Your neighbor picked up a new Canon Rebel for Christmas, and now, a few months later has a blog and Facebook page and is running Mother's Day “Get the DVD for $100” promo. What's up with that?
Every day we see this happen. As a professional photographer, it is very common to be asked “How can I do what you do?" Most of us are frequently asked how we got started. Many assume it's a fun and easy business to own. And more than a few inquiries are followed up with someone saying “My friends tell me I have a great eye.”
So how does one evolve into a professional photographer? Most photographers who have managed to survive for more than a few years, can look back and provide similar answers about what was important along the way. Every experience is different, and there are many ways to peel the apple, but most pros resonate the same general thoughts...especially the most successful ones.
Early years are spent learning the craft. Not booking sessions, designing logos and blogs, or setting up Facebook pages. Just learning. This might be formal degrees or classes, attendance at workshops, forum participation, receiving critique, studying style and methods and trends. It starts in the camera, possibly a darkroom, extends to Photoshop, and then beyond. Most photographers also move from building skills to building a portfolio or second shooting. Portfolio building is that in between space where you want to be in business, but you don't have real experience shooting end-to-end sessions for non-friends and relatives and you have not firmly established business processes and workflow. It can be tiresome to be in this space, but it's invaluable and should serve as a checkpoint to figure out if this is what you really want to do.
Once you are in business, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to ensure that you have established your brand, that you are priced for profitability, and that you can deliver consistent images, session after session, that reflect the style show in your portfolio. So while it seems like one should be able to pick up a camera, shoot great shots, and then go into business, that is not really the case at all.
What are some components to this? It's demonstrating an understanding of:
Shooting, exposure, composition, processing, and style. What is technically correct. What is artistic. What makes your heart happy. What rules you can break and what you must continuously improve on.
Business and costs. Knowing how much time you spend on a session compared to how much you charge for it, while also taking your true Cost of Goods and Fixed Expenses into account. Whether you are charging $250 or $1,500 or $2,250 for your work, you HAVE TO UNDERSTAND what comprises your cost basis, and pay yourself for your time.
Brand and style. This comes down to WHO YOU ARE. Everything you do has to line up with who you are. Before you even dive deep into your business, you should have a sense of how you shoot, how that translates into an image, what story it tells... and then line up your processing to enhance that. Finding an identifiable style, and sticking with it, at least for your clients, is crucial because your clients will hire you for the consistent work they see on your site, blog and Facebook.
Your offerings (what you are willing to offer, and what you love to offer, and what you won't offer). Inevitably, someone is going to ask you to give them something that you don't. You need to know how to gracefully say no, or figure out how to meet what they want. Figure out what you love to sell, and what products make you happy. Your offering, like your brand, has to support who you are and what you do.
The business. This is SO MUCH MORE than shooting and processing. Unless you are extremely casual with it, you have to approach it as a business. You have to understand that your shooting and processing will probably take up no more than 30% of your time, the rest will be maintaining your business. You can be a FABULOUS PHOTOGRAPHER and love it and have all the passion in the world and shoot remarkable images... but to be in business, you need to do more than shoot and edit. If you don't want to do more than that, stay a hobbyist. Once you go into business, you are in business, and it's very difficult to make the statement "I am not in business anymore."
Your business is YOU. And every single decision and work you produce is a reflection on YOU. There is no corporation or bad boss to hide behind. There are no co-workers (unless you are a larger studio). If you produce a gallery that doesn't make your client happy, that's their opinion of your work (or you). If you are late on orders, that's a reflection on you. If you can't deliver what they ask for (reasonable or not), it is that YOU can't deliver. Understand how thick your skin must be to put yourself out there for EVERY SINGLE SESSION and risk clients calling your most beautiful work "not what they wanted." That, for sure will happen.
If you can make it through ALL THAT, understand that you will experience the complete joy of delivering something to people that they cannot achieve on their own. You will have the opportunity to stop time, and deliver images that reflect their life as it is today, which is more often than not invaluable. You will develop lifelong friends and clients. You will create a following of people that "get you" and your style and will come back for years. You will smile on your good days, cry on your bad, but everything you do is YOURS and you own that.
~ The F Stops Here is an exclusive collection of articles by Design Aglow, designed to be used and shared by photographers. Look for this column twice monthly here on the Design Aglow Blog and feel free to grab & share on your site, blog and/or social media pages with a byline and link to DesignAglow.com.
From a very early age I loved taking pictures and looking at them in magazines and books, but the art of photography captured my heart when I was a teenager, on my first overseas trip to Wales. From that point, I began shooting with a little film SLR and having my friend model for me. In college I took some digital photography and visual communication courses as part of my communication studies major, and decided to pursue a career in photography. I became a legal business and took my first paid client at age 20, and it's been quite a journey and adventure over the past nine years.
I secretly bought a mail-order 35mm camera when I was 15, and took lots of ordinary photos of animals and nature for several years. Although I majored in art and studied photography in college, my career started in marketing and advertising, from the client service end. Then I had the most beautiful baby, found my old camera and realized how much I love photographing people.