Seven Things About Being a Professional Photographer I Wish I'd Known Earlier

Seven Things About Being a Professional Photographer I Wish I'd Known Earlier

In August 2015, I quit all working commitments and took the leap in to full-time photographer. In March 2016, I wrote an article of advice about being a photographer I wish I'd known earlier after I began to scrutinize my performance under the new, professional microscope. Well, time has elapsed, shutters have shut over 100,000 times, and more things have been learned. My photography business has grown in this interim and I found myself thinking about this aforementioned article again. Here are seven of the most important things I have learnt about being a professional photographer that I wish I'd known earlier.

Say Yes and Workout How Afterwards

This is number one on this list because it is arguably the entry that I most wish I had known when I started out full time. I stole the advice from Sir Richard Branson. The exact quote is: "If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you're not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later." Oh how I dearly wish I had had this as my mantra from day one. Not day one of my career, day one of my life. Almost every one of us is crippled with self-doubt to one degree or another and we often underestimate what we can and cannot do. Around the same time I realized I could do more than I thought, I also realized that half the time, everyone else is as clueless as you. If you're a conscientious, hard-working problem solver, then just say yes when somebody asks if something is within your remit. The thought of disappointing a client motivates me so strongly that no matter how difficult the task, I'll break my back to make sure my work is of a standard equal to or higher than they expect, and there's no way I'm the only one.

To-Do Lists

I cannot stress how important to-do lists are to my working life. I have both weekly and monthly to-do lists, and occasionally daily too if I'm in the middle of a hectic period. Then I set yearly and long term goals on top of these in a similar fashion. It's not only that it adds structure and order to your time spent working, but the small sense of accomplishment as you scrub out each completed task is cathartic. I wish I had done this straight off the bat; I couldn't function without it anymore and a great many things would slip though the net.

Stay in Touch With Your Clients

Now I've written that down, it sounds obvious. However, it's tremendously easy to get tunnel-vision when it comes to seeking out paid projects and expecting past clients to get back in touch when they have more work for you. I have honestly lost count at how many times I've "touched bases" with a previous client just to see how things are going with no sales pitch whatsoever, and they have come back to me with something along the lines of "...actually, I might have something for you." It's not always work for them, sometimes it's somebody they know and they hadn't thought to connect us until now, but it has proven time and time again to be invaluable. I would say nearly 50 percent of the projects I get are now repeat clients who I have built a relationship with since and while working with them. It's sometimes said that all sales and making money is about solving people's problems. If you can consistently and efficiently solve a company's problems, they'll keep asking you to. So, stay in touch even when the project is complete.

If You Have Some Success in a Niche, Plant a Flag

I'm not sure how to best word this. If you do well in a particular area, go at it like a dog after dropped pizza. People often talk about finding your niche and I'm never quite sure how I feel about the subject. It seems to me that if you truly go out and try to force a niche, it won't work, but perhaps that's my experience. However, if you try your hand at a particular brand of photography and find success, explore that genre to completion; turn it on all sides and exhaust all avenues. I had an idea early in my career and I found someone who would pay me (albeit very little) to try it. It took me far too long to realize that there was perhaps demand that didn't have its fill of supply, and now that little niche is probably over 70 percent of my workload. It won't always work out — it hasn't for me at least — but you only need one in which you establish yourself and business can soar.

Keep Detailed Accounts

This is tremendously boring, I know, but it's necessary. I was always very careful to record my income, but was far too lackadaisical about monitoring and entering my expenses. I would often omit things like parking, mileage, and batteries for my flash guns without thinking. Thankfully my accountant queried why I'm so meticulous with how much I earn, but not with tax relief for the expenses of running a business.

Set Aside Time to Canvas for New Work

This is a related point to the earlier section on keeping in touch with clients after the job finishes. You can often find yourself inundated with projects and sometimes you'll be lucky enough to have companies ply you with jobs and the time you would spend canvassing and networking to get new clients falls by the wayside. I've spoken to a whole host of top photographers in the industry — photographers working with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue — and they still set aside a day a week to canvas for new work. Heed this advice; it's something I should have done from the beginning but was sometimes a little relaxed with it in the early days. Self-employed life is a tumultuous existence and when that pipeline runs dry from time to time, as it does for everyone, you'll wish you had carved out some time while at the peak to raise you from the trough.

Save 10–20 Percent of Your Income

I hesitated writing this point. I am not a wealthy man and it felt condescending to give advice on matters financial, but I am a sensible man and one who reads a lot on business and wealth and this advice has been invaluable to me. I can't seem to find the source of this guidance, perhaps it's just too common knowledge for an author, but a great many business people and finance gurus counsel similar pearls of wisdom. One place I'm quite certain I read this is David Bach's "The Automatic Millionaire." The premise is merely to save 10 to 20 percent of your income, it's as simple as that. It's obviously not that simple, in fact when you're starting out as a self-employed person — or any business owner for that matter — it's damned difficult. However, to bring this back to the context of professional photography, our equipment is expensive. One innocuous mistake, one heavy-handed blunder, and you land yourself deep in the financial soup. I know horror stories from other professional photographers that can make your toes curl. Just two weeks ago I was working backstage at a festival and a fellow professional photographer bumped his 70-200mm f/2.8 and it stopped focusing both automatically or manually. A few years ago I bought a brand new strobe for a job I was working on for six weeks. On its first day I managed to send it down a flight of 20 concrete stairs in to a wet basement whilst I watched longingly as it disappeared in to the darkness, wincing with every crash. Having money set aside to dig me out has saved me as recently as this month, but I hadn't started this financial routine until a little over a year ago.

I'd worked as a photographer for a long time when I wrote that article in March 2016, but it wasn't my source of income. Lessons I learned were important to me as a photographer, but not so much to my life as a whole. After making the leap in to full time, I realized I lacked a mentor, and as such I had to make do with reading and finding the table in the dark with my shin, so to speak. I implore you to leave your tips in the comments. Something that has helped you and you now take for granted as standard procedure could reroute somebody on to a much more pleasant path.

Lead image courtesy of Kaique Rocha.

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6 Comments

Will Gavillan's picture

Great advice Robert. Thanks

"Keep Detailed Accounts" - I'd suggest to think about "Don't spend more time on recording something than it costs".

E.g. I hate Adobe Photographer Plan - I have to keep 12 records and 12 proofs for each charge. I'd better spend these minutes in much more efficient way.

4.95 batteries? - Who cares? 1.50 parking - disregard...

Anton Gorlin's picture

what a great article! I'm just thinking of going down to full time and this is amazing. Thanks!

Great article!

A small addendum to your, "Say Yes and Workout How Afterwards"... Don't EVER lie to a client to get work. If they ask if you are a professional "X" photographer (X = architecture, portrait, product, wedding) and you have never done that type of work... Don't claim that you have vast experience in that area, be honest with your client... Quickest way to get a horrible reputation is to claim to be able to do something and then screw it up royally. Be upfront with the client, and work with them, chances are if you are doing one kind of work they will want to work with you on another kind of work because they know you and trust you.

Lee G's picture

Yes!