Finding Success as a Photographer

Finding Success as a Photographer

If you are like me, and many others, you love photography. It is something you think about constantly and wish it could sustain you full time if at all possible. So you set out to become a photographer and then…You realize the world is full of photographers. This is nothing new to you either, it should be pretty obvious right out of the gate. Some people make a living taking pictures with their iPhones which is absurd by most professional standards but a reality. For years after college I worked a full time job I could barely stomach while I considered the possibilities of becoming a photographer and “following my passion.” During that time, I picked up a few small jobs here and there, engagements, events, even a wedding or two, before eventually deciding to quit my job and go back to school for a year to advance my skills. However, even after finishing school I still felt no closer to being a “pro” and I definitely didn’t think I would be able to make a living doing it. Even three years later as a writer for Fstoppers, I wouldn’t exactly declare myself a success. But I have come a LONG way and at this point, am starting to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Intrigued yet? Here are a few tips that I think many a struggling photographer can benefit from while following their own pursuits.

Business vs. Pleasure

This concept is fairly cliché but extremely relevant. It pertains not just to photography but any entrepreneurial endeavor I would argue. At some point, you will need to decide if photography is simply a hobby for you or something to take serious and pursue professionally. Many of you have already made that decision I assume.

If so, then without a doubt it is time to decide what type of photographer you want to be and start treating it as you would any other job. Period. Write up a business plan. Determine who your key customers are and find a way to reach them with your services. Identify your assets and determine what equipment you will need to market yourself as a professional for the type of work you want to be getting. FOCUS, don’t be all over the place. While it can be good to be a generalist type of photographer when you are starting out, I would argue it is best to develop a style and a primary niche of photography you can become known for. Meet with an accountant and develop a tax plan.

With this sort of thinking you can start producing work for your portfolio that clients will come to know you for and will hire you to shoot. I love shooting landscapes, heck it’s pretty much why I got into photography. But at some point, I realized that shooting beautiful sunrises, regardless of where you are at, will only make so much money. Sure, you could catch an epic sunrise that gets licensed by a huge company for thousands of dollars but let’s be honest, that is an unlikely outcome in most situations and a rare one even if it does occur. Even the best landscapes photographers do more than just shoot landscapes, they offer workshops, online training and tutorials, write for blogs, etc… The point being is that unfortunately, you may need to separate some of your creative desires for photography from more financial, business oriented goals that will actually earn a wage. Can you still be creative? Of course, but it may have to be in a form you wouldn’t pursue on your own time.

Diversify Your Income Streams

This point might seem at odds with the one noted directly above but allow me to explain. Yes, I think you should have a focus when it comes to your style and the type of photography you are known for. Wedding shooters are not often known for shooting for food and vice versa. If you decide to focus on a particular niche for business purposes it will be easier to nail down who you can sell to, what the pricing should be, your style of shooting, etc…

The concept I want to drive home here is finding ways to make money in your niche outside of just shooting every day for clients. For me, this primarily consists of writing for Fstoppers, selling prints, assisting other photographers and video producers (a huge source of income), and doing small bookkeeping jobs, a skill from prior life but in a scaled down, non corporate sense that I can handle.

There are a myriad of ways to make money aside from shooting everyday and I would argue that diversifying your income streams is not only applicable but mandatory. Pick up a part time gig at a photo shop or something related to your field, sell prints, write for blogs, teach photography or create tutorials to sell, or even volunteer your services to worthy causes which often times results in future income through notoriety.

In recent months I started assisting local production companies in town which have been an incredibly worthwhile experience for me. I am able to learn not only about high end equipment on large sets but also see their business first hand, network, and ern a decent wage. Truly an invaluable experience for me.

ROI=Return on Investment

Something that took me a long to learn but is finally sinking in. We all love gear. The choices available in the world of digital photography are amazing and hard to resist at times. Often times we are surrounded by others, either online or in person, flaunting the newest mirrorless camera or drone and I would concur that is many ways it almost seems necessary to have the newest gear to remain relevant. This is simply not true.

As someone operating as a professional in business, you need to start asking yourself, “Will this purchase add value to my company in the form of revenue or potential clients?” If the answer is a resounding no, stay away. An example. My current dilemma is whether to sell my trusted Canon 6D DSLR and switch over to Sony’s new line of cameras. In many ways the 6D is incredibly outdated at this point. The screen, focus system, video capabilities, and more are all outdated. As my career begins to focus more on video, I am interested in a camera that can shoot amazing still and video. So it would seem that buying a Sony A7Rii or similar would satisfy both requirements.

