Some (possibly unexpected) advice for aspiring pros

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Sink or swim: except in the real world, there’s almost never a life preserver.

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

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Comments

  1. Great points all around and equally applicable to other creative freelancers/small businesses. Working in film & tv post production and having been freelance my whole career, for those starting out having just graduated school I would particularly emphasize the importance of building up a 6-12 month income cushion as soon as possible. Not just for the practical reasons stated like paying your bills and rent when no jobs are coming in but for the psychological benefits. The first few years I freelanced I constantly lived on a near zero balance bank account and varying levels of credit card debt that would get paid off when I got paid from clients. While I don’t think I was ever fully in danger of going out of business (too determined to make it work), it made it such that I was always worried about money, always willing to take almost any job that came to me, despite big red flags with the client or job. I realized in retrospect that when going into negotiations over things like schedule, pay, deliverables, etc., I was at a disadvantage because I was never in a secure enough position to say “no” and walk away. Learning how and when to say “no” was one of the biggest early lessons for me. Eventually after doing a couple big jobs I put a fat wad away in savings and never, ever touched it. Just it’s mere existence was the “big stick” in the background that then allowed me to take more risks, ironically having promised myself I would never spend it and thus it would always be there keeping me safe. And so I started getting bigger jobs, better paid, and made sure I was never in a poor bargaining position again. It’s a great feeling to reach that stage from scratch and really makes all the stress and uncertainty of the early years worth it.

    • Agreed – I don’t think many of us ever get to that point, though. A one year cushion would be amazing – but means that you have to make twice what you need after deducting all operating expenses…margins like that simply do not exist in the creative industry any longer.

  2. I’ve been a photographer since 1985, it was a tricky industry to wriggle into then. Different genres have different barriers and specifics but to be a photographer now is close to being a part time profession… for some. I live in London, a very expensive city to live in, I would suggest it’s almost impossible to rent/buy accommodation and maintain a family on a photographers income, and in a lot of cases, just exist as a single person. I’m being paid a daily rate about 15% more than I was back in 1995, more than 20 years ago.
    House prices and rents have risen ten times that. Of course, there are exceptions but generally, I think it’s a very difficult.
    It’s a combination of things: Lots of people wanting to be photographers, I think at the last count there were roughly 25,000 “registered’ photographers in London. It’s a buyers market, unless you’re looking for specialised skills, I think you could almost get the job done for free with a few phone calls. A huge amount of people can use a camera now, when we shot film, it was very different. Generally, most people accept lower quality images as they are familiar with ‘amateur’ photography probably viewing hundreds of images before breakfast on Facebook and various internet site and social media platforms, there is inevitably a “wood from trees” syndrome going on.
    Video is encroaching on stills territory, newspapers are dying in favour of uploaded images on social media. Wedding and portrait photographers have suffered in the camera ready society. I would certainly discourage anyone young to enter the game now. If they are determined, I would suggest they invest their money in video or get a safe career, and if they are interested, and have a soul for it, then the art market, but don’t expect to make any money, just for the sheer enjoyment and expression photography gives you.

    • I just had a scary thought off that: hire 5 amateurs and hope one of them gets the job done to ‘good enough’, or that you can cobble together finished work from all five, or one pro and just get it done. You can bet most people are going to take the former route and be optimists, or settle…

      • That’s all too close to the truth Ming! Hopefully, there are enough visually educated folk around to know the difference, sadly I know from experience, there are not. I used to be commissioned by picture editors, now I’m commissioned by interns. Photography at certain levels has become a form of stationary.

  3. Brett Patching says:

    Thanks for such an insightful article Ming. I’m a designer, and I think all your points are equally applicable to all creative small businesses.

  4. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming, running my own IT consultancy, each point is equally applicable and resonates loud and clear. I especially like #4, #6, #8 and #9 – it is so important to continually learn and stay fresh. Be the SME (subject matter expert) that the client is expecting when they hired you. Be clear on client requirements and expectations and make them feel like you delivered beyond. If you love what you do it shouldn’t feel as difficult as it seems. Thanks for the great article!
    Cheers Richard P.

