New Photographers: Common Mistakes

Hello to my fellow photographer pals!  

If you’re just starting a photography business, or if you are thinking of starting a photography business, the CONGRATULATIONS!  This is a very exciting phase in your journey and I want to offer some advice to help you avoid common pitfalls, some of which I have totally done myself.   I want to help you avoid some heartbreak, embarrassment  and stress.

Part of what makes the photography field so great is also its greatest downfall….there are no “requirements’ to being a professional photographer.  It’s easy for anyone to be a photographer, and the great thing about the United States is that if you have a dream, and passion, you can start your own photography business.   In our local area, the CSRA, there are WELL OVER 250 local photographers to choose from.   If you dream of becoming a professional photographer, you need to know that the lack of certification requirements and the ease of buying a great camera makes photography is a completely saturated career field.  Everyone knows a photographer, and it seems like everyone is a professional photographer…that’s good news and bad news.  Ignorance is soooo bliss.

First, I want to say that regardless of where anyone is in their photography business journey, this is an awesome awesome awesome time to be alive!  It is amazing how far even the most terrible senior pictures have come compared to the ones from when I was in high school.  In my humble opinion the standard professional “good” pictures of the past…even ten years ago…. are terrible and boring compared to the creativity that is available today.  What a great time to be a Senior, a Bride, a child, or a mom!

Most new photographers are married moms who received a nice camera as a gift.   Armed with a new camera, they decide enter the field of professional photography in one of two ways:

  1. They declare they are a photographer before they have any formal training or defined business vision.
  2. They take a photography class from a local photographer and then decide they want to  open a business.

Regardless of which category you fall into, or if you are entering the world of photography another way, there are mistakes that you need to know about!

MISTAKE #1:  Launching your business on Facebook or with a website to show your work and get clients (what….how could THAT possibly be a mistake?)

  • It’s soooooo easy to become a professional photographer that many moms are operating a business illegally.  YEP, innocent mommies with cameras all over the place are running an illegal business….it’s true!!!  Recently on the news there was a story about a shop that was “operating illegally”….it got shut down and it made the news.  One thing that makes business earn the term “operating illegally” is simply not having a business license or Sales Tax ID.  All I could think of after seeing that news story labeling the business as “operating illegally” was that there are mommies out there who are operating illegally too.  OUCH.  Don’t let that be you….you’re a mommy, not a criminal.
  • At a minimum, proper businesses start with a business license, a Sales Tax ID, and general liability insurance.  If your business is on Facebook without these 3 very basic things in order, then you need to back up and start over….get legal and protect yourself.  Your state’s local and state laws define what the steps are to creating a proper and legal business.  Liability insurance for photographers is not the law of the land, but all businesses need insurance.  It’s a customer expectation that any legitimate business will have general liability insurance.  In recent months, I have heard of two different photographers whose clients DIED DURING A PHOTOGRAPHY SHOOT.  And there is no telling how many photographers get sued everyday for countless other reasons that are minor and do not end up on the news.  Protect yourself…protect your children…protect your family’s future.  Get insurance for Heaven’s sake.  
  • Some of your clients are business owners who operate a proper business, so TRUST ME… will lose all credibility with them if you do not AT A MINIMUM have a business license, Sales Tax ID and insurance.
  • Oh, and TRUST ME….even if some of your clients may or may not care if you are operating a business illegally, your fellow photographer friends DO CARE….but not in a nice, kind, supportive way!    Get your business in order so you can look your peers, your clients, your community, and your children in the eyes with the confidence and excitement of running a truly legitimate business.   

MISTAKE #2: Offering CDs  (what?  how could selling CDs be a mistake….all clients WANT their pictures, right?)

  • First, CDs are becoming obsolete. In fact, computers are being sold now without burners. Can you imagine how embarrassed we would all be now if we all had started out by putting images on a floppy disk…nobody would have access to their images anymore.    One day you will be embarrassed when you think back about how you used to sell CDs.  “The Cloud” is quickly becoming the standard.  
  •  I know, I know…putting images into “the cloud” costs money and it’s complicated to figure it out.  All I can say is, welcome to owning a business…businesses take money to run.  BUT if money is a problem, then consider using DROPBOX.  It’s a free way for photographers to deliver images to clients.  While it is not the most professional way to do things, it is free and it works.  Did I mention that it’s free?   We use a different cloud based system for our clients but if we were just starting out, we would probably use Dropbox at first.
  • Second, providing all images only on a CD without offering products is cheating clients out of having beautiful pictures of their kiddos on their walls to greet them everyday, and to pass on.  If you do not know the importance and satisfaction of having pictures hanging on the wall, then you really need to re-consider your motive and passion.  Is it your passion to create beautiful pictures for families so that the pictures can hide inside of a computer?  OR do you want your passion to be handed down through generations of families, so you can bring a smile and warmth into people’s homes long after you are gone?   If creating art is truly your passion and if you aren’t making sure your art is proudly displayed in a family’s home, then you are missing the point of photography.  Don’t cheat yourself or your clients out of the satisfaction that wall art brings.  PICTURES ON THE WALL ARE A HUGE PART WHAT MAKES A HOME FEEL SAFE, HAPPY AND SECURE.  Pictures that you can hold in your hand or see on the wall are reminders of a happy, full childhood.  Make sure your pictures live on in a tangible form!!!
  • If you’re selling CDs, your beautiful pictures are going to end up turning out ugly anyway.  Okay, so Even if your clients “say” they are going to put the digital images to good use and order wall art online, VERY FEW ACTUALLY FOLLOW THROUGH WITH IT.  And if they do actually order wall art online, then they are buying lord only knows what type of quality products that will make your beautiful pictures UGLY…..UGLY….green, red, purple, yellow, blown out,  underexposed or otherwise tragically terrible.    One of my clients had her pictures printed at a local store for literally pennies….then ended up ordering a few prints through us.  When she saw our prints, it was like seeing a totally different picture.  She didn’t realize how great the picture was until seeing the “real” prints in her hands.
  • If you are selling all images from the whole session digitally, then make sure you are charging an amount that allows you to cover operating costs.  (oh boy, keep reading)

