Photography is a dream job, right? But no one sees the long hours, endless editing, and overflowing inbox. Here’s what it’s really like to be a photographer… (Featuring ERIC KELLEY and GILDED PHOTOGRAPHY)
9 Things No One Tells You About Being a Photographer
Ah, the adventurous life of a full-time photographer! You’re living the dream, right? But wait…
Amid the creativity, inspiration, and freedom, most photographers also battle overwhelming administrative tasks, project management, and even loneliness. Here we get real about what no one tells you about being a photographer – and how, despite the challenges, you can still come out ahead.
#1: Owning Your Own Business is Hard Freaking Work
Your first years in business are tremendously exciting. They’re also the toughest you’ll face because that’s when you do the hard work of getting your business ball rolling. After a few years, that ball will roll merrily along on its own, without much pushing from you. But for now, you’re the sole energy behind that big ball of business – and it can be exhausting!
Tip: Establish Working Hours vs. Personal Hours
If you’re a high-achiever, you’re likely running your business on a combination of “I’ve sold my soul for your happiness” and “Sleep? Who needs sleep?” But the truth is: you DO need a balanced approach to caring for your clients and yourself.
As you build your business, you should constantly evaluate and adjust your working hours and personal hours. And stick with your schedule. If on Mondays you work 12 hours, that’s totally fine. But STOP when you reach the 12th hour. Set aside appropriate amounts of time for meals, sleep, exercise, errands, and family time, and honor those personal hours as intently as you honor your working hours.
If you don’t pursue a balanced approach to life and work, you’ll eventually burn out – and that won’t benefit anyone.
#2: Your Income will Vary Wildly
And by “wildly” we mean tens of thousands of dollars one month, then a big, sad ZERO the next month. Really. It happens to us all. And if your business is especially young or seasonal (such as wedding or volume photography), those financial fluctuations can be devastating – if you don’t prepare for them.
Tip: Budget for a Photography Lifestyle
For starters, you have to know exactly what it costs you to live each month. These are your fixed personal expenses, like shelter, transportation, and food. Your fixed expenses must be paid every single month, no matter what; so you need to budget your income for those items first. If you have an especially flush month, you may want to set aside funds for the next three months of fixed expenses. Then, if you have anything leftover, you can invest in fun stuff like gear or website updates or a set of faux fur booties for your pet armadillo.
Tip: What to do if You Don’t Yet Have a Steady Stream of Clients
If your money inconsistencies stem from a lack of business, there are two approaches you need to consider:
- Don’t quit your day job! If you’re not busy enough to sustain yourself financially, don’t go into photography full-time – yet. Keep your “real” job – and its deliciously steady paycheck – until your upcoming calendar is fully booked with paying clients.
- Direct your energy toward marketing. This includes everything from building out your portfolio with styled shoots, to improving your website, to enhancing your client experience to boost word-of-mouth referrals. Survey your past clients to find out what you’re doing right (and wrong), and invest in your brand by fine-tuning your target market and showcasing only what you do best.
Tip: What to do if Your Business is Seasonal
Do you shoot-shoot-shoot and shoot some more, only for the following weeks or months to go by without a single booking? Seasonal photography is totally a thing – and not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you’re prepared. Try these tricks for enhancing your off-season income:
- Introduce another genre of photography during your slow season, such as portrait mini sessions.
- Use the “down time” to plan for the coming busy months.
- Offer pop-up print and product sales to your photography clients in your off-season.
#3: You May be an Artist, but You Still Have to Please Your Clients
Photography is our favorite art form (obviously). But let’s be honest: the act of being a photographer is an art form in and of itself. Unlike in our daydreams, the real work of being a photographer isn’t in the image-making, but in the client-pleasing. Any reasonably-experienced photographer can make a beautiful photograph of just about anything, but it takes real skill to satisfy a wide array of client personalities and styles.
And trust us: that skill will be put to the test.
