Three Lessons You Will Learn in Your First Year Running a Photography Business

In an ideal world, we’d have every aspect of our business set up correctly from the start, but that isn’t realistic. The future version of your photography and your business will be shaped by the lessons that you are learning now.

Every failure is an opportunity for growth. While I wouldn’t say my first year of photography was a failure, it did come with its pains that forced me to evolve as a photographer and a business owner. That’s the nature of photography. You will always be learning and adjusting, whether it be your photography style, your pricing, or the policies of your business. Still, if you are going to make adjustments, it’s best to do them as early as possible. Here are three early changes that positively shaped my business.

Set and Stick to Business Policies

When I started my business, I would read these horror stories online of photographers dealing with demanding clients and how to prevent it, but I would make an exception for myself, thinking that I would never run into something like that. Months later I would have a client issue and realize, “Oh, that’s why so many people have that policy in place.” I would adjust my business accordingly, only to run into a new problem soon after. This story would repeat itself over and over until I finally learned to listen to those who were more experienced than me.

Have you ever tried to help a client out and not collect the payment up front, only to have them disappear and never pay? It sounds stupid, I know, but it happened to me a few times in my first year. It will eventually happen to you too. What else went wrong? I had clients cancel last minute or not show up at all for a shoot because I failed to collect a deposit. This especially hurt during valuable dates in busy seasons. I had clients come back wanting more, whether it be more pictures or more Photoshop work because I didn’t set clear expectations from the start. These are only a few of the problems I ran into. And this is how my first year in business went. I was continuously running into issues that made me want me to slam my head into a wall. 

The thing is, everything that I’ve mentioned (and haven’t mentioned) was my fault. I failed to put practices in place that allowed me to succeed. Simply put, a policy is having a set way of doing things to prevent unwanted results. I would argue that every stressful issue in your business, at least if it involves a client, should lead to an eventual policy that prevents this thing from happening in the future. 

Learn to Say No

Maybe I’m just a people pleaser, but saying no has always been a hard thing for me. I want people to like my photography, to like my business, and most of all, to like me. This is something you are going to have to get over if you ever hope to run a successful business. 

Let’s start with a dynamic that I know all of you have run into: photographing your family and your friends. It’s one thing to charge a client for your photos. A complete stranger expects to pay you. But what about when someone that you value asks for your service? Do you do the session for free? I did, at least at first, and it nearly killed me. I ended up with so many free or significantly discounted sessions in my first year. If I had charged those sessions appropriately, or at least turned away the free work, I probably would have doubled my income in my first year.

Why did I do this? A lot of reasons I suppose. Part of it was because I didn’t value myself enough yet and therefore didn’t expect my friends to value me either. I also didn’t want the awkwardness of facing rejection because I was priced too high for what my friends could afford. Eventually, I decided enough was enough, though, and regretted setting such a dangerous precedent with people I knew. I decided to draw the line, and it is one of the best things I’ve done. My wife and I set down and made a list. Our immediate families could have a free session if it was a slow season. We then picked only our closest friends and said that they could have discounts, but only ones that we were happy with giving. Everyone else would have to pay full price. Lesson learned.

You will have to learn to say no to your clients as well. It is the nature of a consumer to push to get as much as they can for their money. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with that. You just have to be able to draw the line when they do. The phrase “give an inch, and they’ll take a mile” comes to mind as I recall my first year. This is yet another lesson I learned the hard way.

I remember the first time I finally stood up to a client. I received an email that essentially said, “Hey Levi. Love the photos, but I also remember doing this pose and that pose, and I was wondering where those were? Can I have the rest of those photos as well?” I was nervous, but I stuck to my policies. I told them I was glad they loved their images and then referred back to my contract which said the number of photos they could expect from the shoot. I let them know that I had already over-delivered and that I couldn’t give any more of my work without additional payment. I kept waiting for a hateful email or a negative review, but do you know what happened? Nothing. They accepted it, said they were happy with the session, and left me a great review. And the majority of times since then, it has been that easy.

Raise Your Prices 

In almost any report you find on small business statistics, the number one source of business failure is lack of profits or cash flow. Businesses close because they don’t make enough money quickly. I would guess in many of these cases, owners realize that they aren’t making enough money for their time and decide to put their energy elsewhere. I would say this is especially true in the photography industry. I’m curious how this makes you feel about the general model of starting your pricing low and slowly working your way up?

Let me elaborate. If your plan is to make no profit when starting out, to get experience or for whatever reason, you also need to include a strategy to get out of that plan quickly. It won’t take you long to either burn out because you are giving up hours and hours of work for no money. Eventually, you will decide to do something else with your time. There isn’t any way around it.

In most cases, if you have been in business for a year, it’s time to raise your prices to a livable wage and find a way to make it work before you give up. If you don't do it then, when do you plan on doing it? When my business was almost one year in, I remember telling my wife, “I love photography, but if we don’t find a way to make a decent wage off of this soon, I’d rather not pursue it as a career any longer.” That month we calculated all of our numbers, raised our prices exponentially, and sure enough, our business and our profits took off.

On a final note, the easiest way to grow is to learn from the mistakes made by those before you. Don’t wait to go through the same lesson that a peer has already learned. Seek out good mentors and listen to their previous errors. This article is only a snippet of the lessons that you will learn as you pursue photography as a business, and I hope that in them you can see the benefit of using your current shortcomings as an opportunity for future success.

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Oleh Brevus's picture

Thanks for advices !!! Lots of you mentioned faces me to do with friends and family...thanks!

Levi Keplar's picture

Thanks Oleh, glad to help!

Nico Socha's picture

If you think about to charge friends an family for photos, there is something wrong. That's a sign that you don't earn enough with your clients.

There is only one exception if a friend or family member is doing profits with the help of the photos than its ok to charge for your work.

Agustin Tajch's picture

Thanks! Great article

Pedro Pulido's picture

great article and so true. i've recently had an argument with a friend that said i was being egocentrical by only working for a specific kind of client. Made me doubt my decisions but i stuck to it. I know the niche market i want to target and i'm very aware that nobody else has this product so all i have to do is keep pushing and working my @$$ off ! period.
lthanks for writing this. these are great tips everyone going into the photography business should know.

Levi Keplar's picture

My business flourished when I narrowed down my focus and put my energy towards one thing. Sounds like you are heading in the right direction!

Dennis Johnson's picture

20 years ago when i started my business i got some great advice.
"would you give your customer e.g 100$ ?" no! " so why would you give him 100$ discount" discounts come straight from your profit. and if somebody cant pay part his bills or down payment upfront, why would you give him X amount on credit ? its a sign or poor credit or lack of trust in your work. i have send people away who asked for a discount, done it with a smile on my face. i do the buy 2 get a free pen or mouse mat for free offers. or my favorite comment is that i will invoice them at cost for the project and i repeat the same price because thats what it costs. LOL

Levi Keplar's picture

Great advice in that discounting is the same thing as giving that money!

Eric Salas's picture

Excellent article. One thing I'd add is this:

If you don't make it clear during your consultation with a potential client that your style, preference, and editing techniques are what sets you apart from others, some clients will want, and or, expect a certain "look" if you don't discuss the topic in depth. (IMO, it helps to make your artistic vision a large part of a consultation)

I personally would rather lose a client than shoot something half-ass'd because I was put in a box and deliver a product that could degrade my value due to artistic differences.

Levi Keplar's picture

Great point Eric!

Indy Thomas's picture

Great article.
Saying no is one of the most important things to master. Fortunately I am busy enough to say I am booked til Satan starts his sale on ice skates.

Pricing is also critical. Start cheap and you will starve forever.