Monday, August 23, 2010

With a Grain of Salt

I get asked a lot of photography-related questions- by newcomers, and amateurs wanting to become professionals (a professional photographer is anyone who gets paid (paid anything) to shoot people, whether they're just friends, family, etc., and regardless of how often they do it), or by amateurs who are already professionals, but bewildered.

Can I just stop and say, I love answering your questions?!  You are the greatest readers, really!  I've had a lot of questions regarding starting a business pop up this month.  Here's an excerpt from an email I received today-
Okay, I'm ready. I'm ready to put myself out there and do what I've been putting off for over a year. I'm scared, and nervous, and excited to start photographing people other than my family. So, can you give me some advice?? How did you get started? What kind of rates did you charge as you built your portfolio, and what do you charge now? Do you like PS3, do you feel it meets your needs, or do you wish you'd gotten 4 or 5? I have so much to learn, but I think I've gotten the basics down. Anything you're willing to share as far as start up of a business, building a portfolio, and offering products to clients at a fair price I'd greatly appreciate. You're the best - thanks!

Since this comes up a lot, I wanted to just blog a post for future reference, and to help anyone out there who's wondering the same things.
I want to keep this post to the point, so my first tips to a new photographer like this one will sound short, maybe overly opinionated- but really, I'm just trying to stick to the facts (as I see them).  Feel free to contact me with any other questions you have.  Remember, this is just my quick opinions and advice from my own life experience.  There's unbelievable room to do things differently than I suggest, and still be "right", if you know what I mean.
Here's my Top 7 pieces of advice for you.

1.  Why do you want to be a professional?  This is an extremely important question to dwell on for a while before you move forward. Long answer short, most photography lovers, and advanced amateurs of the world are most likely best-suited to continue enjoying and perfecting their craft without starting a business.  Being passionate about photography does not a good business owner and professional photographer make.  Loving photography isn't enough.  You have to be able to combine a passion for photography with extremely good people skills and highly professional business practices.  It is not for everyone.
2.  Get very, very comfortable with competition.  There are literally hundreds of photographers just like you in your city, with your goals, your prices, your same desires.  Competition is everywhere.  Everywhere. The photography market as a whole is amazingly super-saturated.  The market for beginners is beyond anything you're imagining right now. Does that make you uncomfortable in a productive-tension kind of way, or do you think it would constantly grate on you, making you tense, grumpy, judgemental of their work, and overly-analytical of yours?
3.  Find your style, your purpose, your niche.  Who are you?  What kind of photographer are you?  Search your work, stay busy and creative, and your own personal style will emerge.  Being yourself is a huge asset.  Don't do work you hate.  Stay true to your own creative vision.  Clients will gravitate to you if their needs meet your skills.  Don't ever be afraid to take creative control- you can say no to clients if you'd like.  They're booking you because they've loved the work they've seen you create.  If they want something far-out different from that, refer them on to other photographers if you'd like.  My style is mine- I am a natural light purist, with goals to use as little processing as possible.  That's me.  That's what they pay for.  I'm comfortable staying true to this.  You need to be confident of your skills and purpose and stay true.
If you ponder #1 up there and decide you should proceed with a business, what will it's purpose be?  Who is your target market?  Once you know your market, then you'll know how to begin pricing yourself.  If you are very new to this, set up a specific portfolio-building time.  Charge a lesser fee- letting your clients know this is a very special, limited time rate while you build a portfolio.  Treat them well, and they will return.  I did this in my first few months of business, and it was one of the smartest things I could have done.  And now I have clients returning to happily pay full price.  I am unbelievably grateful for every client- and a referred or returning client is a true joy.
Decide your target market, set prices accordingly, and do not bargain down below your goal pricing, and also don't set your pricing so high that you alienate the very client base you're aiming to serve.  There will always, always be people who believe you are too expensive, or too inexpensive.  Honor your business, your art.
4.  Take everything with a grain of salt.  Your friends may be just gushing over your work, telling you you've got an amazing eye, telling you your work is amazing, telling you you absolutely have to start doing this professionally.  I'm going to be honest with you.  They are sweet.  They're your loved ones and friends.  They are being authentic.  Take those complements and be encouraged.  But take them with a grain of salt.  Facebook is overflowing with new photographers' business pages- and people, I'm telling you, I see people gushing over some of the most underexposed, over-processed, terribly-composed pieces of crap imaginable.  I know that's harsh, but it's true.  So be encouraged, but remember, they're not experts.
Professionals may hate your work.  Whether they're not confident of your skills, or your style turns them off, or they don't like your pricing, photographers have the ability to be incredibly cool people, and also can be appalling jerks.  Jerks.  They may or may not know what they're talking about, so remember, take it with a grain of salt.
So, I'd highly recommend having a trusted professional review a few examples from your portfolio to give you honest feedback.  Hopefully you can get feedback from more than one.  This is the best way to really get useful help.  But remember the salt.
5.  Do not upgrade or add to your equipment until you feel confident that your skills have mastered the current equipment and you're also feeling an acute, certain need for the new _______, whatever it is.  A new lens is not a piece of magic glass.  If you're creating poor images in camera and haven't mastered the basic skills of photography, that new lens will not help much.  So wait.  You won't regret it.
6.  Play by all the rules.  Price for profit with your market in mind.  Keep meticulous records.  Save every receipt.  Charge appropriate taxes.  Get all necessary permits from your city.  Pay your taxes.  Invoice properly.  Report every dime.  Get insurance to protect your equipment and your clients in case of incident.  Run your business like a business, not like a hobby, even if you only work once a month.
7.  Never Stop Learning.  Never, ever stop getting better.  This is a huge way to know if you've got the stuff of a professional.  I can't stop playing and experimenting with my camera, with lighting, with poses.  I see my whole world in photographs.  I can't help but consume photography-related information every single day, and put it into practice immediately.  It's in my bones.  And capturing art for others is in my bones too.  I couldn't stop doing this, even if I wanted to.  I'm compelled.  Is that you?  Does the huge challenge of photography motivate you, or dishearten you?  That's a litmus test you'll need to take before moving ahead to the world of passionate amateur, or possibly, professional.
And as always, contact me for a mentoring session. You will not regret it!  (I get shameless plugs because this is my blog.)
Have a great Monday everyone!


