You’ve decided to do it. You’re going to purchase a ticket to the crazy roller coaster of starting your own photography business. Maybe you’re tired of working for “the man” or maybe you’re straight out of school and just aren’t ready for a traditional nine-to-five career. Whatever the reason, you’re about to do the scariest and most wonderful thing you’ve ever done. You’re going to start a photography business and become a professional photographer.
For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming you have the gear and know how to use it. I’m also assuming you have a good camera and can create a series of high-quality photographs under pressure. If not, this should be your first port of call. Professionals are expected to respond and solve problems under pressure while keeping their cool — the same goes for professional photographers (no matter if you want to get into wedding photography or portrait photography). This is a prerequisite of getting into any new business. You’ll want to have a wide variety of experience (not necessarily in different fields, but in different situations) before you start getting to your business plan. So, get started on building your portfolio — this will be your marketing material and help you start a successful business of new clients.
As with any new business, you’ll need something to sell. As professional photographers, we are selling our future work and so we need to have past work to show. If a coffee shop simply promised you they could grow coffee, would you put your hard earned cash on the counter in the hope they were telling the truth?
You have to show what you want to be hired for, and that means you need to create that work. Reach out to friends and family, in the beginning, to see if anyone can help you with procuring subjects for your photography. If a family member needs editorial portraits of his workers for a promotional series, offer to make them. Maybe your best friend’s latest home-brew has reached the levels where he’s selling it to local bars, see if you can shoot some promo posters. Do whatever it takes to create the work you want to be hired to do. This is also a good way to start networking and meeting potential clients.
The majority of my clientele are visitors to Korea. They are here for a short time and are looking to make pictures during their stay. It’s not lost on me that it takes a huge leap-of-faith to make a bank account deposit to a person you’ve never actually met or spoken with. I need to show the right work, and have the right attitude to gain people’s trust. Any business owner needs to do this well.
Before I went full time with photography, I built a network of new people I could potentially reach out to through the work I was doing. I was shooting for book vouchers and free meals and handing out business cards with my contact information clearly spelled out to anyone who could become a new client. Not only was I getting relatively stress free access to places and new people I wouldn’t normally get to, I was getting to know them and get a feel for the business world outside of my current job.
I let everyone know I was a professional photographer. If it came up in conversation, I made sure to let them know about my photography business. Even a few years into this, there are people around me who don’t know exactly what I do. So, when the topic comes up, I make sure I’m concise and let people know with confidence the services I provide. Word of mouth is a strong marketing tool. If people know what you do, they will call you when the time comes.
The key here is to decide who you’d like your potential clients to be and then figure out where they gather. If you can, attend their meetings with the intent of getting to know them. Once you have established trust, you’ll no longer be that guy who turns up with a sales pitch. This could be the local PTA if you’re a family photographer, the local chamber of commerce if you’re looking to work more with professionals, or even the journalists’ club in your local city. Sharpen your people skills, find the right people and get to know them. This is particularly important for new photographers.
I cannot stress this enough. Professional photography is a small business. Most of us are one-man-shows trying to find a slice of the pie to nibble on. There will come a time when you’ll need some advice, a shoulder to cry on, a lens to borrow for the weekend, or someone to run a promotion with. That will be the other photographers in your community. Don’t make them your competition, make them your allies. A successful photography business will depend on other professional photographers at one point or another.
I’m not talking about the online social media community, I’m talking about getting out there and meeting with humans. If you’re a part of a strong community in your local area, you’ll have a support network that will keep you away from the trolls on internet message boards. You’ll be able to help each other navigate this wild profession.
My best friends and biggest advocates have become the other professional photographers I meet. We respect each other and work together whenever we can. Not only that, but we hang out on our days off and share knowledge whenever we can. Without the others, we’d all be wandering in the dark.
This one final piece of advice is something I wish I had the confidence to do right from the get-go. I’ve found that the biggest gains in my time as a professional photographer have been when I asked. Even people who know you don’t know everything you need, so reach out and see if they can help you out.
Asking is what ties the previous points together. May I come along to the gathering tonight? I really need some advice, could I get you a cup of coffee and ask you a couple of questions? I’m looking to go in a new direction with my portrait photography, would you mind being a model for me so I can do some tests? All of these are situations you can get yourself into by simply asking for the things you need. Asking is what has got me to every photograph in this article, and most of the highlights of my career thus far.
Honestly, what is the worst that could happen? You might get your feelings hurt. That’s the absolute worst that could happen.
Of course, there are hundreds, if not more, of considerations that go into starting your photography business, and these four small points just scratch the surface. For more information on how to start your photography business — from attaining a business license to selecting a business name and building your business structure — check out Pye Jirsa’s Photography Business class!