It’s that time of year again! The holidays have come around and, with their festive arrival, a brand new crop of professional photographers was born. While this is a bit of a tongue in cheek comment (and not meant to be offensive), it definitely holds true as photography enthusiasts get their “fix” fed with copious amounts of new gear and other photography related toys in December. I’ve witnessed this firsthand and personally experienced this phenomenon myself early in my career. I’ll quote my own words here: “Now that I have X, I can finally go into business.” There is nothing wrong with this and, in fact, I for one love to see the enthusiasm and fresh faces in the photography scene.
However, there is one thing that your parents, friends, co-workers or acquaintances won’t tell you about being a photographer, and it’s the main reason I am writing this piece. Some of the below points may rub you the wrong way but, at the same time, so much of this needs to be said and, hopefully, listened to. It’s so important that I’ll risk being seen as a bit arrogant if that’s what it takes to be straightforward and honest with you. Every photographer and photography group I’m involved with welcome new photographers into the profession but it pains us to see the missteps many new photographers make.
Before we begin, a couple of editorial comments:
- The photography profession is tough. Lots of competition, almost no barrier to entry, zero regulation and lots of voices (with varying levels of experience) shouting “I can show you the way.”
- There is a very large difference between getting a great shot of your Uncle Eddie that one time and producing quality work, every time, in every scenario, under pressure.
- You can rarely count on your friends, family, co-workers or acquaintances to be honest about your work. Facebook comments do not equal the real world when it comes to photographic skill.
- The vast majority of photographers are part time with wildly varying pricing, products and skill levels.
- You will have a difficult client who will make you rethink your decision to be a photographer.
- “Competition” in the photography world is mostly good natured “pushing of the boundaries,” so getting a group of peers together for critiques and comments is a very powerful learning tool.
So with that being said, let’s kick off the list!
1 – If you plan on running a photography business, you must treat it like a business.
I have lost count of how many individuals in my local area don’t collect/remit sales tax or even have a business license. In most states both are a requirement and in recent years, your local Department of Revenue has been cracking down on small businesses who are not registered to collect/remit sales tax. It’s is a very easy process to register and all you need to do is look up your county and state sales tax laws. You can even collect sales tax without having a “business” license in many cases and use your social security # instead of a FEID. The penalties for not collecting and/or remitting sales tax is enough to put any small business out of business. In other words, if you are collecting money for services you need to know your local tax statutes. See # 5 for why remaining legal is important.
2 – Two is one, one is none.
While this saying originated with the Navy SEALS, it holds very true for photographers. Especially for those who shoot portraits, weddings or events, having a backup of everything is so important. Weddings and events are, most often, a “documentary” event where the photographer is observing and often doesn’t have control of the event. This means in the case of an equipment failure, you can’t re-schedule, put something on hold or tell them you “need a minute.” Backups are essential even for portrait photographers as many families and extended families will assemble for the session and re-scheduling due to a hardware failure is just not possible in many cases. The ramifications of not capturing what you were paid to because of equipment failure will fall on your shoulders.
3 – Backups are important. Very Important. Super important.
In 2015 alone, I read no less then 8 stories and had personal experience with two local wedding clients where the photographer lost some if not ALL of a clients wedding photos. As a professional photographer, keeping images safe from the moment you capture them falls under your responsibility and, as courts have ruled, you can be held financially responsible for those losses. You can read more about the most popular lawsuits against photographers or just do a google search on “wedding photographer sued” if you want to dive more into it. Higher end consumer and almost every professional camera body manufactured in the last 3 years has dual memory card slots. Configuring this to write a backup of every image is relatively easy and memory cards are dirt cheap these days, so there really is no excuse. Once you are back at your computer, backing these images up in two places, at a minimum, is standard practice. With hard drives being so affordable these days there is simply no excuse to not have multiple copies of every image from the moment the shutter is tripped. You can read more about backing up your images here.
4 – Insurance is a necessity
With any business that works with the general public, insurance is a necessity. Any photographer who works in the field (events, portraits, weddings, architectural, etc) should take the time to research the different types of insurance recommended and cover yourself. Liability (you hit someone with your camera), Property (someone steals your camera) and Errors and Omissions (your camera malfunctions and you have no images) are generally regarded the minimum insurance you should have if you plan on charging for your photographic services. There are other types of insurance available and I highly recommend talking with a company who specializes in covering photographers instead of your local home/car insurance company. To address a very popular misconception, most homeowners insurance policies will NOT cover the theft of photography gear if its being used in a professional capacity.
5 – Decide on a business structure
No one says you have to become an S-corp or LLC when starting your business, but it’s unwise to not understand the tax and financial liabilities or legal protection of those two business entities or that of a sole proprietor. As soon as you accept money to provide a professional service, a failure to perform complaint can lead to legal action. It’s worth noting that if you do NOT form an LLC or S-corp (which is not hard to do), you have little legal protection against lawsuits and its possible for a disgruntled client, subcontractor or employee to attack your personal holdings and assets in a lawsuit. I am not a lawyer so this is merely free advice, but looking at the “worst case” scenarios, paying that annual fee and becoming a business entity is cheap piece of mind when it comes to operating a business. Talk with your local lawyer about the ramifications of each, you’ll be glad you did.
6 – Contracts are key
The purpose of a contract is to lay out the services and products you are providing and the manner you will provide them to a client. Without a contract (that has been created/reviewed by an attorney), you are opening yourself up to a huge amount of liability, likely frustrated clients and possible lawsuits. I know this sounds all doom and gloom but almost every professional service out there has a contract which details exactly what to expect and what is provided. All it takes it one misremembered statement or misinterpreted email to turn a happy client into an unhappy one and a whole world of pain. A well written and explicit contract will save you time & money so make the investment up front to get one created by a professional.
