Tips to Help Newbies Find Success in the Photography Business

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Many dream about becoming a professional photographer, but unfortunately it can be difficult to last longer than two years in business, if you don’t have the right plan. People fail every day. They question themselves, wonder if their work isn’t as good as they thought it was, then pass along the common belief that it’s impossible to make a living in photography.

Corporate Portrait

Corporate portraiture. Every business needs photography.

You commonly hear that everyone is a photographer these days, but that’s just not true. There are lots of photographers, in the same way that there are many people who enjoy writing – as there should be, because it’s an incredibly fun passion. But there are not as many professional photographers pushing themselves in the right way and making a living, and this is solely due to their marketing ability, not the state of the industry.

If anything, there is more opportunity than there used to be. With the Internet, LinkedIn and social media, everyone needs a good portrait. Companies need their events documented to then be shared. People are spending so much money on weddings. Good photography is more important than it ever has been. What people really mean when they talk about the industry being saturated with photographers, is that the old gatekeepers who once sought out the skilled photographers are gone. Now to succeed you have to figure out how to do it on your own, and to raise above the noise.

Here are some tips to help you find success in your photography business.

1. Create a strong and unique body of work

Gowanus, Brooklyn.

Gowanus, Brooklyn. This photograph sells very well due to its uniqueness.

There is no way around it, if you want to succeed as a photographer, you have to learn how to create strong work. There are no excuses these days. Everything you need to learn is on the Internet. There are videos, courses, ebooks, YouTube, you name it. Map out what you need to learn, particularly where you feel your weaknesses are, and seek out content to address them. Maybe it’s posing, or studio lighting, or printing. Everything’s out there, and it’s not hard to locate. Go to town.

Train your eye. Find 10 photographers whose work you love, and figure out how to do what they do. Study them, go deep into their archives, and then try to recreate the look of their images. Use friends as models, do whatever you need to do. Recreating their look is not copying, it’s learning, and eventually as you continue to improve, you will take elements from all of your favorite photographers, and mesh them into your own style.

Plan creative days. It’s not good enough to say that you will find time within your schedule. Set aside entire creative days, and put them in your calendar. Turn off all other distractions and treat it as a job, because it is a job. Plan what you are going to do ahead of time and execute it. This is where your portfolio will begin, and what you will use to get jobs.

2. Realize that nobody notices you or your work

Polka Dots and Pink Shoes, Subway, 2012.

Another New York print that sells well.

It’s important to understand how people see you, and they don’t. Everyone is being bombarded with imagery everyday from so many sources. Even if you put yourself out there, people aren’t going to notice you. It takes time and persistence, so keep at it.

The reason that you need to understand this, is because you have to grind at first. The beginning is always a grind, particularly as you’re trying to get to an income that can stabilize you for the long term. People may not notice you the first time, or the second, and when they do first notice you, they will probably write you off. It’s common for some people’s first reaction to be negative and dismissive about you, before they even give you a chance. But, the more they see you, the more they will notice you and warm up to you. It takes time, and people appreciate seeing others work hard for it. One try is not enough. Neither is two.

3. Reach out to your community

Every successful photographer that I’ve spoken to has received their first smattering of jobs through word of mouth. Who else is going to hire you right away? Your personal community is so important to your early and ongoing success. Your friends and colleagues know you and trust you. They will give your work more of an eye and a chance right away, and they will recommend you. Be social, surround yourself with a strong community, and your professional life will benefit.

Facebook Event

A job I received through a fellow photographer.

However, these word of mouth referrals are not going to happen on their own. Your community isn’t going to help if they don’t understand what you are doing. Make it official. Create an email list and send out an official announcement about your business. Explain, and show what you do, and make it clear how you can help people. If you are building a portraiture business, explain that you do photography for engagements and families, businesses, law firms, actors, and artists. You know who that covers? Everybody. Suddenly, everyone will have you at the top of their mind. They will understand how you can help them when they are in need of your services. People will not know this unless you tell them.

Start fostering a community of other photographers around you. It can be easy to think of other photographers as competition, but that is so far from the truth. The only one keeping you from getting jobs is yourself, and photographers are the ones that you can bounce ideas off. If you need to gain experience, offer to assist for them whenever they need. This is particularly popular in wedding and commercial businesses, but every photographer can use a hand. This will teach you more than any Internet website or tutorial can. As you get closer, this community of photographers will give you advice in times of need, and will pass you jobs when they are booked. It’s a win-win for everybody involved.

4. Active versus passive marketing

Local Business Photography

The owner of my favorite local restaurant.

Passive marketing is the act of putting yourself out there over and over again, while waiting for the jobs to come to you. This is so important for the long term, but it takes time to come to fruition, and in the short term it does nothing. Instead, take an active approach to your marketing and directly reach out to your potential clients.

