So you want to start a photography business – Now what?
As someone who has taught over 100 moms about their cameras for the last four years, I have seen how the process goes and it is almost identical with every mom who decides to start a business.
She starts posting more and more photos of her kids on social media and the comments start flowing: “What camera do you have? It takes great photos.”“Will you teach me my camera?” “Can you take pictures of my family?”
So she builds her first watermark. She starts doing sessions for friends and family. And thus a new photographer is born.
Read more: Is opening up a photography business the next step?
This was my journey as well – except I jumped head first into watermarks and Facebook business pages before I knew how to shoot manual.
YIKES – Good thing I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know – I doubt I would have started a business if I had. Sometimes ignorance is ABSOLUTE bliss. I digress – let me get back to my whole point of writing this blog post.
I figured I would take this time to perhaps share what I have learned that made building a business not so very blissful, but ultimately what I have learned through those mistakes to create a very successful and thriving business.
I want to clarify that this is just what has worked for me – but I have learned that turning your passion into a business takes a ton of hard work, dedication and a heck of a lot of determination; but I never anticipated just how much of a backbone I needed to get when I decided to start my business.
No.01Protect Your Passion
I have learned that if you treat your business like a passion then your first customers (A.K.A friends and family) have a harder time seeing taking photos as your business.
What exactly does this mean to you? Well your friends are being taught how to treat your business.
“You LOVE taking photos so why are you charging me” “Why are your rates going up? I thought this was what you did for fun”. “This is just your hobby, right”? Well they are right about that – YOU LOVE photography – as it has lit a fire in you that burns deep.
But your job is to protect that passion. If you start doing shoots for free – you are not teaching people how to respect the time away from your family. You are teaching people that it isn’t a time consuming job.
If you are reading this and you have already created your first watermark – then it is very likely you have realized – that photography is was more the just clicking the shutter and capturing a moment.
It is an investment of a tremendous amount of time and a whole lot of Benjamins.
No.02Invest in Yourself
If you BELIEVE in your business, then you need to INVEST in your business. I encourage anyone who is shooting for a business to invest in a full frame and a 50mm 1.4.
If people are paying for your services then the last thing you want is mom to show up with the same camera you have. IF they are investing in you … then YOU need to invest in you.
No.03Friends and Family
I have a steadfast rule in regards to friends and family. First and foremost- I used to have a ton of best friends and that made discounts and freebies a very sticky situation.
If you end up giving one friend a discount and another friend no discount – feelings get hurt and that is the last thing you need to deal with. It’s emotional enough starting a business and putting your work out there for everyone to see.
And now, about six years into starting my business, I have a very few QUALITY best friends – because to be quite honest – 3 kids with busy schedules and having an all-consuming passion like photography leaves little time for a ton of friends.
No.04Freebies and Discounts
That only happens AFTER I have built my business. Building a strong business means investing in branding, equipment, marketing and packaging.
When I am no longer in the “RED”, as my husband like to call it, then I can start offering discounts. Now there is a caveat to the rule – IF I am offering my time to learn to shoot better – and I ask them to be my “models” then yes, they get it for free.
BUT if they are asking for me to work for them – shoot what they want, when they want – then they have to pay my “portfolio building rate.”
Once my business no longer resembled a bad game of 3-card Monty between my bank accounts – and only then – did I start to offer discounts.
A great thing about this rule – is you will truly start to see who respects your business and supports you and unfortunately, see the ones who don’t.
Sadly there will always be friends that are looking for the freebies. The ones that don’t understand the time and talent that goes into producing quality images.
The discounts are offered in the off season only. So before the fall season, during the cold months of winter (which is a great time since it will keep you shooting in the off months) or the blazing hot months of summer (especially when you live in Texas, like I do).
No.05Can You Bring Your Camera?
I also don’t bring my camera to birthday parties unless I really want to – and if I do – I am capturing my kids – but I ALWAYS offer to grab their camera and take photos on their cameras. That way I don’t have to add to my busy workload by downloading and editing their images and sending them a link with the files.
Learning different cameras really isn’t that difficult – you would be surprised with how similar all the different brands really are.
Side note: I will however; occasionally offer to take the blowing out the candle shot for the mom and will share anything that I get at the party if it includes their child.
I know these sound like harsh rules. But I promise you – if you love photography the way I do – you have to protect it. You have to respect it.
I have been shooting for almost six years and YES – I have had lulls (which seems to happen in the winter months) – But to know me is to know that I still shoot with the passion that I have had since the very beginning.
So a couple of more rules as you start out – just a few things that encouraged me to shoot differently and learn to break the rules – albeit once I learned the rules.
No.06Prices and Fees
Break up your sitting fee and the digital file fees. If you have just a flat fee that people pay upfront – it is almost human nature to not work harder to provide a gallery that blows them away. I have always broken up the session fee and digital file fee.
My job is to blow them away with a diverse and emotive gallery that they can’t walk away from.
Also when you break up the fees you can have a higher price point for your rates. People understand paying for time and talent of the session and they also understand paying for the digital files.
While it may seem easier and less time consuming to have a flat fee – it definitely can make the pain of a price increase hit your client harder. And because when you are starting out, it ends up that your rates are going to be changing at a quicker pace than those of us who have be around a while and have established rates.
