What I've Learned From Starting a YouTube Channel

What I've Learned From Starting a YouTube Channel

As photographers, it's vital not to keep all our eggs in one basket, but to expand our means of income by setting up different revenue streams, one of the most popular of those streams being YouTube. But is it still possible to make money from it in 2020? 

In 2016, I started up my YouTube channel, and it wasn't until 2017 that I started posting content. Back then, I focused solely on living off freelancing jobs only, never thinking about expanding my revenue. I wish I give past-me a firm kick in the butt for not thinking about it, because three years later, when everyone had to stay inside, I was forced to expand my revenue streams. In the year's months of isolation, I did more on my channel than I did in three years. I started posting regularly by creating searchable content in line with my profession. I decided to go easy and start posting Photoshop and photography tutorials, with little short films in between. 

After a while, I realized that reviews and short films received more views, and I received many more comments from subscribers and non-subscribers alike. I also enjoyed doing those kinds of videos more, so I started shifting my focus away from the tutorials and instead started posting content I enjoyed making more often. In three months, my subscription base grew from around 200-300 to close to 800. While that's still very low, I realized I was doing something right. 

Decide on a Strategy and Be Consistent

The first thing you need to ask yourself is why you, as a photographer, need YouTube. Do you want to post behind-the-scenes videos of your photoshoots or upload tutorials? Don't think you're going to come up with some grand idea going viral in 24 hours. Everything has been done, so choose something you're passionate about and stick to it. In the end, your commitment to what you're passionate about will come across in the video and hook your viewers. People don't want to see another copycat. They want to get to know you and understand why they can learn from you.

In the last few months, I tried my best to be consistent with posting content. If there's one golden rule with YouTube, consistency should be your main priority when posting. Pick a day and a time and make sure you consistently post weekly. I'm sure I would gain a much more significant following if I consistently posted videos over the last three years. But unfortunately, it's a lot more complicated than it sounds. YouTube can quickly become a full-time job if you allow it to. Concept to execution can take up to four days, and then, you have three days to edit and possibly reshoot anything if needed. Now, if you're shooting a simple video of just you talking to the camera, it's easy enough. But what if you're shooting on location, waiting for the right weather and light? My last short film took two months to film and edit because of bad weather and waiting for wildlife, so if you're planning on posting weekly, think carefully of what it is you want to shoot and how easy it needs to be if you plan on posting it the following week. 

Invest in the Tools to Help Grow Your Channel

When I started on YouTube, the first thing I needed was music to accompany my videos. Don't ever think of using copyrighted music. It will get you a copyright strike and count against you further down the line when you're thinking of monetizing your channel. YouTube has a great free resource to get you started, but if you have the budget to pay for a monthly service, I recommend you try Epidemic Sound. The investment in royalty-free music and sound effects will raise the quality of your YouTube channel and help avoid any copyright strikes against you. 

Epidemic Sound's new overhaul makes finding music and sound effects much easier than before!

Once you've finished shooting your video, it's time to do some admin. Keywording your videos is never fun and may seem tedious, but it is crucial to rank higher on YouTube's search results. To get the best keywords for my channel, I use a browser plugin called Tubebuddy. It analyzes your channel and provides you with the best ranking keywords to get your channel noticed. The free version works up to a point, but if you want to see what's relevant to your channel, I'd suggest getting a pro subscription. Additionally, they offer a discount with Epidemic Sound as well, making it all the more worthwhile.

Tubebuddy's powerful Keyword Explorer helps you pick the most relevant keywords for your channel.

Once you've done your keywording and you're busy uploading, work on your YouTube thumbnail. Something bright, minimal, and contrasty seems to work well to get people to click. I'll usually shoot something specifically for my thumbnails and use Photoshop to retouch and add text. Of course, if you're in a hurry, Canva has a few goods presets available for text-based thumbnails as well.  

Don't Do It for the Money

I know I spoke about expanding revenue initially, but like all good things, it takes time. If you think you're going to become an overnight millionaire or the next Casey Neistat, you're mistaken. A YouTube channel is a one-to-two-year investment of consistently posting searchable content if your ultimate goal is monetization. To give you perspective, YouTube requires you to have 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time in the space of 12 months to be eligible for their Partner Program. YouTube's algorithm seems to favor longer videos. It makes sense for the platform to push longer videos higher in search results, as it keeps viewers on its platform for longer. 

For me, YouTube is a great way to share content regularly, interact with fellow filmmakers, or show prospective clients my work. I use this channel to post content I love creating, not to make money. Every now and then, you're lucky when someone donates a few dollars because they liked your video, but the ultimate payoff has been prospective clients approaching me for work because they found my videos on YouTube.

