Photography has always been one of those fields that’s seen as the dream job, where countless amateurs have tried to take their passion to a professional level and get paid for doing something they love. Unfortunately for everyone who ‘makes it’ there are many more who don’t. So if you’re thinking that maybe you should start a photography business yourself, then here’s a few questions you really need to ask yourself before you go too far.
1. Is my photography at a professional level in terms of quality?
Unfortunately most amateur photographers have no idea how to evaluate either of these. Many tend to rely on on friends and family telling them it’s good and ‘you really ought to sell that!’, and they never take the time to get theory behind them so they can honestly evaluate where their photography is currently at.
Perhaps the most important skill a professional photographer has is self-editing. Knowing enough to discard the images that don’t quite work and only ever showing your Clients your absolute very best images. If you pride yourself on being self-taught, then this is one area where you probably need to proceed very carefully.
2. Is my content commercial?
Again this one is hard to evaluate if you don’t know what makes an image marketable, so it’s no surprise that this trips up a lot of photographers who look at stock photography as an easy option for starting their photography business.
There’s a whole industry built on telling photographers that all they have to do is upload a pile of images to start making sales, but the reality is, it’s a cut-throat business and the photos that sell are usually very carefully planned and executed.
The best test I know of here is the first choice scenario test.
When you look at an image, if you can’t think of a situation where it could be the first choice for a photo buyer, chances are it’s never going to sell. If the only scenarios you ever come up with are calendars and postcards, then there’s a good chance your work isn’t really commercial.
The more specific you are about possible buyers, the more value you’ll get from this especially if you take it a step further and put your photos side by side with images those buyers are already using. Most people take a bit of a confidence-knock the first time they do that, but if you take your time, make siome notes and really learn from it, it’s a valuable exercise that will pay dividends.
The best way to make your photography more commercial is to go at it from the other direction.
Think about who the likely buyers are for your subjects, what they’ll use the images for, and from that, what messages, ideas or concepts they’ll need the images to convey? If you approach each photo-op with that sort of mindset, you’ll soon find you are shooting commercial images for real buyers instead of simply documenting what you happen to see.
3. Am I prepared to do all the other work required to run a photography business?
A lot of new-professional photographers get a real shock when they realise how much other work is involved in selling their photography, and how little camera time they actually get. It might look like the dream job when you see the documentaries of photographers traveling the world for months on end on Nat Geo’s dime, but the reality is, most photographers are happy to get one or two days a week shooting and 3-4 days doing post-processing, admin, sales and marketing.
We are fortunate these days that there’s a lot of options to outsource and automate many aspects of your photography business, but it still takes time and effort to get it to a point where that is practical. The demands will obviously vary depending on the type of photography business you plan to build, but if your plan is to be out shooting every day, you probably need to slow down and take a reality check.
Maybe go back to the drawing board and put together a detailed photography business plan… who is your target markets, what they need from you, why they’re going to buy from you and not someone else, how you’re going to get your work in front of them, what you’re going to charge and so on. If you haven’t got the knowledge to do any of that, then you’ve got some research to do before you go any further.
4. Am I good with people?
This is the other big trap for a lot of photographers. By nature I think a lot of photographers do tend to be observers, but if you want to make a living selling your photos, one way or another, you’re going to need to interact with people, either as subjects or clients or both.
If you’re trying to design a photography business where you have no contact with ‘people’, then you really are setting yourself up for failure. This is a people business at every step of the way, so you’d better get used to that and get good at it.
A lot of photographers actually choose to focus on stock specifically so they can leave the sales process to the library and avoid having to deal with buyers, but even that isn’t practical, as you really need to be photographing people at least some of the time if you’re going to make a go of stock, and these days, the best stock business models do involve some degree of Client contact.
And if you plan to start a local/offline photography business, it’s even more important that you work well with people and that you’re confident enough to quote them prices, close the sales and chase up overdue payments. If the thought of any of that makes you squirm a little, start small and get plenty of practice because you’re going to need it.
Of course there are plenty of other useful talents for anyone wanting to start their own photography business, and no doubt the exact skill-set you need will be different from the next person, but hopefully this has given you a few ideas to consider.
While you’re here though, please leave a comment below about what you’d consider the most important prerequisite for a photographer just starting out!