A few weeks ago, I was in town when I heard a lady say to her friend, “That photo you posted of Sebastian was soooooo beautiful. While you’re on maternity leave, you should totally start doing photography as a business…”
Before I write anything else, I just want to say that this is exactly the kind of thing that my friends would tell me a few years back. And it’s lovely when your friends encourage you to pursue your passion and turn it into a business. But in my experience, starting any kind of business isn’t something that you should decide to do on a whim.
I think that photography is one of those industries where it’s easy to consider making money from it because the start-up costs are perceived to be low, and it’s not regulated. I’ve never heard anyone tell their friend “I really enjoyed that meal you cooked, you should buy a restaurant” or “your child has neat handwriting, you should find a job as a teacher.”
Anyway, I’m glad I overheard that conversation because it inspired me to write this blog and give any future photographers an insight into what it’s really like to start a photography business. Because the worst thing is when you start something and feel like you want to give up half way through because you didn’t realize what was involved in the first place.
Now compared to a lot of my local photographers who have been in business for 10+ years, I’m relatively new to this game. And I’m not pretending that I know everything there is to know. In fact, I know that I have got so much still left to learn and that there are others out there who are so much more together than I am. But what I didn’t want to do was leave writing this blog for so long that I’d forgotten how hard it really is at the start. And I don’t think that running your own business really gets any easier with time, I just think that the challenges change and what you have to focus your energy on shifts a bit.
If you want to be a professional photographer, being able to take good photos is a given, but what’s it actually like to set up, own, and run a photography business? Everyone’s experience will be different, but this is what I’ve learnt so far:
1. Comparison is the thief of joy
It’s a well known quote, but not one I’d really thought of until I started my business. But within about 5 minutes of deciding that I was going to take the plunge, I understood it. 100%.
When I was starting my business, I was looking for inspiration. I was looking at other people’s work to see their styles, their creativity and their talent. And I quickly felt overwhelmed by how amazing everyone else’s work was in comparison to mine. I felt like an imposter; like I really shouldn’t even be trying to start a business. I was suddenly seeing photos that had brought me joy in the past in a whole new and negative way: comparing them to photos taken by better, more experienced, more well known photographers and feeling like mine were rubbish.
I’m not sure if you ever stop comparing yourself to others, but I think that what does happen is that you choose to ignore those feelings of inferiority and remember why you love to take photos in the first place. For me, this is because I want to preserve moments in time—for myself and for my clients.
2. Social media is a necessary evil
Some people love social media, and they’re great at posting and engaging with followers. But before I started my business, I didn’t have any social media accounts. And no, I’m not 80. I found that I was better off not being able to compare my life to other people’s.
But in 2020, owning a business without having a social media account is like trying to ride a horse without tack: not completely impossible, but not ideal either.
If you do follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll quickly realize that social media still isn’t my strong suit, but I do give it a fair go. And it does make it worth it when some of my clients find me through my social media pages. I only follow people who inspire me, and as soon as I start comparing myself to someone or their work makes me feel like I’m not good enough, I’ve found it useful to unfollow or mute them for a while, for my own sanity.
If you’ve noticed that I’ve recently unfollowed you, take it as a compliment ;)
3. SEO is worth the work
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not great at social media – and you’re probably thinking “So how do clients find you?” Well, all of the energy that I don’t pour into my socials gets used up on keeping my website in tip top condition as well as working on my SEO.
Search engine optimization (SEO) involves making lots of tiny changes and tweaks to your website that make Google (and other search engines) rank your website when clients search for keywords to do with your business. It’s not an exact science and Google is quite cagey about what exactly it is that you need to do to rank higher on those pages. But the reason my clients find me is that when they search for “Cardiff Photographer,” “Family Photoshoot Cardiff,” or “Newborn Photographer Cardiff,” my name comes up very near to the top of the list.
It sounds easy doesn’t it?! But I promise you that I have worked behind the scenes on my SEO for hours and hours to get those results. I’ll also take this opportunity to thank the two ladies who have helped me understand what I should be doing to improve my SEO: Lynsey at Front Door Communications and Nina at Nina Mace Photography.
4. Continued Professional Development is important
In my previous career as a teacher, it was expected that a certain amount of hours per year were spent on CPD. Courses, lesson observations, and peer reviews were all par for the course and my friends who are dentists, doctors and lawyers tell me that it’s the same in their industries.
When you run your own business, and it’s not a legal requirement to invest in CPD, it’s so easy to see it as an optional extra and to put it at the bottom of your list of “things to do when I have the time and money.” But challenging yourself and finding people who know what they’re talking about is one sure way to grow your business.
Find someone you admire, someone who is further along the road than you, who has it more sussed than you, and invest in their skills and knowledge. Courses, workshops and mentoring are all worthwhile as long as you choose your provider wisely.
Just a quick tip: anyone claiming to be able to make you rich quickly is not a wise choice of teacher or mentor.
5. Don’t expect to make an easy profit
In my first year in business, I earned a decent amount of money… I also invested 90% of it back into the business, so by the end of the year, my bank balance wasn’t as buoyant as I would have liked it to be. But what my bank balance didn’t show was that I did have a growing client base, higher spec equipment, more skills, and a plan of how to keep taking my business forward.
Photography isn’t a business to get into if you want to make money quickly. Yes, you can charge whatever you want for a photoshoot, but even if you haven’t got a studio, your overheads will take a good chunk of your monthly income in the early days – software, hardware, equipment, professional body membership, insurance (yes – you 100% need it), subscriptions… it all adds up.
One thing that I quickly learnt was that I needed to pace myself when it came to buying new equipment. I took the approach (and still do) of not buying anything new unless I couldn’t do my job without it. So when I felt like I wanted a new lens, I only allowed myself to consider it if the one I currently had was limiting me in my work. There obviously comes a point when the technical spec of your equipment actually is holding you back, but there’s no point having all the latest gear and no idea of how to use it.
6. There’s always something to do
It might be my personality (I like to be busy), but my to-do list is never-ending. When you think about what a photographer actually does, it’s shoot-edit-admin-admin-admin-admin-admin-repeat.
I’m always tweaking my website, updating my accounts, sending out contracts, working on my SEO, thinking about marketing, ordering prints. And while I do enjoy that side of running a business as well, it’s not necessarily what springs to mind when you think about being a photographer. No hanging round in cool coffee shops admiring the pretty light for me!
7. A good work/life balance is difficult (but not impossible) to achieve
I’ve seen it written so many times that people want to get into photography so that they can quit their current job and “spend more time with family.” Realistically, whatever kind of business you’re growing, spending more time with your family in the early days is a difficult thing to do. It isn’t impossible, but the temptation to send one more email, pay one more invoice, post one more thing to social media… it never goes away. You seem to be “on call” 24/7.
This is especially true for me—trying to fit a full time venture into (very) part time hours when my daughter is at nursery and looking at other working mums thinking that they must have 27 hours in their day with everything that they get done. And suddenly I’m back comparing myself to others. Again.
With all that said, I really do enjoy my new career and the days where I feel like giving up are few and far between. Anyone who says they never have those days must be a) lying or b) lying.
Hopefully this blog has been useful to anyone who is considering setting up a photography business. I promise it’s not meant to put you off! Are you new on this journey? What advice would you give to those just starting out? Are you way further down the line than I am and have any pearls of wisdom?
I’d love to hear your comments, so feel free to add them below.
About the author: Clare Harding is an award winning family and baby photographer from South Wales who loves working with natural light (and still has a lot to learn in business!). You can find more of her work and words on her website and blog, or by following her on Instagram and Facebook. This post was also published here.