We started our photography business in 2006. That’s only 6 years ago, but it feels like a lifetime, especially when we look back on all that’s happened. And when we think about all the mistakes we’ve made, well, it feels more like two lifetimes!
But mistakes are just wonderful little learning opportunities in disguise. And while we’ve had our fair share of screw-ups, we’ve been able to learn and improve as a result.
So we’re going to pull the curtains back, share a ton of our mistakes, and the things we wish we had known when we were just getting started. We learned these lessons the hard way. Hopefully by sharing them with you, you’ll be able to avoid these mistakes, and have a smoother ride to success!
1. Learn To Shoot In Manual Mode Right Away
We shot our first year of weddings in Aperture Priority Mode. At the time, it seemed like the easier option. But we’ve since realized that it was actually making things harder on ourselves!
See, the importance of learning to shoot in manual mode isn’t because modes like Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority are useless. They can be a solid choices in certain situations.
The real value of manual mode shooting is in how it forces you to understand what’s going on with your camera, and the light around you. Learning this early on will help you get more control over your images, and improve your shooting skills quickly.
Another bonus is that manual mode also lets you be more consistent in your exposures, which helps you save time with your editing!
So this isn’t some photography snobbery here. Learning how to shoot in manual mode is going to help you in a ton of ways, and the sooner you can learn how to do it, the more benefit you’ll see!
(If you need some help learning how to shoot in manual, check out our Extremely Essential Camera Skills tutorial!)
2. You Are Not Just A Photographer
When we got started we thought that if we had great photography skills, we’d have a successful business. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you’re starting and running your own business, you need to wear a baker’s dozen of hats. You are a photographer/customer service expert/book keeper/marketing director/social media whiz/branding dude/website creation person/secretary/treasurer/CEO/CFO/ and pretty much any other title you can think of.
The sooner you realize that you’re going to need to become good at a LOT of different things, the sooner you can start improving at them all. Great photography skills are important, don’t get me wrong. But you need to have a LOT of other ones if you’re going to make a business out of it!
3. Be Patient
This is a lesson we still have to remind ourselves of constantly. When we first got started, we figured we’d have a wildly successful business rolling within a year. Fast forward 6 years, and we’re still trying to get there.
It takes time to get good at photography. It takes time to get good at marketing. It takes time to get good at customer service. It takes time to get good at business organization. Basically, it takes time to get good at the dozens of things you need to be good at to run a wildly successful photography business.
So don’t beat yourself up if things aren’t happening as fast as you expected. If you stick with it, and keep improving, you’ll get there.
4. People Skills Are The Most Important Skills
Photography is a people business. Even if you’re a landscape shooter, your clients are people. And the better you can work with, and take care of, the people you do business with, the more success you’ll see.
We didn’t understand just how important this was until we read the book How To Win Friends & Influence People. From that point on, we saw that the more effort we put into being great with people, the more success we had. That book changed our business, and our lives. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but I promise it’s not.
(To learn more about the book, and how you can apply it to your photography business, check out our Book Report on it!)
5. Unnecessary Gear and Business Purchases Can Be Crippling
It’s very easy to get caught in the never-ending cycle of buying things to “help your business”. With photography, it’s even more dangerous because the purchases are fun and exciting! It’s not hard to convince yourself that if you just had that better lens, you’d take better photos, and your business would be more successful.
I don’t even want to think about how much money we’ve wasted by buying gear that we didn’t really need. It all ended up collecting dust in our closet until we sold it for a serious loss. After a few years of that nonsense, we got wise and started being very, very, very thoughtful about purchasing anything. Our gear might not get many jealous stares from other photographers, but as long as it’s creating the images we want, that’s all that matters.
It’s the same deal for business purchases. Think carefully before pulling out that credit card. It’s hard enough to make a solid profit with photography without huge expenses to deal with.
(Need some help deciding which gear to actually invest in? Check out our Gear Guide for all our articles designed to help you figure it out!)
6. Branding Is Important, But Stationary Is Not
Along with our collection of rarely used equipment is a BIG collection of outdated print materials. Brochures, packaging, and thousands (yes, thousands) of business cards. All of them are totally useless, and a big waste of money and paper.
When it comes to your branding, creating something personal, unique and consistent is super valuable. It helps you stand out from other photographers, and communicates who you are.
But when it comes to ordering branded printed products, be careful. Don’t think that the huge order will save you money, because chances are you won’t ever use it all. This is especially true near the start of your career, when you’ll potentially change your branding a couple times before finding the right fit.
Try to find ways to print smaller runs, or print on demand. We’ve gone from ordering thousands of business cards, to printing out a couple dozen at a time on our home printer. If you run out, then you know you’re actually using them, and can order a slightly larger batch.
7. Get Outside Inspiration
When we first got into professional photography, we were wedding shooters. We spent countless hours looking at the websites and blogs of other wedding photographers. We spent tons of time on forums with other wedding photographers. We read wedding magazines, and watched shows about weddings. We basically immersed ourselves completely in that world.
