Five Photography Business Mistakes to Avoid

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A guest article by Steve McConnell

Five photography business mistakes that cost me dearly and how you can avoid them

I’ve been toying with an idea of writing an article, in which I share some ideas on how to start a successful photography business. Every time I think about writing it, I realize that I wouldn’t know what to write. I just don’t think that the entrepreneurial journey for an aspiring photographer can be boiled down to a set of step-by-step tips which can fit neatly into a blog post on photography business mistakes.

There are just too many variables (business nuances, possible changes of direction, personal problems, market issues, artistic visions, industry influences, technical developments)  which can be put together in an infinite amount of ways into a business strategy that may lead you to reach your goals.

However, I think that there’s a fairly universal set of potholes which are likely to derail your ambitions as a creative entrepreneur unless you steer the business ship neatly around them. It is with the aim of highlighting these potholes that I decided to write this article. I hope it enables you to put your dream together in your own unique way, while raising some red flags around things that may trip you up.

Bit on my background

Let me give you some context. I started my family photography business almost two years ago. In the first year of operation I managed to grow it to a point where it became my part-time job. In this, my second year, I’ve grown it to a point where I’m working at it full-time, my fiancé works in it part-time, and I employ a part-time retoucher to help with editing.

We’re busy. However we’re far from being as stable and sure-footed as I’d like. Every dollar counts and every day a dozen priorities have to be juggled in a way that ensures the worker-bee stuff gets done and the bigger picture (no pun intended) ideas are considered, planned and executed.

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What mistakes have I made that you will want to avoid?

Looking back at the business decisions I’ve made, there were some which helped us grow (niche marketing, focus on online channels, partnerships).  There were also some decisions I’ve made, which held us back significantly. These are the ones I’m going to share with you in hopes that you will avoid them on your photography journey.

Mistake #1 – listening to established photographers

This may be a contentious point. Let me qualify my words here – when I say “established pros”, I mean photographers who have been in the game for 10+ years, who were around in the film era and who most likely built their business by selling big prints, renting a studio and advertising in the Yellow Pages while promoting themselves through industry partnerships.

I’ve found it immensely difficult to get advice from these folks that is relevant and works in today’s business world. The few times I have taken on their advice and steered my business in the direction they suggested, I regretted it and had to reverse those decisions.

My take on it is that many established pros suffered a business downturn in the last few years. As a result, many turned to teaching. Thing is, their downturn happened mainly because their businesses were built on principles which expired.  Yet, they’re teaching those exact principles and strategies to the new generation of aspiring photographers.

I’m not saying that all established pros are not worth listening to, of course not. I’m saying that I personally should have used more discretion in evaluating their advice and rejected more of it, instead of trusting them based on the number of years they’ve been in the game.

Mistake #2 – taking too long to learn sales

A few months ago I finally admitted to myself  that I suck at face-to-face sales.

My background is in marketing, which has been helpful in creating branding and business strategies to bring customers to the websites and ensure they have a great experience there, hopefully leading to a sale. But this skill has also become a crutch, because I’ve become reliant on people making their purchase online. If a potential customer called with intent to ask questions (or, God forbid, challenged me on price), I’d collapse.

I decided it was time to get comfortable talking about prices and learn how to articulate my value proposition in a way which catches people’s attention. At the end of the article I’ll share some resources that helped me.

Learning sales was important because it helped me get comfortable with customers on the phone. It changed my perspective on who I am when I answer the phone – I went from being the guy who helpfully provides information about our prices to being the guy who engages potential customers in a dialogue which aims to deliver maximum possible value to them.

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Mistake #3 – underestimating the importance of customer service

I started off with the mindset of “I’m an artist. I’m here to create photos. People hire me for my photographs, not for my phone manner or for a card I might send them for Christmas.” I believed that if I focused on producing great photography, that alone would ensure my customers were happy. I did hardly any follow-up before and after the shoots, and I did little else for my customers, except shooting.

I was inspired to change my opinion about on this when I bought a new Apple laptop. It was the smallest detail that flicked the switch for me – a little plastic tab which sits under the laptop and makes lifting it out of the box easy. I’m pretty sure if I bought another brand of computer, I’d have to either jam my fingers between the device and the box to pry it out or flip the whole thing upside down and let gravity do the work.

Not so with Apple. There was a distinct sense of being taken on a journey, even before the Mac was switched on. It made me realize that my customer’s photography journey with me, starts long before a shutter is pressed.

photography business mistakes to avoid

MacBook unboxing

I made it one of business priorities to design, and constantly improve our customers’ experience at every touchpoint with the business. I want people to feel like they’re immersed in a branded experience which begins the moment they arrive at the website and continues long after the photos are delivered. I’m paying attention to things such as:

  • Do they know how to get here?
  • Do they know where to park?
  • Do they get a thank you note?
  • How does the packaging of the USB stick (on which their photos are presented) look?
  • Do I surprise them with some unexpected previews, letting them know that their photos are almost ready?

I want them to feel like everything is being taken care for them and no matter what goes wrong, they don’t have to worry about it. 

Mistake #4 – forgetting about the winter slump

Our business had a nice surge of growth towards the end of last summer, and then it stopped. I’m not saying it just stopped growing. It literally all stopped. I forgot that people might not be as keen to be photographed in windy, chilly months as they are during the summer heat.

Being prepared for the winter slump will help you avoid a scenario in which the bottom falls out of your business and you have to hock camera (and maybe unessential body) parts on E-bay.

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Mistake #5 – neglecting my friends

I’ve lived a fairly ascetic existence for the past two years. My focus has been quite single-mindedly on business. I’ve eliminated just about everything from my schedule which was not business related. I’ve hardly been out. I haven’t spent much money at all on clothes or fancy food. Working for weeks without a day off has been the norm.

