10 Steps to a Successful Photography Business

March 2021

10 Steps to a Successful Photography Business

"I'm going to be a photographer" is a term that I think we've all heard more frequently over the last decade, and as a commercial photographer for over 6 years, I can understand the massive appeal. The job is a gateway to a fantastic, beautiful world and I think it's awesome to hear people say that they want to be a part of it, however I also know that to turn that passion into a thriving business it takes a lot more than just a trip to the local camera store. It requires education, time, the ability to make hard choices, and a whole lot of determination. If you're on the fence about taking the plunge, then I say go for it! But before you do, here are my top 10 tips to help make your photography business a success. 

One of the many commercial photoshoots I've been fortunate enough to be a part of. This was shot for a performance company at a dried lake-bed location near Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by: Ben Canevari

1.) Take Photography Classes 

We're only on step one, and yes, it's already time for me to wag my finger and sound like your nagging parents. "Get yourself a proper education!" Can you start a photography business without one? Sure you can, but your development will be slower, less refined, and you'll have far less of an advantage compared to those who already have it.

With the right program behind you it'll be like taking off at warp speed. You'll be supplied with the repetition, guidance, and time to master the basics that you'll need further down the road. I also can't emphasize enough just how valuable your education will be when you want to become a future apprentice. Professional photographers are very busy people and in most cases they won't take on apprentices who need to be trained from square one.   

Having fun at one of my classes at Sacramento City College. A great thing about photo school is that it will surround you with a supportive group of fellow artists. 

When you pick your program there are a few things that will signal whether it's a good or a bad one. First off, find a program with teachers who previously worked as photographers. This means that they've owned a business and will teach you not only how to create art, but also how to earn a paycheck. Second, go to a school with a studio. A photography studio will expose you to proper strobe lighting, tons of equipment, and far more techniques. And third, find a program that has classes focused on career development. Photography Marketing, Portfolio Development, Studio Lighting, and Photography Business classes are the ones that I found most valuable when applying them to real life. If you can't find a program with photography business and marketing classes then sign up for a classic small business course ASAP. 

One of the many portraits that I created in photo school. Thanks to my classes I was able to dramatically speed up my development.   

2.) Apprentice for a Professional Photographer

So now you have your education and it's time to get thrown out into the real world. For many people this is a frightening transition, but don't sweat it because this is where apprenticing for a professional photographer helps fill in the gaps. Every great photographer that we love was an apprentice once, and being one yourself will expose you to a production workflow, will teach you how to interact with clients, and will also make you far more adaptable. 

One of my professors at photo school, Paul Estabrook, was a great help in recommending professional photographers for me to apprentice for. Never be afraid to ask anyone and everyone for advice and connections. 

To become an apprentice, first research a few photographers who shoot the same genre that you want to get into. Use the internet, ask people you know, and use whatever other means it takes to find them.

After that, send the photographer an e-mail and let them know that you admire their art and would love to work for them. If you have an education or have apprenticed in the past then this is the time to bring it up, because as I mentioned earlier, most professionals don't want to teach someone from scratch when they're already so busy. Also pick someone who has an outgoing and positive attitude! You want to learn from someone who loves their work, has the patience to teach you, and will be a positive influence in your career.  

One of the professional photographers that I apprenticed for was Gordon Lazzarone. He taught me valuable work skills and habits that I still use every day. Also, as you can see, his upbeat personality was a fantastic motivator.

Last but not least, work for someone who will pay you. A good photographer will know that your time, even as an apprentice, is valuable and you shouldn't have to work for free. Don't forget that you too are starting a business and will have your own start-up expenses coming very soon. 

3.) Create Your Own Art Style

Let's face it, we're in the era of Pinterest and Instagram, and thus thousands of people are seeing and mimicking each other's photographs every day (just search a trending hashtag or look up a popular photography sharing profile and you'll see what I mean). It can be a great teaching tool to dissect someone else's style, but too much of it can immediately bury your reputation into a mountain of mediocrity. Most artists don't want to be called "mediocre", and if that word scares you enough then this is where your superpowers will activate. Find what art means to you, express what makes you unique, and prove that you can come up with creative, original ideas that will help you stand out from the crowd.

Ballet dancer Brian Nachtraub.

Developing an art style won't happen overnight and will take many shoots to fine tune, but when you finally have it locked in you'll be surprised at how genuine the responses from your audience will be. You might not be the most "popular" or "algorithm friendly" on social media, but remember that likes don't always pay the bills. Instead, you will be you, you'll have more specific and engaging target audience, and speaking from experience here, many clients will value that individuality and seek you out for your vision alone. That's actually a far better position to be in compared to photographers who don't have an art style because your clients will know that you're one of a kind, they won't be able to shop around for other identical photographers, and they'll be more likely value your creative vision. 

