Starting out as a pro photographer is very exciting. It's fun to realize that a photography hobby can also be a great way to earn a little extra money on the side. Unfortunately, I have seen dozens and dozens of photographers start out with all the excitement in the world, but eventually fail as a pro photographer. Oh, and I'd hardly exclude myself from this group. The reason I'm writing these myths is because I've made nearly every mistake on this page.
Sometimes the failure means they simply don't find enough clients, sometimes that failure means getting sued, sometimes that failure means losing more than you gain, but most often…. that failure occurs when–one year into running the side business–the photographer realizes that it just isn't bringing in enough money to be worth her time.
It is my hope that this list will not discourage anyone from becoming a professional photographer, but I do hope that it will make you aware of the unbelievably common misconceptions that many photographers have about earning money with photography.
Before I begin the list, I have to point out that OBVIOUSLY these “myths” are not false in every circumstance. Without any doubt, there are people who can pull off just about anything, but I think most competent pros would agree with 99% of what is on the list. (Updated: Apparently some people skipped over this paragraph and decided to come out swinging in the comments. Relax, people. I like to keep things friendly on the site. If you disagree, do so politely).
Myth #1: Being a pro photographer will allow me to work my own hours.
Yikes. No way. No chance. Unless “your own hours” means you would like to work almost every weekend and evening, then you're setting yourself up for failure. I used to shoot weddings, but when I realized that it meant missing every Saturday with my wife and kids, I decided it was time to make a change.
Once you realize that most wedding and portrait photography clients will want to do shoots on weekends and evenings, you may decide that this type of photography isn't for you.
Solution to problem #1: Many photographers recognize that shooting baby and kids photography is a great way to work better hours. It is usually easier for children and baby photographers to schedule shoots during regular business hours since many parents are at home taking care of the kids during the day.
Myth #2: If I charge $75 for a 1-hour shoot, I'll be making $75 per hour!!!
You would be doing VERY well if you had enough clients to spend half of your work week actually shooting 1-hour sessions. So, that means you're only earning $35 per hour now. But wait! You have to post-process your photos, which takes about 30 minutes for every 1-hour of shooting. Now you're making $30 per hour. Then, you realize that you have to spend time driving to and from the shoot location, which is another 30 minutes. Now you're making only $25 per hour. Oh, and you have to set up the shoot with the client, send proofs, and work on prints. Oh, and remember that advertising thing? It takes time, too. You get the idea.
Quite honestly, it is the rare photographer that can charge $75 for a 1-hour shoot and make it work financially, unless you're getting the client to pay for individual prints or some other premium. In my experience, photographers who only get $75 for a one-hour shoot will not end up surviving unless they have low overhead and are extremely efficient in completing other necessary tasks.
Solution to problem #2: I always get asked how much to charge for portrait photography. It is impossible to answer generally. Sit down and figure out how much it costs you to be in business, and then how much you can add to that price without charging a price that is outside the ballpark.
Myth #3: Getting tons of compliments about your photography means you're ready to shoot professionally.
When your family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors see your photos, they will almost always give positive feedback. Why? Because they are amazed that your photos look so much better than their snapshots. Also, they like you and consequently like what you produce.
Unfortunately, clients don't compare your photos to their snapshots. Clients compare your work to what they see in magazines and on television. The know what professional-quality photos look like, and they know if you're not as good as the magazine photographers.
Solution to problem #3: Recognize that you aren't ready to go pro until people start offering to buy your work. If people like your stuff so much that they want to pay for it, then you're probably ready good enough to make the leap.
Myth #4: Clients will love your photos if you take creative shots.
Nope. Sorry. Allow me to illustrate with a personal experience. I got home from a shoot one day and I was ecstatic. The shoot was phenomenal and I had captured some of the best portraits of my life. I was totally proud when I submitted the proofs to the client.
Shocker. What did the client think about the photos? When she saw my favorite shot, she said, “Oh, my smile doesn't look good in that one.” Upon seeing another fantastic shot, she said, “My hair is falling into my eye a bit.” WHAT?!?!? I couldn't believe it. To me, it re-enforced something I've seen with many clients–they care what they look like a whole lot more than they care what the photo looks like.
Don't get me wrong. The photo better be creative. It better look “in style” and fashionable. However, all of that will mean nothing to the client if she doesn't like the way she looks in the photo. Get used to it. That's why you let the client choose her own shots, rather than you choosing for her.
Solution to problem #4: (1) Allow the client to choose which pictures she wants to buy, (2) ask the client to send you four or five examples of the type of photo they are looking for before the shoot, (3) ask the client if they want any part of them Photoshopped, and (4) look at the client and decide what parts of her body she would want highlighted, and what she might be embarrassed about and want hidden from the photo.
Myth #5: Second shooters are optional for weddings–even high budget weddings.
What if you get sick and can't shoot the event? What if your equipment breaks? What if your memory card fails? So many things can go wrong, and the unexpected mishaps could mean getting sued by an angry Bridezilla.
