Five Things I Wish I’d Known About Photography

pro photographer
Don't expect to luck into jobs like this - by Starscream

A lot of people dream about being professional golfers. Imagine getting paid millions and traveling around the country doing nothing but play golf! Here’s all you have to do to make that dream come true. Start when you’re 5, so go tell your daddy or mommy that you want to be a pro golfer. Then spend the next 10 years with a parent driving you relentlessly and whenever you’re not doing anything else, be outside hitting balls. Then spend the next 8 years with a series of coaches honing every facet of your golf game, driving you relentlessly and then you stand less than a 50-50 chance of making the cut in the junior tournaments.

Professional golf isn’t something people pick up on a weekend, it’s a lifestyle they started when they were young and it’s a job they work every day towards. Photography is not that different.

To be a professional, photography has to be more than a hobby, more than something you do on the weekend. It’s a competitive business that is a demanding, fast-moving professional field that is getting more and more competition from people walking around with smartphones and low-end digital cameras.

Here are five things I wish someone had told me about the business years ago.

You Have To Know How To Run a Business

Take classes in how to run a small business. You have to understand taxes, billing, cash flow, insurance and contracts. You can’t be a successful photographer without knowing how to be a successful business person.

It Will Take a Long Time To Make Any Money

Wedding photographers can sometimes build up a steady income in a couple years but don’t count on it. Mainly figure on starving the first few years until you have a deep portfolio and build up a client base.

I’ve known a few people who managed to claw their way to a living shooting commercial stock photography, but it took them a few years to build up that kind success. The advantage to specializing in stock photography is that once you build up your income, it’s recurring revenue.

Once you have a base of income, you can use that to branch out and experiment.

There Is New Competition Every Year

Just when you claw and starve your way to some kind of a living, you’ll find one day that clients start telling you about someone offering the services you’ve been providing for less than half of what you’re charging. While that happens in almost any business, in photography it tends to be particularly devastating.

You have to spend a lot of time monitoring your market, checking on your competition and staying one step ahead.

You Trade Regular Hours For Working All The Time

Being a photographer means trading the security of a regular paycheck for being an independent businessperson. In other words, you trade regular hours for working all the time. And some assignments take the concept of working hours to new and bizarre extremes.

I don’t know any professional photographer who doesn’t work all the time, nights and weekends included.

You Will Need a Emergency Fund

At some point it’s going to happen: You will get sick, hurt, sued or, in the case of PJ, arrested. When that happens you’ll need an emergency fund to get through it. Even if you prevail in court, you can still end up being out of business.

If you’re injured and can’t work, you have to have enough cash in the bank to keep the doors open and pay the bills.

Photography as a business is a job and you have to approach it that way. If it’s not a job you eat, sleep and breath, you’re going to have  a hard time makeing it.

Building Your Photography Business

media pool
Expect a lot of competition trying to do photography for a living - by Starscream

Last week we talked about the qualities that make a successful photographer.  If, after a time of self-examination, you think you have those qualities, your next step will be building a plan for getting started in the business.

Let me warn you in advance, many of the steps you’ll need to take to learn to run any business will not be fun.  There’s accounting, marketing, taxes, licensing, insurance and sometimes permitting.  When imagining themselves running a business, most people tend to focus on the fun parts and overlook the huge amount of work it takes to get there.

Education – Not Optional

Start with educating yourself about every facet of running a small business from marketing and advertising to taxes, commercial real estate, and contract law.  This step, which is not at all the fun part, is not optional.  It’s necessary for survival.

The hardest part of running a business is marketing and finding new customers.  You thought photography was the hard part?  No, no, that’s easy, fun part.

Some books that may help are Running a 21st-Century Small Business by Randy Kirk and The Real Business of Photography by Richard Weisgrau.

Keep Your Day Job As Long As Possible

To build up enough cash to get started, most people will need to keep their day job, at least for a while.  That means working weekends and that means wedding photography for most people.  The hard way is starting out as a second shooter or gear mule for an established photographer.  I never did that and, with enough preparation, you can skip that step.

If you know how to run a business and manage cash flow, you have more flexibility than starting out working for an established photographer or a second shooter on weddings.

Taylor Jackson has an interesting take on getting started in the wedding photography business, which is also how I originally approached the business.


Still, even after you’ve established yourself, you’ll sometimes have slots available to be a second shooter.   I don’t have any problem shooting backup for someone, even today.  It’s fun when you can leave the stress and customer management to someone else and just go shoot.

Building Your Portfolio

That will frequently mean shooting for free or very minimal cost.  Shooting a wedding for friends who don’t have the money to hire a pro, charities, shooting for animal rescue and animal rehab facilities to help with their advertising and fund raising will be well-received both by the charities and potential clients.

The key to making a living will be reducing, as much as possible, the pro bono work.  Ironically, I still do charity work, but I can afford it now.  Starting out, you may not have that luxury.

Building Your Business

One way to get yourself established and make some money is bidding photography jobs on freelance jobs boards like iFreelance, Guru and oDesk.  The competition is fierce and the margins are thin, but a do a good job on the low-cost jobs to get your foot in the door.

Once you have a pool of regular customers you can start raising your rates, gradually, and getting those jobs to pay better.

Don’t overlook Craigslist as both a place to advertise and find work.  You’ll need to work hard to set yourself apart from the pack, but you can find work there.

The Danger Zone

One of the ironies of any small business, but particularly true in photography, is that your most likely time to fail will not be when you first start out.  It’s true.  When you’re just starting, you’re focused on providing quality shots, value to the customer and you’re pinching every penny.

The most dangerous time for a new photographer is when you achieve a measure of success, get ahead on some of the bills and are looking at a couple months of solid booking.  That’s when you’ll stumble.  That’s when you’ll be tempted to go into debt buying some new equipment, tempted to sign a lease for a bigger studio, spend money on a wildly expensive advertising campaign or hire a full time receptionist.

Get a little change in the pocket of someone with a new business and they’ll be thinking of all the things they could buy.  That’s the time to be on your guard and put some of that money away for slack times, because there will always be slack times.