The Truth About Starting a Photography Business: You’re Probably Wasting Your Time

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Trigger warning: Someone is about to get their feelings hurt.

Most readers would think this is one of those articles with the clever clickbait title. Grab attention with an outrageous negative, then turn it around into a positive.

You’re wasting your time if you do this, this, and this. But if you do that, that, and that, instead, you won’t be wasting your time!

In this case, you’d be partly right. This article lays out a problem, and offers a solution. But for the most part, the title is telling it exactly how it is. If you are starting a photography business, you’re probably wasting your time.

Author’s Note:

I debated over publishing this content. Mostly because we live in an overly sensitive world. Almost every online community has the rule to play nice, not upset anyone, keep everything positive positive positive. If we must deliver bad news, we need to wrap it in rainbows and take someone out for ice cream before we ease into the conversation. That might be helpful – with children.

But we are supposed to be adults. The real world isn’t like this. If you’re not prepared for it, you will forever be hiding in your ‘safe space’. If you’re trying to start a business, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is tell the truth. Not the bubble gum flavored version of the truth. The truth they need to hear. The truth that everyone else knows, but doesn’t have the nerve to say to someone’s face.

It takes love to tell someone: You are a train wreck. Get off the track before you hurt yourself or someone else.

If you read this article and see yourself, keep reading. There is good news. Don’t take offense, take action. If you see someone familiar, be brave and have a conversation. Or send them a link to this article, and I’ll have the conversation instead.

Everything here goes back to the commitment to help you succeed. A tough industry needs tough love. Success doesn’t always mean what you think it does. Sometimes success means quitting before you even begin.

Let’s start a photography business!

Anyone with a camera and some spare time can start a photography business. Many do. There’s no professional regulation. There isn’t even a formal education requirement. Learn to point that camera at someone who will exchange a little money for your effort, and you’re in business. And that is exactly why countless photography businesses – both legitimate and under the table – start every year.

But nature demands balance. The easier it is to begin a thing, the easier it is to bail out when “easy” turns into “work”.

Any internet search will turn up pages and pages of articles to lead you in and nurture you through the early stages of a photography business. They will do everything to encourage, and some try to paint a realistic picture of the challenges. But few if any go so far as to discourage. That’s probably because people tend to shoot the messenger. And because positivity sells. Reality? Not so much. (More on that later.)

The result is the camera owner who decides to follow their passion, capture precious moments, never work a day in their lives, and many more hollow cliches written by people who ignore the most important one: Misery loves company.

The truth is that not everyone is cut out to run a business. Any business. Much less a labor intensive, emotionally charged, creativity based business like photography. The additional truth is that it’s easy to tell whether someone is or isn’t suited before they even start down the path to certain doom. The third truth – because things seem to come in threes, after all – is that all your potential colleagues know this. They are wise to who is which. They will happily complain about it in their own little echo chambers.

They see you.

But rarely will someone point out to “that photographer” that they are wasting their time.

I don’t have that problem.

If the mirror looks like this, you are wasting your time

So what is it about someone that gives it away? What behaviors, attitudes, or personality traits flash the invisible “Fated to Fail” over a photographer’s head?

That is a question that deserves an answer. It’s the answer that so many want to give, but that coddle culture forbids. Let’s hold up a mirror for a moment and consider what we see.

Ask yourself honestly if any of these statements are true.

You’re too lazy to do what it takes.

And it takes a lot. Technically, you can start a photography business without a camera. But just owning a camera you use to make money does not make you a legitimate business. Nor does it mean you’re even capable of running a business. Just about everything else on this list comes back to this single point. If you’re not willing to put in the time, effort, and money – yes, money – to research, learn, build, market, improve, serve, and to keep doing all these things even after you realize how hard it really is, you are wasting your time.

You’re too fragile and self-centered.

