Every once in a while I get an email from a reader or a student about how to take their photography passion and turn it into a business. These emails don’t always come from young photographers looking for a fun career. Lately they seem more from some who are unemployed or plan to retire and need to keep making some money.
For those with jobs my advice has been the same for decades and that is “don’t quit the day job” until your business is launched and making money. For those unemployed I suggest they get started right away while not expending any of their limited cash.
I have carefully answered those who have inquired with information I feel is relevant to the times and while some things have changed, much remains the same. So I have compiled these ideas into the 10 most important steps I believe are crucial to finding success in today’s market and here they are:
What’s Your Passion?
What do you want to photograph? Is anybody shooting what you want to shoot or is everybody shooting what you want to shoot? While I encourage anybody who wants to be a full time nature photographer to go for it, can the markets support another landscape photographer specializing in national parks as an example?
While some will not agree, think about what I am saying here first: I encourage EVERYBODY to shoot national parks if your passion lies there. They are my favorite locations. But will the markets support you? That decision is not up to me, it is up to the markets.
And when you have the best of the best landscape photographers challenged to make money from their work after years or even decades in the business, you should take that into consideration. The competition in this area is fierce!
Again, follow your heart, follow your passion, find a niche and carefully evaluate what you plan to specialize in.
Quality of Work
Are you a good photographer? Aren’t we all? Are you ready to enter the market? Seek some good advice from someone qualified to offer it. Offer to pay for that advice. It might be the best money you ever spent. Seek a well known photographer and tell them you want good solid advice and are willing to pay for it. Not just a pay-for-a-good critique; a critique that tells it like it is and offers some good guidance as well.
Find a photo editor with a magazine that you like and send a letter requesting the same: a solid critique with guidance and offer to pay for it. Again, this would be money well spent. You get advice from someone who competes in the business and you get someone’s advice who works with photographers.
What is your product?
Do you know just what you will do with your imagery to earn an income? Will it be stock photography, fine art prints, or other products using your photography? You may plan to market all the above but you have to know what you are selling to know who you will sell it to. Each of these mentioned above markets are very competitive and some are not so profitable.
Good stock photography income has lost ground to ‘new’ business models resulting in pocket change for many photographers in the stock business. And among all subjects in the stock image libraries, nature photography is closer to the bottom of good selling subjects than at the top of the list like lifestyle and business subjects.
Measure the Competition
How much competition exists in your area of interest? Determining this can be very easy if you plan to shoot what everybody else is shooting or very difficult to determine if you photograph in a unique niche. Evaluating competition can help you determine what you are up against, how to ‘package’ your products, and also find potential customers.
What or who is your market? Who will buy or license your photography products? Aka; market research. If you were inventing a new product to make peoples lives easier, you must know that market and who the potential buyers will be. Photographers are notorious for shooting photos and then looking for someone to buy and that is not always a profitable approach.
Do you have the resources to start in this business? Are you planning to quit your job and start photography full time? If you are retiring and plan to start your photography business then you at least have one of the biggest hurdles taken care of and that is how you cover monthly living costs. If you don’t have those resources then consider accruing enough resources to live at least a year with no income from your photography business.
Also ask yourself if you have the time (and money) required to create enough inventory to have a business? It takes years to build enough of an image inventory to become a ‘go-to person’ for major photo editors. This is less of an issue if you simply wish to create photo-art for sale at a local crafts fair. But if your goal is to specialize in a region or an area like the national parks and wilderness area, it takes time to create your image library.
How do you plan to tell the world about your product? The answer is determined by what you are selling and where that market is. Before ‘opening your doors’ you should have a solid list of clients who use your type of imagery and be prepared to market effectively. Promoting the right product to the wrong clientele means a lost sale. And vice versa: the wrong product promoted to the right client can also mean no sale.
Additionally, your website must contain enough images to show depth, versatility, experience, and professionalism. Buyers already have an infinite array of photographers they can work with. While always on the lookout for new talent doing it differently, photo buyers rarely have time and may not have interest in nurturing new talent. Your intro into the market must sell them on your abilities and your products and place you on the same level as those they already work with.
Are You A Businessperson?
You are opening a business and it’s a business that sells photography and photo products so you should prepare and plan as any business person. Do you know how much to charge or what the market will bear for your niche products? Are you a good negotiator? Do you know what it takes to stay in business?
These points are crucial to your success. You must understand your cost of doing business, how much it costs you to live life as you wish, and how much is needed to continue creating more products. Then evaluate the going rates for products similar to yours and come up with a summary of how many products you need to break even and how many sales are required to grow your business.
Broaden Your Horizons
I doubt there are many well established photographers who would deny the difficulty of today’s professional photography environment. While the optimists say the good times will return, the pessimists say they are over. Reality is probably somewhere in between.
However, since you are in the planning stages for your new business; assume the best and plan for the worst. In point number 3; What is Your Product, you should have made a list of what you plan to create and sell. While these products might be your wish list of what you hope to sell and live off those earnings, consider other options that will earn income like photography assignments. While you may see yourself as strictly a nature photographer, money talks and assignments are one way to still be a photographer and get paid in 30 days.
Many editorial markets that were once highly sought after by nature photographers, have cut back and many no longer offer assignments to nature photographers. One option is to create packages and pitch those to the editorial markets. You can learn to be a writer or team up with one, but researching story ideas and querying magazines is one way to broaden your skill set.
There are also outdoor products and many of them. Most are promoted with photography and here is a market than may be more fruitful than the previously mentioned. Depending on the potential assignment here, going this direction may require greater skills such as lighting with strobes to shoot apparel, products, and people.
The Business Plan
Now that you have honestly answered the previous questions it’s time to develop a solid plan, a business plan that includes your answers to each of the above points. Plan these steps in a manageable way with goals that are realistically attainable. Planning is crucial and these steps are just the beginning.
To achieve your goals and be successful:
- You must know what you want to do- specifically.
- How the competition stacks up in the market.
- How you plan to pay for it and/or live.
- How you plan to market and promote.
- Who your client base will consist of.
- And plan alternative options should things not go exactly as you planned.
There is nothing better, nor more satisfying than being a photographer. It is not a job, it is a lifestyle! Few do it for money. Most do it for love and the need to explore and create. If you are planning to do it for these or any reasons, just go do it, but make a plan, a really solid plan! It will take time and it will take a few years, so plan for the long haul.