5 Lessons I've Learned From 10 Years of Running a Photography Business

5 Lessons I've Learned From 10 Years of Running a Photography Business

I didn't ever intend to be a professional photographer, I didn't even intend to be a part-time photographer. Nevertheless, I am approaching 10 years of making money from my camera, and I took the time to write down some key lessons and takeaways.

From the first moment I had realized that I have a love for photography, I told myself and others I didn't want to be a professional photographer. My two reasons — and they were pretty sound logic — were that I didn't want to lose my love for the craft by making it work and that the industry was too saturated. However, when I finished my Master's (not in photography), I was applying for jobs, and despite them being great on paper, I was dreading being accepted. When I was offered a job, I knew instantly I had to go a different path, and so, I went all-in with photography.

It was the right decision, or, at least, it was a good decision, and I don't regret pursuing photography at all. Nevertheless, I've made a wealth of mistakes and learned even more lessons. So, here are five of the lessons I've learned first-hand that I consider to be the most important.

1. Working Every Hour Under the Sun Isn't a Sign of Success

For the first three years of being full-time, I worked an unconscionable number of hours per week. There was a month when I worked two 90-hour weeks back-to-back. As awful as that sounds, I didn't hate it, though I knew it wasn't healthy. I felt as if it were the necessary amount of work I needed to do to make a new business in a saturated and desirable industry successful, or even make a living. It's not the worst sentiment, but there was something lurking underneath that was troubling and prevalent in a lot of industries today.

I wore the number of hours I was working as a badge of honor, a way to show how determined and busy I was, but it was silly. It's not a healthy, balanced lifestyle, it becomes more stressful and isolating over time, and it isn't a sign of success. When I was genuinely swamped with work in the first few years, it was low-paying jobs in high quantity. This was a false economy and a big error on my part. I should have instead raised my prices and taken fewer clients, using the extra time to canvas for more, well-paying clients. Don't get caught in this trap.

Shot for client, Orla Kiely

2. Networking Is Necessary

If there's one thing I just can't get on board with in business, it's networking events. While I fully understand their value and I have colleagues who go to them and have reaped the rewards, I just can't bring myself to do it. The idea of networking for networking's sake feels fake. However, networking itself is crucial to any business as far as I can tell. Crossing paths with as many people as possible will simply lead to more opportunities.

A professor of psychology at my old university, Richard Wiseman, wrote a book called "The Luck Factor," in which he shared a lot of the evidence he had uncovered while investigating lucky and unlucky people. It's a great read, and there are a lot of interesting findings, but one is pertinent here. People who perceived themselves as lucky (and they usually were lucky by most standards) tended to talk to more people they didn't know. This led to more opportunities, though that ought to be obvious. Yes, they were also better than unlucky people at spotting opportunities, but by talking to anyone and everyone — which isn't really networking — you may find more opportunities come your way.

3. Accept Jobs Out of Your Comfort Zone

Being outside of your comfort zone is — wait for it — uncomfortable. So, we are inclined to avoid it. If a job comes in (or even just an opportunity if you're not running a photography business) and it feels a level above your experience, you must take it. I have forced myself to do many shoots and trips out of my comfort zone over the years, and I can say with certainty, I've never regretted a single one. In fact, it's the ones out of my comfort zone I have become most proud of learned the most. Please, when a chance presents itself, take it; failure is better than not trying.

A shoot of Sami culture and their reindeer.

4. Keep Records of Everything

This will be a little dry, I'm afraid. Keep records of every invoice, every payment, every expense, every receipt, and as many details as you can handle. Businesses — particularly busy ones — can be hurt by improper keeping of accounts and records. I have been on the hook a few times for things that would have been devastating had I not have been careful.

For example, I once reviewed a lens (pre-Fstoppers) that was worth about $5,000. I signed a few hefty contracts and conducted the review. The return address, to the manufacturer's U.K head office, happened to be 30 minutes from my house, so to avoid paying a small fortune in courier fees, I delivered it by hand. I was buzzed in and handed it over to a gentleman who came to meet me and we briefly chatted. I asked for his card, which he went and got for me. Why? Well, partly networking, but partly so I knew who I gave the lens to.

A month later, I get contacted by this manufacturer to say as I hadn't returned it, they were charging me. When I explained I had returned it by hand, they informed me it isn't in their storeroom and had never been checked back in. I gave them the name and details of who I handed it to, and it turned out it was still on his desk. In all honesty, I ought to have taken a proper receipt. I could have been billed for a hefty amount had I not have taken and kept that man's business card!

5. Under-Promise, Over-Deliver

I had heard this advice a lot and it wasn't, particularly how I operated. I naturally over-promised, then delivered. Once I had become more comfortable working in the industry, I was brave enough to offer less for my fees than I intended to provide, and then, I would over-deliver. In my experience, it is unquestionably the better route, even if you only do a little extra rather than going entirely above and beyond.

Veterans of photography businesses, what lessons have you learned over the years that have proven to be important?

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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Robert, first I love reading your posts they are some of the more engaging articles on the site.

When you say 10-years do you mean 10-years as a "professional" or 10-years with camera in hand? In 2015 I picked up a camera for the first time and since 2018 photography has been my profession. I'm just curious if 11-years-ago photography was even something of conversation amongst friends and family when talking about hobbies or education for you?

I would say in my short jaunt in this industry that I have experience all 5 of the points you have brought up. The hardest 2 being the networking for networking sake, and never passing up an opportunity.

I shoot architecture, but started as a hobby with landscape. I've only photographed people as the main subject a few times, and it just wasn't for me. That said, each time lead to another photo opportunity outside of portraiture or an event.

The networking for the sake of networking 100% always feels like some uncomfortable social event where no one wants to know what YOU do, but what they can do for you. I never liked that vibe. However, just owning a camera (and I would say more so a tripod because it comes across as less of a "tourist" look) has sparked conversations with random people quite often. People are interested in what you're shooting and (as far as I am) we love talking about what it is we are doing. It's human nature. Every once in a while it leads to opportunity.

My networking recently, because of the field I am in, revolves around licensing. I often will shoot local architecture and contact anyone affiliated with the development, management or marketing of said building with photos I shot for fun. It's been a nice ice breaker when shooting off a personalized email to a potential client for licensing the image, or future projects.

I left the corporate world because I felt stuck and lacked motivation to continue showing up to a desk. When I decided in 2018 to turn a hobby into a career I worried the fun was going to vanish as well. But I can say without a doubt that even when "the job" feels like "a job", I'm still just pushing buttons and being relied upon to capture someone's project in a manner that tells a story they are having a hard time conveying, and because of this it's been a freaking blast!

Thank you for the kind words. 10 years (nearly) is how long I've made money from photography, but I went full-time professional in 2015.

I'm completely with you on it not feeling like "a job" when contrasted with actual jobs I've had. It's an entirely different breed of experience for me. Which is strange because I gave up a desk job but probably spend more hours per week at my desk than I did in a desk job, but it's not the same, is it?