My Five Biggest Mistakes as a Full Time Photographer That You Can Avoid

My Five Biggest Mistakes as a Full Time Photographer That You Can Avoid

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.

Business Knowledge

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 Ia 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.

2. Read

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).

Marketing

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. 

Networking

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.

A selfish deer just take, take, take...

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.

Lead image by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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9 Comments

user-156929's picture

"This seemed like a sentiment to be placed as text in handwriting font over the top of a stock image of a beach." :-)

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

First things first. Anybody wanting to go into business has to understand that the days of having fun with their camera are over...at least for a good long while, until they figure out how to build a business that is a joy to operate. That is a steep learning curve that will leave most stuck in "working hard" stage you described. Many never figure out how to get out of that stage and eventually, it starts to mess with your love of photography because it's just not fun anymore.

I'd recommend choosing a specialty. Way too many photographers make the Jack Of All Trades mistake, under the false notion that more genres equal more revenue opportunities. It takes a lot of shooting to figure out what you think you want to specialize in. Then it takes a lot more time spent trying to monetize that specialty to figure out if you can still enjoy it as a business.

On the reading front, I'd recommend Worth Every Penny by Sarah Petty, Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port, and Best Business Practices for Photographers by John Harrington.

SLR Lounge recently released a comprehensive course on building a photography business. I'm working through it and it may be the best mentorship that most photographers will ever get access to.

For portrait photographers, there's also Sue Bryce's Portrait Startup course on Creative Live. Portrait photographers MUST learn the power of printed images and in-person sales and Sue teaches that. She has another course on Creative Live "Make More Money and Discover Your Worth" that helps people who struggle with asking for money for their services.

Joining a professional organization like PPA or ASMP is also a must. You don't know what you don't know and professional organizations help you learn those things. And they're a great place to find a mentor.

Come up with a personal project that you enjoy and that adds value to the world (especially your target market) and that yields something for you to publish on your blog every single week. Building a blog that people find value in that grows you an email list is a way more reliable way to yield results than social media. Every few weeks, somebody is on Fstoppers promoting Instagram for marketing and that platform is going to be nothing but a massive waste of time for the overwhelming majority of photographers.

I have a lot more stuff on a page on my website I put together as a resource for small businesses. It's at https://LenzyRuffin.com/business

I do have to ask why in an article about earning a living through photography, the lead image is from Unsplash? Why do Fstoppers writers consistently use Unsplash...especially in an article like this one? Am I the only one who sees the contradiction?

Honestly, as a professional image creator, how hard would it have been to grab a camera and go take a picture of a Wrong Way sign? For many of these Fstoppers articles using Unsplash images, it seems like a minimal effort would have been required to create the image that was used.

Fstoppers writers are in a thought leadership position and I would think they wouldn't use that position to routinely contribute to the "photography is free" mindset that industry professionals have to contend with every day while out here trying to earn a living.

Brian Pernicone's picture

Excellent points. I'm looking forward to the business books roundup.

Harlan Bowling's picture

Ditto on this. Good article, and I'm interested in the books as well.

chris bryant's picture

I don't want to be a professional photographer. Been there, done that.

While I have no intention of going pro, I still found this article valuable.

Someone commented on how going pro means "...the days of having fun with their camera are over...at least for a good long while..." I thought I'd bring up a biography that I heard about; Riding with Rilke, by Ted Bishop. Mr. Bishop was a professor of English for whom literature meant work. Immobilized by a serious motorcycle accident, he re-discovers something he had almost completely forgotten - literature is joy, which is why he became a prof in the first place! There's a constant pressure between "Do what you love and the money will follow", "Love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life", and "Get a job, ya bum." The real trick is to find the balance that works for you, I guess.

If you don't mind my going on a bit more, it also reminds me of a vignette from Conceptual Blockbusting, by James L. Adams. He's a full-time engineer who loves art and envies his art teacher's freedom to be a full-time creative. His art teacher envies his 9-5 that frees him from having to worry about money and allows him the freedom to create. The grass is greener?

Garrett Mynatt's picture

Very interested to see the collection of books to read. There is so much value to be gleaned from other industries even though as a creative there are natural differences. Nothing a little creative problem solving can't fix!

I think for a young person photographer is a bad choice of profession. Chances to make a good business out of it dim, or most likely will take many years. So if you can, don't.
If you must, unless you actually got a break, be prepared to consider it a calling and not a well payed job :)

Austin Williams's picture

This is 100% accurate. Great work, Robert!