Business of Photography: Eight Tips I Wish I Had Known Earlier [Part One]

Business of Photography: Eight Tips I Wish I Had Known Earlier [Part One]

I doubt any photographers became professional because they were excited to run the business, but run it they will. Unfortunately, the importance of savvy business practices is much closer to photographic talent that most like to admit, so take a break from honing your portraiture, and hone your abilities as a small business owner.

Update: Part two can be found here.

For all intents and purposes, being a full-time, self-employed photographer and running a small business are one and the same. While I knew that going in, I admittedly put too much weight on photographic prowess, and too little on running a successful business. How I saw it, if I was taking some of the best pictures in a genre, people had to hire me. That's broadly wrong for many reasons, but rather than discussing why business is more important than most think, I'll instead give some crucial tips I have learnt.

Some of these practices I have learnt through trial and error, with some of them being painful errors. However, some are received wisdom. I consume many books on business every year; I'm deep in to double figures for 2018 already. However, none of these books have been about or for photographers, and yet so much is relevant. My first tip is an even split between trial and... well mostly error, and received wisdom of business gurus.

1. Invoice Before You Do the Work

I always opt for the truth over ignorance, even if it is bliss. However, I've refused to work out how much damage this simple misstep did to my business in the first 2 years of self-employment. I would secure a job, do the work until they were happy, then send over my invoice for said job. I had chosen to forgo my collateral entirely and remove all (self-interested) motivation to pay me. What the companies wanted, they already had, and paying me immediately fell right down their to-do list. You might be tempted to say "well, never mind, you got the money in the end — does it really matter?"

I'm going to generously ignore the fact that cash flow for small businesses — which is what photographers are — is a matter of life and death. Instead, I'm going to focus on time. The amount of time I spent chasing invoices to be paid got to be obscene. I'd carry over "get X invoice paid" from my weekly to-do list again and again. This time accumulates and it's being stolen away from canvasing, shooting, or any of the other myriad tasks I had to do. In one instance, I worked with a small brand in two capacities and they owed me money for both. It wasn't a life changing amount, but it wasn't so little I could chalk it up as a mistake. It took me 18 months to get paid, chasing every week, contacting everyone I could in every way I could, and even having them removed from a platform with which they had one of the two outstanding invoices on, for non-payment. I did a rough estimate — once I finally got the money — of how much time I had put in to it, and if I charged them even a very generous hourly rate, how much they'd owe me. It was more than the invoice.

Invoice up front, and do not lift a finger until you've been paid. Now I ask for full payment before I'll even commit to booking in a shoot. The client always gets their work on time and I don't need to chase any invoices and haven't done for a long time, which makes the whole operation that much smoother.

2. Don't Undersell Yourself

I can't remember who said this next nugget of wisdom, but it's the truth: you'll always be too expensive for someone. We have a habit, particularly very early on in a business, to worry about being too expensive. It's a natural consequence of a lack of experience, and moreover, confidence. This leads to working for fees that are far too low for the effort and time that goes in to the job, and while it can be useful in portfolio building, it's generally poor practice.

Pricing in the early days is tough, but it does get easier. Don't undersell your work just to secure a job, thinking that you'll raise your fees later. It's very difficult to change your price once you have established one with a company. You have given them the value of your work, and they're unlikely to be able to be convinced that it's suddenly more valuable.

3. Solve People's Problems and You'll Always Have Work

This is a suggestion made by myriad authors and business experts, and it can and should be applied to photography. It might seem a stretch at first as the doctrine primarily pertains to building businesses, but it needn't stop there. Whatever area of photography you busy yourself with, find out the problems people have in that area with photographers, and solve them. For example, in my particular line of commercial photography I asked prospective clients and first-time clients, what the biggest problem they have is with regards to photography. I invariably got three answers, with usually more than one of these per client: the first is that their photographer is unreliable, hard to contact, and misses deadlines. The second is that their photographer is inconsistent and their work varies in quality and accuracy from brief to brief. The third is that photographers have lots of different fees they didn't realize, like extra costs for images used in print and so on.

The first of these problems I solve without thinking about because I'm irritatingly organized. The second I would always aim to solve, and as time has progressed and my experience has accumulated, I have developed a portfolio so vast, my consistency is hard to deny. The third, in all honesty, I didn't realize was even a problem people had. But, in keeping with solving these problems, I simplified my price structure even further and made sure that the cost covered everything a client might need. I have multiple brands and agencies I work with several times per year and I put a lot of that regular work down to solving their problems.

4. Give and Thou Shalt Receive 

This is a tough piece of advice to articulate accurately. While I don't work for free, I do regularly go above and beyond my station. The most common example of this is setting up business connections with each other for no personal gain. I regularly cross paths with people who will be of use to other people I am working or in contact with. It might be as simple as brand and a magazine that fits their style, or a Kickstarter campaign expert and a start-up looking to raise funding. Whatever it is, if I think I can introduce two people who could be useful to each other, I'll spend time making those introductions and helping them get going.

One of the reasons this advice is a hard sell, is the evidence for its worth is not succinctly put in to statistics I can point to. However, what I've found is invariably the companies and people I go out of my way to help, will reciprocate at some stage or another.

Conclusion and Part Two

I originally wrote out about twenty aspects of the business of photography I wish I'd had a better understanding of when I started, and distilled it down to the best eight for one article. Either I'm verbose or the exposition of the points is a larger task than I thought (they are not mutually exclusive) and so I've decided to split the advice in to two articles.

