Five Years as a Photographer

Five years ago, I was heading out the door for my first session when I got called to the bathroom to see my two year old son with a faceful of mascara.  I snapped a picture, cleaned him up, and headed out the door to meet my first clients.  Since then it’s been a crazy ride.  Three states, another kid, and over 100 clients later, I’m proud of what Katie Smith Photography has become and wanted to share what I’ve learned.

1. Be legit. Do the math. It’s important.
Get your business license.  File your sales tax.  Don’t pick a random number for your pricing and don’t base it on a small sample of local photographers.  You’re going to underestimate the cost of doing business.  Sure, you might have some extra money in the bank to pull you out of a financial mishap but when you file your taxes, you’re going to cry.  (I’ll refrain from getting on my soapbox but I’m serious.  Do the math.)

2. Know your camera and how to edit cleanly.
Know manual mode, understand composition, learn about light.  Know how to use your post-processing software to create a clean look.  Seek out poor lighting scenerios so you can practice outside of the golden hour.  Then once you have a solid foundation, break the rules.  Don’t rely on luck and happy accidents or your clients’ “Mommy Goggles” to make them fall in love with a photo.

3. Online Marketing… so easy EVERYONE is doing it.
Here a post, there a post, everywhere a post post.  That’s what the internet feels like when it comes to photographers.  Everyone has a Facebook and from the comfort of their home can post a link to it in in every local Facebook group and on Craigslist.  We’re bombarded by posts of our cousin’s cute new baby, our friend’s dog’s antics, advertising for everything under the sun, and then the gaggle of photographers that come out the woodwork when one person asks for a photographer recommendation.  You cannot rely on the internet to give you business.  Get out there, meet people, and network!  Do something to stand out.  If you’re going to focus on your online marketing, focus on your SEO.  Aim to be #1 on the search engines.  It will get you a lot farther than posting your name in the list of 20-something photographers.

4. Being called ‘crazy’ stings but it doesn’t kill you.
Yes, it happened… and it wasn’t even through an email.  It was over the phone.  She asked about the cost of digital files, I responded, and she exclaimed “That’s crazy!  I can go to my old photographer for…”  I explained that my prices are what it takes to run my business and I wished her luck in her search for a photographer.  After I hung up the phone, I didn’t cry instead I shouted to my husband “Hunny!  I got called crazy and I didn’t DIE!!!”  My fear of blantant rejection had been realized and it didn’t make me curl up on the fetal position and cry for days.  So rejection happens.   Shrug it off and keep going.

5. Don’t worry about the other photographers.
There will always be someone better than you and someone worse than you.  There will always be someone that looks more successful (keyword there is ‘looks’  You never know what’s going on behind the scenes).  There will be photographers that charge 3x more than you or gives away the whole session and cd for the price of your 8×10.  If half your internet time is Facebook stalking your competition or you feel the need to rant on a weekly basis, STOP.  Unlike the local photographers and step away from the negativity.  There’s no reason to allow negative feelings to suck the joy out of photography.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn but I am so much happier now than when I was analyzing my competition’s latest work or special and wondering why they were booked so much more than me.

6. Don’t gossip about other photographers.
I heard from a photographer friend what one photographer said about another photographer.  What you say about another photographer’s work will get around and the way you voice your opinion says a lot more about you than the other photographer’s work.  Don’t forget that if they gossip to you, they’ll probably gossip about you.

7. Shoot for free.
Bless someone with a completely free photography session.  Join a photography charity that’s close to your heart.  Do a casting call for the exact look you want and have total control over the entire session.  Don’t do it and count on sales.  Don’t be grumpy if people seem ungrateful.  Just do it and feel good knowing you are blessed to have a gift that you can share.

8. Your work will evolve.
You may go through an super bright phase or a moody black-and-white phase.  Right now, I’m on a themed session kick.   You will learn a new techinique and your work with change.  Somewhere in all this evolution is your style, find the common theme and hone that skill.

9. Find beauty in other styles.
I don’t photograph weddings but I love to watch wedding photographers on Creative Live.  Same thing with glamour.  You might think it doesn’t apply to you but you’ll learn new knowledge and get inspired.  If someone edits different than you, accept it.  You don’t have to love everyone’s work but respect that we are all artists and create art that speaks to us and the clients we cater to.

10. Seek balance, set boundaries, and know your limits.
You do not need to photograph every client that emails you. You know those munchkins that were your inspiration to pick up a camera in the first place.  They’d love to talk to you. They would love an immediate response instead of a “uh… ok, hold on, Hunny.  Mommy needs to finish this…”  Take time off, set your own office hours (wasn’t that a big perk of being your own boss?), figure out your real priorities in business and your personal life.  I now take Sunday and Monday off every week.  Sunday is just for family and Monday is my personal day of chores and errands. Now that my kids are in school, I’m in my office from 8-3 and the computer goes off when they step off the bus.  I spend my evenings cozied up to my husband and watching Supernatural reruns instead staring at the computer screen in zombie mode.  I’ve found my happy place.

11. Opinions are like… belly buttons.  Everyone has one.
You’ve been given advice that you didn’t take.  You’ve given advice that fell on deaf ears.  It happens.  Sometimes we just have to learn our lessons the hard way.  Listen to advice.  You don’t have to take it but I want you to listen and mull it over before you decide it isn’t for you. Continue to share knowledge with other photographers even when they blow you off.  This is an amazing profession with so many resources to learn and get support.  Take advantage of it.

12. Know when to give in and when to stand your ground.
This is MY business.  This is MY work.  This is MY passion.  But at the end of the day, this isn’t about me.  This is about the clients.  If they want to throw your fashion advice out the window or insist on a Pinterest pose, let them have it.  This is their memories and their experience with you.  Don’t get caught up in being a photo snob when they ask you to step out of your comfort zone.  On the other hand, stand your ground when you need to.  When a client asks about your availability, tell them an AM and a PM time slot and don’t give in if they ask for noon.  Don’t get talked into photographing a wedding if you’ve never photographed one before or know they aren’t your thing.  Allow yourself to do something you don’t typically do but do not allow yourself to diminish the quality of your work due to client’s requests.

13. You are going to mess up.
You’ll forget to change your ISO setting and the session will be grainy.  You’ll forget to put in an order or reply to an email.  You’ll accidentally call your clients the wrong name.  Mistakes happen!  Fess up and make it better.  That’s just good customer service.

14.  This will change you.
I’m an introvert but before I found photography I was shy like “I can’t go through the drive-thru because I’ll have to talk” shy.  Since I’ve become a photographer, I can talk to people.  I’ve found my voice.  I’ll even talk on the phone!  (By the way, pick up the phone.  Your clients would like to hear your voice.)
I also can’t look at lighting the same way.  I see the colors of light and the angle of shadows.  I see my kids’ clothing in terms of how to coordinate and what the texture is like.  I see aisles at the grocery as leading lines.  I imagine the situation with a “rule of thirds” grid.  I look deep into my husband’s eyes and tell him he has beautiful catchlights.

15. Being a photographer is a blessing.
Not everyone is cut out to be self employeed.  It’s hard work with late night editing, demanding clients, juggling business and personal life, paperwork, and an endless marketing to do list.  BUT I LOVE THIS JOB!  I’ve photographed so many beautiful faces, shared laughs, cried happy and sad tears, given people something that can cherish during a hard time, created art that will get passed down to the next generation.  These things mean more to me than that annoying to do list or the fact that I can’t sleep some nights because I have a deadline or my next big idea.  Don’t lose sight that even though times get tough and burn out feels just around the corner, that calling yourself a professional photographer is a blessing…



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