Rob said...

Don't confuse money with titles. Just because someone wants to give me $40 for fixing their computer doesn't make me a Technical Support Professional.

While there are plenty of discussions on what a 'professional' photographer is, I feel like telling everyone that they are professional only mucks the waters. If you stand someone who is an actual professional and someone who just calls themselves a professional, can you tell the difference? Of course you can, because a professional lives photography as opposed to the amateur who simply does photography.

Just because I make you pay me to take your picture doesn't mean I'm worthy to be given a title of honor.

Megan said...


I see exactly what you are saying, but I think that the title, which you already mentioned, has a highly-debated definition- the title has different connotations to different people.

If an individual is viewing it as a title of honor, then that individual will bestow it with certain qualifications to it's true meaning.

I picture the term Professional Photographer as a title of specification, not distinction as an artist or businessperson of any particular level.

I think it's extremely helpful for beginners to realize the clear difference between a hobbyist, and someone who, for all intents and purposes, is a legitimate professional- someone who receives income from the craft, and who hopefully honestly reports it.

I think it's important for photography business hopefuls to see that they can't say, "Oh gosh, I'm not a professional, I just mess around with this and sometimes my friends pay me $20 on the side, but I'm not REALLY a professional" etc. When will they decide they are one?

The line is completely gray, other than- do you get paid, or not?

Anything beyond that is in the gray area of Art, and so, I feel it's a great specification to have. My husband is an engineer. This skill is concrete. His profession requires very particular skills and accolades for the position he is in. But photography is art, and art is subjective and can't be labeled or contained in these same boxes.

What the word professional connotates to the individual is vast and varied, and beyond my control, but I do know, if it's a job, you're your own boss, and you're expected to run your business properly by Uncle Sam and so, yes, you would need to take your business seriously as a professional, not a hobbyist, however much of your life it consumes.


Anonymous said...

Hey Megan,
Do you shoot your pictures in RAW or JPEG or both?

Megan said...

I use both.