In the past few months, there have been a few articles circulating around the photography community emphasizing whether or not you should commit to making this your career. Regardless of your position, I feel it’s my moral obligation to express five things most aspiring photographers don’t realize before they make that commitment.
Let me express that there is a definitive difference between art and commerce, but neither are mutually exclusive of one another and it takes a skillful combination of both in order to make this your full-time career. First, let’s acknowledge that in order to survive you need money to eat, pay rent, etc. I think that we can all agree that without money, you cannot fulfill your basic human necessities. That’s not capitalistic, it's reality.
Let’s also be clear: money does not define success. Success is absolutely subjective. The definition of success will vary from person to person, for example having lots of money may make one person feel successful, and having good company would make another person feel successful. Either way, both individuals would feel successful if asked. So, this article is not intended to define what makes you successful, but rather give you the basic guideline for surviving as a photographer. Here are five things that you should know before becoming a photographer:
Note: If you’re not a fan of reading, just watch the video above.
1. Remember That You're an Entrepreneur
While it may sound exciting and glamorous to consider yourself an entrepreneur, the reality isn’t as exciting or glamorous. The very definition of an entrepreneur is someone who organizes and operates a business, and takes on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so. Rather than working for someone else, you’re taking the full responsibility of operating a business.
As a business owner, you’re in charge of starting the business, accounting, legal compliance, marketing, sales, managing staff, coming up with startup capital, staying motivated, and balancing work and family life — all while trying to minimize risk. If this still interests you, then you have the right mindset. If it doesn’t, I’d really sit back and question whether this is a right fit for you or not. If you want to be your own boss, you’ll need to run a business.
The fact that almost all business will fail should scare you. Ninety-five percent of businesses will fail within the first five years according to the Small Business Administration. Why? Because most businesses do not have a sound business plan. Most entrepreneurs have not accounted for the reality of failure. They simply focus on one end goal and have a difficult time shifting their business strategy to accommodate for the market.
The truth is that most entrepreneurs focus on unrealistic expectations when jumping into the market. Most aspiring photographers overestimate the amount of work that they’ll see in their careers and are completely thrown off guard when that’s not the reality.
2. Don't Overestimate Your Market
Most photographers are stubbornly unrealistic. The key to success is to find a balance between optimism and realistic expectations. For example, several years ago I published an article in Rangefinder Magazine called “High Fashion, Small Market.” The premise of the article was that you could create high-end photoshoots in small market areas. So if you lived in Boise, Idaho, it’s absolutely possible to find amazing creative talent, like hair stylists and makeup artists. You shouldn't have any problem publishing those images in magazines. Do I think that it’s a sustainable business model? Absolutely not. It is a great way of marketing your business in a small town however.
When conducting your research, you should be considering your target market. How many people would potentially be interested in your style of photography? You can’t automatically assume that just because you’re the only fine art photographer in your city that everyone is going to flock to you. Maybe there’s no competition because there’s no market for your idea. You need to start conducting market research long before you open your doors for clients.
3. You Need to Be Stubbornly Dedicated
Everyone says that they want to work “doing what they love to do.” That phrase has been glorified by the media and pop culture for decades. Now, in theory it’s a great idea and it should work. But the reality is that it can feel the total opposite at times. You’re turning your hobby or passion into a business. If photography was your escape from work, it’s now your main source of income. So you’ll have to reposition your thinking with that mindset.
The reason that certain entrepreneurs succeed can be credited to that same mindset. They’re willing to commit to the process of succeeding. They understand that the end goal is only a byproduct of the effort they put in, while most people want the results without the effort.
Here’s the best analogy that I can give you: if you want six pack abs, commit to eating right and go to the gym. If you want to pass a test, then you’ll need to study repetitively. If you want to become a photographer, you’re going to need to commit to growing your business from the ground up. No one is going to do it for you. You’ll need to do it for yourself. That’s plain and simple.
There’s no shortcut to being a great photographer. If you want to get better images, you practice. You will pick up your camera, you go out, and you shoot. The business side of photography isn’t any different. If you want to get better at growing your photography business, you’ll need to learn, adapt, and grow. You work your ass off to make that happen. There are no shortcuts. Work hard and stay focused.
There is an old saying that goes, “Do what you love and it never feels like a day of work.” I would say that there will be days that it will feel like work, but you should always remember why you started in the first place. I know that when I get really involved with my work, time goes by and I don’t realize just how fast. I get so enthralled in the process that there are times that I forget about everything else. Remember when I mentioned I worked in an office? Those eight hour days felt like an eternity. These days, I can work 16 to 20 hour days and I’m anxious for the next day of work. Am I shooting every single day? Absolutely not. I’m focused on creating content, marketing, strategizing, and growing my brand as a whole. That’s the part of the process of successful entrepreneurship.
