I never intended to be a professional photographer, I didn’t even intend to be a part-time photographer. Nonetheless, I’m approaching 10 years of making money from my camera, and I’ve taken the time to write down some key lessons and takeaways.
From the first moment I realized I loved photography, I told myself and others that I didn’t want to be a professional photographer. My two reasons – and they were quite logical – were that I didn’t want to lose my love for the craft by making it work and that the industry was too saturated. However, when I finished my masters (not in photography), I was applying for jobs, and although they were great on paper, I was apprehensive about being accepted. When I was offered a job, I immediately knew I had to take a different path, so I went all out for photography.
It was the right decision, or at least it was a good decision, and I don’t regret having pursued photography at all. Nevertheless, I made a host of mistakes and learned even more lessons. So here are five of the lessons I learned first-hand that I consider to be the most important.
1. Working every hour under the sun is not a sign of success
For the first three full-time years, I worked an unreasonable number of hours per week. There was a month where I worked two consecutive 90-hour weeks. As awful as it sounded, I didn’t hate it, even though I knew it wasn’t healthy. I felt like that was the necessary amount of work I had to do to make a new business successful in a saturated and desirable industry, or even make a living. It’s not the worst feeling, but there was something lurking underneath that was troubling and prevalent in many industries today.
I wore the number of hours I worked as a badge of honor, a way to show how determined and busy I was, but that was silly. It’s not a healthy, balanced lifestyle, it becomes more stressful and isolating over time, and it’s not a sign of success. When I was truly overwhelmed with work in the early years, it was low-paying jobs in large quantities. It was a false economy and a big mistake on my part. Instead, I should have raised my prices and taken on fewer clients, using the extra time to solicit more high-paying clients. Don’t fall for this trap.
2. Networking is necessary
If there’s one thing I can’t seem to incorporate into business, it’s networking events. Although I fully understand their value and have colleagues who reach out to them and have reaped the rewards, I simply cannot bring myself to do so. The idea of networking for networking’s sake seems wrong. However, networking itself is crucial for any business as far as I know. Crossing paths with as many people as possible will simply lead to more opportunities.
A professor of psychology at my old university, Richard Wiseman, wrote a book called “The Luck Factor”, in which he shared much of the evidence he discovered while investigating lucky and unlucky people. It’s a great read, and there are a lot of interesting findings, but one is relevant here. People who considered themselves lucky (and they usually were by most standards) tended to talk to more people they didn’t know. This led to more opportunities, although that should be obvious. Yes, they were also better than unlucky people at spotting opportunities, but by talking to anyone and everyone – which isn’t really networking – you can find more opportunities to meet you.
3. Accept jobs outside your comfort zone
Being outside your comfort zone is – wait for it – uncomfortable. We are therefore inclined to avoid it. If a job comes along (or even just an opportunity if you’re not running a photography business) that feels like a level above your experience, you should take it. I’ve forced myself to do many shoots and trips outside of my comfort zone over the years, and I can say with certainty that I’ve never regretted a single one. In fact, it’s the ones that step out of my comfort zone that I’m most proud of and learned the most from. Please, when a chance presents itself, take it; failure is better than not trying.
4. Keep track of everything
It will be a bit dry, I’m afraid. Keep records of every invoice, every payment, every expense, every receipt, and as many details as you can manage. Businesses, especially busy ones, can be affected by poor bookkeeping and record keeping. I’ve been accused several times of things that would have been devastating if I hadn’t been careful.
For example, I once reviewed a lens (pre-Fstoppers) that was worth around $5,000. I signed a few heavy contracts and did the review. The return address, at the manufacturer’s UK headquarters, was 30 minutes from my home, so to avoid paying a small fortune in courier charges, I delivered it by hand. I was buzzed and handed it to a gentleman who came to meet me and we briefly chatted. I asked for his card, which he picked up for me. Why? Well, partly networking, but partly so I know who I gave the goal to.
A month later, I am contacted by this manufacturer to say that since I had not returned it, they charged me. When I explained that I had returned it by hand, they informed me that it was not in their storage and had never been checked in again. I gave them the name and details of the person I had given it to, and it turned out that it was still on his desk. In all honesty, I should have taken a good receipt. I could have been charged a hefty amount if I hadn’t taken and kept this man’s business card!
5. Under-promise, over-deliver
I had heard this advice a lot and it wasn’t, especially the way I operated. I naturally over-promised, then I delivered. Once I felt more comfortable working in the industry, I worked up the courage to offer less for my fee than I intended to provide, and then I would have exceeded expectations. In my experience, this is definitely the best route, even if you’re only going a little extra rather than going beyond that entirely.
Veterans of photography businesses, what lessons have you learned over the years that have proven to be important?