I have made one of the hardest decisions of my life; I’m leaving the newspaper business — this Thursday, to be exact, when I will work my last day at the Daily Press of Newport News, Va. This is the first time a career decision has kept me up at night, because I am still passionate about photojournalism and love being a newspaper photographer. But the recent changes in the industry, and years of job instability, pushed me to explore other options.
I’ve discussed some of my frustrations with the newspaper business  before, so this post doesn’t focus on that. This post is for others out there who have similar frustrations and are feeling pressure to have a Plan B. This is how I developed my Plan B, which has allowed me to leave the Daily Press and jump directly into my own photography business.
I began doing wedding photography on the side in the fall of 2004, and have decided to make this my full-time profession. I chose wedding photography because it is stable (people will always get married), requires advanced planning (most are booked at least six months out), and will still allow me to work as a freelance photojournalist on stories I care about. I am taking the plunge now because wedding season starts soon.
Before I describe the steps I’ve taken, I should warn you that I don’t have a business degree, and that what has worked for me won’t necessarily apply to you. With those caveats, here are eight pieces of advice for other newspaper photographers who are considering going out on their own.
1. Try it Out First. I had photographed some candids at family weddings for fun (I was not the official photographer) and was asked to photograph a fellow photojournalist and friend’s wedding for a small fee. Getting into wedding photography seemed like a great source of extra income, but I didn’t have much of a wedding portfolio to show couples, so I agreed to do the event as a test to see how stressful and involved it would be. I learned a lot from that wedding, and the eight I did the year after that, and the 12 I did the year after that. I had to use my vacation to photograph most of them, since I normally worked Saturdays at the newspaper. It was a difficult three years, but I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it enough to do it 30 weekends a year.
2. Decide Who You Want to Be. I decided before I photographed my friend’s wedding that I did not want to be the “traditional” wedding photographer who poses everything and leaves as soon as the cake is cut. I wanted to approach each wedding like a one-day picture story, so I created packages that start with eight hours and end with unlimited. I also wanted to be able to offer wedding albums and prints, so I researched the companies and chose an album company to get samples from and an online reprint service so I wouldn’t have to handle reprints myself. I wanted to be able to devote time to each couple, like you would for an assignment, and I knew that doing 50+ weddings would not allow me to give them the personal attention I wanted. I also purchased a couple of suits to wear to client meetings, to maintain the professionalism I would expect if hiring a photographer.
3. Research Everything. And I mean everything: the licenses you need to be a business in your city and state; the reputation of the album company you want to use; what the competition is doing; and on and on. I read everything I could find online about wedding photojournalists, joined the international organization WPJA, subscribed to magazines like Rangefinder and Digital Photo Pro, and talked with other photographers who had made the transition. On the business side, I went to government Web sites to learn about sales tax, bought books with legal forms for photographers to create my contracts, found out what the competition was doing, and even bought a few business books to learn about marketing.
4. Use Local (Free) Resources. Mentors are great because you can learn from their mistakes before making your own. And most cities have a support network for small businesses that are starting up that includes classes and sometimes a one-on-one consultation with a retired business owner. You shouldn’t limit yourself to photographers or photo-related sources; you should reach out to business resources as well, because most of us do not have that background and that is where we need the most guidance. I spoke with my father, who runs his own insurance agency, because he knows a lot about marketing and customer service. I also researched how to create a business plan (one of your first steps) and a budget (VERY important) and about marketing (what works and what doesn’t).
5. Make Your Mistakes Before You Quit. By only doing eight to 14 weddings a year for three years, I was able to find what was working for me and what wasn’t without becoming desperate for work or income. In the beginning you can keep your prices lower, because with experience comes higher prices, and then raise your prices to the area average when you have your experience and business built up. Plus, making a miscalculation on your tax payments is not as extreme and less likely to result in penalties when you have another primary source of income. And you learn a lot of little things — like the fact that being on your feet for 8+ hours requires the most comfortable shoes you can find (which took a couple of tries) and that Web sites need to be user friendly for all ages because grandma wants to see the photos, too.
6. Do Some Soul Searching. I still love newspaper photography, so leaving was not a consideration for me in the beginning. I was only looking for another source of income. After several years of layoffs and the pressing need for video , however, I started to feel insecure about my future at newspapers and no longer enjoyed what I was doing as much as I had before. It took me months to conclude that my true passion was creating a great picture, and that if I wanted to continue to advance to bigger and better newspapers, I also would need to have that passion for video or multimedia. Realizing that I wanted to be “just a photographer” meant that newspapers were no longer the best place for me. I also wanted better job security, and it was becoming clear that newspapers were not as secure as I thought they were. But I recognize that photographing only weddings won’t keep me happy, either — so I contacted the AP and local newspapers as soon as I made my announcement to let them know I was still available for freelance work.
7. Weigh the Good and the Bad. You get to be your own boss, but that means the clients deal with you and only you. You have to worry about your retirement fund, health benefits, raises, equipment, taxes, licenses, insurance and customer relations. You are the staff, secretary and boss, so you will probably work a little more than you did when you worked for someone else. But the flip side is you can decide if you want to take the 5 a.m. assignment or work on your normal day off. For some, there is just too much responsibility involved with running your own business, because they don’t like anything about the business side and don’t have the income to hire someone to do it for them.
8. Take the Plunge, Carefully. I started to advertise more, increased my prices to where they would have to be to be a primary source of income, paid off all of my credit cards and started an emergency savings account (you should have at least two months of living expenses saved; for small business most books recommend six months). I made list after list of what would be changing, what needed to be done, who needed to be contacted, my work flow, what my schedule would be like and how much money I would need for the added expenses each month. I had most of my lenses from the film days, so I bought two digital bodies, some lighting equipment, equipment insurance, liability insurance, opened a SEP-IRA, found out how to rollover my 401(k) — and I did all of this before I turned in my two weeks’ notice.
To my credit, or not, I am an obsessive planner and enjoy organizing and making lists. If you are not, you should find someone who is, because to run a successful business you need to be organized, know where you’re headed and how you want to get there. I read a lot of books to help me with my lists, and things were added to it each week, which is why it is important to start this process before you leave your job, so you aren’t rushed into making mistakes. Lists also help you figure out what will make you happy and what you really want. They can reassure you that you’re making the right decision.
This will be my fourth year as a wedding photographer, but my first year as a full-time small business, so I hesitate to claim success this early. But I feel prepared and ready to go.
A quote by Confucius was published in the NPPA magazine this month: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I am looking forward to not working and being just a photographer again.
[tags]photojournalism, newspapers, photography advice, photography business[/tags]