This is a question I hear pretty often, so I thought I would address it here and explain a bit about my experiences in starting my own photography business, where it has ended up, and my future with it. This is kind of long and goes into details that I feel are important in understanding my journey and decisions I’m making for myself and my business. You’ve been warned. 🙂
For those who don’t know, I have a photography business that specializes in portraits of families and children, while occasionally shooting other things like couples, engagements, seniors, etc. I started this business unofficially during the fall of 2011 kind of by accident. I always really enjoyed photography, but knew nothing about the technicalities of it. An old classmate of mine contacted me about shooting his engagement photos. As someone who just purchased my first “real” camera and loved taking photos, this seemed like the coolest and funnest opportunity, so I took the job, not knowing what I was doing whatsoever. 🙂 After that session I was so excited, and thought I had done a pretty awesome job. (Ha! If I only knew.) From there I went on to create a Facebook page to share my work, and spent my days learning more and more about photography, light, shooting in manual, interacting with and posing clients, contracts, legalities, taxes, business licenses, and the list goes on. I used my friends and sister as my subjects, doing fun photoshoots all the time which helped me grow. Somehow this passion eventually did turn into a real, professional, tax-paying business, and I did get much better at it!
I’ve always had pretty realistic expectations about my business and knew that if I ever wanted it to be a full-time job then I would have to do a few things- Charge a lot more for it, work a lot harder, and continually invest a ton of time and money back into it. Becoming a full time professional photographer can be done, but it is incredibly challenging hard work. I have a few photographer friends who have done this and I have so much respect for them. It is really not an easy job. Even though it may look and seem simple, easy, and fun- it is WORK. I found this out in a huge way when I relocated my business from Virginia to Tennessee.
In Virginia my business was pretty small-time, but also growing. I lived in a very small town where everybody is connected by mutual friends and acquaintances. Word of mouth goes a long way in a town like that and its the best advertising you can get! Here in Tennessee I live in a suburb town of Nashville which is a lot bigger than what I’m used to, and growing rapidly. And of course when I first moved I didn’t know anyone. There are wayyyy more people here, and also way more photographers. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do to get my business up and running in my new town.
I did some research for ideas, and talked to a few photographer friends and eventually decided that I would post a “deal” on Living Social and Amazon local for my business. If you’re not familiar with these sites, they work with local businesses to give them a boost of traffic by advertising for them and selling a voucher for their service that is significantly discounted- which is awesome for consumers and sucky for the business owner. Just saying. At the time I thought this would be the easiest and fastest way for me to get my name out there even though it would mean working for next to nothing. The deal sites took my normal rate, which was already very low at the time, cut it by 75% because they said they can’t sell photography vouchers for any more than $xx amount, and sold the vouchers for that much. In turn I got roughly 40% of the total profit. They got half, and I got half, but the credit card precessing fees got taken out of my half so it ended up being even less. Once the deal was finished, I ended up selling about 60 vouchers for hour long photo sessions, which I was stoked about. Little did I know, I was about to lose my love for photography and be completely miserable for the next 5-ish months..
After spending hours of time responding back and forth to emails from that many people, trying to schedule that many sessions (while working a normal day job), traveling to and from the sessions, actually shooting them, culling and editing the photos, and then following up with the individual clients, I ended up making significantly less than minimum wage for a ton of very stressful time-consuming work. When I ran the deal, it was the late summer of 2013, which meant that everyone who bought a voucher wanted fall photos in time for Christmas, and I was trying oh-so-hard to accommodate everyone’s wishes. I was working like crazy y’all. Every single Saturday and Sunday that year I had a session or two and even some during the week. I think one weekend I had 5.. I had zero time to enjoy my favorite fall season or do anything other than work, take photos, edit, and email people. During this time, I started to really hate photography, and honestly, I dreaded every single photo session I booked. If someone had to cancel or reschedule last minute or if we got rained out, instead of being bummed/upset/annoyed which would be a normal photographer’s reaction, I REJOICED. I knew that had to be a bad sign. I was burnt out and found absolutely no joy in my business anymore, which was really sad!
