell's picture

Over-Deliver - YES!!!! I do fine-art landscapes of Maine and offer them as framed, or chemical prints under acrylic or direct print to aluminum panel. Every one has been has been meticulously spec'ed out to the finest detail. I do my own own printing ( with the exception of the acrylic or metal) , fabricate the frames, and cut the matting, assemble and finish off with backer paper and hanging wires. I affix my certificate detailing each piece right down to the paper used and the glazing used like Tru-Vue Museum Grade (invisible with no reflections). So all my pieces are as archival works-of-art as I can make them though not limited-edition. When possible, I hand- deliver to the client as promised and at a reasonable cost. I recognize that I am not going to get rich overnight but that my focus is creating a piece that someone will feel deserves to be hanging on their walls.
Last week I delivered two pieces to a new client. Three days later he ordered a third piece which I delivered this past Tuesday. He is looking at a possible two more to add to his collection. The real pay-off was that he considers me to be an artist and not just a photographer. He is my fourth client to make an initial order of 3 or more pieces right out of the chute. At present I am designing a portfolio album for a client who wants 20 copies as Christmas gifts for family and friends. Potentially an $8,000 commission.
I am my strongest critic which guarantees I am putting my best-foot forward as these pieces are hanging in someone's home and visitors will also see them.
Learn best-practices and incorporate them into your work-flow.

Deleted Account's picture

I admire this enthusiasm and determination. I wish I had more of it myself.

Indy Thomas's picture

Mistake #1: Not sending an invoice.
Too many work for "credit".
Mistake #2: Not firing the lousy clients.
Your life is far shorter than you think for people who suck happiness out of life.