As a full-time, family-supporting, mortgage-paying photographer, I learned several years ago that to make a living as an artist, one must also become a business man. At a certain point, photographers who wish to turn their once precious hobby into a legitimate source of income must recognize where the income lies. I can tell you one thing for certain, it’s not where most think it is. I found my passion for photography in scenic landscape work. There was nothing better than spending time alone with my camera, capturing unforgettable light in places most only dream of visiting. Soon enough, however, I found that the commercial demand for such images was slim to none. Simply put, I needed to find a way to transfer my passion for scenic imagery into other genres of photography that would give me a client to produce for and a check to cash.
I imagine there are many photographers out there who have either turned this corner, or are currently wondering how in the world they will make a legitimate living off an art that has a depreciating perception among most (“I have a camera. I could shoot that”), and an appreciating level of supply (so many amateur photographers producing “adequate” imagery). I’d like to share a couple of things I’ve gleaned in my short time as a photographer IN BUSINESS.
1. Find clients that match your interests and style of shooting. It’s easy to lose the strategic blinders and be pulled in any number of infinite client-based directions. I could shoot this and make a killing, or I could shoot that and do just fine. Or I could even try and start to shoot something like so and so and there’s no doubt I would be filthy rich like those guys. The problem? You’re a climbing photographer trying to shoot dog shows. Or a wedding photographer trying to shoot slacklining. Don’t spend your time trying to match what you shoot, or your style of shooting to potential clients. It never works. Instead, search out clients whose branding, product and general message fit who you are and what you’re able to produce as a photographer. Sure, it may require some fine tuning and tweaking to how and what you shoot, but the message here is that you shouldn’t be reinventing your own creative wheel.
The clients you want to work with are the ones that recognize your own unique ability to produce imagery in line with their own professional exploits. For those of you who are married, think of how many dates you went on before finding your spouse. My guess is it was no small number. For those of you who are single, think about how many crappy dates you’ve been on trying to make yourself into something you’re not so “the hotness” you’re spending time with will reciprocate that generous stream of thought. For those of you who neither married nor dating, I’ll think of another analogy some time soon enough. In the meantime, maybe you should thing about getting out a bit more…
2. Learn the biz. The hardest part of making a living as a photographer is not clicking the shutter. It’s negotiating rates and usage. It’s finding clients who can pay for imagery. It’s sending invoices, and following up–again. And again. And again. It’s understanding when to bend the rules, and when to say “thanks, but no thanks”. It’s understanding when there’s more on the line than just a creative fee and sum total. The hardest part of making a living as a photographer is a crazy combination of suppressing your creative free spirit at times, putting on the proverbial suit and tie and literally, getting down to business. Read blogs. Read books. Ask questions. Make mistakes, and learn from them. Understand what it is you can offer a client, and make that very well known. Make it valuable, and make it sexy. Make sure they know that there may be someone else out there with an index finger, but there’s NO ONE ELSE that can think, see and capture like you can. And then, charge them appropriately. Stick to your guns. Have a plan B, C and D for your client if they are unable to afford plan A. Be willing to do whatever you must to work with them, but know that if you undercut yourself or the industry in which you hope to one day be a prominent figure, you are essentially digging your own professional grave. I know much of this is a gray area, and it will only become more clear with experience. Nobody learns the business of photography overnight.
3. Self promote. You may or may not be the type of person who likes to toot your own horn. I am loud and obnoxious and sociable. But I’ve always hated the whole “look at me” side of photography. It feels shallow and pompous and self-serving. But that’s just it. If you want to be successful, you MUST serve yourself to some extent. You must make your exploits known, and you must be proud of them. There is a big difference between ego-padding, and legitimate self promotion. Those that recognize the difference will appreciate your willingness to put yourself out there. Those that don’t, frankly, don’t matter. This is your job. This is your life. This is what puts food on the table and diapers on your kids. Your ability to produce meaningful imagery is the best thing that ever happened to whomever is willing to listen, and that’s that.
4. Be professional. I’m not talking about producing professional grade imagery. I’m talking about the simple things like being punctual. I’m talking about being reachable and returning emails and phone calls in a prompt manner. I’m talking about treating the client as a customer, and we all know the customer is ALWAYS right. These are the simple parts of running a business that have nothing to do with photography, and everything to do with common tasks that may not make too many waves when done correctly, but can sink you in a heartbeat when forgotten or overlooked.
5. Be confident. This is incredibly important. Let’s break it down: if you are confident in your imagery, then you’re confident in your ability to produce for potential clients. If you’re confident in you’re ability to produce, then you’ll be confident in the rates you charge and why you charge them. If you don’t value your work, who will? That’s why you’re a professional. If you’re confident in your style, then you’ll spend your precious time searching out clients that are likely to give you the time of day, and ultimately give you an opportunity to work for them. You’ll recognize when a client is simply not the right fit, or if your time is better spent courting someone else. Confidence is like a freight train–it builds and builds, and in the end, you’ll build enough internal momentum to battle through the harshest of critics and the leanest of months.
Each of the images in this post were produced for commercial clients in varying fields. I have been a full-time photographer for less than two years and I have much to learn. But what you see above is what has helped me to get to this point. Each day seems to provide a new learning curve of some sort. Some days, it feels like the top of the world. Other days it feels like rock bottom. In the end, however, I have made a career out of my passion. If that isn’t living the dream, I don’t know what is.