Eventually the crazy rush of the Living Social clients subsided, winter began, and I got to lead a calm pleasant life again, but I was left wondering. Wondering if it was worth it. Wondering if anyone would actually rebook me with my normal prices after paying a fraction for the same thing previously. Wondering if this was the beginning of my success story, or if I was done. I decided to be proactive with the base of clients I had formed and I used a variety of marketing strategies to try and keep my business going. Email lists, mini sessions, referral cards, hand-written thank you notes, repeat client discounts, black Friday deals. To make a long story short, I never really found anything that worked that well for me.
Business has slowly dwindled and dwindled, and eventually I just stopped trying. When asking successful photographers for advice, they’ve always said the same things. “Raise your prices…You’ll find clients that really value you once you charge more…You need to value yourself and your time and your art and then you’ll find the type of clientele who will…If you keep offering deals, you’ll only attract people looking for a deal…You can’t be successful unless you’re charging enough for your time…” And so forth. These types of sayings are all too common to hear in photography groups. They emphasize all these points from a business and money perspective. I know that these statements are true, but they’ve always come off as harsh and almost snobby to me. Please know that I mean no disrespect to any photographer who has ever given advice like this- I know this way of thinking is what has led to many successful businesses, but to me, it makes it all about the money which has been what’s ruined it for me. I guess I’m just not much of a business person! When I was constantly hearing those things, and thinking about my business from that point of view, I got kinda caught up in my ego and thinking about how much my skills were worth and how to find people who would finally see that and appreciate it and pay for it, which then made me feel snobby, which then made me feel guilty. My goal with my business was never to make a ton of money. It was to do something I loved as a job, with the perk of getting paid for it and creating beautiful images for people to treasure. If I didn’t love it anymore, what was the point? Over the course of the past couple years I tried raising my prices and I’ve tried discounting them. Both have given me minimal results at best, and neither ever made me any happier with my business.
Whew!!! That was a lot of stuff to get out. I write all of that to basically say…My business is on the back burner right now. I haven’t totally quit, but I’m also not really moving forward. I’m trying to find my love for photography again and to stop thinking of it as work. This year I’ve had a handful of paid sessions, and that’s it. I’m enjoying most of my weekends photoshoot-free and absolutely loving it; not taking any spare weekend for granted. I’ve started taking photos for me again, of things I want to take photos of (mostly nature, food, and everyday memories). I’ve volunteered my services for my church, which I’ve enjoyed, and I’m taking some photos for friends home in Virginia, for free/donation or as a trade/barter, and that’s the way I like it right now!
This might be totally weird, but when I get paid to do a session I feel like there is so much more pressure on me. Its a totally different mindset to me to volunteer my time for people who I know genuinely appreciate it, versus just getting paid to do a job and having certain expectations put on me. I have more creative freedom with volunteered work, and I feel legitimate joy for being able to help and give someone that gift. The formalities and money aspects of business were truly turning me away from something I used to have a real love and passion for. I’ve had family and close friends encourage and persuade me to stick with it, telling me I can do it, and saying that I shouldn’t “waste” my talent but honestly, it would be a true waste for me to continue to do business like that and to keep dreading and loathing photography like I did. The little money I was making just wasn’t and isn’t worth it to me.
Maybe I will decide to quit my business. Maybe I’ll take a year or two off and revive my business feeling fresh and renewed. Maybe I’ll go on to have an incredible successful photo business in the future. I really have no clue at this point. I’m open to any and all of those options, but right now I’m just starting to fall in love with my hobby again, and its been a slow process. Prayers and encouragement are more than welcome! If you’re one of my clients reading this, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for trusting me to capture precious memories of your family. I truly appreciate each and every person who’s ever hired me and don’t want anyone to think I’m opposed to working with them in the future. If you are interested in a session, please do reach out to me. For the rest of this year at least, I’m not turning away opportunities for photo work, I’m just in the slow-lane and not actively pursuing bookings. If for some reason I’m not able to work with you, I still have lots of photography connections and will be more than happy to find someone in your budget who can work with you. OR I am always open to trading and bartering as I wrote in my previous blog post. If you have a service, skill, or product you offer and want to trade for photos, please let me know!
If you read all of that, thanks so much. I know it was long. If anyone has any questions regarding my business please don’t hesitate to ask. I know that wasn’t exactly a good news post, but its also not bad news, because I’m in a better place now and enjoying life and finding more inspiration. That, to me is so much more important. 🙂