7 – No one is a great photographer at first, not even you.
Experience with any job is valuable of course but as a photographer, experience is essential to developing your style, learning the trade and making your work better. Without fail, every new photographer will get asked “Can you shoot this?” If its something that you don’t have experience with, proceed with caution. There is nothing wrong with not having experience in shooting a wedding, for example, but holding yourself out to be a wedding photographer is foolhardy. Weddings, specifically, are difficult events to capture on the best of days. Many churches have restrictions on where you can stand, the use of flash and you have no input on the ceremony, layout, etc. I often joke with my clients that weddings are the only event I photograph where everything is against actually taking a good photo. Limited timeframe, dark halls, lots of alcohol, camera shy people and competing with other photographers (guests with iPhones) all combine to make for a less than ideal atmosphere for even the most veteran shooters. Most seasoned wedding photographers shoot with assistants as well, which may be a great way to get some experience under your belt before you agree to immortalize such an important day in a couples life yourself. If you want to do it anyway, make sure you verbalize you have no experience and can’t guarantee anything to the clients (best to do it in writing).
8 – Imitate, don’t duplicate.
No doubt you’ll view other photographers’ work and be inspired by it. I personally have many favorite photographers whose work I view and learn from their style, posing, etc and use it in my own work. This is absolutely acceptable and even encouraged in the artistic world. However, be aware of the dark side: trying to totally duplicate someone else’s work. Chances are they’ve developed their style over several years with lots of trial and error and if you try and duplicate their work, you’ll not only end up with work not as good as their original, but also not be true to your own style. Photography is an expression of the photographer and the absolute best photographers put their own personalities, styles and vision into each photo. Work on your own “look” and take bits and pieces from others to use in your own work. From a purely business standpoint, you’d rather stand out for your own style and attract your own clients then to compete with a photographer who has worked on their signature look for years. There are many photographers who take an even darker path and use images shot by other photographers on their website as an example of their work. To be blunt, this is known as stealing and is illegal. Unfortunately this problem is so pervasive there is a website (Photo Stealers) that is dedicated to outing photo thieves. There are also image search tools (Tineye & Google) photographers use to find out where images of theirs are being used and yes, we do use them. To go ahead and get the excuses out of the way:
Yes, it is illegal.
It doesn’t matter if your webmaster did it.
No, you can’t shoot it as good as they did.
Using someone else’s photos may result in getting your website shut down (DMCA), getting sued and being outed as a photo thief. Just don’t do it.
9 – Camera settings do not matter
On many online critique forums, I see this question over and over – “what were your camera settings?” While the photographer is often nice and answers that specific question, I can guarantee you that if you shot the same photo, with the same gear and the same settings, you would get a different result. The “real” answer to that question is: “I shot this using the settings that gave me the look I wanted.” There are so many variables that go into a single photo that just knowing the camera settings will not help you, and if you want to produce a similar look you can, just remember #8 above. On this point, the much better road to take is to learn your gear and how you can take a similar photo while putting your own knowledge to use. The best analogy is catching a fish for a person versus teaching them how to fish. Learn to fish and you’ll never need to ask what the camera settings were. There are always valid technical questions (what lens, what type of light, how did you deal with the harsh light, etc) that will give you much more insight into how the photo was taken. There are no shortage of amazing photographers who teach multi-day, immersive classes that will indeed make you a better photographer and “how to fish.” Make sure and do your research, look at their body of work, their credentials, how long they have been in business and who’s style is something you admire.
10 – Get edumacated!
Many established photographers are always looking for supplementary help. In exchange for that help, many of them are willing to pass along knowledge from their experience which, in turn, will help you grow as both a business and a photographer. My own mentor was paramount in helping me overcome technical problems and even warned me away from becoming a full time professional photographer. Every thing he shared with me cut days, weeks and even months off of my learning curve in both my photography skill level and ability to run a successful business. You should know that well regarded photographers are likely getting asked multiple times a year, or even a month to mentor others and their time is extremely valuable so if you want a mentor, be prepared to sell yourself. It’s a buyers market when it comes to a photographer getting an apprentice and you’ll have plenty of competition from other photographers for that spot. Once you get a mentor establish in very clear terms what you’d like to learn and what they need from you. It’s a business relationship and it only works if both sides are getting what they need from the other. There are numerous photography conventions, gatherings, seminars, organizations and other educational opportunities and I highly recommend you expose yourself to as many of these educators as possible, especially when you are just starting out.
11 – Charge appropriately – your time is extremely valuable.
I hear it time after time, “I’m not worth $$$ or $$$$” so i’ll just charge $$.” Photography is one of the few fields where businesses seem to decide what they are worth instead of letting your customers determine it or, even better, using a business plan. While knowing your worth is certainly hard to determine, especially in an artistic field, as a business you have certain costs you must cover. Equipment repair, gear purchases, insurance, marketing, software licenses, seminars, your salary and profit are all things you should take into account when pricing yourself. There are tons of examples of business plans available online. Those plans can greatly help you in making sure your business doesn’t meet an early demise and hopefully show a profit! It also allows you to better manage your time, maximize your enjoyment and have a clear path on business decisions in the future.
Would love to hear other tips you have in the comments, and good luck to all you new photographers! Sites like Resource are here to help you. As harsh as my comments are above, they come from a place of caring. We want you to succeed, and with the right direction, you can.