September 16, 2020

The Business of Photography

What does it take to make photography a living?

The topic for this week’s blog comes from a conversation I had with someone who had just attended the Switch to Manual workshop. Excited by the new skills that they’d gained, they asked about other workshops that I run. One of their suggestions was that I should run a session on making photography a business. I know that several photography trainers do similar sessions and promise to increase booking several-fold. I do not doubt that some of them do deliver on their promises. However, my response to the client was hopefully a little more honest and one that I am going to expand on this week. The business of photography is hard for many reasons, and I’ll share my views on things that you need to consider before making the leap from photography as a fun hobby to the job that pays your bills.

Have you got the technical skills?

Before considering setting up a photography business, you need to honestly assess if you have the skills to do the job. I’m not critical of the client who asked the question, but in a similar way that I wouldn’t want my car repaired by someone who’d just learned to change the oil in the engine, I’d equally not want to have someone taking photos which didn’t have a broad experience of photography. Someone who has spent a few months taking landscape photographs may not necessarily have the skills to shoot a corporate portrait. Similarly, a new portrait photographer could struggle to take architecture images.

We’ll see later that it will be highly likely that you’ll probably need to diversify across a range of photography styles. I found that to have the skills I thought I needed to turn my hobby into a business that I had to create opportunities to expand my skill-sets. I always enjoyed landscape photography, and I felt I was pretty competent at that. However, I also recognised that there was unlikely to be a sustainable business selling prints, so I needed to gain new skills.

There are many ways to improve your knowledge, and from a practical sense, you should consider both formal and informal training. I have attended workshops looking at lighting, composition, and even communication skills so that I can direct subjects. These sessions give me the base, theoretical skills. However, there’s no alternative to practical knowledge and experience. I wanted to ensure that I could do on the field the things I had learned. It’s a good idea to seek shadowing opportunities where you work with an established professional and learn from them. At the same time, you practice – an excellent example of this would be in wedding photography where you could second shoot the day. Your role would be assisting lighting the posed shots as well as shooting alternate angles during the ceremony.

It can be beneficial to volunteer your skills to gain experience. It opens up a whole barrel of problems that could form another entire blog or podcast, which is whether you should be asking for payment. I’ll share my view of the actions I did before turning pro and you can either see my rationale or disagree (hopefully in a polite and balanced way). I wanted to challenge myself to improve my skills in live-action and set-up shots. Living in Edinburgh, the Fringe Festival is a perfect opportunity to photograph both these elements, and so I volunteered to shoot for the magazine, Three Weeks. The magazine runs like any other newspaper. There’s a photo-editor working with the editor of the magazine. They decide the images that are needed to support the stories. As a photographer, it was my job to go out and take photos. I had to contact the performers to arrange a location, build a rapport when we met and then turnaround the edited images quickly to meet strict printing deadlines.

While I didn’t receive any monetary payment for the work, I gained a tremendous amount of experience that laid me in good stead for the future, and I hate to say that on one or two occasions, I made mistakes due to my inexperience at the time. I understand it could be argued that working for free devalues the price of photography and drives the price of paid work down. In this instance, though, the magazine was given away for free, and the producers essentially covered costs through advertising. The value I gained was a reasonably safe environment to learn.

I’d probably estimate that from the time I considered myself reasonably competent to being comfortable that I had the skills to be setting up a photography business was around four to five years. Throughout the entire time, I was pushing myself (alongside a day job) to develop the skills I thought would be necessary to move full-time.

Business means making money

Let’s say that you have developed the technical skills to set up a business, one of the most important considerations is, who is going to pay you money to keep a roof over your head, food on the table and any other trappings in life that you want.

You should consider how much you need to earn and then set your pricing accordingly. As an example, let’s imagine that you want to achieve the average UK wage. According to the Office of National Statistics, that was £30,420 in 2019. Remember, as a self-employed person; this is the amount you need to make after taking off all the expenses in running a photography business – that’s things like photography insurance (£420 a year), accountants fees (£500 a year), maintenance of equipment (£300 a year). All these things add up so it could be relatively easy to estimate that to earn £30,000 a year you’d have to turnover £35,000.

If you wanted to just sell landscape photography prints at say £150 each, less the cost of printing, framing and posting you’ll probably make about £100 per photo.  To make £30,000, you are going to have to sell 300 prints. If this is going to be a successful business, you have to appraise if this is going to be realistic. A wedding photographer might seem to have an easier job of making £30,000 if their profit is £1,000 per wedding. They only need to shoot 30 weddings to produce the required income. Don’t be naive and think that in the first year everyone is going to rush to employ the new kid on the block. You’ll likely struggle to make your income goal for the first or even second years, so make sure that you have some savings in the bank as you establish yourself.

One of the ways that I found to help reach my earning goals was to diversify. My income comes from multiple sources; photography workshops; public relations shoots for clients such as Royal Mail, Post Office and Network Rail; and freelance press work. Between them, they allow me to achieve my personal income goals, and it removes the risk of one income stream stopping.

A photography business isn’t just about photography

A budding professional photographer is going to see that the joy of photography isn’t going to be the only thing they do as they move to run a business. The sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that this week’s blog and podcast is slightly later than usual. I am not going to complain, but this week has been busy, so I had to make a call, and this week it was my usual weekly epistle that failed the cut. So obviously, I must have been shooting for hours and hours. Sadly, the answer is no. This busy week has resulted in around 6 hours of actual camera time.

The rest of the time allocates itself to running a photography business. I gain much of my work from posting on social media, so I put a large amount of effort into scheduling tweets and posts then measuring the effectiveness of them. There have been numerous meetings with agencies that I work with on planning future shoots so that I deliver what they want. I strive to make editing as small a part of my workflow as I can, but there is inevitably always some edits that are needed. Once the photos have been taken and edited, you don’t get paid unless you invoice your clients. When an invoice is issued, you’ll probably need to chase for payment as well. Finally, every year you’ll need to file a tax return – there are two ways to do this, leave everything until the last minute and then run around like someone gone mad to try and pull together all your receipts in what will probably the busiest week of your life – I wouldn’t recommend that. The alternative is to keep on top of your admin and keep good records, so when you come to submit your accounts, it is a simple task.

It’s easy to add in even more tasks that don’t involve putting a camera to your face. Maintaining websites, keywording images that have been submitted to agencies, writing blogs, expanding your customer base through advertising or networking. All of these jobs are essential to running your business, but nothing to do with photography. You’ll find that in addition to being a photographer, you’ll also become an accountant, a marketeer, a web developer, a risk manager and countless other jobs. You will find that setting up systems to help you do these tasks is going to make the less exciting elements of running a photography business slightly easier.

Is it worth it?

I would definitely say yes. It’s been over seven years since I stopped working for other people. I find a lot more freedom in my life – I don’t have to work with people who I don’t want to. The periods where my creative juices are flowing more than offset the ‘other stuff’ that is needed to run a business. However, I don’t think it is for everyone who can take good photographs.

You will need to be able to self-motivate yourself so that you are continually looking to improve and build your business. There will be downs, for example, the 23 March 2020 will go down for many photographers as the day their income stream stopped suddenly – to get over something like that you’ll need a large dose of resilience. Quite often, you’ll be working on your own without any support so think about ways that you can build a network around you. If you feel that you’ve got what it takes and you can tick all the boxes then go for it with your eyes wide open.

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