Photography...minding your own business

I know you have read about how we live in a photo age. Everyone has a camera hence everyone is a photographer. Yeah, if you own an oven you're a chef too. So you get a camera, point it at something, take a photo and someone somewhere says its nice. So you figure you can do this for a living right? I mean how hard is it? I just need a few more items...wait, I don't know how to use a flash! Oh, I'll just be a natural light photographer. No one will know. My friends that hire me won't care! You have arrived. You are probably charging to take these snap shots. Facebook is filled with these photographers but they exist outside of Facebook too. The budding community of internet photographers who know about as much and have the same or less practical experience are going to love you too. You'll follow them! 

Make no mistake, I have nothing against any of these folks. I have many as my friends. I feel no threat, and in fact help many of them with questions. I happen to think many ARE very talented too. But they aren't truly photographers no matter how much they want to be. They don't commit the time and resources to learn the craft, and they certainly don't spend the time to learn about the business side of photography which I can tell you is harder than the technical side of doing it.  Charging $25, $50 or $100 or even $250 and delivering image files is a good way to go broke and out of business so its fortunate that most of these folks have real jobs or supportive spouses. You can shoot and "burn" for sure and make money but you have to charge appropriately for the work. Thats the whole key, charging for the work. In seeing most of the work most Facebook photographers produce, its probably priced correctly at free or at $25/$50/$100/$150. Again, I'm not passing judgment or dissing anyone here, I'm just saying the truth. The work is fine for the amateur pond they swim in but its not going to cut it once they hit larger waters. Totally cool with that. You can stay and work at whatever level you want. A lot of the work coming from the big pond is not necessarily better either, but its charged for appropriately, contracts are correct, and the experience is professional. Presentation always matters. 

I've been testing the larger waters for a few years now. Some days I sink and some I swim but one thing I have learned is all my technical know how, be it lighting or cameras, is secondary to my photography business skills in being successful. I have over 30 years of computer software and hardware business knowledge coupled with sales and business development. It mostly means zero in the photography world. I know how to build and cultivate a relationship and thats about the only skill that carries over except maybe being good with Word and Excel. Running your photography business successfully is when you become a pro. This means laying a good foundation to start in structuring your business, being incorporated, and having your accounting ready to go. You need to identify everything that costs when running a business. Yeah, you do. There are the obvious things like rent and utilities, but what about retirement? Vacation? A salary? College fund? Contracts? Not working with contracts now? Stop and go to work somewhere else because your entire personal wealth is at risk. Insurance? If you aren't fully 100% insured you also need to go find another job because you can't be serious. You need equipment AND liability insurance if you will work for others. I carry a certificate with me in my bag since many customers demand it before you can walk in their door. The "costs" list is huge but it has to be a part of your business requirements. You use that list and it's costs to establish your pricing. Pricing is the one variable that means so much. Pricing isn't just what you charge for taking pictures, its what you charge to deliver them, a percentage of your costs of business, what you charge for your time if you are traveling, and if you are traveling and not working what you charge for missing work you could be doing if you weren't on a plane. Or in a car. Your time is worth something. 

I just returned from a two day intense workshop hosted by a group of photographer educators based in Dubai. They worked with four top names in the business and those four folks spent around 5 hours a day with the group of 100 or so photographers present. Plus social time in the evenings. They opened up about their business, costs, finding work, you name it. They talked and in some cases, used their own personal finances to illustrate how important it is run a business right and ultimately, what a professional is and isn't. This group of four, the top names in the business who shoot for Time, Nat Geo, and other magazines like Newsweek and People, command an average editorial day rate of $350. They might get 2-3 assignments a week. Thats at best about $50k a year or so. After expenses (those costs of business) they have around $13k left over. Retirees on social security make about $12k on average. Pretty sobering numbers. So they CAN'T just do editorial work, they have to diversify and branch to other areas centered around commercial work, advertising, and in rare cases for these folks, fashion. One of the four is an esteemed Distinguished Professor at Syracuse and runs their photojournalism department now so while he does have a full time job, he still works - at a high level and rate, but he does shoot and has some sobering experiences to talk about. All four are and were approachable and totally honest. One guy, Zack Arais, asked for anonymous attendees to submit their monthly costs using ballpark figures and the top 5-6 items on the list to establish an average cost per month for a business, Some had studios, some didn't. It cost about $3k per month, some less and some more, on average to run a professional business. $36k a year. 

Finding work and sustaining work is the hardest part. Just to get those 2-3 assignments a week, requires a lot of networking, and calls to push your work out. Some of them have Facebook presences sure, but none of them use any online social media to find or secure work. They use their web sites, their contacts and people skills to land new work and they use AGENTS. Yes, they pay an agent between 15 and 20 percent on any work the agent finds for them. Yes, they do "free" work but always with a caveat leading to more work. In writing. They pitch ideas through their contacts and they all do their own projects, self funded, to promote themselves. I have struggled with the same issues of finding work, using my online resources correctly, projects and pricing but waited until this workshop to make any changes. I harbored doing some of the things I learned last weekend but wanted validation before doing them. I got that. 

You can be booked for weeks in advance. Working all the time, shooting everyday but unless you are charging correctly for your services and skilled enough to charge market rates AND running your business correctly, you best have an inheritance, sugar daddy spouse or day job to back you up. In fact, if you can't charge market rates cause your work isn't good enough. You can't shoot in every lighting condition including indoors or no light, and don't know your equipment or your business management is poor, you might be better off staying on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and working for free. You can still call yourself a photographer if you want. Growing up I told people I was a cowboy. If you decide to swim in the big water, get your business structured, learn your equipment, understand your craft and we can float together until our life vests run out of air or we get a ride in a boat. Right now, I'll take any boat that passes. I don't need the Queen Mary.