Coffee Photography with Pilgrim Coffeehouse

A marketing image created for Pilgrim Coffeehouse, Seattle WA. 

4.) Create a Website

Everyone and their grandparents knew this topic was coming. If you're going to be a professional photographer and you don't have a website yet, then make this a very high priority. Having one is, to put it simply, the absolute industry standard. A website centralizes your entire body of work into one location, makes it easier for your clients and for search engines to discover you, and it allows you to present yourself in a cohesive and professional manner. 

A great website can come in many shapes and sizes, but there are a few beginning building blocks that should be followed to give it maximum effect. First off, make sure that your website is fast and wows your clients right away. Most people judge a website within a mere 3 seconds before leaving, so you have to make those seconds count. Move your best, most industry-focused photos to the front so that your clients can find exactly what they're looking for, and also upload the images at a lower to medium resolution so your site doesn't take forever to materialize. I recommend using Google's free Page Speed Insights Tool to help find the improvements your website might need. 

Second up, make sure that your website is convenient and easy to navigate. No one likes a site that is overly complicated, and if it is, it can usually lead to viewers becoming frustrated before promptly leaving. Use simple gallery names that are easy to comprehend, don't clutter your galleries with too many sub-par photos, and also have a contact page that is easy to use. Just this year I changed my contact page from having my e-mail listed on it to supplying an immediate contact form, and I must say, the feedback has been fantastic. Another factor to consider is to ensure that your website is mobile friendly. As of 2020, at least 50% of the internet is browsed through mobile devices, and that number is only going to increase even more. 

Over half of all internet searches are now viewed on mobile platforms. Double-check that your website is mobile friendly!

If you're starting fresh with no experience building a website, then I recommend purchasing a domain and then finding a hosting service that has easy to use building tools (like Smugmug, Squarespace, or Wix). If you have the funds then you might also consider hiring a web designer who can make your website look far more customized and unique. 

5.) Diversify Your Portfolio for Multiple Niches

How large should my portfolio be? How many different niches should I shoot for? These are some fair and legitimate questions that I get asked pretty often. If I was an artist from 1990's then you'd probably hear the classic answer to "specialize in only one field", however nowadays there's many great reasons to diversify your portfolio for multiple niches.

The first reason to have a diverse portfolio is because competition in the photography industry is absolutely fierce. It's now more accessible than ever, and with the sheer number of people fighting for space it can be hard to control a niche all by yourself. There's so many options to pick from online that a client might not even see your work during a search, so by shooting for multiple niches (combined with the SEO tactics we'll be talking about in the next step) you're maximizing the pool of people who will see you, and thus, maximizing your opportunities for getting hired. 

Crafting your business around multiple niches also prevents you from putting all your eggs in one basket and going belly-up if a certain industry you shoot for has an economic upset. A perfect example of that is what's going on with the COVID-19 pandemic as I write this blog. Due to the strict laws prohibiting social gatherings, most larger commercial contracts, weddings, and headshot sessions have plummeted to near non-existence, however also due to COVID-19, home product consumption has sky-rocketed. Thanks to having multiple portfolios for both portraits and product work, myself and many other photographers were able to go in a different direction instead hitting a brick wall, and this business model will continue to protect us against whatever inevitable economic changes come next. 

Having experience in multiple niches can also help you work for certain clients with multiple needs. For example, in this shoot I did for Seattle's Pilgrim Coffeehouse, they needed portraits, food photos, and beverage photos. If I didn't have experience in all of these fields then this company would have been much harder to reach.

Aside from all the financial safety nets, another great reason to shoot for multiple niches is that it's just plain fun and will make your career more varied, surprising and enriching. Instead of  photographing the same things and encountering the same situations every day, you'll be able to change things up, meet different people, find new passions, and challenge your creativity in new and spontaneous ways. You'll also be amazed at just how much it will round you out and expand your bag of tricks. 

Behind the scenes with guitarist Adrian Bellue. Photo by: Karen Hutton

If you're new to starting your photography career and still need to pick a niche, then start by discovering what content interests you. What gets you excited? What makes you feel alive? After that apply it to an industry that is realistic enough to actually earn some real revenue from  (remember, you are running a business here). If you want to be a wedding photographer, for instance, then this of course means your first focus should be shooting tons of weddings, and if you're going to be a commercial still life photographer, then this means you need to focus on products.

Pour in your creativity and style and make these portfolios stand out with your own creative flare. Then, approach as many potential clients as possible within that industry and show off your efforts. This first portfolio will set a foundation, it will give your business an identity and become your bread and butter, and afterwards, you can branch out from it. Just make sure that as you create new portfolios you don't over expand to the point where your clients become confused about what you do. You can shoot quite a lot, but make it cohesive. 

