Most of us got into photography to take photos. The business side of things was probably an afterthought. If the business side is scaring you away from starting your own company or holding you back from reaching that next level, then I have ten tips–some easy, some time-consuming but worth it–that will help you start your business, book more clients, and do it all with efficiency and ease.
These tips come from the perspective of someone doing photography as a side-job while maintaining a career during the week. Whether you are full-time or not, these are the ten things you can do to get consistent weekend business as a photographer.
My experience so far is with family photography. Sometimes I'll write through that lens.
Here's the thing about family photography: it doesn't bring with it the stress and pressure of weddings. It also doesn't bring a whole ton of cash, at least not at first. What it does provide is flexibility, which is perfect for someone with a separate career. Family photography also provides the opportunity to practice your skills. Believe me, photographing little kids will make you a sharpshooter in no time. Don't forget this, too: people are always having babies, so there are always new clients.
One more thing before I get to the list: at times the list is geared towards helping those who are just beginning to dip their toes in the ocean of paid photography. It might really be for those who are digging their toes in the sand at the edge of the surf, afraid that the water is too cold and has too many sharks. But even a photographer out there in the open waters might read this and get just the tip they need.
Here are the ten business tips you absolutely have to follow right now:
1. You need a website
The right website will get clients to choose you even before the first email. I haven't seen an email blast, business card, or Facebook post that's as convincing as a good website. A Facebook page won't get business. An ad on Craigslist won't either. And business cards posted in a coffee shop definitely won't.
A website will get you business.
If you can't decide what to spend money on as you invest in your business, the first place is a website, web address, and email address. Spend the extra money to get rid of the ads that accompany a free site. Get the email address to go with the site, too. Nothing says “professional” more than your own email address. Say goodbye to [email protected] and say hello to [email protected]
I spent a little less than $200 for all of this in my first year. I recouped that cost after two sessions. You will, too.
2. Your website needs to have five things
First, use the homepage of your site as a portfolio. Pick your twenty best images. That's what people should see first. Don't make them click to get to a portfolio. Just start with it.
Second, specify your session packages. And post your prices. As a weekend warrior, don't waste precious time emailing back and forth about pricing. Put up specific session packages with prices and let them choose a package before they even contact you. Remember, your site will be good enough that they've already chosen you. Let them decide what to spend without talking to you, too.
Third, you need a bio page. It should have a photo of you and some personal information. My bio tells clients about me and my style. Strike the right balance between personal and professional. Beware of being too cute here. Resist the urge to write, “I'm Aaron and luv lazy sun-daze with my favorite furry friend, Fernando. When I'm not sipping sangria, I'm photographing you, my new favorite person.” Maybe save that for your Instagram or your blog. Maybe.
Fourth, you need a blog. I didn't have one until four months in. I was too worried about booking clients and editing photos. Don't delay like I did. Once you have a session or two in the books, use your blog to share a little story about the session and a dozen or so photos. Your blog is the place to satiate your need to share your latest and greatest photos.
Bonus Tip 1: I like the look of a chunk of text at the beginning of the blog and then photos that follow. In our world of scroll-scroll-scroll, I wouldn't break up a stream of photos with captions and text. No one is lingering on our photos, so let them scroll.
Bonus Tip 2: Just sharing a link to your blog on your Facebook page won't get much traffic. Sharing the link in a post that also includes a tagged photo will. As soon as I figured that out, way more people read my blog.
Lastly, you need a client feedback section on your site. This will come a little later. Create a quick feedback survey to send to clients a few weeks after the session. Use the best feedback on your site. Your photos, your prices, your blog, and your bio set the stage. Actual client words can seal the deal.
3. Okay, one more thing about your website
Be targeted. Pick a genre at first and stick with it. The genre you pick should match the photos you have in your portfolio. Other genres will open up to you in time, but early on, be one thing and be good at it.
For the first six months of my business, I said I'd do everything. Families! Weddings! Pets! Seniors! Birthdays! Etsy! Businesses! Headshots! Food! Shoes! You name it, I'll photograph it! But I only booked what I had photos of on my website: families.
That's what I wanted, though. Sure, I might've made money every now and then with some of the other stuff, but I'm was good at families. So why did I think I'd book every genre possible? Have I been asked to photograph events and weddings? Yes, and I do. But I advertise as a family photographer. That's what my website says. The rest of the genres came on their own.
Identify yourself on your website with words that match your portfolio pieces. Be selective and specific.
4. Use Email and Facebook Groups
On episode 52 of Portrait Session, Erica and Ricky mentioned the place where I get 90% of my business: Email and Facebook groups.