Well, maybe not. My Canon 6D is compatible with all of my gear including my flashes and would need to be overhauled. Furthermore, not one client has complained about quality from my 6D and the camera continues to perform above par even with its age. Plus, it is paid off so all jobs I earn with this camera are pure profit. Will switching over to a new Sony improve my odds of getting new photography jobs? No one has ever asked me for a specific type of camera so I would say no. Does it shoot video? Yes, it does and brilliant video at that. However, it is not a professional video camera with XLR inputs, ND filters, 10 bit 4:2:2 recording or better. The type of clients I need to appeal to would be asking for these specs so while having a new Sony would perhaps get me some business initially, it may not be the type of business I am interested in long term on a more profitable basis. So as a business decision, it seems wiser to save my money for now and invest in a more robust system that will generate specific clients over a longer period of time.

Trust me, this is a hard decision to make. I would love a new camera. But in the long run, it simply won’t add the kind of value I am seeking to be successful. If you set out to buy every new piece of gear that comes out you will be broke in no time. Before purchasing, give a long pause about what the gear is for, how long will it last, and will it add to your business. If the answer is yes on all fronts, then it is probably worth the money even if it is an investment. If not, maybe you should reconsider its value.

Network

Without a doubt a must for anyone in every field. Meeting others and getting your name out is a very daunting thing to do especially for most creative types. It can be nerve racking to call someone up for business or meet in a large group setting to connect. If you are new to this or don’t consider yourself a very social person the task can seem daunting and I would say most don’t even bother as a result.

Unfortunately, this is a big mistake and something you need to overcome. Meeting others, especially those in your field, can add enormous value to your business almost overnight. Seriously. When I first moved back to Austin I reached out to someone I remembered from college who I’d been told was very successful in photography. I didn’t know him well personally but I was curious how he became successful and if he had any advice how I could be as well. He agreed and we met for a coffee. His advice was widespread but invaluable. Furthermore, a few days later he called and said he couldn’t make a gig and asked if I would be interested. Of course I agreed, although I was incredibly nervous about the assignment, but it turned out to be a game changer for me. I was assisting for a large production company in town, one I have heard of many times over and in most scenarios would never get a call from at my level, yet here was an opportunity and my foot in the door. Since that day the company has called me back several times for larger and larger assignments and for all intents and purposes, single handedly changed the course of my career. All for a cup of coffee and a phone call.

I cannot stress this enough. Look for meetups in your area or reach out to photographers whose work you admire. They may not respond but persist and keep trying. See if you can assist for anyone in your area. This is a way to learn a lot from those who are already successful in the business and there is nothing wrong with being their side kick. Whatever you do, get out and meet people. Of all businesses and all professions. You never know where business will come from or who will remember you for business to others.

Conclusion

As always, it is important to note that my advice, much less my experiences, are not everyone’s and should be viewed as simply advice, not an ultimatum. If it is one I have learned, we as creatives all follow very different paths and the successful one for me may not be the same for you. Nonetheless, I have found these principles very helpful throughout my career and it has taken me a long time to reached these conclusions. I hope they will provide some guidance for readers as well.

Log in or register to post comments

13 Comments

You mention it brief at the end of the article "we as creatives all follow very different paths and the successful one for me may not be the same for you". But I think this is should be the main theme of this article. What is succes, it very individual.

Mark Bowers's picture

This is a good point KL, I could have chosen a different title for sure. They are hard to come up with!

Anonymous's picture

Thanks, Mark. Loved the article and I appreciate all the free advice any day of the week. Cheers~

Mark Bowers's picture

Thanks Andy! This was one of those articles I really felt like speaking from the heart about. Cheesy I know but I genuinely believe all I wrote. Keep your head up man, it takes a long time to time your way. I am still finding mine, trust me.

Craig Scott's picture

Thanks for a well written and informative article Mark. It is for this reason I signed up on Fstoppers. Hope to read some more good stuff.

Mark Bowers's picture

Craig I really appreciate that! I hope you will continue to follow along and pass this info to others that it may help. I will connect with you on LinkedIn as well. Cheers!

Chris Hall's picture

Well Said Mark, If your ever in Auckland, New Zealand lets catch up for a coffee.

Mark Bowers's picture

That sounds like a plan Chris. Make be sooner than you think!

Shah CG's picture

Great Advice many thanks

Mark Bowers's picture

Thanks shah!

Great article!

Mark Bowers's picture

Thx Andrew, in glad you read!

Gideon Abate's picture

Nice article. It's come up at a time when I myself am probably at the Business vs. Pleasure stage but with a different take. I have a full-time job and photography is really a passion project. Thanks for putting some food for thought on the table.