Untitled photo

With a diverse portfolio you're showing your clients that you have more to offer. It shows that you're experienced, adaptable, and open to new ideas. As a personal testament to this, I've had many tell me that it was my diverse portfolio that made them choose me over other photographers. They mentioned that they were satisfied seeing that I had taken photos directly related to their industry, but it was my additional ventures that made them feel like I was "fleshed out",  more flexible, and a more interesting person to work with.

6.) Make Nice with Google

Take it out to dinner, offer it a drink, and give it lots of tender loving care, because Google is your internet sugar momma when it comes to gaining internet exposure. Over 92% of the people on the internet use this mega-platform every day, and inside that figure are tons of clients looking for photographers just like you. 

In order to convince Google to make your website more visible, you first have to learn how improve your SEO, a.k.a. "Search Engine Optimization." Explaining how SEO works and how to get the best results from it would require dozens of blogs to explain, but for now I recommend creating a Google Business Account, a Google Analytics Account, starting a blog (google loves long-form content!), and taking the time to learn about metatags and "indexing" through Google's Search Console. There are also plenty of videos on YouTube like these ones made by AhrefsWes McDowell, and Phlearn that will give you a running start.

The tasks for making a strong SEO presence will feel a little daunting at first, but keep chipping away at it and you'll see your website slowly climb Google's rankings. Most people avoid taking the time to maintain all this and that is your biggest advantage. At least 75% of my clients come from Google searches, and with that in mind, I can easily confirm that those who give Google their attention will reap the rewards. 

7.) Social Media is a Must (But Be Mindful of its Limits)

Most of you reading this probably already have a social media account and know exactly why it's so important to have your business represented on there. The advantages should be obvious. Over 4.5 billion people are on social media, and with that being over half of the world's population in one place, it's become a massive marketing opportunity that shouldn't be ignored.

Many photographers have reached great success using social media as their main method for marketing, but nowadays with aggressive monetization and brutal algorithms locking away audience engagement, it's bit of an uphill battle to succeed. The genre you shoot for can also bring wildly different results. 

If you're a wedding or family photographer then you probably have the biggest advantage in this theater. Your audience is broad, and with built-in tools for tagging people, sharing, and demographic-targeted ad campaigns, you can find the exact groups you're looking for with little effort. Commercial and editorial photographers, however, have a bit more trouble using these functions because social media doesn't have the ability to get you in contact with the exact people who will hire you on behalf of a company (e.g. Art Directors, Communications Directors, business owners etc.). If you fall into the latter category, then you can still use social media of course, but dedicate more of your time gathering clients through networking and making your website more searchable.

Regardless of what type of photographer you are though, I still highly recommend using social media on a regular basis. It's still free exposure, it will prove your business's legitimacy for search engines like Google, and you can keep your clients up to date on your most recent projects. It's also a great way to communicate in a fun and personable way with people while revealing more about yourself. Take the time to share meaningful and interesting content, use open ended and engaging questions, follow and engage with hashtags related to your target audience, and post at peak times on a regular schedule. 

8.) Manage Your Time Wisely     

In all my years as a professional photographer, I must say that poor time management is one of the most common issues that I see crippling new artists. It's often the first thing that overwhelms and prevents them from reaching the professional level, and sadly, a lot of it is self-inflicted. As soon as you become a business owner, you have to expand your attention beyond just your photo skills. You also have to manage a website, maintain a social media presence, balance your finances, attract and book clients, and even prepare your taxes. For most first timers it's a lot to take on, and without a proper productive regimen it can be what ultimately takes your business down. 

If you're looking to improve on your time management skills, then it's best to not initially focus on all the different routines that can alter your workflow (don't worry we'll get to those later). Instead, I recommend starting at the pre-planning stage and mastering your organizational capabilities first. By being organized, you're creating a personalized system that will better support and speed up your workflow in the future. It's better to be prepared, and it's better to have an environment that works harder for you and not the other way around. 

Start by ensuring that you have a clean workspace that you can focus and be productive within. Remove any unnecessary clutter and keep your paperwork tidy with filing cabinets and labelled folders. After that, apply this same control to your digital world by neatly tucking away your invoices, expenses, contacts, etc. into an easy to follow system of folders. If you have Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, then this is also a great time to take advantage of their awesome cataloging systems for your images as well.

Next up, distance yourself from any distractions. If you're like the majority of us photographers then you probably work from home, so this will mean turning off the tv, working when no one is around, staying off of your phone, and keeping away from social media. As a creative, it also doesn't hurt to balance our space with a little bit of upbeat energy and comfort as well. 

Now with the right environment and organizational setup at your disposal, it's finally time refine that daily workflow. For this, I always recommend starting your day with a "to-do" list, and prioritizing what needs to come first. If there's something that must be done immediately that contributes to keeping your business afloat (like finishing a contract, processing invoices to get paid, or doing taxes) then of course that goes to the top of the list, but if there are no incoming deadlines and it's a slow day, then it's better to work on anything that expands your business and improves your chances of success (like portfolio development, SEO and networking). If you have a few nonessential tasks that don't fit in either of these two categories, like uploading a photo or two to Pinterest, then just push the tasks back for later when you have spare time to burn.

