Dear Aspiring Photographer,
I would say that I receive about 5-10 emails or messages per week asking business questions and I find this completely flattering. Although, I do have to wonder why you are asking me since I feel I have a million more things to learn or improve upon. Yes, I’m still shocked that my business is thriving and each year more successful than the last. So I’m honored you reached out to me even though there may be better sources of advice.
I know that some peers can be discouraging… tell you to stop asking questions and get out there and shoot… that you are taking short cuts when you do ask… tell you to take classes… to google and that’s all good(ish) advice. However, I’m here to tell you that I would not be where I am today if weren’t for some amazing photographers “dealing” with my incessant questions. Heck, I still pester them and every forum I belong to out there with questions about my business and looking for reassurance that I’m on the right track… on an almost daily basis. So I get it.
That’s right… sometimes I just want reassurance. Being a wedding photographer is probably the loneliest and hardest career I have ever had. There were plenty of years I spent stuck inside a cubicle in a building with no windows working 80 hour weeks… so I do have a frame of reference. I wanted someone to toss ideas around with… I craved feedback and sage advice. In the early years, I spent most of them frustrated at all the mistakes I was making (okay, and some I still make) and the advice I did get meant the world to me. So here it is for you… my advice for you, the aspiring photographer… but remember, take it with a grain of salt… I am still learning and growing myself.
1. Be honest. If you have not photographed a ton of weddings (or even just one) be honest. There WILL be a client out there that will take a chance on you. I started out with five wedding photos from a couple’s portrait session I set up when I first started doing weddings. I hadn’t second shot. I had zero wedding experience and I was honest about it. I also barely charged anything so that worked in my favor.
2. Know you probably kind of suck. Listen… I’m not saying this to be mean but I am saying it to make you face reality. In the beginning, every photographer out there looks at their work and thinks because their Grandma Sandy or their BFF Rose told them, and I quote “OMG! These are amazing! You are so talented! I’m so glad you are doing this!” (oh yeah, I’d put money one of those three sentences are on your social media somewhere) they think they are budding Leibovitzs. I did. But I can tell you now that I look back at my early work and I think to myself “What on God’s green earth was I thinking to deliver THAT to a client!?!”. It will happen. And you will be embarrassed as you remember how offended you got when you asked for feedback from a seasoned photographer and they didn’t echo your grandmother’s kind words. We’ve all been there. Just know this cc is helping you grow… cry a little in your pillow and then regroup. Take the advice and learn from it.
3. Don’t look at other photographer’s work for “inspiration”. Okay… I have a mixed message on this one and hopefully you’ll get what I’m saying. Seriously… DON’T follow another photographer if you are going to straight out copy their style or their poses or their editing choices and think it will make you an overnight success. DO follow other photographers or look at their social media to see how they place their subject so the light falls on them or how they have curved the legs of the model to please the eye. Look at editing to see what you are drawn to. Do you photograph in a completely true-to-life manner but you are consistently drawn to dark, moody images? If so, then research that editing style because it’s what is inside you… what evokes emotions in you. Finding THAT out… is when you are going to stop producing dull images and start producing images that speak to YOU (and then to your clients). And your style will be born naturally.
4. Shoot for yourself first. Yes, we are service providers but we are also artists. Otherwise our images would not be copyrighted or owned by us for life no matter who pays us to take them. This is something that I am just now, SEVEN YEARS in, starting to reconcile. Here’s the thing I hear constantly… the client is always right so give the client whatever they want. However, WE are the experts. WE are the ones producing the work. You aren’t going to produce your best if you aren’t in love with what you are doing. Clients hire us because they fall in love with our images… because they want one of the most important days of their lives documented how WE see it based on our portfolios. If a client comes to me with an inspiration photo… a bridal party doing something crass… I decline to do it. Yes, I say no and have no issue with doing it. I don’t feel guilty for not giving my client exactly what they want. I’ll take a negative review knowing I didn’t compromise my standards. And here’s why… I’ve been told my photography is old-fashioned and no fun… by other photographers who will do that panty shot when I’ve explained that I don’t take every image a client asks for if it doesn’t fit into my style. This is what I explain to them… my client trusted me enough with their day and I do not have images of panty-less bridal parties on my website. If that is truly what the bride wanted… they would have hired the guy down the street that does. End of story. It’s once I came to this conclusion that I started being happier with my final product. Once I was happier with my final product… I was able to define my style and my business tripled in one year. I no longer had clients that didn’t love their images because I was giving them what I was selling and portraying on my website. This doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to my client… it DOES mean that I explain and educate that they didn’t hire me based on someone else’s work… they hired me based on mine.