MISTAKE #3:  OPERATING LIKE A NON-PROFIT (what?  “but I have a business, not a non profit”)

  • Especially if you are just starting out, you are probably giving away your services for free a lot of the time.  This is just the natural progression of things.  But once you have a real business, you need to realize that you cannot operate a business for free.  Businesses are in business to generate profit.  In fact, if you are are operating at a loss each year, the IRS will not let you operate as a business for very much longer.   You probably didn’t know that part.  So you need to decide if you are actually in business, or if you are operating as if you are running a non-profit organization.  
  • It is socially responsible to offer charitable services to support causes so I completely encourage all businesses to support worthy community causes…that’s just a given.  But friends and family who expect free shoots are not the same as supporting a community cause.   In order to preserve relationships with friends and family, decide what your policy/approach is upfront about photography for family and friends.  
  • Usually a good rule of thumb that many photographers follow is “if a shoot is my idea, it’s free…if the shoot is their idea, it’s a paid job”.      

MISTAKE #4: Thinking that your session fee is all profit (bahahahahhahahahahaha…)

  • It’s an easy mistake….and at first, it seems to be true.  Your camera is already paid for, and honestly buying a CD to put the images on isn’t what’s the big deal?  Well, remember a business costs money to operate and if you don’t have many operating expenses then that is a clue that you might be so new that you don’t know enough about your business to realize what your true operating expenses are.   Just give it a year or two…you’ll start to understand eventually!
  •  To name a few basics: Media storage, replacement camera equipment, new camera, flashes, editing software, editing tools,  business cards, phone, internet, cost of travel, saving for the new computer you’re going to have to buy in 2 years when this one wears out, payroll taxes, the bookkeeper to keep up with it all, merchant account systems, COGS, and a million other things.  Oh and don’t forget to include cute props or fun actions…those aren’t even a necessary part of running a business.
  • Figure out what you need to cover your payroll (because yes, you do have a job), operating expenses, payroll taxes, and how much do you need save to help your business grow.  Oh and let’s not forget the THOUSANDS of dollars you desperately need to spend on hands-on training and learning.   I assure you if you are new to photography, you should multiply your operating expenses by 10 to get line with reality.    I know that sounds crazy, but you honestly don’t know what you don’t know.  You have NO CLUE how big of a financial can of worms you have opened when you call yourself a photographer.   There are things you need to purchase right now that you have no idea about.  What about when your camera breaks?  Because it will….very soon.  The longer you are in the business, the more you will realize that  much of running a photography business has nothing to do with a camera.
  • Invest money in training, learning, and growing.  There is no such thing as a “self taught” photographer in today’s world.  All that means is “everything I know, I learned on You Tube”.  And you don’t want to have to explain to clients that your only training is what you learned online….because that means you are inexperienced.   In the past, yes,  photographers could have claimed to be self taught.  You Tube is free, but hands on learning is not, and you can only learn so much from You Tube...the truly game changing information you need to know is not for free online.  
  • ADD ALL OF THAT UP and then decide how many sessions you can reasonably do per month….divide your expenses by the # of sessions each month and that is how much you must bring in per session to keep your doors open.  If you don’t know the technical aspects of being a photographer,  then you truly have no clue what costs your session fee covers.
  • Here’s a big secret, and if you have read this far, you have earned this inside info!  My paycheck is less than $12 per hour…and sometimes less.   Over the years  I could have made more working at McDonald’s part time a few hours per week than what I earned as income from my business.   Yes…it’s true.  If you are wondering why you should take advice from someone who doesn’t even earn $12 an hour, then go ahead and make those same mistakes and see how well it works for you.  🙂

There are other mistakes too, but these are the very basics that  encourage you to avoid!  I wish you much luck and much success in your photography career!