  5. Philip Brindle says:

    Good article, Ming, thanks so much. Yes, cash flow is so very important, and lack of it is one reason so many business ventures fail. I’m very happy for you and that’s great you can make most of your income selling your images, but for sure a lot of hard work goes into that. Thanks again, best wishes…

  6. barnabyrobson says:

    This was a brilliantly written and insightful article. Very valuable advice. Thank you. I found myself nodding my head as scrolled down and scanned each point – Every comment resonates with the M&A advisory biz I co-run in a nearby archipelago.

  7. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    Most wedding photographers get all cash up front before they shoot a wedding. Why can’t other commercial photogs operate that way?

    • Because no client pays upfront? At best you will get a deposit, at worst, the agency/ rep will pay you six months later. Either that, or don’t get any work at all.

      • I suppose there are always enough other photographers willing to do the work and paid later. Maybe in wedding enough photographers have been burned by not getting paid at all so they have come to collectively get paid first, at least for the work part. Additional pictures can then be sold later.

        • Also the nature of the client: individuals/ inexperienced buyers/ end consumers are used to paying first and getting services later. B2B at every level runs on credit…

  8. Frederick Mueller says:

    Ming,

    To take a slightly contra position; a guitarist friend of mine who has had a very successful career as a studio musician in LA once said in an interview (about starting out early in his career) … “if you are not getting “indications” that you have a special level of talent on offer, maybe this (music) is not the path you should choose”. I will withhold his name, but you have heard his playing many many times if you have listened to popular music at all over the last generation or so. Obviously everything in context; and there are “levels” of talent appropriate, proportionally, to the import of a project – but to my mind if you have to beat the promotional drum so loudly, you should wonder if the artistic drum has anything to broadcast that is really worth the effort.

    I liked that word in this context – “indications”. I agree with everything you say, but would preface them with “indications”.

    best

    Fred

    • I think there’s no question you need both, though there are of course levels of success – being financially comfortable is very different in effort and talent than being world class…

  9. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Hello Ming !
    Thanks for the article. It is absolutely “BEST” about business of photography.
    One more time my deepest appreciation to talent and hard work.
    Sincerely,
    Anatoly

  10. Junaid Rahim says:

    I’m back! Time to get re-involved 🙂

    Question for you Ming – how long do you think it took you to fully realise that this business wasn’t about the photography?

  11. Not sure how popular this post will be, but I might just get it tattooed on my arms!

  12. Great advice for those of us who are just beginning. Thank you for taking time to define the reality of it.

  13. Nice savvy business advice. Thanks!

  14. Luis Fornero says:

    Ming, I think you didn’t close the link the image: beause all the text links to the image.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  15. Hi Ming,
    Any advice on how to export files for web via LR (dimensions, jpeg compression…)? I’m using files from D810.

    • Sorry, I don’t use LR 🙂

    • If you want to reduce the probability of your images being lifted for use by others (and also want to keep them web friendly), then keep things to the minimum that meet the needs of the web site.

      –Ken

      • Can’t help but feel that bar has raised of late as the output media improve – i.e. retina screens, large monitors and the like – and if one doesn’t adapt to suit, you run the risk of your work just looking coarse/rough…

        • The bar has been raised, albeit not unconditionally. I recently wrote an article for a monthly newsletter and was asked to submit a header image to accompany it. I looked at their website and the pixel width was 525, regardless of the device display. So yes, cutting edge sites are taking advantage, especially those that like to bleed images across the screen (the latest FOTM in web design IMHO), but not everybody is pushing the envelope just yet.

          And, do we really need to fill an entire screen with our work? If I know that the site is fully responsive, then I may go to either 1000 or 2000 pixels in width, depending on how important the image is to my body of work vs. the article. A 1000 pixel image is not too small, and a 2000 pixel image allows a bit of enlargement on a tablet. As a lover of a bit of negative space (when needed), I just do not feel the need to have to fill a screen with my images, especially for general web use. Of course, YMMV.

          –Ken

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  1. […] Sage advise from Ming Thein on being a professional photographer. His points work with just about any business you may want to start.  Link […]

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