The first thing I usually look for when I see an article with a title like this is who the author is. Who is this person giving me advice and why should I take this advice? So allow me to introduce myself real quick. My name is Waleed Shah and I’m a photographer. I started my professional career as an engineer in the oil industry slowly transition to being a full-time photographer. I now earn 80% of my income through photography and I’d love to share some insight on how you can do that too.
What is a professional photographer?
This is the first question you need to wrap your head around. Your definition is probably based on how creative or technically educated the photographer is. Or maybe even if he/she is full time or not. In my book, a professional photographer is one who earns money from photography skills. It has nothing to do with creativity, technical capabilities or time dedicated to the job. In my book, the guy shooting photos of you and your spouse by the Eiffel Tower and offering you a print for the price of a cup of coffee is a professional photographer. The photo might not look great and he might have taken it with a point and shoot on auto but you still paid for it.
The Emotional Element
The first step to becoming a professional photographer is an emotional one. When you introduce yourself like, “Hi, I’m John Smith. I’m an accountant but I shoot landscapes and street photography and I’m trying to get better at my portraits. I’m exploring etc…” then don’t expect anyone to hire you. Would you hire someone who’s trying something? Instead, switch to “Hi, I’m John Smith and I’m a Photographer. What’s your name?” Stop there. Try it out right now. Say it loud and get comfortable with it because this is how you will introduce yourself from now on. Even if you’re an engineer or an accountant it’s more likely to meet someone at a party and get hired to shoot their portrait or kid’s birthday party than to do their company accounts.
Ps. Notice how I introduced myself at the beginning of the article.
Now that you’re comfortable in your own skin it’s time to get to work. The next steps are all about the grind, but let’s start with one of my favorite quotes from a Zack Arias seminar I attended in Dubai.
“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work” – Chuck Close
So how much should you charge for your time and photos? First, you need to calculate your monthly expenses. Things like rent, electricity, Internet, gas, phone bill, groceries, eating out, camera gear, entertainment, etc… Now divide that by the number of shoots you can do per month. Keep in mind that for every shoot day there’s an editing day, and you’re probably not going to be booked solid every month. I would think about 10-12 shoots a month is a good average. Now that number is how much you should be looking to charge per shoot, otherwise, you might starve. I currently charge approximately $800 per shoot which puts me at an average of $10,000 a month.
You’re now thinking that’s too much. You wouldn’t pay a photographer $800 to shoot some photos of you. That’s right, YOU wouldn’t, no one you currently know would. Not your friends or your family. That doesn’t mean you should bring the price down. It just means that you now need to go and find some people who would.
The Bicycle Model
Think about yourself or your business as a bicycle where the back wheel represents your technical skills while the front wheel represents your soft skills. Creatives tend to be masters of their own technical skills which is great because with a larger back wheel your bicylce can move faster. However, creatives usually lack the soft skills to steer their bicycle in the right direction. The next few points are all about growing that front wheel in order to have a balanced bicycle and navigate your way around the world of business.
How do you decide what to spend your money on? When should you invest in buying an asset (eg a camera, lens or strobe etc…) My rule is if I’m using the asset more than 50% of my shooting time then I’m buying it, otherwise, I would rent it. For example, I shoot a lot of concerts and love the super wide angle look so I bought a fisheye. However, the Formula 1 races only come around once a year so I would rent a telephoto zoom lens once a year if and when I get hired to shoot it. Unnecessary purchases will cripple your business so be careful what you splurge on.
One thing to note is that marketing materials like pens, keychains, mugs or t-shirts with your logo on it are not a wise way to spend your money. Noone is wearing a t-shirt that says John Smith Photography except you, which is fine, wear it on the job to identify yourself and tell people that you mean business.
There’s a distinct difference between sales and marketing. To me, sales is how to get someone to buy your product while marketing is getting people to know that you exist. So let’s talk about sales first. Any sales professional will tell you that people will buy from people they trust. It’s usually not about who has a better the product but who but can earn the clients’ trust. Trust is a small word with an intricate meaning. To me, trust is a combination of empathy and credibility. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in your customers’ shoes, feel their frustrations and think of solutions to alleviate them. Credibility is the perception that whatever you say is true and that’s demonstrated in various ways that you probably never thought about. Things like your previous work, the people you know, the words you use and the way you dress, all contribute to the perception of credibility that your customer will form about you. So don’t show up to a client in the construction business wearing a suit and tie or to a corporate gig wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
Ps. Notice how I established my credibility to you at the beginning of the article.