Not everyone is going to like you, least of all other struggling photographers. Don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s because they worry that you’re better than they are. If they are in the Time Waster category, too, you will be just another drop of blood in shark infested waters. The more of you there are, the more you’ll fight over the scraps. To the profitable photographer, you’re an irritation, but you’re not competition. You and the other Time Wasters are driving down industry pricing and incubating a nightmare client class. That is all.

That itself isn’t the problem. The problem is everyone else is too polite to tell you that. They are content to let you burn out in your own time. Meanwhile, you’re giving the entire profession a bad name. The first time someone does try to explain these things, your delusions mistake it as an attack. Or worse, insecurity. Realize that it isn’t the person trying to help who is the insecure one.

In the pre-digital days, photography took more of a commitment to prefect. The photographer’s skill set was a dark art – literally – and the talent gaps were easy to see. It took time, patience, and practice to create a decent body of work. The byproduct of this time and effort wasn’t just great photography, but confidence.

Modern cameras have taken a lot of the art out of the craft. A “nice camera” will take a “nice snapshot”. It’s easy to mistake your camera’s skills as being your own. A critique, requested or not, can be crushing to a Time Waster. It can be painful to know that others don’t think you’re as skilled as you think you are.

Rejection and criticism will be a part of your daily business life. If this fear holds you back, or if denial puts you out of touch, you are wasting your time.

You’re happy being a bottom feeder.

When you decide to become a working photographer, you decide to enter an incredibly oversaturated, highly undervalued, fiercely competitive industry.

Like most industries, it has its own biosphere. The big fish cruise along confidently, taking their fill. They are well fed and everyone else just stays out of their way. Of the rest, the majority are cruising happily along in their own space, enjoying growth in a self-made comfort zone. There may be ups and downs in the current, but they basically go with the flow.

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And then there’s the bottom feeders. They have an important place in this biosphere. They keep things tidy by soaking up all the stuff that no one else has time or desire for.

In business, that “stuff” includes clients looking for rock bottom pricing. Clients who want all the things, but without the price tag. Some of these people have already worked with other photographers higher up the chain. The bottom feeder doesn’t think to wonder if this might be a warning of some sort.

Because the business bottom feeder takes what it can get, quality is not nearly as important as quantity. Scarcity is their constant companion. Not knowing where the next client is coming from, or when they might appear turns fear into the bottom feeder’s biggest motivator. Fear leads to bad decisions. Bad decisions are business killers.

Anyone can start a business and begin at the bottom. There is valuable experience there. It’s the things that aren’t there that make staying at the bottom a waste of time. Reputation, respect of other photographers, and profitability are only a few of those things.

It takes effort to move up that biosphere, off the bottom, through the complacent middle, and into the school of big fish. The higher you go, the less crowded it gets. Meanwhile, the bottom is more and more crowded as more competition enters the pond. If you aren’t willing to make that effort, then you’ll stay at the bottom until you’re starved out. If that’s not a waste of time, nothing is.

You’re too cheap or shady to get legit.

Starting a legitimate business takes money. Depending on the type of business, it might not be a lot of money, but there are still expenses that you can’t get around.

You don’t need a lot of gear to be a working photographer. You only need the bare minimum to create photos and get a finished product to someone who will pay money for them.

When you look at other photographers, you don’t necessarily see where all the money went. Permits, insurance, the cost of legal and financial professionals, software or tools other than cameras and lenses.

A responsible business owner understands these things. Even if they have to bootstrap along slowly as they go, they know they have to take care of their legal requirements.

Sometimes it isn’t about money. What if you just can’t be bothered to take care of these things? What if you know that having a business permit, or introducing yourself to the IRS puts you on someone’s radar? What if the thought of paying taxes on such meager earnings doesn’t appeal to you?

You can rationalize it any way you like: The money you save can be passed on in lower prices to your clients. You’re not making a lot of money anyway, so all that reporting is just more trouble than it’s worth. You’ll worry about it when you start taking on more work or “go full time” in your business.

The bottom line is that you are operating illegally. You will never get certain opportunities because you can’t afford to expose yourself in the wrong way. If word gets around that you’re “not legit” you risk becoming a pariah. Collaboration with other photographers, vendors, and venues may be difficult if not impossible.

