2013. It’s hard for me to even recall the beginning of the year because its gone by so quickly. What I can remember clearly, though, is how uncertain the future felt. How uncertain I felt about my photography and my business. I’d just walked away from a job that was, how can I say this tastefully, a very financially secure photography job but also one that was the epitome of how to degrade employee morale. I’d walked away fully intending to start my photography business, but with only puzzle pieces scattered throughout my brain to show me how to do it.
Things Weren’t Really Working
Let me back up a bit to give you some history. I guess it would be unfair to definitively say that 2013 was the first year I attempted to open a business. My adventure really started back in 2008. At that time I was so unsure of where my life was going. I hadn’t finished my bachelors degree, so I knew I had no future with it. I was a musician, but come on, how realistic was the prospect of me breaking out of obscurity to become the next Avril Lavigne? Bleak. I had three hobbies I was really passionate about. Playing guitar, taking pictures, and reading books. After learning about it from a friend, I decided to pursue an internship with a well-known photographer who was based in Chicago at the time because I felt like of the few gifts I had to offer to the world, photography was the most plausible to accomplish sufficiently to turn it from a hobby into a career.
The internship was extremely fruitful. I walked away inspired, with improved technical skills, one wedding under my belt as a secondary photographer, a crash course on profit and loss, tax info, great constructive criticism from a photographer I admired, and an understanding that I needed a brand that would work for me. But what I was missing was the understanding that (and bare with me, if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, its this): In order to have a successful photography business, you need to be as good at, and have as good of an understanding of business, as you do of photography. And for years, I tried with meager results to run a photography business.
Ok so here is what I thought were the right ingredients for owning and running a successful photography business (and what didn’t work….like….at all.):
My photography should freaking rock.
Ok people, this should be obvious right? As long as my photography is better than the next guy’s, it should be a no brainer. People will flock to me practically throwing their money at me because SURELY they’ll see the value in the QUALITY of my work, over the other guy’s. Nope.
I need a website so people can find me.
Once I get my website up and running, as long as it’s clean and informative and displays my work beautifully, people will book me. They will find me, and they will book me. (I suppose at this point I was thinking that I too, like Harry Potter, was magical and people would be able to magically find my website out of the trillion on the internet – like, “Accio website!” – Thats a Harry Potter reference for all you like-minded nerds)
As long as I just calculate my expenses and multiply them by 3, I will make a profit.
This is just plain dumb on my part. Forgive me.
Pricing myself lower than my competition will cause me to get more work.
I thought that by pricing myself lower than anyone else, it would look like a bargain to my clients causing me to get more work. This was kind of accurate, but the clientele it caused me to get was not the ideal audience I wanted, nor were they booking me for the right reasons.
I don’t need any type of marketing or advertising. Word of mouth will get me everything I need!!! Yippie!
Once I booked those bargain-hunting clients, I was certain that they would spread the word like wildfire about my awesome and affordable services and in turn get me TONS OF WORK!
A Turning Point.
Mayday. Mayday. Defcon 4. None of this worked. At all. By 2010, I’d relocated to a different city, in a different state, with no client base (surprise!), and was too scared to try to continue pursuing a photography business. I opted instead to work for someone else’s business taking photographs and it was a bad deal. I was working to fulfill someone else’s dream and not my own. After two and a half years of this, I’d finally had enough. But I was still uncertain of how to run a successful business. However, what I did know was that what I had been doing, didn’t work, and wasn’t working.
I’d attended WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) the year previously in Las Vegas, and had attended classes that were primarily focused on photo and lighting technique. I saw all the business oriented classes, and skipped them. Booooooring.
I started to wonder, as my desire to restart my business grew and as the fear of embarking on another failing business venture loomed, could it be that the thing I’m missing, the thing that would show me how to put all these photography business puzzle pieces in my head together would be…..gasp…..learning how to run a photography business? Like, the actual BUSINESS part?!
I started a new adventure. Learning business. Not necessarily because I felt I had a passion for business, I definitely still only had a passion for photography, but because I thought it would help further my passion for photography. A funny thing happened, as I started to learn and grow in my knowledge of the business world, my desire to learn more about it grew. Then, my passion for photography and my new-found passion for business became one in the same. I loved business because I loved photography, and I continue to love photography as I learn more about business.
The first place I started was at WPPI again the next year. But instead of attending all of the technique classes, I attended as many business classes as I could. Hearing how other photographers started their businesses not only validated my own fears but began to show me a bigger picture for all of my puzzle pieces to fit into.
After WPPI I started buying a ton of business oriented books. Books like “The E Myth Revisited” by Michael E. Gerber (suggested by the fabulous Tamera Lackey), and SEO Made Simple by Michael Fleischner. I started learning the different aspects of business like how to become properly licensed, insured, and how to properly pay my taxes. I learned how to successfully market, how to turn clients into actual ambassadors to tell people about my photography, and what SEO was. I started getting on google on a daily basis to learn more ideas, and discover more business resources.