Solution to problem #5: Either explain the risks of only having one shooter to the client and charge a lesser rate, or quit being cheap and pay for a second shooter. Personally, I have no problem with a photographer charging a reduced rate to only get one shooter; however, if you're going to be the only shooter at a wedding, you need to make it absolutely clear to the client that there is risk in equipment failure, sickness, and “missing the shot.” If they are willing to take those risks in order to save a buck, then you're set. Otherwise, pay to do it right.
Myth #6: Paying for a nice website will bring in clients.
As a former web designer, I can unequivocally promise that this is a myth. In fact, if you put up a good gallery of images on a website and do nothing more, it is unlikely that even one person will find your website when searching for a photographer. Why? Because you haven't optimized your website for search engines.
When someone searches “Boise Idaho Photographer” in Google, they will receive search results that match those keywords. What I see over and over again with non-tech-savvy photographers is that they have a website full of images with only a tiny bit of text. Surprise, Google will not be able to tell that you're a photographer in Boise Idaho from the fact that you have pictures on your site.
Solution to problem #6: If you are not tech savvy, it really is worth the money to hire someone to teach you how to optimize your website for search engines. If you're a do-it-yourself type, then I highly recommend the SEO 101 podcast, which teaches how to improve your search engine optimization. I have learned a TON from listening to it over the last few months.
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Myth #7: You can earn as much by selling a CD of the images as you can by selling individual prints.
Ever notice the prices of a studio session at Walmart or J.C. Penney? The sitting fee is often less than $10. So how do these stores make a profit? They sell the prints for an insane amount of money, and most customers don't realize that they will probably end up paying $100 or more to get all the prints they want.
I am NOT saying that it is bad business practice to give the CD. All I am saying is that there are a lot of clients who don't realize that a $150 session with a CD is a lot cheaper than a $75 session with no CD. Obviously, there are some clients that understand this already, but it seems that they are more of the exception than the rule.
Solution to problem #7: You simply need to spell things out for the client. Explain on your pricing page how valuable the CD is if you're going to give it out. Otherwise, the clients will not understand why your price has to be higher than the “other guy.” Again, I don't have any problem with photographers giving digital copies of the photos to clients, but you need to recognize that clients may not understand how valuable the CD is unless you explain it to them clearly.
Myth #8: A second body is optional.
I thought backup gear was unnecessary until my 70-200mm lens suddenly started giving my camera error messages right in the middle of shooting a fancy black-tie event for a bunch of millionaires at a country club (not kidding). When I looked down and saw ERR-99, blood poured out of every orifice on my body.
Solution to problem #8: If you absolutely cannot afford a backup body and lens, at least make some good photo buddies that could rush you some extra gear in an emergency.
Myth #9: Working on a handshake is good for business.
Since I am going to graduate law school soon, I am keenly aware of how uninformed some people are when it comes to the legal aspects of professional photography. I refuse to take pictures of anyone for profit without getting a contract signed first. All it takes is one lawsuit and your portrait photography business is sunk. Whether you win the lawsuit or not, the legal bills will be so expensive that your business will be gonzo.
Solution to problem #9: Resolve today to never again take a picture of anyone for profit without getting a contract signed previously. You simply cannot make exceptions.
Myth #10: You're perfectly capable of writing your own contract.
A while back, I saw a photo blog (which I shall leave unnamed to save the author the embarrassment), where the author included a link to his “sample photography contract.” My jaw dropped as I read it. I can see how he thought he had covered all the bases with the contract, but it was so full of holes that it more closely resembled swiss cheese than a legally binding instrument.
Solution to problem #10: If you need legal help to write a contract, consult an attorney (barrister for you folks in the U.K.) who is licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Can't afford an attorney? This is a great reason to join a professional photography association, such as WPPI. Most trade associations provide standard forms to members for no additional cost. That is an incredible resource!
Myth #11: You can avoid learning lighting and buying flash gear by calling yourself a “natural light photographer.”
It always makes me smile and shake my head when I see a photographer's portfolio and they proudly advertise being a “natural light photographer.” Whenever I read this phrase, it immediately gets processed in my brain to mean, “I'm either too cheap to buy lighting gear, or I haven't yet figured out how to do off-camera flash.
Let me be clear, there are some absolutely incredible natural light photographers in the world. But honestly, that kind of photographer is one in a million. I love shooting natural light portraits, but there is no way that I would go to a portrait photography session without some type of flash gear. Natural light photography can be beautiful, but don't let this be an excuse for not having the tools to get the shot.
Solution to problem #11: Start learning! Make the leap!
Myth#12: If you don't have enough clients, you can do a giveaway on your Facebook page to get things rolling again.
Ugh! I studied advertising in college, so poor advertising makes me cringe. I have probably seen a dozen or more giveaways on Facebook pages for beginning pro photographers. Not always, but most of the time, it ends up that your Uncle Mortimer, your neighbor Susan, and 10 of your friends are the only people who enter the contest. Then, you're stuck doing portraits for your buddies and you never attract any new clients.
