Starting My Own Photography Business: Early Lessons

On March 17, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — Seattle’s first newspaper, founded in 1863 — ceased its print edition and laid off most of its staff. Four of us who had been staff photographers there decided to form our own business, a full-service photography studio called Red Box Pictures. While I’m the first to admit that we still have a lot to figure out, my colleague Scott Eklund and I thought we’d share a few things we’ve learned so far.

1. Learn your market. Journalism majors typically take very little interest in business courses. Big mistake. Join organizations like Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) and Professional Photographers of America (PPA). They have monthly publications for working photographers that focus a lot on business and marketing. I have gone to the conventions and gotten far more from the speakers who talk business over those teaching f-stops and shutter speeds. It’s also important to stay on top of the trends — to know what is selling. For example, right now one trend is heavy post-production. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but when brides are looking at ads and seeing this, you can bet they will come asking.

2. Be flexible. Times are tough, so be flexible with pricing without giving your work away. If you are going to drop your price, try to get something in return, like spending less time on the shoot. You don’t want to appear desperate in negotiations; it doesn’t inspire confidence. You should also be flexible in the types of jobs you take on. Don’t turn your nose up at any work that makes good business sense. Shooting only x, y or z can kill you. Diversify!

3. Try to get a space to meet clients besides Starbucks. If you can share a space with another photographer, or other vendors, I think it is an advantage. For a photographer, a studio reduces distractions. For the client, it legitimizes you and puts you a notch above the GWC — “guy with camera” — in their minds. It also helps justify why you charge more than the GWC. Having a studio makes the client feel that they have somewhere to go, and that you will be around tomorrow.

4. Tame your ego and put the client first. We as photographers love to impress one another with our talent and tricks with a camera. With newspapers, to a certain degree, it is what we are paid to do. We don’t want to shoot the obvious picture. Working for a wedding couple or covering a corporate gig, however, you need to cover all your bases — including the obvious. While people may hire us for our creativity, we also need to capture the simple picture that pleases them.

5. Sell yourself. Always believe that everyone you meet is a potential client who will eventually need photos. This means always carrying business cards and giving them out whenever possible. If you’ve recently left a newspaper job, you should consider all your the former story sources to be potential future clients, too. If possible, harvest those old photo assignments for contact info.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most folks like helping others. It’s OK to tell people that you lost your job and that you are freelancing. Chances are, they will do what they can to bring you referrals — the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. When someone brings you a referral, be sure to let them know you appreciate it. Send them a $25 gift card to Starbucks or at least a thank-you note. It will inspire them to continue to help you.

4 Responses to “Starting My Own Photography Business: Early Lessons”

  1. Agreed.. Even in the UK you have some valid points. There's a very fine balance with getting work and working for poor rates.. there's a lot people need to consider when hiring a snapper but make sure that you dont drop your prices through paranoia!

  2. I used to go to the client's home or office, with a pad and sample books for new customers, and build the shoot outline where they felt most comfortable, at least for portrait and social jobs, and anything that was location-based. Only for studio jobs would I have them come to me. It was far more interesting, and enlightening, walking around product X than having them try and describe it to me.

  3. Andy, thanks for the very genuine thoughts on starting a photography business. I'd love to hear more about the nuts-and-bolts (ie, getting to cash flow), but these are helpful.

    Aside from the comment on this specific post, I wanted to let you know that I just listed Black Star Rising in my list of Best Photography Business Blogs. Let your colleagues know, and all of you keep up the great work!


  4. Glad to see you got into something else after the paper's demise. I met you about a year ago covering a similar event and it was a pleasant surprise when I found your article on this site.

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