Featured Contributor Dan DeWaard shares his early lessons learned in this installment of our “What I Wish I Knew” series, chronicling the mistakes and revelations creatives made during their first years in business. We hope you find inspiration (and we’re sure you’ll find some commiseration!) in these stories. Here are Dan's top lessons learned from managing his own photography business.
I often think back to when I first started photography and question myself why I did what I did. One of the first things I wish I would have done was to work with an experienced wedding photographer, one that I admired at that time.
I feel so blessed and fortunate that I was able to work hard and pursue my photography business over these past few years, but I do wish I would have been a little smarter in how I have arrived at this point. It has been a journey of trial and error, and lots of errors there were.
I also wish I had had a clearer vision and idea of what type/style of photographer I wanted to be. I knew I had passion, which of course is a must in any art that you are wanting to create a business from.
I am one of those typical self taught photographers, who started by taking pictures for family friends and their babies etc. I purchased a cheap studio lighting kit and some plain solid color backdrops and tried doing the whole home studio thing. Right away I knew this wasn’t for me and I continued to search for what kind of photography I wanted to pursue.
I wish I would have been exposed to more photographers and their work so I didn’t have to go through some tough and embarrassing lessons, but then again, it has also shaped me into who I am as a photographer today. For me, getting to know how to use a camera and gear has been pretty easy, my biggest struggles have always been on the mental side of things, mostly confidence. I still struggle mightily to this day, I like to think it’s humility, but in all reality I’m deathly scared of what people think of my work. When I receive a compliment, I still tell myself well, they have to say that…they're my clients or they're just being nice.
I have made several poor decisions these past years because of my confidence issues, such as pricing and branding. I feel I have a decent website and Facebook page, but I know I could be/should be doing it a whole lot better. But for some reason, I purposely don’t give marketing too much time or money. I’ve always been afraid of failure and other’s opinion of me and my work.. and photography, like any art form, leaves you vulnerable. So I figure if I don’t spend money or time then I can always hide behind the excuse that if I fail it’s because I did a poor job on marketing, not because of my terrible work.
But slowly, with the help of Design Aglow, I have been putting myself out there more by using products in packaging and marketing opportunities to get my name out there. When I receive encouraging emails from fellow photographers, mostly new or aspiring ones, I tell them that they have no clue how encouraging their email is to me. I’m deathly afraid of coming across as an arrogant photographer who cares more about themselves than their work that they do for their clients, but at the same time I know we all need to have confidence in our talents and style. It’s not only great for the soul but great for your business as well.
I wish I had someone early on that could have helped and encouraged me on the mental side, it’s just as important as knowing your gear.
Tip #1: Ask yourself why you want to pursue photography as a career and be completely honest with yourself. We all love the compliments on our images from our friends and relatives (especially on Facebook). You’ll even get a few, “Hey you should think about doing this as a career…” which is all super flattering and feels good to know that your work is appreciated, but it shouldn’t be the reason why you want to start a photography business.
We live in a day where honesty is a taboo thing, especially when we fish for compliments on Facebook or Instagram. Of course people will tell you how lovely your photos are and we want to believe that becoming a professional photographer is all about having a “good eye” and a decent camera. But that’s just the beginning of it, there is way more to that, just like any other professional career. The most important advice I can give to any new photographer, is a question, Why?
Find an established photographer that you admire and ask them to be honest with you about your work and if they wouldn’t mind giving you some constructive feedback. Yes, I know this sounds terrifying, but it’s so important to get true feedback from someone who is not personally invested in you, such as an aunt or sister, and will help you to decide if you should pursue a career or just enjoy photography for your own personal self.
Tip #2: Learn your gear and start with just a couple of lenses. The best advice I ever received about golf is to start with just a few clubs, once you start getting to know how to use them, then go ahead and start using the other ones. Same with photography. Don’t overwhelm yourself with 3-4 lenses, and several different camera formats, lighting and more. Start with a decent DSLR and a 35mm and 50mm lens. Shoot the heck out of those two, and learn their strengths and weaknesses, then you will know why you really want that 85mm or super wide lens because of application reasons not because how pretty or big the lenses may be. Let your gear grow with your style and career. Also, probably the best technical advice I have would be to shoot correctly in camera, don’t rely on post processing to correct it.
Tip #3: Follow and admire a couple photographers, don’t overwhelm yourself with following many different ones, all that will do is confuse and frustrate you more on your own style. To have your own style you need to have confidence in your own work. Shoot the way you see this world, not how you think Benj Haisch or Jose Villa would shoot it. Yes, of course be influenced by them and learn from their work, but when you are actually shooting, let your left brain take over and trust your experience to take care of the technical side of photography. Lighting is the most important element, followed by composition. Do your homework so when you’re out shooting, you're shooting with a purpose.
Tip #4: Create a simple but solid business plan. Just like any successful business, you need to set some current and long term goals for your career. Don’t set goals such as getting so many likes etc., but personal goals such as working on the use of lighting, or areas of weakness in your photography. Put together a financial plan on how much you’re going to charge over the span of the next 3 years. Don’t do “mini sessions”, you’re basically telling your clients you are not worth the full price.
It’s just as important to have a solid business plan as it is to be a great photographer. And lastly, enjoy what you do. Don’t let the money dictate your career path, let your desire and passion do it. I got out of photographing families because I don’t like dealing with over controlling Pinterest moms with unbearable kids. It’s been the best move for my career and has helped my branding as a business as well.
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When I was in college, I had a friend who was a professional photographer. The first time I went to her home, I walked in to find stunning photographs of her children on the walls.
There was a huge canvas in their living room and a creative photo display in the main hallway. I remember being so moved by the beauty of those images, thinking to myself, “I want to create images like this!” I bought myself a DSLR as a graduation present, learned photography from online courses and started my photography business about a year later.