Clients probably won’t care if their criteria is price and your images are acceptable to their needs. They will care very much, however, if and when some accident, error, or issue comes up and you’re not prepared to deal with it. Proper business structure, professional guidance, and insurance help protect the investment in your business. If you’re only building a business to lose it, you are certainly wasting your time.

You are just a cheap knockoff.

Why go to extra effort when you can just see what works and copy it? If people are willing to pay for it, you’re merely giving them another – often cheaper – option to get it. It’s a lot easier to find a photographer who seems to be doing well and follow their lead.

There is a big difference between a role model and a ripoff. We all start out being inspired by something. We see someone’s work and wonder if we can do something similar. We look at how they’ve crafted their marketing, laid our their website, built their offer, and we think that must be the way it’s done. If we put in our own name and a bit about ourselves, it’s a great starting point.

You’re probably thinking this is the exact opposite of wasting time. Text can even be cut and pasted, and because you don’t have your own photos yet, you can just borrow some from here and there on the Internet. You’ll replace them when you’ve taken some of your own clients. The sooner you get those clients, the better, so you need a website in a hurry.

Not only have you wasted time by just slipping into someone else’s business clothes, you’ve committed Cardinal Sin Number One in the photography world: you have stolen someone else’s work to pass it off as your own.

Hopefully, you understand how wrong this is on many levels, and work to develop your own website, social media messaging, and offer.

Even then, the temptation to follow the leader can be irresistible. Your competitor’s portfolio is a roadmap to photo success. If you buy a similar dress for your model, take her to a similar location, and put her in a similar pose, you will have a product that people will buy. You can be just as good as your competition with very little effort. But that roadmap takes a detour around your own creativity and dead ends at someone else’s style.

The time you have wasted trying to duplicate someone else could have been time spent finding your own eye. You could have developed and created something different in your marketplace, something desirable for more than just its cheaper price. Remember that you will never be able to charge more for a knockoff than for an original. If you craft yourself as a knockoff, you are destined to be forever in a shadow, never to shine.

You can’t do math.

Like being lazy, this shortcoming will be the root of almost all your other problems. When you cut corners, you have no appreciation for expenses. When your strategy is to undercut someone else’s prices, you have no idea why they choose those numbers. You also don’t realize that if you work for half what someone else does, you need to work twice as much for the same money.

When a lot of business beginners think about what they charge a single client they only think about how long they spend taking the photos. A mini session can be blown through in 15 minutes. A fast $100 for 15 minutes sounds like a dream. The session is only the beginning. The photos have to be processed and delivered. Those clients didn’t just appear from nowhere. Chances are that time, money, and effort went into getting them on the calendar. Planning and preparation of the setting didn’t just magically happen, either. Once you’ve calculated the full value of time and money, it’s likely you’ve made far less than minimum wage.

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To make up for low prices, you take on more clients. The reality is that service businesses don’t make up losses by bulk handling. Every job is, to a large degree, custom and the more you take on, the more you take on. The only thing worse than being broke is being broke and burned out.

Because you can’t do math, you will never understand why you’re not making enough money. If you’re not making enough money – that’s right – you’re wasting your time.

Your people skills suck.

Photography is a service industry. You can hide behind a keyboard, market through the Internet, communicate through social media, and fret over your SEO every day of the week. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with real people.

People are the necessary evil of business. They will find unimaginable ways to test your patience. They will ask questions. They will expect answers. They will also expect you to bend your policies for them. They will have real life drama that affects your schedule, your finances, your self-confidence, and sometimes your sanity.

Sadly, it isn’t unusual to hear beginners lament about their latest client with a tone of righteous indignation. Whatever problem happened, it was all the client’s fault. It’s obvious that they wish their clients would just show up, hand them money, thank them for the lovely photos, and then just go away.