5. Find your tribe. Like I mentioned above, this is a really lonely career path. You typically work from home… alone most days. If you are social, like me, you crave co-workers. You miss lunches with friends… so networking is really key. This is your tribe. The people you can gripe to about an issue… or ask advice of… who will help you grow and learn… and will tell you when the selective color image you just posted on your facebook page “might be a little out-dated” then take you out for a glass of wine. Whether you think so now or not… you will come to a point when you need a tribe… so build it early.
6. Other photographers are still your competition. Just like dating it takes kissing a lot of fishes to find your prince… and it will take a lot of networking to find your tribe. And I mean A LOT of networking. Not everyone has a sense of community over competition. Not everyone has your best interest in mind. I’m just going to leave this one at that.
7. Learn flash and to shoot in Kelvin as soon as you can. From the time you are learning to shoot in manual… you should also be learning to use flash and shoot in Kelvin. Both are game changers… just do it from the start.
8. Be LEGAL. I’m going to put this bluntly… you are NOT a professional photographer if you are not licensed, do not pay sales tax, and aren’t insured. End of story. Don’t charge as such. Do not advertise as such. Do not buy business cards that say it. You are a hobbyist (this goes back to being honest). But hey! That is okay! I swear! We all started from the same place.
9. The first years will be hard and you aren’t going to make the money you think you will. The biggest question I get asked is how a photographer can get the client base I have or the number of events I do quickly. You know… something alluding to the fact I’ve somehow made it… well, let me dispel that myth for you. I haven’t. I still consider myself a fledgling photographer… even after seven years. I can tell you that there are a million and one other photographers that are better than me, WAY more successful than I am, and have more knowledge in their little pinky than I’ve learned since that first day I came home with a small business license (or even after four years of a photography degree). The first year more money went out of my pocket than came in. My second year I did something like 80+ portrait sessions and I made $1100 profit. And I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever accomplished. I mean… I made less than my kids bring home from a summer job and I was happy with it. I was happy with it because I progressed. Over the years, I’ve been told I should get a “real” job and I still to this day get “Oh! You ARE a real photographer. I just thought you were someone with a camera!”. It’s demoralizing. You put your heart and soul into it and it may take years before you are taken seriously or get any amount of respect you crave. The best thing you can do is recognize that and judge yourself not on how other’s view you or your work but how much you’ve accomplished (and yes profited) from the year prior.
10. Learn to say NO. I wish I had learned this earlier on. I wish I had had the courage and strength to stick to my guns. To know that a wedding or a client wasn’t a good fit for me. But early on, I considered it a failing each and every time I said no. I thought I was letting down my clients. I thought that I should be able to walk into any and every venue and take photos that I loved… that the clients loved. I thought if I just worked an extra hour for no pay or offered something that the client wanted without profit that it would make me a better photographer… a better business person. That’s just not the case. Learning to say no saves you from working at venues that require lighting beyond your expertise… from personality conflicts with clients… from family photos where everyone is wearing jeans and white shirts…
11. Be Strong and have passion. So all of the above may seem discouraging. It may have you thinking that I’m telling you not to pursue this passion you have. I’m not. I’m saying be strong and know that if this is truly what you are meant to do… it will get better. You WILL succeed. Go into it with an open mind, heart, soul… whatever inspires you the most.
And there you have it. My advice to you, aspiring photographer. I truly wish you the best of luck and I am always here should you have questions.
www.ymphotography.com | YM Photography | Bolton Landing on Lake George, NY Engagement and Wedding Photographer
Hours: Wed-Sat, 11AM-6PM