How to start and grow your Photography Business

As a retired business manager and consultant for many known successful photographers, I am always asked how I can advise young talented photographers to start and grow their photography business to a full-time profession.  The photography industry has changed drastically over the past 20 years, and it has become one of the most competitive business environments of all professions.  There are currently over 150,000 professional photographers in the U.S, with over 500,000 amateurs converting to part-time freelance photographers. The barriers to entry in the photography business are at the lowest it has ever been in history and the market share of  paid opportunities are shrinking everyday.  This growing trend has led many of the young talented photographers to stack away their career in this business, leaving the lost and precious talents to be drowned out and sidelined forever.  Many good, young talented photographers failed to succeed in the photography industry mainly for one reason; the lack of business skills. 

In my years of consulting professional photographers, I find the most difficult challenge is convincing a full-time professional photographer to change their mindset from being a photographer to becoming a business person.  The days of having great talents of looking through a lens for the most majestic angles will not be enough to make you successful in this industry today.  It is just too competitive out there, it is certain that your work will be drowned out with the rest.  Like every photographer who carries a family of special lens in their arsenal for different types of shots, every professional photographer today absolutely needs to have the necessary business skills to survive and grow their business in this field.     

Business Principal

The single most important business principal that every professional photographer needs to understand to survive in this industry is; “how to sell value”.  The “value” is the single greatest asset any professional photographer has and their main competitive advantage in this field.  Fortunately for most professional photographer, this “value” comes in different forms, but for most, it is easily found in their own unique style and artistic way of how a photograph is taken.  The challenge though for many professional photographers is how to extract this value to their market and eventually to their business.  Below are five fundamental basic business principals to build your own business skills and learn how to extract “the value” out of your talents and business.

1. Define your Market and Channel

Every business needs to define a target market and how you plan to reach this market.  In the photography business, this is the most important task and where 90% of your time and energy should be spent in the first two years of building your business. 

When I ask many young photographers to define their target market, many respond back in very general terms such as, “I freelance.  I do wedding, portraits, children, landscape, and fashion”.  This is single most common mistake among young professional photographers starting their own business.  Every photographer first need to ask themselves, “What is my talent, or what is my value?”  Whether it’s capturing the emotions of a bride on her wedding day, or finding the most perfect angle of a mother’s maternity shoot, every photographer needs to understand what their talents are and how their work will separate them from the rest.  It is only when this is understood, that a photographer can make the decision on which markets to target and how they can position themselves among their competitors.  Remember the old saying, “A Jack of all trades, is a Master of none.”  Pick a target market and specialize your talents in this one specific area to brand your business.  If you do this correctly, you should be able to extract the most “value” out of your talents and put you in a position to succeed in this business.

Once a target market is defined, the next step is to understand how you will reach your market.  Most photographers lack the skill and understanding on how to reach their targeted market.  If you asked the most successful professional photographers in the industry what their best marketing channel is, almost every one of them would say that the single, greatest marketing channel in their photography business is referrals.  This is the road to the promise land.  Photographers need to be able to harvest and leverage as many of their past successful referrals as possible to build a chain of testimonials that act as marketing agents to exponentially grow their marketing channel and reach.  This is the key in any successful photography business.  Online websites such as FindPhotographers.net are great tools to be able to secure these referrals and testimonials to harvest them in one place and build out your own marketing channels for future clients.

The second best way to increase your marketing channel and reach is to learn to get local.  Photography is a local business, and every photographer needs to market with local partners.  Successful photographers get in front of their customers, and work with business partners in their community to leverage their marketing channel.  If your specialty and target market is high-end maternity photography, then by contacting and partnering up with other parallel small businesses like 3-D ultra-sound or paternal massages for would-be Moms, you can leverage both sides of your businesses together and increase your marketing channels many folds over.  Having the business skill sets to market yourself within your local community is absolutely necessary to build a successful photography business. 

2. Set your Pricing Strategy

Once you are able to define and drive your target clientele to your business, the next critical business decision that needs to be made is your pricing strategy.  The most common mistake that photographers make is how they price their products and services.  Most photographers would lead you to believe that you should price high and above any amateur or else you will be undercutting your fellow professional photographers and leaving money on the table.  This could not be further from the truth and is absolutely wrong!  

In order to set your pricing strategy, you need to understand your competitive landscape.  Who are your competitors and what is your “value”?   If all you have to offer is the quality of work of a part-time amateur shooting a wedding and you charge 2 times more, how many clients would you book based on this pricing strategy?  A professional photographer needs to first understand what “value” they are offering to their clientele and how this “value” is compared to other competitors in the industry.  The greater the “value”, the higher premium the photographer can charge on their products and services.  Understanding your value and your price competition is the best way to set a pricing strategy that works, and have confidence in the prices you provide to your clients.  This concept will determine if you are able to close the sale opportunity in the next principal. 

3. Close your Sales Opportunity

I often asked professional photographers, what is the difference between marketing and sales?  Most photographers don’t know or believe it to be the same.  Simply put, marketing is the action to bring the customers to your business, while sales is the action of closing or booking the business.  These are two very separate principals, and it is very critical to understand and differentiate between the two. 

I consulted with many photographers in which their business had failed because they lack any salesmanship skills.  These photographers have beautiful work and have a large clientele at their doorsteps looking to book with them, but lost the business due to their inability to close the sale.  With the competitive environment of this industry, photographers need to be aggressive and tenacious to close the sale.  The best way to close a booking is to focus on your “value” that you are offering to your potential client, as this is where you will excel and have the most competitive advantage over your competitor in the industry.  Carpe Diem, or seize the moment (day), is the mantra when it comes to closing a sale.  Be aggressive and strike it when it’s still hot.  Get out there and sell yourself!

Keep in mind that the pricing strategy and sales goes hand-to-hand, and if a client does not book, a determination needs to be made if the real issue is due to the pricing strategy or due to a lack of salesmanship skills. 

4.  Operation and Execution

So you worked hard; defined your market, create your marketing channels, adjusted your pricing strategy, and brought customers to close and book.  The next step is your operation and execution of your business.  Operation and execution in the photography business comes down to solely resources.  All photography businesses start with either a one person operation or at most a two person operation.  Therefore, the use of your limited resources is critical to make your operation and execution in your business run smoothly.  As mentioned previously, in the first two years, most of the resources should be spent mainly on marketing and cultivating your clientele base through referrals and local channels.  Remember, you are a business person now and not a photographer, so most of your time will be spent in this area.  Between the second and third years, the resources of the business will start to drain quickly between marketing, sales and operation, and the decision of where to put resources will be critical in reaching the growth of a successful business.  At this stage, the business owner will need to hire or outsource the less critical daily tasks, and focus on where the “value” of the business is.  I can’t tell you how many photography businesses I seen failed at this stage due to the wrong allocation of resources.  Standard operation process or procedures (SOP) also needs to be put in place at this stage to maintain better efficiency and high quality of work needed to sustain the business over the long term.  Typically, a successfully photography business will take an average of 4-5 years to build up to the level of maturity of optimal performance and stability. 

5. Create a Brand and Relationship with your Clientele

The last business principal is to create a brand out of your work and business.  This is the ultimate competitive advantage to separate your business in this marketplace.  By cultivating relationships with your clients, and branding your business name, you create an identity for your business that can’t be replicated by any of your competitors.  Your “value” that you push in the beginning will now be a part of your brand. 

It is really only at this stage that you can you tell yourself that you are now a professional photographer, or even better, a successful business person.