2011 Round Up: 6 Things I Learned Last Year

Last year was a banner year for me; my photography business actually started turning a profit, I started teaching photography and art related courses at a couple different venues and I learned a lot about what it takes to survive as a photographer in the digital age. I’m not saying I’ve been able to implement all the things I’ve learned over the past 365 days, but at least I’ve identified a lot of the changes I need to make if I want to complete the transition from photographer to running a photography business. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the things 2011 taught me, along with some shots from the past year I just finished developing.

Charge What You’re Worth, or Don’t Charge at All

It can be incredibly hard for photographers to transition from hobbyist to professional; since everyone and their dog has a DSLR nowadays and many have decided to “turn pro” without thinking about whether they’re ready for it, or what it’s doing to the photographic business landscape. Before Christmas The Consumerist posted about creative ideas on how to make money for Christmas, one of which was “take your DSLR and start charging friends and relatives for portraits and parties”. Needless to say there was an outcry from professional photographers; this is a bad idea for all concerned. You wouldn’t want everyone who buys a wrench to start advertising plumbing services; jumping into turning a hobby into a business can be a disaster, both financially and personally. Do you have the skills to produce professional work consistently? Do you have the proper contracts and release forms, and know when to use them? Do you have the proper equipment and back-ups of everything if something fails? You can’t reshoot a wedding the next day if your only camera or lens fails and unless you have proper contracts for every job, I guarantee what you expected to shoot and what the client expected to receive are going to be at odds at the job’s end. This could mean loss of pay, loss of friends or even costly lawsuits.

I’m not saying you can’t take pictures for friends and relatives as a hobbyist, just don’t get money involved before you’re ready. And if you are ready, be prepared to charge what you’re worth. One mistake many photographers make is charging discounted rates or working for “exposure”. I covered this in a previous blog post: On The Job – Exposure or Exploitation, give it a read if you feel you’re in that situation. If you have a solid business plan in place and can produce quality work on demand, charge what you’re worth. Once you give a client your time on the cheap or for free, it’s going to be next to impossible to get decent money out of them in the future.

If You’re Going to Blog… Blog!

Around September of last year, I really made an effort to blog more consistently, and for about a month I did. And it worked… like a lot. In one month of posting consistently I had far more views than in almost the whole rest of the year combined, even though the total post volume of September was much lower than the total number of posts for the rest of the year. Posting consistently kept people coming back for more. Unfortunately between moving and Christmas, my posting has severely dropped off in the last few months, something I intend to remedy this year. Coming up with new and relevant posts in volume can be hard. I’ve taken to keeping a notebook on me to jot down ideas wherever I am. Coming up with a posting schedule can also be helpful; giving yourself some structure and deadlines can be motivating, and can break up what seems to be a huge job into smaller manageable chunks.  (Special thanks to Jes, of jeslacasse.com for that tip)

Blog for Others, Not Just For Yourself

Many photo/art blogs can be summed up in three words: “Look at Me!”. It’s all well and good to blog about your work in an attempt to gain exposure and market yourself online, but if all you’re posting about is your images, and asking people to come back regularly just to see more of your stuff, you may as well just stick with putting pictures up on Flickr. Unless your photos are truly amazing and ground breaking all on their own, you need to give people a reason to read your blog.

Why do you read blogs? Take a look at the sites you read the most: if you’re like me, they’re mostly tutorial sites; blogs that teach me how to do things I didn’t know or couldn’t do before. Sure I have the odd photo gallery site in my reader, but they’re few and far between. By far, the most viewed category on my site is my tutorial section, with my post about Stand Development with Rodinal being my most viewed post, accounting for 63% of all hits last year, all by itself. I found a topic I was very familiar with, that hasn’t been covered in a million other places and wrote about it, and the hits continue to roll in. Don’t be afraid to be too specific in your posts, the more niche the better. There’s a billion generic “How to Set Your Aperture” or “Taking Pictures of Pets” posts out there, and chances are at least some of them are done far better than you or I could do. The wheel’s been invented, don’t do it again, but a post about “Taking Pictures of Pets Underwater with Natural Light at Night” probably hasn’t been done. (This is only an example, J B Hildebrand Photography takes no responsibility for midnight cat drownings!) My point is, if you’ve come across a photographic problem and figured out a way to solve it, no matter how obscure, chances are many other people have had that problem too and are Googling away to find a solution right now. Once you get people to your site, they’re likely to browse around and see the other stuff you wanted them to see in the first place.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Many photographers can get pretty post happy when it comes to their photos. It’s only natural, you’re proud of your work and you want people to look at it. The problem is, not every picture you or I take is necessarily the best we can do or interesting to everyone. By posting too much, you dilute your own talent pool, burying real gems with too many mediocre pictures. It can be very hard to edit yourself; some pictures I’m particularly fond of get very little response from others, and some I almost threw away get tons of hits. One of my goals for this year is to really trim the chaff from my Flickr. I want to make sure that no matter where someone lands in my stream, they’re presented with the best I have to offer. Take a look at the pictures you post and think: “If someone saw only these image(s), how would they judge me as a photographer?” You can’t count on a prospective client to browse your entire photo collection before hiring you, you may have to rely on just a single image, so make every one count.

