Thursday, June 23, 2011

Five Years in Business as a Photographer

This week marks my fifth year as a full-time self-employed photographer. That may not seem like much to some people, but as the US Dept. of Labor says that about 70% of all new small businesses fail before the fifth year, making it this far does give me a little ego-stroking sense of accomplishment! I thought I'd share a few things I've learned that have helped keep me in business, and enjoying what I do...

Assistants Are Worth Every Penny
Early on, I tried to do some "bigger" jobs (large family groups, events, etc.) on my own, without any assistants (mostly to make more profit on a job). I learned very quickly that I was being penny-wise and pound-foolish! Assistants are worth every penny you pay for them, and then some. Having someone else to move lightstands around so you can concentrate on the composition, hold lights in positions hard to get a stand into, round up the next group for a shot when you're dealing with lots of people, chase down unplugged cords and dying batteries...priceless. A good assistant can be the difference between a relaxed shoot with great results and a frantic session with poor results, for very little money.
I get assistant candidates from my local high school photography class (where I "teach" the class for one day every year), and I've had no shortage of willing and able volunteers. That's Brittany from the high school photo class above, who helped me out recently on a large family reunion shoot (and acted as stand-in while we got the lighting all set up). The kids are usually thrilled to get a taste of what a "real" photo shoot is like, to make a few bucks, and to learn something about photography. It's good for you, it's good for them, and it's great for your clients. Thanks, Brittany, and the other kids who've been such great assistants over the years!

Ya Gotta Love It
I saw an article on the web recently, advising people that if they wanted to make any decent money in life, don't go into photography. My opinion of that conclusion? It's absolutely right...and I don't care.
It's probably safe to say that almost nobody working as a photographer gets into it to make "big bucks." We do it because we love doing it. For me, I love working with people to make beautiful photographs, and the satisfaction of doing so is better than anything else I've worked at in my life. While there are a limited number of "superstar" photographers that make a lot of money, most of us aren't going to get rich doing this...but we can make a living, and often a very good one. You aren't going to do well if you don't love what you do, though. This isn't the kind of job where a big paycheck can make up for work you can't stand. If your love for it doesn't come through in your photos, clients won't come back and you won't stay in business. It's that simple -- to do this, ya gotta love it.

Cherish Every Client
Every year in June, I sit down and go over my clients for the past 12 months, to evaluate what I'm doing right and wrong, what I need to change, and how my business is growing. And every year, the same statistic stands out like a sore thumb: referral and repeat business are my bread and butter. This past year, for example, about 18% of my business came from "new" clients, while 36% were referrals from previous clients, and 38% were repeat clients. People who are happy with your work, your personality, and the way you treat them tell other people, and keep coming back. Blow off one client or treat them badly, and you stand to lose much more than just that one job -- you lose their repeat business, the people they would have referred, and more. This summer, for example, I'm doing Senior Portraits for one family where this year's job is the 3rd (and last) of their kids who've come to me for senior portraits, and for whom I've done family portraits and business work, and from whom I've had at least 10 referral clients -- and I'm very proud of that. Give every client the best you've got, and that will be returned to you many times over. Treat any client badly, and you're only hurting yourself.

Just making ends meet and paying the bills has been a real struggle at times. And I've certainly made my share of mistakes over the past five years. I try to learn from those mistakes and not repeat them, which is the best any of us can do. The personal satisfaction I get from this work, though, is worth all the struggles and effort -- and that's the bottom line for me. If you're just starting out as a paid photographer, or thinking about starting out, hopefully you can learn a bit from my experiences as well. And who knows, you might even turn out to be one of those "superstars" I mentioned...


  1. Hi Paul, thanks for agreeing to the link exchange. I've updated my blogroll with your link. Look forward to reading more of your great blog posts, cheers, Mark

  2. Congratulations Paul on the five years! ~Larry