We started our photography business in 2006. That’s almost 12 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!
Note: This is a two-part post. You can find 14-26 on the second post here: 26 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Photography Business // Part 2
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 still didn’t feel we quite got 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 than 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 started 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!
Get Started Now!
If you’re ready to start a photography business, check out our full video tutorial, Essential Photography Business Lessons to get even more insights and guidance!
What do you wish you knew before starting your photography journey? Share with us in the comments now!
Ready for more? Click here to read Part 2, where I share 13 more things I wish I knew before I started my photography business!
Sam Aidun says
Great info- thanks for sharing. I’ve noticed similar challenges with the Catering Business and most, if not all of your solutions translate nicely to Wedding Catering, Corporate Catering and Event Catering too, not to mention the cross-over for photography in the Catering Space gave me additional pleasure while reading your post. Cheers!
Jason Olstad says
Great article. I was surprised myself when I opened my own photography business. I have had a very hard time with traffic and competing with the 40 or so so called photographers here in the area that are undercutting like crazy. I am sorry but I cannot afford to do shoots for $50. So I have turned to other avenues to make additional income. I will be writing about them on my blog at https://www.jrfinephotography.com/starting-your-own-business/ My first article is Do not start your own photography business until you read this. Just more food for thought.
Kaitlyn Luckow says
Thank you so much for sharing, Jason!
It’s been five years and the list still isn’t finished lol misleading title but good information
I am looking to start a photography business. I have no clue where to begin! I am looking to do wedding, engagement, and family photography. I am looking for advice on cameras, website etc Thank you!
Daniel Peleg says
Hi Natalie, if you’re looking to offer wedding photography services, this course will get you up and running quickly:
For other types of commercial photography, this would help:
Patrick Johnson says
Thank you soooo much!! I have been teetering on pulling the trigger for almost two years. I’ve had some recent developments in my life that have really given me some motivation. I really enjoyed this read.
DAVID LIVINGSTONE says
I have an interest on becoming a photographer
but i will like to have an idea on how to become successful in the photography business line.
Melissa McGhee says
Thank you so much for writing this article! I was a film portrait photographer for 7 years and then life happened! Marriage, mortgage, kids, etc. When I realize how costly portrait photography could get wanting all the milestone photos of my children, I decided to get back into business. By that point, film had all but become obsolete. I purchased my first DSLR 4 years ago and boy was that a learning curve!!! I have since be operating my business as a sole owner out of my home. I am ready to take another big step, in less than 30-days I will be signing a lease on my first studio! I came across your story here while doing some business research. You both have inspired me with your story and reminded me of many challenges I’ve faced over the years. Dreaming Big!!! I sincerely wish you all the best with your business and in life!!
Olivia Green says
Great article, Lauren!
Photography is one of those few professions where you really need to work on different skills to make it a primary source of income. You have to be good at taking shots, editing photos, building and maintaining a website, work on its optimization, be good with people and much more.
I’ve built my website with Pixpa, and they allow users to define SEO properties for individual content items including images. Took some time and it was a time consuming task, but the day you start getting organic traffic is the day your photography business grows drastically.
Kaitlyn Luckow says
This is so awesome, Olivia! Congrats!
Tom Stapleton says
Great tips here! So many people rush into the “photography” aspect without solidifying the “business” aspect first.
Kaitlyn Luckow says
YES! That is so true, Tom! It’s important to remember both things are important.
Thanks for sharing these tips over here.
Kaitlyn Luckow says
You’re so welcome!
I love this article and in my opinion, most of us are guilty of not understanding #2 You are a businessperson in the business of photography, not a photographer. Jerry Ghionis said it beautifully: “I am a businessman during the week and an artist on the weekends”.
Once again, thank you!
Kaitlyn Luckow says
Such a great quote! Thank you so much for sharing, Calin!
Katie Eckhardt says
Lauren! Such good advice! Thank you for sharing!
Wow! It’s really a great blog. Now I know all of the important points that I can consider before starting my photography business. Thanks for sharing such great information.
Brian Joseph Kelsch says
What a lot of people just starting out in the business don’t realize is that you need more personality and charisma and marketing skills than you need technical skills. A DSLR combined with Photoshop will take care of most of the technical work for you. When I taught photography the first thing I would tell my students was to not quit your day job unless you are a fantastic salesman with a lot of contacts. Buying a high end camera means nothing if you can’t work a room and get referrals. Most of my students appreciated my reality check approach to photography.
Many courses are geared to getting rich quick and are nothing more than on line scams. I taught for New York Institute Of Photography which in itself had a lot of “scam” elements incorporated into it which I tried to debunk as much as possible and tried to steer the students in the direction of the appreciation of the medium itself. For those who wanted to start a legitimate business I again gave them the advice; “don’t quit your day job.” Thinking and dreaming “big” is great and awesome and all fine and well but the power company wants their money at the end of the month and doesn’t care how big you are dreaming.
I also told them if they are going to shoot weddings and events to be ready to have 20 people shoot the same scene with their phones. Digital does have it’s dark side. As one person said on this site during the week he’s a businessman, on weekends he’s an artist. Very good approach. Another harsh truth is that if you’re good looking with a good personality and can sell you stand more of a chance of success than someone who is brilliant with optics and lighting. Why you ask? Glad you asked. Because the general public doesn’t know from art or a good photograph but they are push overs for personality and looks. You can look at all the classical paintings you want but people are a shallow lot and usually only see the surface of anything. I told my students that in order to be a good photographer they should study painting.
Honestly, I would have trashed a few chapters of the NYIP course and replaced them with lessons from Dale Carnegie or how to be a good used car salesman. You can buy a $60,000 digital Hasselblad with all the high end lighting you want but if you can’t sell, schmooze and work a room you’re business is toast right out of the gate. It’s all about a million dollar smile and the ability to separate people from their money.
Sorry for being the Dr. House of photography but this is the way it is.
Daniel Peleg says
While you’re right, we also believe this is a little bit of a “old school” way of thinking for younger folks looking to enter the photography business. Certainly people skills are important, but nowadays social media skills and being able to market yourself online are equally important.
We agree with the sentiment that people shouldn’t quit their day jobs. However in the modern age, for photographers, social media is just as if not more important than face to face social skills.