Making that jump to full time professional photographer is incredibly daunting. Hopefully, by learning some of my biggest mistakes, you can avoid them entirely.
I've learned a lot since going full time. Many of those lessons had to be learned in a certain way in which I experienced the effects first hand. However, some I could have just been received wisdom that I took on board. This wouldn't have necessarily aided in the avoidance of pain, but rather the seeking of pleasure. No mistakes I made were terminal or even tremendous, but treating each area differently with the knowledge I have now, I could have progressed faster and more efficiently. The below five areas are the ones in which I feel my shortcomings were the most profound. That is, it's in these areas that knowing what I know now could have furthered my career significantly.
I am going to be candid in the extreme here and forgo any sort of pride. Some of these mistakes may seem basic to most, and I may have identified them as potentially problematic, but as someone who isn't lazy, I can only assume that I didn't value their outcome as highly as I ought to have.
This area is broad and has a number of dedicated articles about it coming soon. That said, this is great opportunity to survey the landscape and identify key themes, even if the first is a reiteration of many other experienced photographers.
1. Photography IS a Business
Us artists are often habitually at odds with the clinical and analytical professions and as such avoid crucial information about business strategy. I wasn't the worst at this, but I wasn't the best either. If you don't treat your photography as a business, it won't be a business. Develop a working schedule, be punctual with communication with clients, keep careful accounts, monitor overheads and expenditure, and so on. Treat it like a start up and you'll be a good distance ahead of many who think great photos are enough.
I wish I'd started this earlier so very dearly. I read business books in my first two years at a rate of about three per year. Now I'm consuming (I use Audible a lot so not strictly just "reading") two per month. The gut reaction to these types of books is that they are going to be boring, but let me tell you, if they are, you're not reading the right books. I'm currently working on an article outlining the best books for a photographer's business which I will publish later this month, but the overview is this: any self-development books are a great starting point.
3. Get a Mentor
This, in my opinion, is the hardest step to take. I eagerly sought out successful business folk to learn from and apply their wisdom to my creative career but it wasn't easy. Every book and paper written on successful people and themes present in all of them notes that they all had mentors. That's not something to be disregarded. If you can find a mentor — even if they aren't a photographer — grab them with both hands (metaphorically, of course).
I will keep this area brief as I'm still in my foetal stages of really developing it myself. But, you need to market yourself well. I was uncomfortable with turning Baggs in to a brand after The Apprentice in the U.K had a contestant that sullied my already ridiculous name by referring to himself as "The Brand", but it needn't be quite as artless as this gentleman did it. You need to work out what it is you want to be seen as, who by, and how best to be come synonymous with your area. There are people far better versed in the process of marketing yourself and your work and I implore you seek their counsel, all I can say with confidence is it's worth taking seriously.
The promotion of networking to new entrepreneurs and business folk alike is nauseating. I begrudged the idea of dragging myself to a 7am gathering in the dusty function room of a 3 star local hotel, to sip tepid coffee and choke down floppy pastries while masquerading alpha males and females busily rotated the space, fanning out business cards like fast food leaflets. Sorry, I let my vitriol get the better of me there. The truth is, while there are networking events where everybody is out to promote their business, rather than connect with other business, there are two better ways of networking.
The first is proper networking events. LinkedIn is a good way of finding these and a lot of them have policies on selling. The second is to attend all events in your area and connect with people. In my niche I identified the key players, contacted them, met with them, and then started attending events. It's remarkable how fast you can grow a wealth of friends in your industry. Note: if you're trying to collect contacts like Pokemon it'll be transparent. This brings me on to what I consider to be one of the most important points on this list.
Giving Not Taking
In a few recent books on business I have read, the authors put forward the notion of shifting your focus from "what can I get out of the world?" to "what can I give to the world?" I cringed at first. This seemed like a sentiment to be placed as text in handwriting font over the top of a stock image of a beach. But as each respective author unpacked the idea, it began to resonate with me. I had most certainly spent the first year or two of my career desperately trying to get whatever I could out of the world. I'd think questions like "where can I generate more revenue?" and "which jobs will pay me the best for my time?". They seemed to make sense, but in actuality, they don't.
Again, this deserves an article in its own right and one I will publish this month, but as an amuse-bouche, take the advice as this: what value can I add to my area? It doesn't matter what that is, just figure out a way you can improve it.
Working Smart, Not (Just) Hard
The first year I worked full time as a photographer I wore 90 hour work weeks like a badge of honor. It was proof that while I might be perusing what I love and doing it self-employed, I was working harder than anyone. I felt the need to justify my choices with discomfort and struggle because being successful and loving what you do — for us Brits at least — is like answering the question "how are you?" with "I'm great thanks"; unthinkably arrogant! I also worked these hours out of an insecurity for the lack of money I was bringing in. I was taking any job I could and some of them were far too low paid. I was embarrassed by this and I didn't want my lack of income to be seen as the result of an apathetic approach.
It's true that even now I still work more hours per week than most, primarily because I almost always work seven days per week and no where near the usual 9am-5pm schedule. But it's completely different to how I worked in the first six months for example. In fact, I shudder to think about how I approached those first six months. The difference now is that I work with direction, goals, and a more intelligent approach. My advice to me when I first started out would be this: set goals, narrow your focus, and ask yourself whether the hours you're putting in are helping move your boat forward.
What advice would you give to photographers just starting out in their career? What mistakes did you make that they could perhaps avoid? Share them in the comments below.