The Realities of a Being a Full Time Photographer

by Eric Von Lehmden | October 26, 2012

digital photography, professional photographer, professional photography, photography business, starting a photography business

I have always held the belief that you should do what you love because life is way too short to be stuck at a job that you loathe going to. Maybe this is you. You have long loved taking photos and you are ready to ditch your full time job and venture into the world of making photography your full time gig because you love doing it and it makes you happy.

That is all well and good but the reality is that just because you love doing something because it makes you happy doesn’t pay for groceries, or a mortgage…no matter how talented you are. If you are serious about becoming a full time photographer, there are certain realities you need to know before diving in head-first. By the way, I am not writing this to discourage anyone from following their dream of becoming a photographer…only to prepare people for what is in store when they decide to do it.

Whenever someone who is entering college asks me what they should major in, when they really want to be a photographer, I say Business…major in Business. The bottom line is you have to know how to run a business if you want to be a successful photographer. Let’s look at some of the realities of becoming self-employed and starting your own photography business.

Be prepared to pay both Federal and State taxes based on the state you live in. Figuring out your taxes can be one of the most frustrating and confounding parts of running your own business. Learning to keep the books can be one of the biggest challenges for many photographers. Teach yourself QuickBooks or hire an accountant to help you out.

Do you have enough income to cushion you and your family for a full year? It will probably take at least that long if not longer to start to generate paying customers.

You must have a website. A custom website can cost several thousand of dollars, but you can also build one yourself from templates for a fraction of that. You still have to maintain the site on the backend. Doing some homework and education on HTML and SEO strategies can help your business grow. It will take time so be prepared to spend time building it, maintaining it and keeping it fresh.

Gear…Yes, you need gear. Not only do you need a camera, lenses and a flash…You need backup gear. So you need to double all of that. You do not want to be stuck at a job with one camera and all of a sudden you drop the camera and everything breaks. Then you have nothing to take photos with for the rest of that job and that person who paid you will have little sympathy for you.

Understand your overhead costs so you can charge what you need to charge to survive. It’s ok to start small and not to charge too much when you are first starting your business, but you also have to know what it takes to keep the lights on in the house. Figure out ALL of your costs down to how often you are planning on eating out per month. Put it all on paper, and crunch the numbers to figure out what you need to charge per job. This includes wedding day coverage, portrait sessions, wedding, reprints…the whole shebang. Knowing all of these numbers helps in making your pricing list a little easier.

Set up policies. This is important so you have something to back you up when you are dealing with: clients who want something for a discount, clients who want something rushed, clients who want extra time..etc. And believe me…if you are a "yes" person (like me) it can be easy to just give in to those demands. By setting up policies and guidelines you can stick to them when you get these demands and requests. It’s good to have them, but you have to STICK TO THEM or have someone in your corner who is enforcing the policies.

Remember that cushion of income I talked about earlier? Make sure a portion of that is going toward advertising / marketing. This could be anything from taking out print ads in magazines and newspapers to participating in a trade shows (wedding show) to taking important people to lunch. You have to set aside money for advertising because when you first start out nobody knows who you are.

Contracts. You have to have them and you need to have an organized system of keeping all of your client’s info together. That includes what they are paying for and keeping track of their payments. Having a lawyer take a look at your contract is definitely a good idea, especially because we are talking about thousands of dollars for some of the jobs you will be getting paid for and you want to make sure your behind is covered. There are software solutions for keeping track of all your clients now. Some are very expensive and some aren’t that bad but their features are limited. There is a learning curve with using any type software or come up with a paper system that is organized the way you want it to be. Either way you want to do it…keep it ORGANIZED.

Client Relations will usually start and end with you unless you have a business manager who you are going to pay to deal with all the client’s needs. Emails, questions, payments, phone calls, last minute rush orders. When you are the business, customer service is definitely a priority. If you put a customer off for too long then they will more than likely not be a returning customer.

Building a client base…I may go into this particular topic in more detail on some separate posts, but the general point that I want to get across is that this does not happen overnight. It can take several years to build a reputation and client base that will help spread the word about you (word of mouth is the best advertising there is). There are several facets of and an unlimited amount of time you will have to dedicate to building your client base. This will include but is not limited to: Networking, blogging, doing free shoots, social media, getting involved in the community (more networking), doing trade shows, advertising, networking, building your website’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization), delivering a quality product, giving your clients a remarkable experience, and networking (did I say that already?).

Know your Market. Knowing your market will help you figure out how easy or tough it might be to gain a market share in the style of photography you want to do. For example…If you want to be a wedding photographer and you are just starting out and you find out there are 300 other wedding photographers in your city then it might be a little tougher to gain a market share. But if you are a wedding photographer in a city where there are only 10 other photographers then it might be a little easier. Now that is really over simplifying it because of course there are a ton of other factors that go into it. At least you know what kind of battle to prepare for and knowing is half the battle (GI Joe reference if you didn’t catch that).

Wow, all of this behind the scenes stuff and we haven’t even talked about actually photographing something or someone…ehh…we’ll skip over that and talk about the E word. Editing. If you are blessed enough to become busy then you will be well accustomed to editing. What is editing? Editing is everything that has to do with a photo after the shoot is over. Everything from transferring photos, backing them up, color correcting, using Lightroom, Photoshop, building and album, processing an enlargement order, burning cd’s, dvd’s, copying to thumb drives, back up drives, and i cloud servers. It is important to understand that each job you do needs to have a specific process from when it comes out of a camera to going into a client’s hand. Once again that process is probably in need of it’s own post.

I hope you realize that I merely skimmed the surface of each of the 16-18 topics that I covered. Each one of these behind the scenes pieces is vital to being a successful photographer. As I said before, I don’t want to scare anyone away from doing this if they have a passion for it. I just want that person who is thinking about diving in full time to be well aware of the less glamorous side of the business. Taking the killer images is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to running a business.

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Tips-n-Tricks #24

Challenge yourself to take all your photos vertically for a while. Be sure to fill the frame with your subject. You will start to look up and down for unique slices of the world around you. Looking up at cloud formations or architecture or down at pathways and different textures the ground can have.


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