Share Your Work

Once you've created your video, it's nice to share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. However, I've found that most of my traffic comes from the Reddit community. I try to be as active as possible on the BMPCC4K forums, as the members post some incredible stuff, and it's a great resource to learn from and get inspiration. Sharing your work also makes YouTube's algorithm realize your content is important to the people watching it and thus ranks it higher in the search results.

I hope these tips are helpful if you were planning on starting your channel. It's based on my personal experience and learning from the mistakes I've made in the past. To sum it up, be yourself, don't imitate, find something you love to do and explore that, analyze your content, learn from your own mistakes because that's the only way you'll grow, and get better. Don't focus on monetization. If you're starting a YouTube channel to get monetized, you're only going to end up frustrated and abandon it after a few months when you realize it's taking too long. Do this for the reason you became a photographer: to tell a story, to create something you're proud of, and to want to share it with the world. 

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Good stuff and thanks for sharing. I don't anticipate starting a channel but one never knows. I opened this article thinking "oh no not another one of these" but you changed my mind. Very interesting.

Thanks, Ed! I'm glad you found the article interesting.

I made a channel back in 2012 and the last video I uploaded was in 2016... Small and never grew fast, the interest in that channel has up-ticked massively (in comparison to itself) since the 'Rona hit and most people are stuck home.

Over several years I uploaded content but got discouraged with the slow (if any growth at all). Since the years after uploading the last video the channel has grown on it's own doubling or more in subscribers. At it's peek two months ago, it was generating $12 a day. This doesn't sound like much, and it really isn't; but 30 days in a month and it's a small chuck of change. So far, just counting 2020, the revenue generated was enough to pay for a Nikon Z6 and 24~70 Lens. For doing nothing, that is fairly decent.

Now comes the difficult choice. I am interested in making videos once again but my interests have changed. So new channel, or to rebrand the old... Not an easy choice. All, current, suggestions point towards rebranding, since, as you mentioned the monetization channel limits can be difficult for a new channel to achieve. Rebranding can alienate subscribers; but perhaps there is a way to include both old and new interests under the same channel.

Much to ponder.

That's awesome! Maybe a good idea to look at investing in that Z6 and 24-70 after all! If you're not sure about what to do regarding the channel and the content going forward, why not post a video about that asking your subscribers what they think and what it is that brought them to your channel in the first place? It'll hopefully strike up some engagement as well as give you a clearer idea of what to do.

Ex Marketer for small business here. Advice above is good. But in the end if push comes to shove, it’s better to work with existing subscribers.

Just look at your experience and think about how disheartening it would be if you started from scratch and it takes years to build again.

Think of strategies to ease in the new stuff, perhaps mix in some of the old ideas for a while before you fade them out.

Anyway, my 2 cents

Fred van Leeuwen, Les Sucettes, thank you both for responding and commenting; I'm most appreciative.

I've seen other channels much bigger then my own pivot and change directions. This seems like the right path moving forward to take; I certainly do not want to toss out any work I have done and it would be nice to build upon that success. Back a few years ago I had used up the limited number of times you could change your channels name; but now I see it can be changed (correct me if I am mistaken) every 90 days.

The rebranding may even be positive for existing subscribers as well; most of them want to see new videos and the subjects wouldn't be that different and may even blend well. My old channel was 100% home gardening; current expansion would include nature, hiking and a little bit of nature photography; It should still all harmonize fairly well together.

I feel its time to start putting in a little work on this and produce a new video; time to start hammering out some ideas and get the ball rolling.

Thank you both again.

I like your idea of Youtube but the reality is to pimp Storyblocks while trying to sell the latest free gadget you received while sitting at a table, gel or fairy lights in the background with epidemic songs playing. Everyone is chasing the dollar there and copying each other. Sure some stand out like Gerald undone but people like Potato jet are just uploading 20 min ads for various products they never use, for ad money. As a whole, this makes the whole influencer concept less trustworthy and we know Youtube only pushes their money makers while they ignore any new people. It's all about money.

You know how I know for sure? I don't see any actual short films, commercials, etc shot by any of these people unless it's about promoting or selling something. The name of my new short film is "Buy my new luts and presets." You can try and do it for fun but planning, shooting, looking for other videos to copy to keep videos uploading non stop isn't very fun and the pay off isn't worth making a big internet company more money.

Nice article Fred, thanks for sharing! I love the insights into how the Youtube works for the creators

Have you considered using your photography and cinematography experience to create a non-photography channel? Since there are other genres of youtube content that get a lot more views.

Like an ASMR channel.. In STEREO!