Tip: Making Your Clients Happy Doesn’t Make You a Sell-Out
It’s easy to dig our heels in and refuse to budge when a client comes at us with an off-the-wall request. But who does that benefit in the long run? Think deeply about where your hard lines exist. Maybe you just don’t do some things: family portraits, destination weddings, animal boudoir. And that’s okay! It’s good to know what you’re best at and where to focus your energies.
But when it’s not a matter of ethics or skill, it’s best to always seek a solution that will make your client super-duper happy. Because happy clients beget more happy clients, and that’s how you stay in business.
#4: Self-Employment Gets Pretty Lonely
You’ve already visualized it: you’ll watch true crime documentaries all day while you edit; you’ll be home when your kid’s bus pulls up; no more wasting money buying lunch; and your dog can finally live that kennel-free life you’ve always wanted for them. In theory, it’s your dream life.
Yet, while all of the above may be true, it’s also true that working alone from home can get pretty lonely at times. There’s no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to motivate you not to take that nap, and no one to say, “Wow! Great work on that project!” It’s all you, yourself, and your bunny slippers.
Tip: Create Your Own Work Family
If you’re starting to feel like a marooned astronaut surviving on potatoes, it’s time to build your own working community. Seek out friends who also work remotely – even if they aren’t photographers. Plan a co-working day each week when you can meet up and work side-by-side. Making even the occasional eye contact will be great for your soul.
Tip: Get Out of Your Living Room
End the Golden Girls background-binge and get out of your house. Spend a few hours each week at a local coffee shop or cafe that has great wifi and a soothing soundtrack. Your short chat with the barista will remind you that you do, in fact, have vocal cords; and being surrounded by other humans will inspire you to do crazy stuff like shower and put on a nice outfit.
#5: People Think You Have SO MUCH Free Time
“It must be awesome to get to do whatever you want all the time!” someone will say to you as you hold in a panic attack over the 8,000 photos on your hard drive still waiting to be edited.
“Why haven’t you called me back yet?” your mom will text you as you type out your 30th email in as many minutes.
It’s astonishing how many folks truly seem to think of the photographer life as one long vacation. Only you know the truth: that there’s never a shortage of things to do. Which means only you can set your own boundaries.
Tip: Treat Your Photography-Job Like a JOB-Job
Establish core working hours for yourself, and don’t schedule personal stuff during those hours. Your core hours should be a four- to six-hour window each day when all you do is work. Let’s say your core hours are 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. – that’s five hours when you’ll do nothing but focus on work (and staying hydrated).
Other stuff, such as doctor’s appointments, calls to your mom, or errands, should happen outside of those core hours. (You can also work outside your core hours if you have a few more tasks to tackle.) “Core hours” simply offer some much-needed flexibility without the risk that nothing gets done.
You aren’t stuck punching a clock or micro-managing your lunch minutes. But by committing to a set of core hours each workday, you guarantee that you won’t get overrun by distractions. And the more you tell people, “I’m unavailable between 10 and three,” the more they’ll get that you’re actually, really, legitimately working.
#6: It Takes Time (Sometimes a LOT) to Build Your Client Base
Some photographers strike gold. They build the right brand at the right time in the right community, and their calendar is booked full almost immediately. Isn’t that fan-freaking-tastic.
But for most of us, our first attempt at gold-digging results in a shovel full of mud with one kind-of-pretty rock in it. In other words, it takes us time to build the business of our dreams. Sometimes a lot of time.
Tip: How to Get More Clients
If you’re trying desperately to attract more clients and book more work, there are a few tried-and-true tips you should pay close attention to:
- Get GREAT with your camera. Photograph everything, everywhere, all the time, and learn how to create a compelling photo of just about anyone and anything. Understand your camera’s functions, and make sure you’re utilizing your gear to its maximum.