It was a conscious decision and a necessary one, because I wanted to grow the business quickly. I was hungry for it and I knew that I’m the kind of person who isn’t very good at doing a number of things at once, so I couldn’t afford to be distracted. . This meant cutting ties with most of my catch-up friends (you know, the people you ‘know’, but in reality you really don’t) and not seeing some of my best friends for months and years at a time.

I don’t regret doing it, but I do regret not managing it better. For some people in my life that I do care about, I kind of fell off the radar. I was simply afraid of having a heartfelt conversation with them and telling them that I needed to disappear for a while because there’s something important I had to do.

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In conclusion

I’m not entirely comfortable being in a position of dispensing advice because I don’t feel like I’ve fully cracked the code yet. In many ways, I’m living a dream I never thought possible. However, in the context of what’s possible as a creative entrepreneur, I’m still very much a beginner.

However, there are people in this world who have repeatedly created modern, lean businesses which are turning a healthy profit by creating amazing customer experiences. Let me conclude by sharing some resources that I’ve found invaluable:

Here are two resources which have helped me get comfortable on the phone with potential clients and increase my sales dramatically: S. Anthony Iannarino’s The Sales Blog and  Blake Discher’s Webinar On Negotiating.

If you’re a photographer and have already set off on your entrepreneurial journey, I’d love to hear about the challenges you’ve run into.

  • Are you running out of time or money?
  • Are you not sure who your market is?
  • Not sure where to even start?

Those are normal issues to run into and are very much part of the journey. Please share the details in the comments below.

Editor’s note: of course the opinions expressed in this article of those of the author, based on his experience. If you have a differing opinion or addition tips to add please do so in the comments section below.


Steven McConnell is a Sydney-based entrepreneur and photographer. Together with his fiancee, he is behind two startups – Steven & Irene Photography and Arielle Careers. When he is not photographing, his focus is on empowering creatives to make a living by doing what they love. You can catch up with him on Google+.

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  • Dan Howell

    Wow, I really do feel sorry for you. It must be an incredible burden to carry around such negative and potentially harmful thoughts. The swimsuit shots were created for the people who make the swimsuits. The popsicle shot was for the company who makes the actual popsicle. I honestly feel it takes a disturbed mind to find those images disturbing. While I work in different genres on different days, I very consciously and scrupulously take care and concern to capture children with appropriate tone. I don’t even joke about the sexualization of children in images. I find your accusation offensive. The last sentence of cjs711’s response below seems apt.

  • Dan Howell

    I didn’t see your accusation before. To be clear, I do not have any affiliate deal with LiveBooks. My opinions are my own. I would not agree with the statement that I endorse them a lot on MM. I would point out that it would have been easy for you to research and find that I have not only Livebooks websites, but also an APhotoFolio site (my MAIN site) and a Squarespace site. I made my choices based on what works for my business.

  • Dan, please let it rest.

  • Bo

    You’re so full of air mon. As if you’ve achieved of something worthy of praise… Let it rest Dude, you have become an irritation in the community…

  • Hey Steve, well done on the article it’s always nice to read someone elses take on the wonderful world of trying to run your own photography business.

    In regard to the old timers, i think it’s more a matter of taking and leaving some advice, i have gained some fantastic knowledge from some old school shooters, things that i never would have thought of, and honestly their charm and people skills will get them more work than a search engine ever will. In the same breath as you mentioned a lot are falling behind, not understanding the power of social media for example ( i get a LOT of work through social) and not accepting the fact that photography as an entire industry has been devalued a lot whether we like to admit it or not, and that simply supplying a fantastic product isn’t enough to justify our pricing anymore.

    As for folks like Dan, honestly, fantastic shooter and i’m sure an incredibly accomplished business man, however hanging out on forums and articles like this waving around his immense experience is a bit silly. I know how much people get paid for these kind of articles, you aren’t a journalist for a high end publication who is getting paid enough to get into heated arguments over their opinions.. This article was YOUR take on the matter, some points i agree with, others i don’t. Maybe Dan should just write his own articles with his own opinions and let the world know his views that way instead of having debates in the comments section of yours, since he’s hanging out doing this, he obviously has the time.

    Anyway, some good advice in the article and the comments, it’s a tough industry so we should be supporting each other, not having a go at each other.

    Peace 🙂

    Matt

  • Leigh

    I’ve been in business almost 10 years now and I think your key point #3 is one of the most important aspects for maintaining a strong business. The better you take care of your clients, the better they take care of you and the more likely they are to pass your name on to family and friends. You can have the best website in the industry, but word of mouth is still the most powerful source of advertising that exists. Producing quality photos, answering those emails in a timely manner, genuinely caring about who your client is and taking interest in their wants and needs, and remembering to say thank you will keep your business afloat as long as you want it to be.

  • Stuart Reeve

    Nice article. I for one found it extremely interesting.

  • Chris Alley

    I shouldn’t be surprised that a marketing person would make a blatant plug for the king of marketing: Apple. I’m getting tired how modern marketing is so full of image and fluff. Watch any Apple ad. It’s all about image. How much info is actually about the product. Of course you use your Mac unboxing as one of your points. You also made a complete assumption that you doubted any other laptop company would have made it so easy to open. Boy you’ve been marketed. It’s sad that modern consumers haven’t opened their eyes to these techniques. When are we going to start thinking for ourselves. I could give a hairy rats bottom about the packaging. Does the machine give me the most bang for the buck?

  • POP Photography

    lol are you for REAL!?!

  • John T

    well I thought it was a good point and I’m always impressed by a business that is obviously thinking about me and my experience with their product. The opposite is when I come across a product or service where it is obvious no one from the company has actually looked at their offering from a customer point of view… it drives me crazy.

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