You might have the creative part down, but in order to launch and maintain a successful career as a commercial photographer, it’s just as important to focus on the business side of your workflow. It might not be as fun or glamorous as the actual shooting, but it’s what will keep you going in the long-term.
A common misconception about photographers is that they spend most of their time behind a camera. But depending on their field, many devote a considerable chunk of their time to business and administration tasks like bookkeeping, invoicing, advertising, and social media marketing. In fact, this survey suggests that professional photographers spend as much as 18% of their time on running a business, as opposed to about 4% on photography—the rest goes to editing and communication.
Here are twelve quick business tips for commercial photographers who are wanting to grow their business.
1. Put in your “10,000 hours”
The Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell has a theory: to become an expert in any field, you have to devote 10,000 hours to practicing your craft. Of course, this number is by no means hard and fast, but it’s still a useful rule of thumb.
The point is that innate talent by itself isn’t enough; you also have to work at it. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wait until you get all your hours in order to start a business; it just means that it takes a lot of time to reach true mastery.
2. Build an online community
It’s easier than ever to cultivate and expand your network. Set up a solid website and social media presence, and connect with like-minded editors and photographers. Pitch your projects widely, and reach out to artists you admire. Ask for advice, and let people know you’re interested in collaborating or apprenticing. The worst that can happen is no response. The best is the opportunity of a lifetime.
3. Do your homework
When putting out your feelers for new opportunities, use a targeted approach. Read up on what others in your field are doing, and pinpoint what makes them successful. Study your dream clients and your dream publications, and get a feeling for the kind of work they appreciate. Learn the names of the people who run the ship, and cater your pitches directly to them. Try to keep your focus local, as most clients will look for people who are nearby and ready to shoot.
4. Consult a career coach
Whenever you make any professional transition, it helps to talk to a professional. A career coach can help with anything from crafting the perfect résumé to overcoming self-doubt. Some will also work with you to build confidence, know your worth, and demand fair prices.
You can find career coaches all over the world, including pro bono at the New York Public Library. If you want to invest financially, Donna Sweidan and her company CareerFolk might be a good place to start.
5. Get off the internet
While it’s important to network online, it’s also crucial to spend time in the real world. Attend portfolio reviews, exhibitions, and festivals, and meet industry leaders face-to-face. Read up on the reviewer, gallery owner, or editor in advance, and come prepared. They’re more likely to remember you if they spoke with you in person.
6. Mind the details, or hire someone who does
To start, get a handle on your legal responsibilities, and make sure to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. For legal help, we recommend checking out the book Photographer’s Legal Guide by Carolyn E. Wright. From there, craft a stellar and realistic business plan, and create some top-notch marketing materials. Get a process going for setting your prices, invoicing clients, and paying your bills. If you don’t yet have the confidence to take over those areas of the job, hire people who do.
7. Know your brand
In a world where everyone is a photographer, it’s crucial to stand out. Understand what makes you unique, and learn how to communicate it clearly and succinctly to potential clients. As Martin Schoeller told Entrepreneur in 2017, “It’s now tougher for photographers. You have to figure out how to reinvent the wheel, or at least be different from everybody else.”
8. Stay organized
Once you start building that network, make sure to take full advantage of it. Use an old-fashioned Rolodex, set up a document or spreadsheet for all your contacts, or invest in dedicated software like Daylite to keep everything neat and tidy for you. Get a mailing list set up, and send out a newsletter whenever you have updates.
9. Watch your financials
Before launching a business, make sure you can cover all your costs (gear, studio, marketing materials, etc.) without going into debt. This seems obvious, but tracking your expenses and ensuring you have enough in the bank has to be part of your everyday routine and workflow. Keep up with your taxes, and remember that unexpected payments can hit you at any time. If possible, build up a nest egg to live off of during the slower months.
10. Diversify your income
While client work or art exhibitions might take up the bulk of your time, try to set up some additional ways to earn on a regular basis. Your “side hustle” can be a guide or course for other photographers, or it could be an online print store for your followers. Maybe it’s selling your old gear.
One convenient way to bring in some extra funds is to submit your photos for Licensing. If you do so through 500px, you can sell photos online as royalty-free stock. Your stock photos will then be available for purchase through major platforms like Getty Images and VCG (Visual China Group).
You’ll still own the copyright, but you’ll earn 60% of every net purchase of your stock images if you choose to license photos exclusively through 500px (meaning they aren’t for sale anywhere else).
11. Innovate constantly
A solid sense of who you are and what you offer will form the foundation of your business, but a strong point of view and the ability to think on your feet aren’t mutually exclusive. You can stay true to your values and your perspective as an artist while also pushing yourself to try new things. Your work doesn’t stop once you’ve established yourself as a professional—in many ways, that’s just the beginning. Instead of sitting back and relying on your comfort zone, step outside the box and see what happens.
12. Pay it forward
When building your business, you’ll get a ton of help and guidance from more experienced photographers, so remember to lift up those who are less experienced than you are.
At the beginning of your career, the best thing you can do is to find a reliable mentor—someone who will be honest and candid with you throughout the process. When you’re more established, it’s time to look for someone to mentor yourself.
Paying it forward isn’t just good practice—it also helps you stay current. Maybe that’s one reason so many master photographers—from Stephen Shore to Joel Sternfeld—have gone on to become educators as well.
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