I had an email yesterday from a reader named Stephanie who said that she’s caught in a vicious cycle of portfolio building. She doesn’t want to charge while she’s portfolio building because then, she’ll be in business and have all the worries that come with it but she doesn’t want to launch a for-profit business until she’s finished building her portfolio.
I’ve written before about the dangers of spending too long in the portfolio building stage of your business. It’s not meant to last 10 years. And it doesn’t have to be an absolute work-for-free scenario. I’ve counseled newbies to establish their pricing structures early on and work up to full-time money while charging discounted fees for portfolio building sessions (more on all that here). But that’s not really what this post is about. I wanted to hit on the theme behind Stephanie’s comment.
What I read between the lines in Stephanie’s email is that she knows that in business, it’s all or nothing. She knows that as soon as she starts charging even a little, it raises the bar and the expectations to a level where only the best will cut it and she’s absolutely right. Do a session for free and you’re free to learn from your mistakes. Charge even $20 for the same session and suddenly, you have a photographer/client relationship and all the expectations that come with it. In order to make the business worth while, you have to do it right or not do it at all.
If you Google to find the things you need before jumping into business, you’ll find that it’s not as simple as printing up a couple flyers and making a little pocket money. Not only is it illegal to operate a business on the side, it’s not going to make enough money to sustain itself and you’ll flop before you even really get going. Photography isn’t a business you can just dip your toe into to see how it feels if you want to do it right. By ‘do it right’, I mean protect yourself with legal documents and liability insurance, protect your equipment with insurance, establish yourself with a professional printing company, have the computer and software to process your files in a quick-like-fashion that doesn’t have you up all night staring at spinning wheel icon…all that. Once you tally up the monthly overhead, you soon realize that it’s not as easy to make a quick buck as you once thought.
But fear not! Here are a few tips I have for testing the waters in the photography business:
- If you’re not ready to formally establish yourself as a business, then schedule portfolio building sessions with friend and family. Shoot everyone and everything and don’t charge a penny. Because, like I said, as soon as money changes hands you’ve entered into a client relationship and are liable for all sorts of yuckiness you’re not ready to handle.
- In these portfolio building sessions, set some of them up where you create the concepts, choose the wardrobe and location and get to flex your creative muscles. But also have some sessions where you ask what the client wants and see what it’s like for us paid-for photographers who have to cater to our clients’ every desire. This will help you learn to work with people on a professional level. You can even try it out like a full-on professional session with client questionnaires, a contract, an order form for prints – try out different versions of paperwork to see how you want to operate when you’re in business for real.
- Try all sorts of different types of sessions like children, couples, maternity, newborns. This will help you find your niche for when you’re ready to go into business.
- Even though you might not feel ready for heavy duty legal forms, at least have a model release that everyone (yup, even your own mom!) needs to sign so you’re free to do what you wish with your work.
- Instead of charging money for sessions, use your talents to raise funds for charity (don’t take the money in your own name – have checks written directly to the charity) or as bartering power with your babysitter, plumber, anyone! Trade sessions and prints for other products and services – everyone loves a good trade!
So you see you can dip your toe into professional photography without taking the dive into the business deep end!