When I started my business I was scared. I knew nothing and what’s worse I didn’t even know enough to know what I was specifically scared of. I just knew that I really cared a lot about photography and I wanted to make my love of portraiture a job. Hopefully some of this will resonate with you and your business and save you some time.
A guide on what to be afraid of:
by Nicholas Viltrakis
I learned photography in the end of the film days on a Nikon FE. [LINK1] I understood F stop roughly, and shutter speed of course, but beyond that I kinda happened into composition through millions of dollars of bad photos. My best subject matter was flowers. They didn’t move or complain.
So when the FE broke I couldn’t afford to fix it and the wonderful chap at the camera store (remember those?) told me to buy a new digital one, I got a Canon S400 Elph. [LINK2]
This camera was mainly an opportunist device that allowed me to preserve blackmail moments [LINK3] in my college days. But in doing so I learned framing. In addition to the insanity that existed around me I also started photographing flowers again. (FYI - I was a florist in Cincinnati at an amazing Floral Event Design company called Ford-Ellington. [LINK4]) Which leads me to my next ploy! I used those flower images for a “Happy Monday” email which mainly circulated to the beautiful ladies that I met and tried to flatter during the time. After 3 years of the Monday emails I had amassed a fairly keen eye at composition, no additional beautiful ladies, and 40,000 images with the Elph. It was time to go to the next level.
As luck would have it we’ve come to a point in the story that will actually give you some help in starting your business! I found a mentor! Tip #1. If you are going to do something that has been done before, don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel. Find someone that is doing it well right now and learn everything you can from them! I stumbled into the studio of my wise mentor a nervous goon and attempted to humble myself as best as possible. If you want to find out about that process you can read my article called “How I Cheated in Photography” right here. [LINK5]
So (assuming you read that article) I learned everything I had the ability to process from a Master Photographer who was great at what he did, and worked my butt off becoming proficient at the math of the camera.
Ok... was I ready for starting my business yet? No way! But did I think I was, Sure! At this time I started to find friends and relatives that were looking for cheap photos. Was I a “professional,” sure, but was I confident enough to charge “real” money for my service? Nope, too scared. At the least I had the good sense to realize I wasn’t that professional yet. I gave away lots of compensation for the cost and told them all up front that I was learning and "I know we’ll get some really great photos today, but I can’t promise which ones will be 'the ones.'” (Great CYA line right?) And that was all fine and good with the exceptions that I was working 200 hours a week, earning 1/15th what I was worth, and clients just loved getting 650 images from a hour session. I was living the dream!
So what’s my next move? Free 15 min portraits [LINK6] for the next year! That’s logical, right? Well, to me, this just made sense. My lovely Terri [LINK7] did not agree. :) I heard “you’re just giving all this away all the time” more than once. But, before it felt like I was at the point of scamming people. I was comfortable enough now to be able to work the camera to take a competently executed portrait “most of the time.” But I didn’t have any products that weren’t “upload and print” and I was hacking my way through it. (I mention in my other article called “How to Choose a Wedding Photographer' [LINK8]) Even if they won’t admit it, the first 10 weddings are the hardest for sure, the highest volume of mistakes will happen then. The same goes for all photography and I was making the mistakes with paying customers! On the other hand, I had been advertising online for about a year, plus word of mouth (and those of you that have met me know I rarely shut up)! So I had a good amount of buzz going. People had seen some of my good early images from friends and family and wanted to see about “real” services.
SO.... to Terri’s chagrin I started the free portraits. I said the conditions for the portraits was as follows: I’ll meet you at a place of my choosing and create awesome portraits of you, you don’t get to see them, you get only two digital files (of my choosing) and agree to credit me when sharing. Basically I just got an endless supply of relatively (and relative) free learning experiences! I went into high gear! Tip #2. Actively seek knowledge. I took pictures of every type of people, beautiful people, people who were difficult to flatter, and short people and tall people, very pale and very dark complected, very skinny people and very large people, people in wheelchairs, people that were uncomfortable, and hams. I did this in every place that I could imagine I’d be working! I tried out every combination that I wasn’t confident at and practiced! Without the fee attached I could operate more freely, move people around, and be less formal, and goofy, and try out stuff that was crazy! [LINK9] This was also building my portfolio as well! Now I could show people some real examples of some complex awesome work! And that fed the buzz even more! I got to show a lot of potential clients and advertisers that not only did they get the awesome portrait but they had a great time doing it! That’s great PR!.
No more fears now, right? Well, one year of that and I was ready to confidently say I was a professional again. Great! Was I...? Don’t think so. I was a photographer, yes, but a business person, sadly no. Not even close. I had kinda missed the mark on what being a professional photographer meant.
…So here we are... a couple years in and a ton of money and time invested and I find out I’m not going to get to be an idealist artist. [EXPLETIVE DELETED]
I’m pretty sure explains the correlation of photographers coming-into and going-out-of business with the used 3 year old camera gear on the “internets.” Fun times! Tip #3. You better be ok with doing things you don’t want to do to do the things you want. So at this point seek advice from the mentors, the accounting professors, the relatives and friends with small businesses, other photographers, and read read read. You’re looking for data ranging from “How much tax do you collect and do you pay it quarterly or yearly, to how much work a human can do before they just die[Karōshi]?”
Yay small business! The answer to “why do we have to learn this?” from high school!! Thanks, Instant terror! I hadn’t really planned for this!
Things you find out in this stage include: There’s only so much market out there... who are you targeting and how are you marketing to them? Insurance, tax, repair and maintenance of equipment, accounting, editing, customer previews, printers, customer facing documents, ROI, Industry cliques and politics, math, computers, math, client management, off site storage, math, contracts, “it’s fun, but is it sustainable?” mileage records, trespassing laws, math, branding, everyone is always late, and Tip #4. Some customers are insane. Those are not your demographic. Walk away.
The most important thing to remember is; Planning for the things that are always going to come up is the least scary way to start a business and firstly, know what to be afraid of and secondly kicking that fear’s butt! Thinking about the ways you organize your business before your workload gets big also allows you to make the decisions instead of having the decisions chosen for you. If you ever hope to survive, you’re going to have to have a realistic picture of what adversity you are going to face running your small business and plan for it. Tip #5. An ounce of prevention is worth 40 pounds and a year of cure. If the customer is happy then you’ll be happy! Heck you might even be able to mix a little art in there without anyone noticing :)
Nicholas Viltrakis is co-founder of the PhotoMentorGroup with Eric Cameron. The PhotoMentorGroup is a professional portrait and event photography braintrust specializing in support and education enabling photographers to achieve success.