Don’t get me wrong, you can definitely learn a ton from the people who share the same profession as you. But if you don’t look for inspiration outside of that realm, you will find yourself just doing the same as everyone else. Great businesses and photographers don’t just do the same. They find ways to stand out!
As a photographer, the sources of inspiration are nearly endless, so don’t limit yourself to looking at photographers who do the same work as you. Study the work of the great photographers of history, check out the new work being made in different genres, read about painters, watch movies, flip through comic books — artistic inspiration is everywhere, so open yourself up to it!
The same goes for business inspiration. You can learn tons from internet marketers, copywriters, and pretty much anyone in business. After all, it’s all about helping your customers get value out of what you do. The end results differ, but the fundamental concepts are more similar that you might realize!
8. Referrals Are Essential
Word of mouth referrals are the most powerful sources of bookings for photographers. People are way more likely to trust the recommendation of a friend than an ad in a magazine. You need to be working hard to get referrals.
At first, we didn’t realize that we actually had to encourage referrals. Sure, you’ll get some just because folks like to talk about great companies. But many clients probably have no idea just how valuable their referrals are to you!
There are lots of ways to encourage referrals. You can set up a formal referral program that rewards clients for sending new business your way. Or you can simply give them a stack of business cards along with their photos, and let them know just how much you appreciate them telling their friends about you. Or do both!!
However you do it, just don’t neglect those referrals. They will be the backbone of your business!
(For more help with getting referrals, and some tips on setting up a referral program, check out our article Referral Programs: An Easy, Affordable & Effective Marketing Plan)
9. Market Or Die
Does this sound familiar? You start something up. A blog. A website. A business. You’re sure you have a brilliant idea, and that it will be wildly successful. You make a gorgeous logo. You create a stunning online presence, filled with witty writing and enticing images. You press publish, sit back, and wait for the inquiries and comments to pour in.
And then nothing happens.
It took us a loooong time to realize that, in general, no one cares about what you’re doing. Unless you make them care about it.
And that, quite simply is what marketing is all about. Showing people that what you’re doing is interesting and valuable. You could have the most amazing photography in the world, but unless people know about it, you will not see any success.
So look at this way. Getting your business all set up with a website and name and logo and all that stuff — that’s what gets you to the starting point. Then the real work begins. You need to get out there and tell people about it, and market yourself!
(Need some ideas for marketing your photography business? Check out our totally free eBook, 7 Simple Ways To Market Your Wedding Photography Business. The ideas are written for wedding photographers, but can apply to any sort of photo business!)
10. Your List Is Crazy Valuable
One of the most valuable marketing assets you can create is a newsletter list. These days it’s really ridiculously easy to send out updates with emails, giving you a direct link to your best customers!
We never put enough effort into building a newsletter list for our photography business, and have always regretted it. We just didn’t realize how important it was. A great list can help you get more out of your marketing promotions, book sessions when you’re going out of town, get feedback on how to improve your business, and more.
The sooner you start building your list, the more it will grow, and the more power it will have for your business. Here’s an article with more tips on creating a list for your business!
11. Develop Off-Season Income
For many years we struggled with this one. We’d have a great summer, shoot tons of weddings, portraits, and the money would be flowing. Then, come fall, things would slow down, and by winter it was silent. There were months with no income coming in, and things would be super tight by the time spring rolled around.
If you live in a place where the shooting is seasonal, try to figure out a way to develop income year round. There are no simple answers here, and it will really depend on the type of photography you do, and what other skills you have. But if you can get even a small stream of cash flow in the off-season, it will make things far more comfortable.
For the record, this is exactly how Photography Concentrate was born!! :)
12. Go Outside The Box
It’s easy to do things the same way everyone else does. It feels safe and proven. But it can actually make things harder for you, because you don’t stand out, or offer anything unique to clients!
At first we offered the same products, the same packages, and had our business organized the same way as most wedding and portrait photographers worldwide. And it was boring. It didn’t reflect how we felt about photography, and how we wanted to work with our clients.
So we stopped being so afraid, and starting offering different products. We started shooting in different ways. And we were way happier, and so were our clients!
Try something new. Be creative. Be bold. Get outside that box, and you’ll see just how much fun it is out there!
13. Think Big
If you’re going to start a business, don’t be afraid to think and dream big. When we first got into wedding photography, we were talking about how our first season would go. I was hoping that we booked at least 5 weddings. Rob was expecting more around 15 – 20. I thought he was crazy, and just thinking about those numbers made me scared.
Well, we ended up shooting nearly 30 weddings that year. But if we stopped trying after 5, because we figured that was enough, we would have never been able to go full-time right off the bat.
So go ahead and think big. With some patience and creativity, and a lot of hard work, chances are you’ll surpass even your wildest dreams!
Whew! Is your mind spinning?? I know mine is. So I think that’s a good place to leave it for today. We’ll finish up the list soon, but take some time to meditate on those ideas. Write down your ideas and thoughts. And start planning to take advantage of our mistakes, and make your own business stronger!