10 Things I did to book 30 Weddings My First Year In Business
Here are a few things I’ve learned this year that directly contributed to landing 30 weddings in my first year back in the game:
I Legitimized myself.
I went through great lengths to learn how to properly legitimize my business. From getting an LLC, and all the other required licensing, to purchasing Liability and Business Insurance, having an iron-clad contract drawn up to protect both myself and my client, and registering myself for state and federal taxation. Clients are more inclined to book a legitimate business that have a level of trust attached to them.
A strong contract is so important for the protection of both you and your client.
I Found, and Addressed Specific Needs in my Area.
I can’t really call it a niche, but since I’m a Wedding Photographer in Las Vegas I offer both the traditional all day wedding packages that you’d expect people who are local to your area to book, but because so many people travel from out of town to Vegas for their wedding, I also offer Mini Wedding Sessions. Its a way for me to capitalize on the specific needs in my market, and to offer a product that I know people in my area need.
In between photos during a Mini Wedding Session for a couple Eloping to the Vegas Strip.
It’s not just about throwing up a number that sounds good to you, and that you think is sufficient for what your services and products are worth. There are psychological cues and implications that cause people to make financial decisions. Learning these tips and tricks for pricing have helped me secure business at the actual prices I want to be charging, and not the low-ball prices I think I have to charge to get work. Check out Tofurious’ “Creative Pricing & Packaging For Photographers”.
SEO is SO important!
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization is how Google and the other search engines categorize websites during searches. Have you ever wondered how a certain website ranks as the number one search result when you search for something? Its most likely because their website has been optimized for that search term. Optimizing my website and all of my blog posts has significantly contributed to the number of photography inquiries that I’ve received from potential clients this year.
Get people to link back to your website.
Getting other websites to link back to your website not only makes you look more impressive, but more importantly, it can help to boost your search results in Google. Sites like Two Bright Lights can have a big impact on a photographer’s rank and reputation.
Customer Service Is Golden.
We all know that getting word-of-mouth referrals is essential for the life of a photographer. Two ways that I exceed my client’s expectations is by how quickly I respond to their emails, and how quick and sufficient my turn-around time for my products is. If you set the proper expectations for your services, then exceed those expectations, you’ll turn a client into an ambassador every time.
Connecting is key.
Nobody wants to give thousands of dollars to a shady business. I know I don’t. When I give that much money away I want to know exactly who I’m giving it to and what I’ll be getting. Make sure that the brand you build includes YOU. Make sure your website includes ample info about you. After all, the truth of the matter is that people aren’t just buying a product, they’re buying an experience with you. You could give them the most incredible pictures ever known to mankind but if they had a crappy experience with you, guess what? The only feelings their photos are going to muster up are how crappy/awkward/out-of-tune they felt while the pictures were being taken. You want to make sure that your clients know WHO they’re buying, as well as WHAT they’re buying. Making sure that you’re the right photographer for them, and that they’re the right clients for you is detrimental to a successful business.
Networking, networking, networking!
This is probably the most difficult puzzle piece in the equation for me. I’m an introvert. A super fun, loud talking introvert, but an introvert nonetheless. The idea of going to a party full of strangers, putting myself out there, and requesting something from those strangers in return is TERRIFYING. However, I received several inquiries from potential clients that were referrals from other wedding professionals. People will refer you if you impress them or if they feel you’ll supplement the services they’re already offering a client. I’ve even gotten clients from other photographers who were unavailable for a wedding date.
Become a Social Media Master.
Having a good social media presence can not only bring in new clients, it can help to build trust with current clients. Properly staying active on social media can keep current clients in the loop and show prospective clients all that you’re currently up to. Having a social media presence also helps people feel connected to you as a person which is super important when it comes to people investing in your business. That brings me to my next point.
Finally, through trial, error and necessity, I found a way to organize all of my clients, their info, and their products in an efficient and dependable way. Without organization, I think the whole business side of my company would completely fall to pieces. It helps me to stay on top of my clients’ needs, making sure nothing, and no one falls between the cracks. And the busier you get, the bigger the holes can become, which is why organization is key.
So what would I have done differently? I could have definitely blogged more. I could have networked more, sold more products, and focused on better marketing campaigns. So its areas like these, items I can add to a list, that make up my goals for 2014.
I can’t say that this is a perfect road map for starting a successful photography business. But these were a few key factors that have helped me along the way. At the beginning of 2013 I’d set a goal of 10 weddings for myself. It seemed like such an unattainable goal. And I also can’t say that it was just luck or good circumstance that I tripled that goal. I had to work hard and reach out to a client base that didn’t know I existed.
Make yourself known, embrace the photographic community, network, learn, and never stop growing.
I’m sure by the end of 2014 I’ll have an entire new list of what has helped me grow as a Professional Wedding Photographer. Until then, I hope this list helps someone else along the way.
Do you have something you’d like to add about starting your photography business? I want to hear what worked (and maybe what didn’t work) for you, so leave me some comments!