I realized a little while ago that I haven’t written a “working for yourself” post in a few months. A few weeks ago, I celebrated a small milestone: the date on which, a year ago, I’d given notice at my day job. (Because I jumped the gun, I still had a month to go after letting my boss know that I was quitting.) And that’s when I remembered that I’d promised to write a different sort of post — a post that spells out the ugly truth: that the first two years of starting a photography business is like dragging yourself through hell.
This is the Looking Back post: the gritty, the crappy, the sleepless, the hard-working, the un-recognized, the penny-pinching, the demeaning. I know of a few photographers who started their businesses, caught an amazing break, and were able to go full-time in a year or less… but I think that’s the exception, not the norm.
The first two years. They are terrible, and unless you have a steely resolve to Make It Work, you will want to give up. At least, that was the case for me.
Starting a business is… well, starting something new. Usually from scratch, with limited resources, not a lot of money coming in, no one knows who you are, you might have some natural talent and a passion for shooting but you’re nowhere near the level that you want to be — all of this, combined with working another job to make ends meet, and your 24 hours don’t seem like enough to keep any type of balance. I’d research packaging in my spare time, rewrite contracts after getting burned, edit into the night, and most of all, I waited.
Waited, and watched my inbox.
This is the most maddening thing you can do in your life, but you do it anyway. You look at it and wait for someone to acknowledge your hard work. I poured hundreds of hours into bettering myself and my business, but when weeks went by and no one seemed to take an interest, it made my confidence (shaky as it already was) take a serious nosedive.
There is no good way to start a business, I’m afraid. The smartest way to become a wedding photographer, in my now-seasoned opinion, is to shoot as an assistant with a seasoned pro for a few years, get really good, pool your resources, brand yourself, and start marketing to the clients that you want (at the price point you wish to be). At that point, you’re already aware of how to shoot and how you work, what draws you and what makes your style yours, and a firm idea of what it means to be a business owner, since you probably watched your boss go through it.
If you start from scratch, you deal with a number of issues. You don’t have a portfolio, so you can’t charge what it takes to sustain a profitable business. You raise your prices as you gain experience and portfolio, so the clients who have come to you before — because of your cheap prices — turn away because they can always find someone cheaper. You battle Craigslist photographers who barely charge enough to cover gas expenses, let alone their time and talent — and you can’t be too mad, because a few months ago you were one of them. You get stuck in between that rock and that hard place, where your prices are indicative of your skill but people don’t want to pay them.
I’ve been there. Maybe you are there right now. Maybe you just left there.
There are always going to be people who don’t understand why you charge what you charge. There will be magazine and blog articles denouncing how much a wedding costs (or x or y costs, depending on what you’re doing). You will get insulting emails from people who don’t really mean to cause offense, but just don’t get it: “I can’t believe you’re charging that much for head shots”; to people who demand your services because it’ll be “great exposure for you” (hint: it rarely ever is).
There were days when I really thought I should give it up. But there were people who’d been there, done that, who said, basically, “It sucks. It’s hard. But you just keep going. And it’s rewarding, amidst the chaos.”
This is what I needed to hear a year ago, when things felt really bleak. Things. Do. Get. Better.
Everything you’re doing, every new technique you read about, every time you step out with your camera, every tear you shed when you’re too tired to function, every photo that you take and hate because it doesn’t look the way you want it to, every time you think you just can’t push any harder but you do… will help you get there.
Just keep pushing.
Thank you for so honestly, and articulately, sharing your experiences. I so needed to hear this today, and am looking forward to it getting better.