These days, everyone belongs to at least one community group on Facebook and over email. Most cities will have a Buy-Sell-Trade site that is much more targeted than Craigslist. Young moms are especially digitally savvy these days and are often looking for products or crowd-sourcing opinion about anything, especially local photographers. To start photographing families, sending messages over a BST site is a great place to start.
Even better, connect with the BST site that caters towards babies and children. New families are all about portrait photography–capturing those fleeting moments of innocent wonder before adolescence changes everything. New families will almost certainly be looking for spring photos (flowers and trees–yay!) and fall photos (holidays cards, anyone?). If you want weekend business that's quick and easy, use the Mom Groups on Facebook.
5. It's all in the timing
I mentioned spring and fall above as great times to advertise for families. Let's get more specific about how to time that just right.
For spring photos, send your first offer during the first few consecutive days of nice weather. People get all tingly and excited when they can finally leave the house and take a nice walk. They also usually remember that they haven't done family photos in a while, and that it sure would be nice to have pretty flowers and trees in them.
I sent my first message this year in early March. I booked five sessions within a week just from that one well-timed email.
As you continue through the year, don't expect much from June, July, and August. People are on vacation. It's too hot for photos, anyway–no one really wants sweaty portraits. Don't try to start your business in the summer: you'll just get frustrated. (Same goes for the winter. People just don't seem to do much photographing in the winter, at least not the type that a beginning weekend warrior might get.)
Then comes the fall. Opening Night. The Big Dance. Showtime.
For a weekend photographer, nothing brings business like cooler weather and fall colors. Spring weekend photography is junior varsity compared to the fall. If you have everything I've already mentioned as well as spring photo experience under your belt, then the months leading to the winter holidays will be busy and lucrative.
Send your fall email blast a month or so before the fall color will arrive. Email your spring clients a week before that–they will feel special if you say something about how you're offering fall dates to them before anyone else.
In a nutshell: build website in the winter, begin in the spring, don't expect much from the summer (but read and watch videos and practice!), and work work work in the fall.
6. You need to know how and what to write
Writing is really one of those make or break skills. Whether it's advertising your specials, writing blog posts, or communicating with clients, this is where you can really separate yourself.
Here are some tips for writing email and Facebook advertisements:
a. Give your ad a title that calls for action. Something like: “Reserve your Family Portrait Session for this Spring!”
b. Tell a little story that puts the occasion for booking into a fun context. Mix in a little alliteration for extra fun: “Warm weather is upon us. If you’re like me, you love that the days are getting longer and the flowers and trees are blooming. Take advantage of the blossoming backdrop blooming around us and book your family photo session today.”
c. List the dates you still have available. A list of dates makes it seem like there aren’t enough dates for everyone, so your clients better book soon.
d. Finally, tell them all of the places where they can find and contact you–your email address, your website, your social media.
Up next, you’ll need to write quality emails that get your clients to close without much discussion. Before I explain how to email your clients, remind yourself that portrait photography is about people. What might get lost in all of this “business” talk is that this is really about connecting with people and giving them great memories. The tips below might seem like I'm cheapening the relationship I have with my clients, but each piece of communication comes from genuine care and interest in their lives and how our lives connect. The world of business can lack humanity; your portrait photography business should thrive on it.
Here’s how to email your new clients:
a. Thank them for contacting you in the first place. From the start, be grateful and appreciative that they’ve even emailed you.
b. Congratulate them for whatever occasion brings them to you for photography. Tell them how happy and excited you are for the milestone they are celebrating. And ask them for everyone’s name–that way, you can use everyone’s name in future emails.
c. Quickly connect their life to yours. If they are coming to you for family photos, talk about your experience with your family. If they are getting married, talk about your wedding day. Be positive and personal–make your lives one and the same.
d. Get to the nitty-gritty of the session. Ask about date, time, location, session package, and anything else you need to know to write the details of your contract.
e. Thank them again and say something like, “I look forward to photographing you and your family soon.” Even if they haven’t completely chosen you yet, your last sentence should sound like they have.
In the end, your writing should strike a balance between professional and personal. Too professional, you’re boring. Too personal, you’re annoying. With the right balance, your words will do just as much for you as your portfolio.
7. Don't charge much at first…
Get people in the door with a special, a really cheap one. $50 for 30 minutes and 10 photos! A year after you do that, you'll shake your head and wonder why you were ever so cheap. But you need those first few jobs to get feedback and more portfolio work. Cheap is the way to start.
Don't underestimate the value of building your portfolio quickly with a few cheaper sessions. When I started, my portfolio was mostly my family and friends. After a few months with low prices, I was able to shift my business portfolio entirely to images I had taken for clients, which made my website even more representative of who I was as a photographer.
