There are any number of articles on this topic already existing: how to ‘make it’, how to be successful, how to market, how to run a business. There are courses, books and videos. And there are people, who make a business out of teaching others how to run a business. And then there are people who actually make a living doing what you want do: being paid to create and deliver images. For some odd reason, I’ve been getting a lot of emails in the last few weeks from people wondering how to make photography work as a career: corporate switchers, graduates, pre-graduates, people who were doing something else creative but want a change of medium. I have no qualifications to answer these questions or offer absolute advice other than a) I make more than 80% of my income from selling images, mostly commissioned, and b) I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Market conditions in your country are probably going to be quite different to mine, and even if they aren’t, things have no doubt changed from five years ago. So, with that disclosure out of the way, here we go.
1. It’s almost never about the pictures.
For most, this is the biggest surprise. An average photographer (composition, technical quality etc.) will always be beaten to the bottom line by a good salesman, or somebody with a lot of connections. So long as you can deliver ‘good enough’ in the eyes of your client, you’ve passed on the image part. But no matter how good you are, if you can’t sell, then you’re not getting a pay check at the end of the day. And even if you can sell, and you can shoot – if you don’t follow up on the admin, you might still go out of business. Of course, the ideal situation is to be able to sell and be able to shoot…
2. Cash(flow) is king.
In any business, if you can’t pay the bills if something happens, then you go out of business; game over. If you can’t weather a few bad months, then you won’t be around or in any position to take the job when all of that door knocking pays off. Even if you get a steady stream of work from day one, remember that clients almost never pay on delivery, and you might well have some expenses to foot upfront – studio or lighting rental, travel, etc. In an ideal situation, you’ll get a deposit upfront, but sadly that rarely happens – or is also delayed. You must keep an operating budget buffer at all times, preferably six months or more. One illusion of salaried employment is that the pay checks come every month, so you know what your income is going to be; but how many people can survive if you suddenly get made redundant? It’s the same for the self-employed, except if you survive your first year without losing money, you’ll also have learnt that there’s only one critical rule for survival: have more cash in hand at the end of the month than the beginning.
3. Work(flow) is queen.
Aside from having a pipeline of prospective clients or jobs to follow up on, and a process in place to issue quotes, invoices and collect payment, consistency is important: you want to make sure that you can deliver images of the same quality every time, too. In fact, you want every aspect of your business to be as efficient as possible so that more time is free up for revenue-generating work; administration is merely an overhead. Ensuring that you have a set of steps to follow for everything can make the difference between wasting two days looking for receipts at tax filing time, or not forgetting to pack the sync cables on a shoot because you have a checklist.
4. Hardware only matters if you can deliver something unique with it.
For me, every hardware purchase must have some tangible return on investment: if there isn’t, I don’t buy it because it’ll be money wasted. If I have to spend $20,000 on lighting to do a job I’m billing $40,000 for, and the whole thing is overall profitable, I wouldn’t hesitate. But if you’re spending $2,000 on a camera that doesn’t do anything your existing gear can’t, then that’s a bad investment. All of this is really summed up in the first line of the paragraph: if the hardware doesn’t enable you to deliver something unique (or you can’t make it work and subsequently sell it), then you might as well not bother.
5. We don’t always get to do what we want, but know when to say no, too.
Not every job is going to be your dream shooting situation, and we have to stay in business – which means accepting any commission so long as they are something we can execute with reasonable competence. Having said that, you must also be wise enough to know when to turn a job away: if it’s a bad creative fit, or there’s too much price negotiation, then walk away. No matter the outcome, neither you nor the client will be happy – you’ll feel underpaid, they’ll feel ripped off and it’ll be bad all round. Similarly, if something is outside your scope of expertise, don’t risk your reputation by doing it badly. Everything has a first time, but it shouldn’t be when somebody is paying you to do it.
6. Appear to be a specialist.
Though this is a rather odd statement, I believe in being able to field a solid portfolio of images in any genre or subject or style that I might reasonably want to propose to a client. Though there may land up being 10, 12, 15 portfolios – if you only show the two or three most appropriate, then you appear to be an expert. Even if you are able to execute a wide variety of work to an equally high level, it is confusing if you present too much all at once. I also believe that you have to be a good generalist to be a good specialist: a specialist’s value lies in being able to handle the edge cases, and for that, a wide spread of knowledge and experience is required. It’s also important not to shoot only one thing to avoid creative stagnation.
7. Defend your intellectual property.
Unfortunately, anything intangible – digital images, for instance – are subject to the general public impression that there is little or no value because there is no apparent ‘cost’ to creation or duplication. That isn’t true: what about the time spent learning, the equipment bought and sold, the courses attended, the travel required? Ultimately, it boils down to one thing: if you believe your work has value, you have to be the strongest defender of that, because nobody else is going to do it for you. This means understanding and enforcing licensing; pursuing unauthorised use and image theft, and securing your own digital assets – don’t upload anything full size anywhere public, for instance. Intellectual property is our livelihood.
8. Take care of your own creative and professional development.
Assuming you’ve made a sustainable business from photography, it’s also important to make sure you continually assess yourself to figure out where the weaknesses are: lighting? marketing? postprocessing? etc. Once you know, it’s easy to work on those and become a better overall value package for your client. If you don’t, it becomes easy for somebody not to hire you. Beyond that, it’s also easy to fall into the trap of routine: shoot something different and experiment for your personal work, because that’s the only way you’re going to develop creatively and build up a portfolio of example images in the style you want somebody to hire you to shoot. If you only show images in one style and angle, then nobody will know you are capable of anything else.
9. Professionalism matters.
This is a Big Thing, and not just in photography. I suppose it’s almost a code of ethics to live your life by: if you promise something, you’d better be able to deliver on it. Treat your clients with courtesy and respect, even if you disagree. Respond promptly and double check facts before hitting send. Beyond that, remember we are also in a service industry: if the service isn’t good, the customers don’t come back. We prepare for reasonable contingencies and don’t give excuses. Being a professional photographer means that no matter what the conditions or personal mood on the day or whatever else that’s outside our control – we deliver a consistent minimum standard of work, and we do it with a smile.
10. Don’t have a backup plan, and be prepared for the slog.
This is not the easiest industry to be in, not by a long shot. The payoff is a continually changing environment to work in and the satisfaction of creating something tangible every day. But, you have to be really sure you want to be a photographer: and the only way to do that is to a) be prepared to make a lot of personal sacrifices – long hours, hard work, little money – and b) be willing to do things your competition isn’t. That’s where not having a backup plan comes in: if it’s too easy to pull the plug and go back to the familiar and comfortable, then you probably won’t take the risks or do the last little things necessary to tip the odds in your favour. I tried to make professional photography work four times. The first three times failed, because it was far too easy for me to give up and go back to the job I took a sabbatical from or accept an offer. This time stuck, because I didn’t leave myself a choice.
You’ll have noticed that disturbingly, almost none of it has to do with photography. Most of the people that succeed as photographers realise they’re running a business like any other; the ones who don’t get too caught up with the imaging part. Like any other business, it’s been proven time and again the product itself is actually far less important than how it is sold. But sell a good product well, and I can’t think of any other job I’d rather be doing. MT
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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