Don’t Rely On Good Will To Get Paid

When I first started charging for photography I was pretty loose with my billing practices, I provided images to my clients and trusted them to pay up in a timely manner. For the most part it worked, but last year I spent a good deal of time trying to get a check in the mail; in fact I’m still waiting on an outstanding account from almost three months ago. This year I’m going to tighten up my billing practices, get low resolution proofs to the clients in a timely manner and not provide full resolution files until I get paid. I’m also going to start asking for deposits for large jobs. When I wasn’t as busy, a cancelled or rescheduled job wasn’t a big deal, but as things pick up it means I lose money by turning away another job because of a previous booking that’s no longer going to happen. I’m not saying everyone’s out there to cheat you out of a paycheck, in most cases the client fully intends to pay, but once they have their images there’s not as much motivation to hurry up the paperwork. Emails get buried, people get busy with other things and before I know it I’m sending out half a dozen reminder messages a week; and the smaller the check the longer people think you can wait for it. Bottom line is you have to treat people like people and business like business, and keep the two separate.

Above All, Keep Things Fun

It can be hard when you’re starting out not to take every single gig that comes your way, even jobs you don’t really want to do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always going to be all fun and games, there will be jobs you just don’t look forward to; but if you’re like me, you got into photography because you love it, not because you just saw the dollar signs. Start doing too many jobs just for the money, and one day you’ll wake up and find you hate your job just as much as the boring career you got into photography to avoid.

Take a look at the contracts you’re taking: have you become bored with jobs you used to enjoy? Are you taking money into account before enjoyment when choosing contracts? Do you just need a break from photography? When photography becomes more work than pleasure for me, I find I stop taking pictures for fun in my time off and my creativity goes out the window, that’s when my work starts to suffer. Photography is not going to be a huge money maker for most people, so if you don’t love doing it you may as well be doing something else that pays better. Try looking at a different genre of photography. If you’ve been a wedding photographer for years, try your hand at commercial work instead. You could also try cutting back on the amount of paid work you do. I have a 9-5 day job that pays the bills, and lets me be choosier when it comes to photography jobs. It allows me to choose the ones I really want to do. In the end, you have to keep your work enjoyable or when you have a day off, the last thing you want to do is pick up a camera.

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  • Darcy Whyte

    On the billing issues, here’s something I can share.

    “The Three C’s”.

    They were used in the banking industry years ago to assess the risk of a person when lending money.

    Character: Will they behave responsibly? You can often get a good sense of this when you are taking the customer in. For instance there are a few dead ringers for character issues. “If you do this work for me at a really low price, then later we’ll give you lots of work at a good price”. That one’s always gotten my goat. Or if you see a sign of not telling the truth or withholding some of the complexity of the job at hand in order to get a better price. History is part of character. Credit checks, references and stuff can work but that’s a huge hassle. But if you ask them for it you will see how they react. :)

    Capacity: This isn’t just their capacity to pay. This is also their ability to work with you to do the work. For instance when I used to do software for companies that have no experience with software, I knew that they may not understand the methods and this could add risk to the project.

    Collateral: This could be money up front. Once they give you money, they stop shopping around. They also become more interested in working with you in an efficient manner.

    Darcy

  • http://jbhildebrand.com Jesse Hildebrand

    Good tips, thanks for sharing! I often wish I could afford a manager to deal with this kind of thing so I never actually had to touch the money end, it can be frustrating to say the least.