4. Creativity Means Nothing Without Purpose
Creativity is a broad term used to describe the use of your imagination. People assume that creativity is limited to artistic work, but it’s grander than that. Your creativity forms new ideas, methods, and alternatives in any aspect of your life, including business. Just because you’re an amazing photographer doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to success. There, I said it.
Creativity allows you to become fluid as a photographer. You have the ability to be extremely adaptable to all situations because you can think outside of the box. For example, I was hired by a magazine to produce images on location. The art director informs me that most of the photography equipment was already waiting for me on location. Everything was accounted for already. The light stands, background stands, seamless, and lighting equipment was already setup. The only thing that I was requested to take with me was my camera, lenses, and a handful of CF cards.
Now, if I’ve learned anything as a photographer, it’s to always be prepared. So, thinking ahead, I grab a single strobe light, light stand, canvas background, and my camera bag and head to the photoshoot. When I arrive, none of the gear the art director had guaranteed me was there. Luckily, I was prepared for such a situation and the only thing that I was missing were background stands. I converted the styling rack into my background and was able to complete my assignment.
The point of all that is that I found myself in a seemingly unfortunate situation. Because I was well prepared and able to come up with a quick creative solution, I was able to complete my assignment. Business works the same way. Just because you have a business plan, doesn’t mean that things are going to happen just as you planned. You always want to have a plan B and plan C, just in case things don’t go the way you had originally intended.
Think about creativity beyond image making. Companies today use creativity as a problem solving tactic in order to find solutions to complicated problems. Consider this example: you’re a photographer who wants to make a name for yourself as a portrait photographer, but you have to compete in a market saturated with other portrait photographers. Aside from competing on price, what other ways can you competitively market to your target audience?
You’ll need to think about how to create a competitive advantage. Your competitive advantage is what your photography business is better at than your competitors.
You can absolutely compete on quality and service in that example. Maybe everyone in your area delivers their images in two to three weeks and you’ll deliver your images in one week. That’s extremely important in today’s market, especially if you consider that we’re in an era of instant gratification.
Remember that, the importance of creativity isn’t limited to the creation of your image. Think beyond the mind of an artist and start thinking like a problem solver.
5. It's All About Who You Know and Who Knows You
Photography, just like any any other service-based business, revolves around selling a service to people. Marketing is the act of promoting your business to these people and letting them know that you exist and that you want to do business with them. If you’re handing out business cards, making cold calls, attending meetings, sending out promotional emails, or simply putting out flyers, then you’re marketing your photography business. In order for people to know that they want to invest in your business, they have to know that you exist. That fact is true, whether you’re a wedding photographer, portrait photographer, or a fashion photographer. People need to know that you’re alive. How you choose to make that happen is unique to your own business model.
Fashion photographers like Mark Seliger are famous for starting their careers by being extremely dedicated. At the age of 24, Seliger moved to New York City and immediately started calling photographers until one of them would allow him to assist. He would later put together a portfolio and start marketing himself to magazines. After hearing the word "no" innumerous times, he eventually dropped his portfolio off to Forbes. A photo editor there fell in love with his work and that one relationship lead to Seliger's 30 year working career as a photographer. It only takes one person to change your life and your career.
That was the 1980s. While times have changed, the work ethic required is still the same, if not harder.
The fashion side of my business has seen many of those same rejections. I don’t generally discuss these rejections because the reality is quite less glamorous than the idea. I submitted my first few fashion editorials many times over. I submitted each editorial to more than a hundred publications around the globe. Oftentimes, I’d have less than five responses back and usually they were all no.
As tiring as that sounds, it’s my reality. I continued my pursuit of fashion photography and after meeting the right team of creatives, my work improved and so did my network of art directors and editors working at magazines. Because I met the right people, I had my work published with Elle by the age of 25, and Esquire by the age of 26. I’ve had my work featured on the front of several magazines all around the globe. While that may sound impressive, I worked my ass off for it.
I want you to leave this article with your head held high and a new grasp for what it really takes to be a photographer in today’s market. I’m fortunate enough to have friends in every category of the photography industry, from the educational side, to the commercial side, to the brick and mortar photography businesses. The most financially successful friends that I have are always the ones committed to their businesses.
There are so many more tips that I could have listed here, but I think that giving you some references to great books is vastly more important. If you’re looking to learn more about business and marketing, I’d recommend reading:
- "The Personal MBA" by Josh Kaufman
- "The $100 Startup" by Chris Guillebeau
- "Start Your Own Business" by Entrepreneur Press
- "The Lean Startup" by Eric Ries
- "The 10X Rule" by Grant Cardone
If there’s any other advice I can offer you, it’s to stay below your budget, deliver content on time, and commit to the promises you make. All of those tips should guide you in the right direction of turning your passion into a fruitful career.