There are many aspects of business where there is no substitute for experience unfortunately, but at least some of that experience can be passed on to avoid people making similar mistakes. Or, better still, making prudent moves they might have otherwise not have made. My next four points are more on the subject of avoiding pitfalls like prospective clients wasting your time because they just want an hour off for a cup of tea and a relaxed meeting. Time-wasters under the guise of networking are an expensive luxury you can do with out.

To you fellow professional photographers out there, if you could turn that clock back and give your younger self some business advice, what wisdom would you impart?

Lead image by Pixabay used under Creative Commons, via Pexels

Rob 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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Agree completely about cash flow, #1 is impractical for larger companies (for retail clients yes), but many can't/won't pay until 30/60/90 days until after the work is delivered.

This is fair, Doug. I haven't had a problem yet, but I work with SMEs and PR agencies who seem fine with my terms. I have, however, seen some more rigid companies, particularly if they're massive. In this case I'd certainly say the route would be at least a deposit to cover your costs.

If you can get that, great. But it's been my experience that while ad agencies will often front expenses, many direct for client jobs won't or can't.

I'll also confirm re cash flow. You can be profitable and end up sinking because you have poor cash flow.

Good ideas, but I'd like to add that no one was going to pay me upfront, not at first and not until we had a relationship. Maybe things are different in the UK tho.
Don't buy a bunch of equipment, I used to work with another guy in a studio, we both shot Nikon and used Norman strobes so in a pinch we could borrow stuff and combine the our strobe eq for big shoots.
You never know when someone is a "timewaster", that silly half hour talk when they had no jobs in the pipeline often pays off with a request for a bid for a job a few months later....

I imagine that a deposit to cover costs is not unrealistic though. And yeah, not buying gear you don't need frequently is good advice.

True, with established clients I will float them for expenses under a certain number but if it's a lot they will need to pay my out of pocket up front.

Contracts and invoicing up front will definitely expedite payments and establish a professional relationship. Thanks for a very informative article. Nice shot of Gary Newman. However, why does Gary Newman look so depressed?

Someone stole his car?

"Contracts and invoicing up front will definitely expedite payments and establish a professional relationship."

It depends on the jobs and client, if you are shooting a simple job with few variables or a job that the client has said "I will gladly pay you $X shoot ABC on Tuesday" Then it makes sense. If you work from a well established fixed rate sheet like in a retail situation it could work unless the client saw last weeks news story on channel 7 about the photographer who took their money upfront and ghosted them.

The way I work is to estimate the job, get the estimate approved and invoice ASAP after the shoot.
Nine times out of ten the aspects of my jobs change from initial meeting to final delivery of files, and sometimes even after the delivery of files. So any invoice I would send before production would need to be amended, send another invoice with the additional cost or I would have to eat the overage.

Thank you so much for the advice, it's so useful to someone just starting out in the business of photography like I am now.

Good advice. I'll do work before payment, but my invoice delivered at the end of the shoot indicates that the license to use the images goes into effect when my payment has cleared my bank. But it's worth re-considering that; or at least getting half up front as I did when I shot weddings years ago.

A well written article with a lot of solid advice. I really like the chess picture too.

In my day job at a big company I’m sometimes at the other end of the table.
Our purchasing department dictates our terms (our standard for payment is end of month + 45 days after goods or services are received) and we only deviate from that if we have to. For that you have to provide something we need and can’t get elsewhere. On our purchase orders you’ll find: “unless explicitly specified otherwise in the body of this order, we explicitly reject your general conditions of sale, delivery- and payment conditions”.
If you aren’t unique, it’s a matter of choosing your battles. Invoice payment terms and conditions are important, but it’s always good to show some flexibility here to gain something in other parts of the deal. A big company can provide work on a regular basis, so you might need a different strategy compared to one-time clients.
You’re spot on with pricing. Once a price level has been established it will be hard to get more money the next time. Yearly indexation due to inflation is the best most can hope for unless the market changes in a big way.

Nice article, nice and sad at the same time ;). Sad because of me, hahahha I need to do a lot of changes in my business. Above all, my principal problem is trying to avoid undersell myself. I have a big problem to find the "quality" of clients I want. Here in Costa Rica there is a lot of "photographers" giving a lot of discounts and giving away their work. For example they offer: 30 minutes mini session with 20 photos digital and printed, 40 dollars 😢😡. I really dont know what to do. They just quickly shoot photos, apply a preset in lightroom and clients "love thier style" 🙄. I have bills to pay and debts. Well, I dont know if I can do this, but this is my website, you maybe can see my portfolio and tell me if there is something wrong with it, you dont have to do it, Im just asking maybe you can. And Im not gonna get mad, I prefer the truth, I know I need to be better, but I can see my photos are not a piece of $&##$, Im getting crazy, in 2 months nobody hired me... Many people asked for a quote but they didnt hire me. I dont know what to do.

Mr. Carlos, I looked at your portfolio, and your work very good. It is almost the same in our country (Slovenia), where there are a lot of "photographers" with almost zero experiences and lower the prices, because they don't have any costs with equipment or paying bills. In any case you have to respect your self and your work and in time, people will know, who has constant quality product and who works only for low price. Be patient, search the market for your style. We have to do 75% of our work for marketing, and 25% is real photography work.

Very good article. Also good practice is, to get at least 50% prepayed before starting work, and other half, when you have picture or product ready do delivery to the custommer. Getting payment after that is almost impossible.