I also recommend keeping your goals realistic and simple and to only take on one task at a time. This will keep you more focused, will ensure a higher chance of getting something done, and it will also prevent you from spreading yourself too thin. It's better to wrestle only one Rottweiler instead of twenty, right? If the task is too large to do in a day, then break it up into multiple steps that can snowball together over time. You can also do what I like to call "batch work" where you work on multiple similar tasks at once in order to preserve the time that would be wasted while transitioning between platforms (for example, replying to all of your emails at once instead of spreading them out throughout the day).

After all this, the final step is to get yourself a calendar or day planner and to get in the habit of scheduling yourself deadlines. As a contract worker who will constantly face deadlines while on assignment anyways this is a great habit to pick up, and it will also help you have a sense of progression whenever you're stuck in the office for days on end. Also don't forget to take breaks and take care of yourself when the time is needed. Listen to your body and don't drive yourself crazy! Go get some fresh air or just step away from your computer for a while, and heck, if you're tired of staring at the same walls then don't be afraid to change things up. Perhaps you can go down to the local coffee shop and enjoy a warm cup as you work on your laptop or make phone calls? Your physical and mental well being are the most important part of your business. It's what everything else depends on, so don't ignore it. 

9.) Own the Word "Professional"

Let's pretend for a second that you're a client who's hired a photographer. The photographer has been slow to answer your e-mails, has already cancelled on you once, and now on the day of the shoot, he or she arrives late. To make matter worse, they forgot their camera lens, are blatantly rude, and aren't even dressed for the situation (let's say gym shorts and flip-flops). This is just getting embarrassing, right? And understandably so. Even if that photographer somehow pulled a miracle and shot some nice photos, I doubt you'd hire them again. 

In our career, we're hired not just for our ability to handle a camera, but also for our ability to handle ourselves. We have to be reliable and trustworthy, and we should be presentable and ready to work when the shoot day arrives. Have a shoot plan ready to go, have your gear prepped, brush your teeth, do your hair, show up early, and if you're shooting a wedding or commercial work then at a minimum wear a nice shirt and some jeans.

I also can't stress enough how important people skills are to our formula. Be positive, show genuine concern and interest in your clients and their projects, work efficiently and don't unnecessarily waste anyone's time. This professional courtesy should also be extended to the people who work for you as well. Treat your assistants with respect while reasonably expecting solid work, but also be caring and pay them on time. 

I know this all might not sound that hard (and if it isn't for you then that's a good thing!), but you'd be surprised to know just how many photographers I've seen who resembled that nightmare situation I mentioned earlier. Don't let such simple basics slow you down on your path to success. Don't let it drive your clients away to someone else! Present yourself (both online and offline) as a professional. Live and breathe the word "professional." Own the word "professional."

10.) Conclusion: Have the Right Mentality for Success

As I close out on this book of a blog, I hope I've been able to provide you with some valuable information that will help you along your journey towards becoming a successful professional photographer. As you've probably noticed, it's easy to pick up a camera and start taking pictures, but it's much harder to transform that passion into a business and make a living doing so. Our profession is highly competitive, time consuming, expensive, and has a high rate of quitters, but just because it's hard doesn't mean it's impossible. 

When I made my decision to become a professional photographer, I was in a beginning photography class and had only touched a DSLR for the first time a few weeks before. I had no training, no money, no resources, no plan, and certainly no reputation, but if there's one thing I learned as the years went on it's that it's not the material and outward expectations that bring you success, but what you have on the inside that truly makes you shine. It's about the hunger, the drive, the unyielding desire to be the best at something you can be, and if you truly feel that fire in your soul, then lean into it hard and learn to trust it for all the challenges to come.

In other words, learn to trust in yourself. No matter how few opportunities you think you might have, you actually have thousands of them awaiting you every day, and it's solely up to you if you will make them happen. Still need to build a website? Then that's an opportunity. Need to shoot new content? Then that's another opportunity. I think you get the idea, but just don't make the mistake of sitting on your hands and letting your moment pass you by. Also don't wait on others to do it for you. That can be a self depreciating and destructive mindset to have, and you really do have the power to get up and earn your victories yourself. 

All in all, keep a healthy, positive mindset and remove all the negativities from your journey. Remember that art is our escape, and life is just too short to be frustrated and upset! Be thankful that you have the chance to live a free, expressive life that not many other people get to experience, and stay curious and optimistic towards all the places and people your career will take you to. Even if this job has tough days, there are far more beautiful, happy ones ahead, and if someone like me could make this journey, then you will too. Good luck, and I'll see you at the finish line. 

- Jason

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