When you’ve been in an industry a long time, there are two things that are certain: You’ve made some mistakes, and you’ve seen a lot of the people coming up around you make mistakes, too. And, eventually, you see so many people make so many of the same mistakes, that you start to keep a log.
Joel Grimes has been in the photography business for 30+ years. He’s watched a lot of photographers rise to the highest heights of fame and fall into complete obscurity. He’s faltered, himself, and he’s watched those around him do the same.
But Joel’s a realistic guy. He knows that telling young photographers what not to do may ring hollow until they, themselves experience it.
“Just knowing something doesn’t mean we’re going to do it,” he explained in his CreativeLive class on the business of commercial photography,
Still, he says, sometimes it can help to hear it from someone who’s been there. So, to young photographers or even those who have been working a long time but are just looking to get started in commercial work, here are Joel’s guideposts for building a photography business that lasts over the long haul.
1. Debt. It is easy to be tempted to finance your next purchase, your next investment, or even your lifestyle. But no matter how many credit card offers arrive in the mail – don’t do it. There are investments that can build wealth and financial calculations that make borrowing pencil out, but for the most part, “debt is a choking factor that can kill your business,” Joel explains.
Living above your means can create a chaotic spiral and put undue pressure on your business. If you want to enjoy lasting success, Joel advises, “don’t spend more money than you have coming in, be conservative.”
2. Big ego, big studio. Working in a big, airy studio is a pretty romantic (and common) photographer’s dream. Having your own spacious studio space can make you feel like you made it – like you are rolling with the big guys. But Joel tells you that vying for a big studio when you are just starting out is a fool’s errand. “It’s our ego that says, I wanna be rubbing elbows with the big shots so I need all of this flash and its easy to get sucked into that.”
The truth? “That big studio is a money pit.” Joel recalls his own experiences of spending tons of cash keeping a big studio up and operating early in his career. He had the big workspace, but found he was frequently having to rent bigger spaces for big shoots despite the high rent he was paying. The studio didn’t pencil for that point in his career, so he downsized. “A big studio can put you under real quick and put you out of business.”
3. Full-time employees. Photography is a fickle business. Work can fluctuate week to week and month to month. A commitment to a full-time employee must be made only when you can really afford to make it.
It’s not an impossible prospect. If you are doing a swift business and need a team, then by all means, build that staff, just make sure you are making a decision you can sustain. “There are some models you can go by to figure out if you can afford a full-time employee.”
Just don’t go hiring an assistant so you don’t have to move your gear or clean your floors. As Joel says, “I’ll mop! It’s not beyond me or below me.”
4. Equipment junkies. “You don’t need a $2,000 lens to create killer images.” It’s true that you can’t be a photographer without gear, but you don’t need to break the bank to do it well.
According to Joel “we don’t need about 90% of what we run out and buy.” There are just so many great options on the market, it can be hard to remember that you can accomplish pretty much everything you want with a little ingenuity and the equipment you already have. In fact, “one lens, one camera, one light, and you can rock the world.”
5. Member of the PPWC (Professional Photographers Whining Club). Joel didn’t mince words when he discouraged photographers from hanging out with photographers who bemoan the state of the industry, “don’t get into that mode.”
While photographers have to wear a whole lot of hats and overcome a whole lot of hurdles, complaining about it won’t inspire you. Instead, you have to be optimistic and energized about the business.“When you start hanging out with people who whine, you start whining.”
And frankly, “How many times are you encouraged by a whiner? You’re not.”
6. In it for the money. Joel is no fool, he gets that photography is a career and, “we all have to make money, money makes the world go ‘round.” But in order to weather the inevitable ups and downs of being in the business, you have to hold on to your higher calling to create and to be an artist – it’ll help get you through the storm.
“If you are in it for the money, you are only going to be around when the money is good.” And the money won’t always be good.
7. Inept Marketing. The inability to pick up the phone and make a cold call can put you under. You have to overcome your hesitations about selling yourself, because you have to continue to drum up business. It is how you get paid. “You’ve got to overcome that fear that they are going to say no. If you can’t overcome that, you won’t make it,” Joel said.
That doesn’t mean its going to be easy – most things worth doing rarely are, that said, “there is no one on the planet that can’t learn how to sell themselves.”
8. Living a rock star’s lifestyle. For all the glamour surrounding the business, when it comes down to it, photographers are working professionals who need to do the boring work of building systems and getting enough sleep and planning for the long haul.
“All the photographers I know who were in it for the lifestyle aren’t doing it anymore. You can’t do it and have a thirty year career.” Late nights and erratic relationships won’t sustain a long-term career. You’re a photographer not a rock star, after all.
9. Inability to brand your vision as an artist. Your brand is your calling card, it’s the cue that brings you to mind when a client is looking to book business. Joel warns, “if you can’t brand yourself then nobody really identifies you with a certain look, feel, or style of photography.”
Focus on what excites you and the kind of work you want to do and present that to the world. It will help you land business because clients will know what you’re about. Just be sure you keep it fresh and evolve with the times…
10. Inability to make changes. Yes, while you need a strong brand you also need to change with the times. Client preferences will always evolve, its part of the business. “A lot of photographers see a lot of success and they have a ten year run and the market changes and they keep doing the same old thing and no one cares anymore.” Don’t make that mistake with your business.
“I know that if I don’t change, I die.”