Sales inquiries stump them. “Did they even read my website?” Does it even matter? They’ve made an effort to show an interest, it’s your job to get them committed.

Miscommunication leaves them clueless. “I know she read the text message, but she never got back to me!” Never mind that the phone you’re texting on does voice calls, too.

They are unable to pick their battles. “She put some hideous filter on one of my images and posted it as her profile. I told her it’s against the terms and told her to take it down!” Thinking some cheap edit cost money you were never going to make anyway earns the wrong kind of customer review.

And my favorite, “They still haven’t paid and I need to contact them. But I just hate confrontation.” Confrontation? This isn’t confrontation, this is running a business. If this is so difficult for you, you are definitely wasting your time.

And finally…your photos just aren’t that good.

Many a mother gave the advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” This homily might keep peace in kindergarten, but in a subjective industry like photography, this advices does no favors to the person in desperate need of improvement. Constantly hearing “your composition is good” because no one is brave enough to say “you need to work on your lighting” does nothing to help.

Anyone who has ever entered a photo competition knows that another world exists. This is a world of brutal critique, no excuses, and zero tolerance. Of course, technical excellence is no guarantee of business success. Mediocre sells, too. The point is that photographers owe it to one another to give honest feedback. And to take it.

This only works, of course, once someone gets past that “you’re too fragile and self centered” hurdle previously mentioned. This underscores why being thin skinned is a handicap.

By taking criticism onboard, learning new things and becoming artists, we improve not only our work, but our chances for success. Better work commands a higher price, more quality inquiries, and more respect among peers.

While it’s true that there’s a photographer for every budget and a budget for every photographer, if work never improves, neither does the business outlook.

Some people take for granted what their camera can do. It takes a lot of guesswork out of some scenarios. It isn’t necessary to be a manual mode expert to get nice photos. But the camera creates a photo the same way a typewriter creates a novel. Being proud of yourself when the camera did all the work is naive. It’s also a countdown to closure.

Enthusiasm and a can-do attitude will only get you so far. You can be the greatest salesperson in town and book a $10,000 wedding because you said the right things and the bride likes you. Your portfolio only shows the best of the best and if you take enough photos, you’ll eventually end up with a few winners. Enthusiasm won’t take over when you don’t know how to handle the changing light or direct flattering poses. Your bride probably won’t like you as much once your photos don’t live up to her expectations.

Potential clients have overwhelming choice when it comes to photographers. Your portfolio must not only be as good as your competitors’, you must work to make it better. Instead of a dozen cherry picked photos, you should have photos that you can recreate over and over again with excellence. This should be true regardless of location, light, or subject matter.

If you’re not willing to push towards constant improvement, you will get comfortable in a rut you may never get out of. Meanwhile, your competition will pass you by, and they’ll take your potential clients with them.

And now you’re ready to give up before you even get started.

Good. Or maybe it’s not good. Is it because you see yourself in this mirror? Do you want to give up because you’re discouraged by all the changes you’ll need to make? Or is it because you’re second guessing the effort this will take? Maybe you’re just grateful to dodge a bullet.

The truth is, even people who aren’t lazy, who aren’t fragile, who don’t want to be bottom feeders, or knockoffs, or failures, will see themselves in this mirror, whether it’s true or not. The difference is that they use it as a benchmark for the things they don’t want to be. They work to improve and be the best they can be in their business and in their craft. When they see others who fit these traits perfectly, they use that Time Waster as an example of what not to do. These businesses will be just fine.

For every one of them, though, there are others who fit like the list was made just for them. They are truly wasting their time, but don’t see it. They can certainly see it in others, but not in themselves. These are the shocked and distraught when it finally dawns on them that their business hopes are on a train headed off the rails.

If that’s the case, then something previously mentioned bears repeating. It takes love to tell someone: You are a train wreck. Get off the track before you hurt yourself or someone else.

… and …

Everything here goes back to the commitment to help you succeed. A tough industry needs tough love. Success doesn’t always mean what you think it does. Sometimes success means quitting before you even begin.