You’ve decided to do it. You’re going to purchase a ticket to the crazy roller coaster of starting your photography business. Maybe you’re tired of working for “the man” or maybe you’re straight out of school but 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.
For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming you have the gear and know how to use it. I’m also assuming you can create a series of competent 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. This is a prerequisite of getting into the business. You’ll want to have a wide variety of experience (not necessarily in different fields, but in different situations) before you start asking people for money. So, get started on building your portfolio.
As with any business, you’ll need something to sell. As 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 your uncle 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.
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 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. You need to do this as well.
Before I went full time with photography, I built a network of people I could potentially reach out to through the work I was doing. I was shooting for book vouchers and free meals at every spare moment for local startup magazines, and handing my card out to everyone I had the chance to work with. Not only was I getting relatively stress free access to places and people I couldn’t normally get to, I was getting to know them and get a feel for the world outside of my current job.
I let everyone know I was a photographer. Not in an annoying way. If it came up in conversation, I made sure to let them know. 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. If people know what you do, they will call you when the time comes.
The key here is to decide the people that you want to work with and find 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. Find the right people and get to know them.
I cannot stress this enough. We’re not big 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.
I’m not talking about the online 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 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 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 do things for you.
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 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 three small points just scratch the surface. I do hope, however, that they get you thinking in the right direction as you start this journey.