Giveaways and social media can be great tools, but don't think you'll get people pounding down your door just by tossing out a freebie. Marketing photography takes skill, perseverance, and creativity.
Solution to problem #12: Use your brain! Be creative and think of ways to get people talking about your business. If you need some inspiration, then you ABSOLUTELY MUST read this book on inexpensive and creative marketing strategies.
Myth #13: You can become a destination wedding photographer by writing, “Available for travel” on your bio page.
The truth is that most clients choose a photographer at the location rather than paying for one to fly across the country or across the world to shoot their wedding. Getting jobs like this does not come by simply wanting it.
Solution to problem #13: Most of the destination wedding photographers I know (I am NOT one of them…) get the job when they have been around for a while. Once you have shot the client's family picture, senior pictures, and engagement photos, you're in the running for getting a destination gig if you do truly fantastic work.
The other way to get the destination wedding gigs is to cater to higher-end clients. Ritzy clients are often willing to pay the premium for a photographer they know and trust to travel to the location.
So, either work your way into the high-end market, or take the time to cultivate relationships with families so they wouldn't dare let anyone else shoot their wedding.
Myth #14: Networking is optional.
Aside from the importance of networking to get photo buddies to help you in a pinch, networking with other people in the industry is vital to get jobs.
Solution to problem #14: One great tip for pro photographers is to take a few photos of the wedding location and send it to the owner, or take professional pictures of the wedding cake and send it to the cake decorator, etc. Making friends with these people by giving them professional pictures of their work will make them like you. When a bride goes to the flower shop or the cake decorator or the reception hall, they will often send referrals your way.
Myth #15: Nobody will notice that your portfolio consists of the same 5 people in every shot.
Yes, they will. They definitely notice, and they will definitely not choose to pay the “new guy” the same as the photographer across town who has 20 years worth of photos in his portfolio. You aren't going to pull the wool over their eyes.
Solution to problem #15: Get out there and shoot! It's obvious, but if you only have 5 shoots worth of photos to put in your portfolio, then I still need to explain this obvious point to you again.
Myth #16: Your portfolio will look great even if the models look average.
Let's face the facts. Clients want to look good in their pictures and they simply can't see past your “average looking” models to tell that the pictures are great. Having pictures of beautiful models in your portfolio can make a huge difference in how clients view you as a photographer.
Solution to problem #16: If your current portfolio could use some more beautiful people, then head on over to Model Mayhem and work with a few local models. Generally, you can get a great local model to do a shoot for free if you offer them copies of the pictures. Do a few of these shoots and your portfolio will look ten times better.
Myth #17: People are dying to read your blog.
False. Ugh. If all of your blog posts could be re-titled to say, “Here are 10 pictures from my most recent shoot” then you seriously need some blogging help. Only your mom wants to see your pictures of the random clients you shoot. Nobody else cares. Are you blogging for your mom, or for your clients? Your clients have already seen your portfolio, so this type of post is useless to them.
Solution to problem #17: How about posts that are actually useful to your clients? For example, “What not to wear to a portrait photography shoot”, or “How to get a totally boring senior portrait” or “The best places in Salt Lake City, Utah to hold a wedding reception.” This type of post is much more likely to garner a readership, and will make you look like you know what you're doing. Oh, and it's great for search engine optimization, too!
Myth #18: If you love photography, you'll love being a pro photographer.
Photography is incredibly fun when you are in charge of all things creative and you can shoot what you want when you want to shoot it. Unfortunately, all of that changes when you're shooting for someone else. Suddenly, you aren't trying to create something you like, you're trying to please the mother-of-the-bride. Also, you'll have to deal with business stuff, selling your photos to clients, and paperwork.
Solution to problem #18: Before becoming a professional photographer, be sure to understand how it will change your hobby and make sure it is in fact what you want. A great way to get your feet wet is to offer to be a second shooter for a local pro. Doing this a few times and doing a job shadow in the studio may help you decide whether you love photography, or if you love professional photography.
Myth #19: Photography is a growing industry.
Yep, you're right. Photography is certainly growing, but not in demand. It's the supply of photographers that is growing. Everyone with a camera (like you) thinks about making money with photography.
Solution to problem #19: You must differentiate yourself from the pack. If you can't clearly answer what makes you better than any other photographer in town, then you have not yet established a brand. Decide what your advantages are and spell it out to clients. Why not create a “Top 10 Reasons to Choose Jim Harmer” page on your photography website?
Myth #20: You don't want to share this post on Facebook/Twitter/Google+.
I hope you gained value from reading this post. Would you please pay it forward by clicking the Facebook/Twitter buttons at the top-right of this page to share this post of tips with your friends? Thanks, and enjoy the daily photography tips at Improve Photography. Oh, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in a comment below, but we have a 100% positive and uplifiting policy around here, so if you choose to disagree, please do so politely.