On average, 80% of your revenue will be from repeat customers, 80% of your new customers will be through referrals from your old customers. So it would make sense to do everything you possibly can to keep your current customers happy and stay on their mind for as long and as often as you can so you’re the first person they think of when they need something or when someone asks, “Do you know a good photographer?”.
Chances are your clients are following you on social media so let’s talk about that first. The key here is to put out quality content consistently. Quality content depends on your level so we won’t talk about that but everyone can be consistent with the right tools and mindset. I post a photo with a caption, hashtag and call to action daily at 12 pm sharp on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and 500px simultaneously and have been doing so for the last two years without missing a day. However, I’m not sitting there at 12 pm every day, I’ve got work to do and a life to live. So, I use a number of apps to help me do that. First, I spend an hour a month scheduling my Instagram posts using Grum.co. There are other apps out there with different pricing structures, this one costs about $4 a month. I then use an app called “If This Then That” aka “IFTT”. It lets you create recipes like “If I post on Instagram then post the same photo on my Facebook”. So I have those recipes for all my social media accounts and my brain is free to think about other things.Social media is the new thing but it’s not the only thing and it’s definitely not the most effective when you’re starting out. Another way to be on your clients’ minds is through monthly newsletters letting them know what you’ve been up to, your latest work and what they can look forward to in the coming weeks. I say monthly because there’s a fine line between being on someone’s mind and spamming their inbox, so be careful.
Finally, nothing beats face to face infractions. I find that the more I go out to places where my potential customers hang out I usually run into someone I know and they introduce me as the “awesome photographer” to whoever they’re hanging out with and that person eventually calls me for a job. So go out more, socialize and network.
Now, this is all well but if you need to have a website with an absolutely stunning portfolio that they can check and say “Oh my god you’re amazing, how much do you charge?”. Spend some time and money on building your website. Focus not just on making it aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate, but also lightning fast to load. Don’t load it with super high res images as most people are viewing things on their phone now. Also, spend some money on a hosting server in your area so the load speed is faster. There’s no point having your website hosted in Australia because it is 10% cheaper while most of your customers (and you) are based in Sweden.
Most creatives associate accounting with dark suits, bland offices and super long hours. However, it doesn’t have to be like that. First, you absolutely must learn the basics in order to do business. Learn about the quote – invoice – receipt process and when you can recognize revenue. Learn to differentiate between assets and expenses and how depreciation works in order to make better spending decisions. Once you have that down go get yourself a Quickbooks or Freshbooks subscription for $15/month and have all of that at your fingertips. So when your client asks you for a quote you can pull up your phone and do it right there. Same with an invoice or receipt. You can even get them to sign the invoice with their finger on your phone. These apps have both a mobile and desktop versions and they synchronize seamlessly (as they should in the 21st century). They also have automated tools to send reminders for late payments and apply recurring expenses so you don’t have to spend that time every one month doing so. Get your accounting systems set up!
I’m talking about terms and conditions here. Read up on the legalities of image usage in your area and talk to the pros about it. The law is usually the same everywhere but whether its applied or not varies in different parts of the world. Make sure you’re realistic about your expectations and reflect that in your terms and conditions. Make it super clear in very simple, non-legal, idiot proof language what you will deliver, what the usage will be and how much you can charge for different uses. I always like that approach because I want to avoid having to go and complain in court at all costs. That wastes your time, money and a relationship with a client that could give you repeat business.
Research and Development
Finally, keep learning no matter how busy you get. Remember that no one will pay you for something you haven’t done before. Clients usually see something they like and want the same thing done for themselves or their brand. I personally setup one shoot per month that’s completely free of charge where I try a different technique that I read up on. Sometimes it works out and other times it doesn’t and that’s okay. Keep pushing your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone.
This was my public service announcement. I hope you learned something. Please get at me on firstname.lastname@example.org
for any questions or suggestions.
Ps. A really good resource on Starting a Photography Business is here on ShootDotEdit