If you want to work with local businesses, contact them and introduce yourself and your services. Make an appointment to show them your portfolio, or call them on the phone. If you want to work with restaurants, start with the ones you eat at, and work the town. If you want to do portraits of actors, go to acting schools, and the places where the actors hang out. If you want to sell your prints, seek out interior designers, art consultants, and businesses without art on their walls. Figure out who your clients are, where they are, and then plan out the best way to approach them.

5. Create a business plan

Engagement Photography.

Engagement and family photography can be a great business to start off and gain skills you need.

Creating a business plan is vital to your success. Figure out the income number that you will need to earn in the first year, and create a plan for how to achieve it. How much will your expenses be? How much will you charge, and how many jobs will you need to book to reach your desired income? Who are you marketing to? What are all the ways that you can reach your potential clients, and which have the potential to pay off the best? What promotional material will you need? Do this in a spreadsheet, map it all out, and continue to reference and tweak it as you go.

6. Contact people!

Corporate Portraiture.

Corporate portraiture.

Once your portfolio and website are ready, start contacting the people on your list. Do this consistently, and not all at once, so you don’t burn yourself out. Try a few, see how your pitch went, then refine it. The first few might not go so well, and if that happens, try to figure out what went wrong. If they do not seem to have a strong reaction to your work, then maybe you need to improve or tweak it. As you achieve more success, you can start to contact additional people. This is the grind phase of your career, and it is the only way to succeed.

You will fail more often than not, but be elegant in failure. Someone who rejects you now could be doing it for so many reasons, and could be a great client down the road. Even if they can’t work with you now, make a good impression and don’t give up on them.

7. Follow through

Every step that you did before this is how you got hired for the job. Don’t screw it up. You want your career to snowball, and the only way it will do that is if you impress everyone. Jobs are the quickest way to get more jobs and new referrals. Unfortunately, as some photographers start gaining jobs consistently, they can become cocky or complacent. You know how much work went into gaining these clients, and you want the grind to pay off.

Event Photography.

Event photography.

Respond quickly. Under-promise and over-deliver. Plan out jobs, communicate well with clients in the planning phase, and don’t mess up details. Always keep a smile on your face and look confident, even during the many times when you will be freaking out inside. Make sure to talk to the clients when you have the chance, and get to know them. Send thank you notes, and don’t be afraid to ask for referrals.

Do you see from all of this how a career can take off when you approach it in the right way? It’s not rocket science, but unfortunately it often takes newer photographers much longer to figure all of this out than necessary. It took me a long time. Now you know it, so go do it. Fight the fear, and kick some butt.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • Jindra Aston

    Nice, but different is in USA and EU and then in UK

  • garcia_laurie
  • Tracy7687

    I make about $6000-$8000 a month for freelancing i do from my home. Everyone prepared to work easy freelance jobs for 2-5 hours a day from your house and earn decent payment in the same time… This is perfect for you… IS.GD/cvk4A4

  • Cindy

    Please understand that I am not trying to be critical, but just want to learn and understand. Why are the photos in tips 1 and 2 so special and selling so well? They seem to me to be something an amateur would take, something I myself would take and then throw away or use in digital art of some kind. But I would not see them as something someone would actually buy. Maybe understanding this would help me learn to appreciate some of my “mistakes” more.

  • Hi Cindy,

    Well everyone has different opinions about what they like and dislike so that’s a tough question to answer. The images are unique and interesting photos of New York outside of the typical grand images that you see. The subject matter is different from the norm but they are still pretty and pleasing to look at, which is why they standout.

    Why do you think an amateur would take them? The second moment was a great moment that I came across heading on the subway but the first was very hard to get. There was only a minute or two period where the backlit light hit just a few of the branches but not all of them, adding another level of depth to them. Was kind of a difficult shot to take to be honest. It didn’t work except for that couple minute period.

    Best,

    James

  • Glad they helped!

  • Cindy

    I think I already said why I thought they looked like something an amateur would take, because as an amateur myself, I have taken such photographs. They have usually ended up in the trash unless I could find a way to manipulate them into something totally different in digital art because of textures and colors. I am trying to understand who would buy such photos because they do not strike me as something that would end up as fine art on someone’s walls in their home. Perhaps magazines? Your response really did not answer my question. The weeds and fire hydrants could have been photographed anywhere and don’t speak to NYC. I’ve taken photos of Queen Anne’s Lace in an alley near my rural home in Ohio. I’ve taken photos of weeds and alleys and badly painted brick walls, construction, and other photos just like your photo of the weeds. Nobody would be clamoring to buy any of them. In fact, I have taken many photos of things I think are cool and very interesting as they show a side of life or of where we live on this planet that you don’t normally see. They are good photos, sharp, clear, etc. But I would have no clue as to who would ever be interested enough to buy one of them, or where to even look to find a buyer. They are not fine art, at least not in my opinion of what would be fine art. As for the woman’s legs and shoes, I definitely would have no clue as to who would want to buy a photo such as that, yet you say it is a big seller. Why? What makes it a big seller, Why is it a better photo than, say, if you had her entire body in the shot? So the question is not really answered by “different” or “unique” especially since that was mentioned in the original article. I am sure I am not the only person wondering these things.