If you are starting to increase your rates you have also started to realize just how expensive photography can be and how much time away from the family it can be.
So that was always my gauge- “What felt like the right price when I looked at the time I would take away from my family?” There is a fine line of pricing yourself where you feel comfortable and also where you feel slightly uncomfortable.
In the beginning, call your rates “portfolio building” rates. This communicates to your friends/families and new clients that you are still learning and building your portfolio – this also lets them know that your rates will eventually increase.
With that said, if I am planning a rate increase I will normally change my rates in October. Typically by October my fall calendar is completely booked- but there are still customers who want to book last minute. By raising my rates in October it will give me good insight if I am priced in line with my customers.
If I get inquiries and no bookings then I will adjust the rates in January. BUT if I get inquiries that turn into booked shoots then I know then I am priced correctly… Even if it is a number that originally made me feel uncomfortable.
No.07Own Your Truth
You are NEW – you are learning, hence that whole “Portfolio Building Rate.” When I started, I felt like I needed to pretend that I knew more than I did.
By pretending -I was not being honest – which in turn sucked away my confidence because I felt like a fraud.
Own your journey by sharing your enthusiasm with your clients. For the last 4 years of my business I was running a ton of individual mini-shoots. However what the client didn’t know when they hired me is that I knew I was going to shoot it like a full shoot.
I had so much to learn about light, use of lenses and connections with the family while shooting. I started the session like a typical portrait session to ensure their “mandatory 10 portrait images were captured”… And then I would say “I am now going to shoot for me” and the client never seemed to mind me climbing trees or wading knee deep in lakes – just to find a perspective that I had not seen before.
If you are a lifestyle/documentary photographer, your gallery should be exponentially bigger then someone running a portrait business.
I remember when I started and every photographer that I knew was producing a gallery of 30-40 images, so I thought that’s what had to do. Meanwhile I was shooting so much more in my sessions- I believe it is why many times clients were confused because they knew I captured much more then what I showed in the gallery.
I decided that was what felt right for me was to share all of my favorites… Even if that means over 150 images.
Figure out what feels right for the way you shoot – there isn’t a one size fits all. This is your journey, not anyone else’s.
One of the biggest things I have learned through this whole experience is to let my heart and passion lead the way. When I am tired – I rest.
When I know the demands that will come as my children’s school year comes to an end, or I will be planning my kids’ birthdays, I intentionally don’t put anything on my schedule.
Because ultimately it is not just about protecting your passion, it is also about balancing motherhood with your passion. What’s the point of trying to do it all if you are too busy to enjoy it all?
So that’s it in a nutshell. This is how I have built my dream business, how I have protected my passion and how I have still made motherhood my number one and most important job of all.
I totally understand that some people are looking to quit your current job and replace that income with your photography business- so this may feel like this doesn’t apply to you- but it does because I never thought that by taking this route of building a passion that it would ultimately turn into what it has, primarily because it was never my goal to build a huge business.
I just wanted to learn any and everything I could about photography and simply by doing that, I have created my dream job where I call the shots – literally. I actually have so much more to share on this topic as well as many others – but I will save that for another time. So in the end – go grab that camera and let your passion be your guide.
I LOVE this post so much!!! Thank you for sharing your hard earned wisdom! It actually took me over 12 years of shooting and studying photography to start my business… and I still have so much to learn. I still love photography so much but really have clamped down on my boundaries with time and bookings. I have three kids and a full time job… it is very time consuming to run a photography business. And the hours in front of the computer editing photos is time away from your kids or another aspect of your life. Thanks again… Beautiful work!!
Great post! Like Annie, I work full time so finding balance and time for everything when I first started was not easy! I really agree with the part about sticking to your guns and your pricing, I too learned this lesson the hard way when dealing with friends, and sadly lost a friendship over it. But I have since looked back and realized a real friend would have accepted and supported my newfound adventure. Thank you for your advice it is a hard learned lesson, but true in every way!
Thank you Liz for such a helpful article! Several points I never considered during the past two years in business. I’ve always done a flat rate for session and digitals. No more! Well, come the fall, no more…:-) Enjoy the rest of your summer! Looks like it’s been an amazing one!
Thank you for this. I’m reading this just in time. I’m currently “portfolio building” and doing the core stuff to jump into the pro photogfaphy world. This whole pricing thing, is what has me Stressed!! Your concept sounds viable, but I just don’t know how I would handle all the technicalities of it!! 😅 Flat fee and digital download seems to be the standard these days, and also super convenient, but I worry that digitals will just sit on computers. I would love to Wow my clients. Is this a type of IPS You’re recommending??
I wish I lived closer to learn more from you! Been in business for 4years and still have so much to learn! Love this post and your work!
Thank you! So much to learn! Trying to juggle full time job and kids.
This article was JUST what I needed to read today. I have been asked more and more to do shoots but I don’t yet have a business (and don’t know if I want to). This is perfect! I’m now going to say my rates are “portfolio building” rates and go from there. I am finding this is taking waaaayy too much time away from my family, and that I still need some very technical skills before I’m ready to start a business! However, the sessions have been fun and I am learning a lot. Thanks for giving a name to what I am doing!