- Treat your clients like gold – because they are. New clients are fun, because they’re the ones paying a new invoice. But past clients are the folks you need to show the biggest love to, because they’ve already booked you, paid you, and taken their photos home to share with friends and family. Stay in touch with them throughout the year with client-only offers, and send a physical holiday card to them annually. These efforts will keep you top-of-mind, which means you’re the first person they’ll think of when it’s time to hire – or refer someone to – a photographer.
- Be someone people want to be around. Seriously: if you’re rude or abrasive, your client list will always stay small. No one wants to pay for an hour (or a day) with Cranky McStressorton. So be kind. Even if you’re a little awkward or shy, you can always find it in yourself to show kindness. Pay compliments, offer encouragement, ask your clients questions about themselves and truly listen; others will respond in kind – especially the “good” kinds of people you ultimately want to work with.
- Get out into the world and meet people. No one can hire you if they don’t know you exist. So get off your sofa and go do things. Volunteer. Attend social events. Meet up with some acquaintances for drinks. Become a regular at the local coffee shop. Make yourself an active part of your community, and your community will embrace you.
#7: Taxes will Bury You Alive if You Let Them
Before you start making money (yes, before), book an hour with an accountant and ask them all the questions. Like, “what percentage of your income should you set aside for taxes,” then immediately go home and do exactly what they said.
It’s no joke, when an accountant advises you to save 30% of your income just to pay taxes, they mean a full $30 out of each $100 you pull in. Sure, your final tax bill may not be that big. But if it is and you don’t pay, you’ll be hit with fees and penalties that can take years to pay off.
Tip: Ignorance is No Excuse
At the end of the day, you alone are responsible for your tax liability. So while it’s great to begin with a trusted accountant and possibly a bookkeeper, you also need to educate yourself on local tax laws.
One good piece of news: if you’re in the USA, you can call the IRS at any time and they will answer any and all questions with kindness and honesty. It’s true. No one knows how this particular government agency came to be staffed with thoughtful, helpful individuals, but let’s not overthink it; it is what it is, and we’re grateful.
#8: At Some Point, You’re Gonna Need Help
You may have heard people say, “photography isn’t scaleable,” and it’s largely true. When you build a business around you, yourself doing the work, eventually you’re going to run out of hands. In fact, that happens really quickly as you recognize that you can only photograph one family at a time, only shoot one wedding at a time, only answer one email at a time, only send one contract at a time… You get the drill. So if you want to build a sustainable business that doesn’t drive you into the ground, you will absolutely need to acquire some help.
Tip: You Don’t Have to Hire Employees to Build a Team
Maybe you really like being a one-human show. Most photographers do. So how do you offload some of the busy work so you can focus on your more valuable skills, like shooting and interacting with clients?
We recommend outsourcing.
- Post-production companies provide editing and retouching services for as little as a few cents per image
- Studio management software keeps you organized by managing your contracts, invoices, and questionnaires.
- ShootProof handles your client galleries, vendor galleries, online sales, and archiving – and you can even send contracts and invoices if you’re not quite ready for full studio management yet.
- A regular second shooter will act as your backup if you become sick or injured, and can assist with everything from lugging your gear to holding your reflector to posing a 37-person family.
- And if they’re skilled enough, you can even book work for your second shooter under a co-brand!
#9: Everyone Will Have an Opinion About What You’re Doing
Your grandma will want to know when you’re getting a “real” job. Your friends will be convinced you should be photographing celebrities. Other photographers will critique your posing, your editing, and even the colors you chose for your logo. And you’ll fight your own imposter syndrome as you grow and evolve and try things you never imagined yourself trying.
Stop “should-ing” on yourself. The only thing you “should” do is what’s right for you and your goals. It’s okay to:
- keep your business small
- be a part-time photographer
- work with budget clients, luxury clients, or clients with average-size wallets
- aim high and dream big and prove everyone else wrong!
The only thing that really matters is that you stay focused on what matters most to you. That’s how you’ll build the business of your dreams – not anyone else’s.
What Else Should People Know About Being a Photographer?
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