  • Maybe your photographs are very good or just as good. The reason why people buy any of my images is because I market them. No photography will sell if you do not do marketing.

    These photographs show a different side of New York that isn’t typically captured and that’s the reason that people seem to like them. They’re not the typical Chrysler building classic New York photography and that resonates, not with all, but with a good amount of people. These are places that exist but aren’t photographed usually in a pleasing way. They’re ordinary moments shown in the same way that you would capture grand moments.

    For the pink shoes image, I focused in on the pink shoes and skirt to make the image more graphic. Purposely cutting her off I thought made the image prettier and made the shoes even more of the focus.

    You may not think they’re special but I hear the opposite from a whole lot of people. I hear it more than most of my grand New York images.

    Also, amateurs can do professional quality work. The only difference between the two is marketing, consistency, and making a living from your work.

  • Cindy

    I do try to market my photography, which is why I have asked who would buy this type of photograph, which you still have not answered. Maybe you do not wish to share that information. I don’t know. But knowing there are buyers out there who like this type of image would help those of us who have taken them know where to look for marketing.

  • Oh sorry, it’s regular people for their homes primarily. Art buyers and interior designers sometimes too. I have also sold a couple to furnish lobbies in buildings and offices as well, but mostly just regular people.

  • Cindy

    Thank you. You can see some of my work at http://www.capiraniphotography.com and on Flickr at CapiraniPhotography. It’s been very slow…2 years now. So far I have not sold anything so I’m in the process of changing some things and adding other art that I do as well.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Cynthia: your work is very limited and not unique enough. You don’t describe how prints are made (paper choices, ink jet or lab prints, etc.), shipping options, etc. Your verbage is not compelling. And, asking $100-$200 for a 16×20 print is not realistic. Sorry to be so harsh, but wanted to be honest.

  • Cindy

    The website, I forgot to mention, is in conjunction with Xanadu Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ. http://www.xanadugallery.com/2013/Artists/ArtistPage.php?ArtistID=5664 Xanadu has their store front gallery and this online gallery. I used their program to create the website by merely following their template. I’ve been with their online gallery for two years,

    but am planning on making some major changes in the near future. The photos on the website are older ones. As I said, I am an amateur. I haven’t made any prints. From speaking with the gallery owner at Xanadu, they discuss those things with me once a sale is made since it is a digital piece and not a canvas. Normal sales prices, I am told, for gallery sales is $1 per inch which makes my works under priced. The shipping options are basically connected with the gallery, although the website does not specifically say this. Originally I never even expected to work through any gallery and doing so is out of my expertise as a rural girl where there are no real art galleries such as this to gain experience from. Currently I am working with mixed media and hoping to incorporate my digital works into medium. The most recent digital work is on Flickr rather than the website.

  • Lane Pelicanista Hatcher

    Your work probably isn’t selling because it appears to be mostly snapshots and some kind of digital manipulation software. Color balance is missing, as is an understanding of the use of f/stop. I like your idea of capturing images from your chair. You might have greater success by giving your subjects more room to breathe, educating yourself re f/stop and color balance, and utilizing better editing tools such as Lightroom. And reconsider your subjects: photos of water drops on flowers just aren’t something people buy, as you’ve seen. If I can take it myself with my iPhone, why would I pay for it. Again, I think you have the potential of capturing intriguing images from your POV, but maybe improve your editing skills. It can take a long time to develop your unique artistic capabilities, so don’t give up

  • Cindy

    As for uniqueness and limited, I will have to agree to disagree with you, as I feel the same about your photos in #1 and #2. As I’ve said, to me they are too amateurish and definitely not unique in general. Yes maybe unique as to what is normally photographed in NYC, but not unique elsewhere, especially #1. I believe mine are very unique, especially the manipulated works as they are actual photographs turned into digital art which I call digital fusion. As for your opinion as to why they are not selling, more than likely it is due to lack of SEO on my part as I have not put much time into it, especially the past 8 months as I have been working on different types of art. There are few doing what I do, which does make it unique, at least on the fine art market. I also have other areas where I market what I do, only not actively at present. As I said, the gallery was not my first option as the gallery owner chose my work rather than me having chosen the gallery. My work would not be in the gallery if it were not of a style they like. So, as you said in your first response, sometimes it is a matter of taste.

  • Great article and very helpful. I think my biggest problem is not being very good at selling myself. I get lots of very positive feedback about my work (photography, digitally altered photos and digital art), but just have a very hard time knowing what my next (first?) step should be toward selling my work. I’m just not a salesman; does that mean I’m doomed to never being a professional photographer/artist?

  • Olu Oyejola

    Great post. Thanks for reminding us that we need to market ourselves and images.

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