There’s nothing quite like the excitement of starting your new photography business.
But, many photographers make one or several big mistakes on their road from unpaid amateur to full-time pro. These mistakes can cost you time and money, and, even worse, scuttle some fledgling photography careers before they even start.
Read these tips, and you’ll be able to avoid the major pitfalls and start paying your bills with your camera in no time.
Mistake #1: Not taking time to master your craft
One of the fundamental mistakes a new photographer can make is not honing their craft enough to be competitive in whatever market they’re serving.
While new photographers may have already started receiving compliments on their work, the difference between a compliment from someone who is your friend, and one from someone who is a paying customer, is massive. Customers are significantly more critical and detail-focused, particularly in some industries.
To address this gap, you need to embrace a regular cycle of growth as a photographer, constantly learning, applying, and reflecting.
Reading content, investing in classes, and watching YouTube videos will give you a fundamental understanding before you hit the ground running. There is an insane amount of free, helpful content out there.
Test your newfound knowledge in real life. The more practice you can get, the faster you will start to learn how to execute the lessons you’ve learned.
Review your photos, and you’ll often uncover gaps between how you thought the image would turn out and how it actually turned out. Once you’ve uncovered a gap, hit Google and ask, “how to ___ in my photos” or “why aren’t my photos doing ____?” This will restart the cycle, driving you forward.
If all you do is learn, you’ll never get started creating beautiful photography.
If all you do is apply, you’ll never get better, and in fact, you will cement bad habits and processes into your workflow.
If all you do is reflect, you’ll get bummed about photos that didn’t turn out as you planned, and you’ll never grow professionally or love your photography. Try to divorce yourself from your photos and think objectively about positives and negatives in your technique.
All three steps are key to getting started. The 500px blog is a great place to A) learn the fundamentals of any type of photography, and B) reflect on your photos by comparing them to others.
Mistake #2: Charging too much before you have the portfolio to justify your prices
Experts often refer to the current state of consumer decision-making as the “The Review Economy”—which means that reviews and visual examples of past work trump all other forms of sales and marketing materials. Some consumers will purchase products or services almost entirely based on their reviews—while having almost no detailed understanding of the actual thing being sold.
When you’re starting out, you’ll want to have a nearly 100-percent close rate on all leads you get for gigs—but, try to insist that they let you use the photos in your portfolio.
Building your best 20 photos for your portfolio is the only thing that matters at first. Losing a gig over $50 simply isn’t worth it— especially if the client was prominent or the end-product was likely to be good.
If necessary, give discounts to people in order to get their permission to use their photos. By hook or by crook, you need to build a world-class portfolio ASAP.
Mistake #3: Not asking for reviews after every session
Similarly, you need to ask for testimonials after every session. You don’t necessarily have to ask for online reviews, but your website needs to have real testimonials from customers as soon as possible.
If these are corporate clients, and you can score the rights to use their logo, all the better.
Mistake #4: Not building a bulletproof process and definitive style
What do you call a photographer who does “a little bit of everything”?
A terrible photographer.
The nuances of different fields of photography require specialized knowledge. If you have to need to reinvent the wheel at every new gig you show up to, you’ll constantly be stressed and will deliver an inconsistent end-product.
Focusing on a specific niche and style will:
-Allow you to tailor your learning to one area of photography and become a master in that field. Bruce Lee famously said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Focus on your niche.
-Accelerate word-of-mouth and promote repeat purchases/bookings from clients who know you as “the person” for a specific style or format.
-Simplify your marketing so that you’re not trying to appeal to a massive audience of people with different goals and tastes. This will improve the effectiveness of your website and total marketing efforts.
Mistake #5: Not exploring multiple revenue streams or recurring services
Trust me, there is no worse feeling than constantly scrambling to find gigs as a photographer when you have bills to pay. I have been there, and I decided it wasn’t a fun place to be.
Many photographers go through mini boom-and-bust periods on a monthly, or even weekly, basis trying to fill up their calendar and pay off their bills.
To mitigate those issues, you need to create services, partnerships, and products that are likely to give you either recurring or residual earnings over time.
What are some services you could offer that have a recurring element? Yearly family portraits? Subscriptions for local businesses to create social media content? Outsourced editing to other photographers? Constantly scrambling for completely new clients is a recipe for disaster—and if you nail recurring services, you won’t be so tempted to take on low-paying and/or frustrating clients.
Can you build relationships with local businesses or consultants who will consistently refer business to you? Is there any way you can give them a referral fee or discount when appropriate? It’ll likely be cheaper than advertising, and a base of referral partners that keep gigs coming your way can be a lifesaver during slow periods.
Is there a space in the market for you to create stock images, wall prints, creative apparel, or other consumer items that will pay you residual revenue over time? Bonus points for ideas that pay you without requiring constant supervision or effort on your part.
It’s better to do some work upfront—and cash checks even when you’re on the beach—than entirely rely on projects that require you to constantly be on-site in order to make money.
In closing, while being an amazing photographer is obviously a prerequisite for business success, most of the biggest mistakes beginners make have nothing to do with the actual photography, and everything to do with how they market themselves and manage their businesses.
It’s also worth noting that, even if you’re just starting out, you can take most of these steps before quitting your day job.
Everyone wants to tell you to “quit your job” and “take the leap” toward your dream. But, they’re not paying your rent.
There’s nothing wrong with taking small steps toward your goal while continuing to pay your bills with a more consistent job.
For those of you who haven’t made any money from your photography yet, don’t worry about starting a fully successful business in the first month of trying—that’s overwhelming, and it’s not realistic. Keep it simple: I challenge you to earn just $5 from your photography in the next month.
Five dollars is so easy, so attainable. Anyone can do it.
Post to Facebook selling $5 portraits to friends, offer social-media photos to a popular restaurant, or sell one stock photo here on this site.
That first $5 will be the sweetest money you ever made.
And if you do that, I promise you, you’ll never look at your camera, or yourself, the same again.
About the Author
Dan St. Louis is the Owner and Head Photographer at HeadShots Inc, a San Francisco based headshot studio focused on business headshots for professionals and teams. A former software sales exec, Dan turned a successful sales career into a sustainable photography business that does +1,000 headshot sessions per year—some of which are for the Bay Area’s premier CEOs and C-Suite executives.
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