Even with low prices, don't worry about being labeled the “cheap” photographer. We all have to start somewhere. And young families are always on tight budgets. Most will appreciate getting quality photos without breaking the bank. When you do a good job with that first session, they'll come back to you and pay your full price because they know you're worth it.
Another thing here: use the word “mini session”. Even if it isn't really a mini session, use that phrase. People seem to love it. The phrase seems to suggest that they'll get something good and quick without much commitment.
(FYI: Real “Mini Sessions” are an entirely different beast–something special with other vendors that you do over a very long day or weekend. A real mini session is for a different photographer than the one I'm describing in this article. Don't worry if you're not that photographer yet. Neither am I. But that doesn't mean I can't use the phrase “mini session” to my advantage.)
My first three clients were “mini sessions.” I happened to stay with them a little longer, which showed them how excited and committed I was to their portraits. The longer time for the cheap price made them happy, which made them spread the word.
Under-promise and over-deliver. Cheap mini sessions should do just that.
8. …then charge more.
During your first lull in clients, which is the summer if you're following my timing advice, raise your prices. Double them, even. And no more mini sessions until next year. You should have enough positive word-of-mouth now. You can bring in clients at full price in the fall if you use the Mom Groups and the positive support of your clients.
I raised my prices four times in seven months during my first year. I never lost clients. Several booked me twice. In fact, I had one week in November with five sessions, all at full price. People want good photographers. Good photographers cost money.
Others have said this on the Improve Photography podcasts and elsewhere, but it's well worth repeating: raising your prices also raises your confidence. You are telling yourself and the world that you are worth it (which you are). When you get beyond the nervousness of those first few months, you'll realize just how much you do in order to do this job well. When someone is good at something, they should be paid for it. You deserve to be paid well when you're awesome at taking photographs. So raise your prices.
Also remember: you're way better than Target or Macy’s. We all know what retail photos cost, and we all know how quick and impersonal it is, too. Your fee is well worth the time and attention your client will get.
In the end, you can make more money by either photographing more clients or by raising your prices. One is way easier to do than the other.
Raise your prices.
9. Just give them all the photos.
When you start out, don't worry about charging for each photo, giving preview galleries, and stuff like that. Just give your clients every photo. That's really what they want anyway. Metal prints are cool, and a huge canvas will make you real money, but 99% of your clients just want the photos for Facebook and a framed print or two. A year or two in, you can always adjust your business model, right? For now, just give all the photos.
As someone trying to do this as a supplement to my full-time career, I don't have time to take those extra steps, and neither will you. Save that for when you ditch your day job (the real goal, right?) and can then concentrate on each and every upsell.
As a weekend warrior photographer, simplicity is the key. Just give them all the good photos from the session, regardless of what you promised in their session package.
Quick example: my entry-level package right now is $190 for an hour and 20 images. A great deal, right? I can guarantee that I'll give at least twice that many photos, with a few black and white versions mixed in. I just give them all to the client, no extra upsell for additional images. They feel like they're getting more for their money, and I get any positive vibes they send out into the world as they talk about their amazingly generous photographer.
With a family and full-time job, it's not worth my time (yet) to do it differently. You'll find that you'll appreciate how simple the transaction becomes.
10. Know that you can do it. And find someone that will keep telling you that you can.
You will doubt yourself. You will feel like a failure after a session. You will want to refund your client as you drive home in the rain even before you edit their photos because you know you captured nothing good.
That's okay. You will be your harshest critic. (At least you should be.)
Just know that your client was more nervous than you were. Most have no idea how to truly judge a good photo, so they won't see an imperfect composition or a slightly fuzzy focus job. And if you're photographing families like me, they're just happy if there wasn't a meltdown of epic proportions by the end. If you've captured them candidly and happily in that moment of time, then you've done more than they expected.
Even so, you'll still feel like giving up. Don't do it. You are better at photography than you think.
When you really feel bad, make sure there's someone cheering you on anyway. My wife is that person for me. She told me to try this whole photography business thing in the first place, and she continues to be my loudest and proudest supporter.
Find that person who believes in you even when you don't believe in yourself. Listen to them. Love them. Thank them.
And stop asking them to be your model when you want to practice off-camera flash with gels and reflectors under a moonlit sky in the middle of a lake in February. They've done enough for you already.
Two more things: 1. Every portrait featured in this article was photographed with a Canon T3i and the Canon 50mm f1.4 lens. That's it. Seriously, you can do this with simple gear! 2. If you don't have a contract for each client, you might be sorry later. Click here for Improve Photography's contracts. Improve Photography even provides a basic free contract. Check it out.
Credit is due to www.sixfigurephotography.com and its seven-day intro course and the Improve Photography podcasts that came before this post for helping me get to where I am for this article.