Sara Brennan-Harrell shares her early lessons learned in this installment of our “What I Wish I Knew” series, chronicling the mistakes and revelations photographers made during their first years in business. We hope you find inspiration (and we're sure that you'll find some commiseration!) in these stories.
Eight years ago when I started my business, I struggled to find balance and happiness as a budding entrepreneur. I came to realize that I can't do everything perfectly and that I could not be "the photographer" for everyone. Once I internalized those two thoughts I was able to make some smart business decisions that helped me follow my dream and stay true to myself.
Business Decision Number One: Do what you love and outsource the rest.
We all become photographers because we love photography, right?! I love shooting and meeting new people. I get almost giddy when I am having a great time with my clients and being creative on a photo shoot. This is what I love to do. I detest accounting, I do not love answering endless emails, I hate talking on the phone, I do not like making travel arrangements, I do not love painting my own studio, and I do not enjoy sewing backdrops. When I first started out I did not feel like I could justify paying anyone to do these jobs because I was not making much money. On the contrary, what happened was that I spent so much time doing (and procrastinating doing) the things I dreaded, that I did not have the time and energy that I needed to invest in my business. The best decision I made was to hire a studio manager to take care of the day-to-day details. I did not need someone full-time, and I did not have a lot of money, so I had to get creative. My studio manager works remotely and on her own time schedule. She takes care of all of my inquiries, bookings, scheduling, travel arrangements, invoicing, and accounting. It was amazing how much time I gained just by having someone to reply to my inquiries. Also, my booking rate jumped up when I hired her because she actually tracked the inquiries and followed up with people. When I was in charge of that, a lot of potential clients fell through the cracks because I was just too busy and, I admit it, too unorganized to track them. Our relationship works out great because she is a mom to three very busy kids and only wants to work part time. My studio manager is also a good sales person, very organized, and great at accounting. She loves her job and the flexibility that she has. Because of her help, I now have more time to do the parts of my job that I love. I do enjoy editing my own photos, but as my business has grown over the years I found that I was spending way too much time at the computer and not enough time with my family. I knew I had to make a change. This was another pivotal time in my business because as a creative person, it is so hard to let go of any part of the creative process. But because I know that my favorite part of my job is shooting, I decided it was time to hire an editor. I now have someone who edits my weddings, and when I get really busy she also edits some portraits. I still look over every photo and make some tweaks, but this system cuts my computer time down by a ton! I was apprehensive about outsourcing my editing because I was worried that the look of my work would change. Quite honestly, I was also worried about the effect on my bottom line, but having an editor has made me a much happier person and I am able to do more shoots now that I am not tied to my computer every day.
Business Decision Number Two: Stick to your style.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made in the beginning of my career was letting my clients direct the shoot. I often found myself unhappy with the way a session went because I was not shooting from the heart. I was trying to please people and shoot in a way that was not authentic for me as an artist. So after almost 2 years in business I rebranded, working very hard to create a signature look for Whitebox. I only showed photos on my blog and website that I loved so that people would choose Whitebox because they felt a connection to my images. It was difficult to turn down clients that were not the right fit for me, but I was so much happier when I was able to shoot the way that I wanted and in the style that I loved. I realized that it is OK to refer someone to another photographer if your vision does not meet their needs. It makes me so happy when people say that they can tell that an image is a Whitebox photo just by looking at it, just as it is so fulfilling to working with clients who understand your style and appreciate your work.
Lessons learned: be true to yourself, and your clients will love you for it!
Sara Brennan-Harrell is the owner + photographer of Whitebox Photo. She specializes in lifestyle photography of families, kids and grads. Sara feels lucky to do what she loves everyday: photographing happy people in fun locations around the world. In between editing and shooting she can be found on her farm in North Carolina working in the garden or feeding her flock of chickens. When not on the farm, she and her family are working their way through the states in their Winnebago, Bessie. She is also featured in the Design Aglow Posing Guide for Family Portrait Photography.
I fell in love with documenting the stories of couples, when I realized I never wanted anyone else to feel the way my husband and I do about our own wedding images. We describe them as "really nice pictures of other people.” There’s nothing about them that feels authentic.
That’s when my work became more than a pretty picture.