10 random lessons i’ve learned owning a photography business

I have been thinking a lot about my business lately and what the next steps may be for me on this crazy road.

As I was thinking I realized, I have been doing this photography thing as my full-time gig for almost a decade now. Yikes! That thought brings two things to my mind… It makes me feel OLD (ha!) and I think about how much I have truly learned through this process.

So I decided to share a few of those random lessons with you today.

1. It’s not just taking photos

When I got started I thought the most important thing about this business was making sure I had amazing photography skills and mind blowing work. And while yes, it is important to know how to use a camera and software, there are so many other hats you will wear owning a business. You are a photographer/customer service expert/book keeper/marketing director/social media user/branding specialist/website creator/secretary/treasurer/CEO/CFO/ and phew, I am out of breath. You get it.

(Sidebar: I always tell young people going in to college.. if you can, take a business class as an elective. You never know if you may one day own your own business and the things you learn in those classes would be so valuable! I wish I did that instead of taking a random pottery or fitness class as electives.)

The sooner I realized that I was going to need to become good at a LOT of different things (or at least hire help in the areas I am not good at naturally), the easier things got for me in this business. Great photography skills are important, don’t get me wrong. But there are a lot of other reasons clients will want to come to you when its time to capture something important in their lives.

2. Make it about people      
Photography is about people. I mean even if you’re a real estate photographer, your clients are people. And the better you can work with, take care of, and get to truly know the people you do business with, the more your business will become successful. Not to mention, this has been the area that has blessed me the greatest.

Getting to follow my clients through life’s biggest moments is so special! To be there and capture someone’s engagement and then their wedding, followed by new babies, family photos, and so on. Its why I do what I do. I have met so many amazing people who have become dear friends through this process.

3. You don’t need the newest and latest 
It’s easy to get caught in the never-ending cycle of buying things to “help your business”. With photography, you may be tempted to convince yourself that if you just had that better lens, or that new preset, you will be better off. I have definitely wasted money buying things I didn’t really need because of those mindsets.

Now, I have a Canon service plan that offers me free maintenance and discounted repairs. This has kept my gear in better shape and it has lasted years longer. I am basically going to use things until they just doesn’t work anymore.  I am also finally learning to start putting away money in savings, so when those things do break.. I have the finances in order to buy a new one. If you can, NEVER ever use credit cards to buy things for your business. Its hard enough to make a profit in photography… and then add debt on top of it.. it will be come stressful very fast.

4. Be Yourself

Photography is an art and very much YOUR interpretation of what’s happening in front of your lens. You are the artist. So when you are establishing your “style” and “look” make sure it is a reflection of YOU. Don’t just try and copy what everyone else is doing. Which is easier said, then done.

I remember I spent years, immersing myself in all things wedding. So many countless hours looking at the websites and blogs of other wedding photographers or reading and cutting out images I loved in wedding magazines.

And it isn’t all bad. I think you can be inspired looking at others images. But, the problem for me was that I spent TOO much time. And, it didn’t take long for me to quickly start comparing myself to everyone else’s work. I didn’t feel inspired or encouraged. I felt discouraged and defeated.

I remember another friend who is a photographer told me at one point… “You know when you are looking at others work online and comparing yourself, it really isn’t a true comparison, Jenny. You are seeing their best. And you know both your good and bad. You don’t know what’s in their cuts folder like you know what’s in yours.”  I always felt that opened my eyes a bit.

I realized I needed to stop comparing myself to others. I didn’t have to be just like every popular movement going on (Totally Rad actions, the VSCO presets, then everyone converting to Film.. not that those things were bad at all.. just not my style). I need to do what I felt was ME. The same goes with what I charge. I needed to ask for what I believed I need in order to keep this business afloat and help provide for my family.

I still struggle at times with feeling my work is plain, boring, or simple. But, not nearly as much as before. I think it’s a lesson I may have to learn a few times though.:)

5. Referrals are the way to go

Word of mouth referrals are the most powerful source of bookings for us. Hands down. People are way more likely to trust the recommendation of a friend than an ad they saw on Facebook. I am so grateful for our previous couples that have told so many of their friends about us. It really is the best compliment we can ever receive.

I always try and thank my clients who do refer someone by offering them a free session or at least by sending a thank you. It really does mean so much and I want them to know that!

6. Organization is key

I am not a naturally organized person. I ramble. I use a lot of ….. (those dot things). I am not the best writer (run on sentences, anyone?) So you can image how my business was looking until I finally found ways to make some systems and special spots for things.  It’s not just a matter of being tidy. It’s having routines and in my case, help. I ended up hiring my best friend years ago as my office manager because she is really good at that kind of stuff.. and I am not!  And it has saved me so many headaches and a whole lot of time.

Also, it’s just not fair to your clients to be unorganized. We shoot weddings.. so can you image how a client would feel if we lost a card with images from their big day because we don’t have a consistent place to put it? Or if I just threw all of their images on a USB without any type of order or organization?  Organization = Sanity.

7. Your time is important

This is a lesson you hear coming at you from every direction. Charge for your time. Value it. But when you’re just getting started, you often do work for less than your ideal rate, or even for free, just to get the ball rolling. That’s ok, I did it too. But for me it took me too long to really charge what I should. I felt like I was running around like a crazy person. I thought maybe it was because I had two toddlers at the time… but once I started to do the math, I was shocked. The amount of time and expense in I was putting in for what I was getting paid… wasn’t worth it. Sometimes I wasn’t making any profit at all!

I think the more of I have owned my own business, the more I have realized my time is important. And it’s hard. You are the boss, which has it’s perks. But, you can’t call in sick.. the work will still be there. You can’t just take off for weeks, without feeling the responsibility of what you left behind. And sometimes throughout the years when I haven’t managed my time well.. I felt like this business was more like a ball and chain, then a blessing.

So this isn’t just about charging the rate for your work that your local market has decided is “fair”. This is about realizing that your time is all you have. So make sure you are spending it wisely.

That also brings me to the topic of balance. It is probably the most important thing I have had to learn as a business owner! I started my business because I wanted to be home and have a flexible schedule for my kids. Now three kids later… and fostering other little ones on a regular basis in and out… Balance is more important than ever.

You may feel the urge to consume yourself with all things business related (I know I went through waves of that, working day and night). But, during those seasons, I felt like I was slacking as a mom, wife, or friend. And I was just plain exhausted trying to manage it all. I had no routine, no plan.

Then I realized I needed to make one. And it’s changed over the years. It is an ongoing battle. And I am always searching for the right formula for how I should spend my time during each season I am in. How much I should be putting in to my work week and how much time I have to do other things in my life.

It is hard! But so important to be intentional about this.

8. Make things simple for your clients.

People are busy. And in our world, they are brides trying to plan a wedding. That is stressful, time consuming, and confusing! So the more you can do to make things easy for your clients, the more they’ll love you for it.

Things like having an easy way for them to contact you for questions or information (and replying in a timely manner). An easy to use website that provides a lot of information upfront. Creating guides that help them through the different processes. Having a payment system that makes it easy for them to pay. And just over-communicating throughout the process.

It is really just being as helpful as you possibly can! That mindset can be the difference between one-time clients, and those that keep coming back because it is easy and comfortable.

And it makes your world easier, because everyone is on the same page. They know what’s happening and so do you.  So there is a lot less conflict.

9. Goals & When you don’t reach them. 

I have had moments in in my business where I feel stuck. I felt like I have no direction. Goals have been a way to get me out of those ruts. Goals come in all shapes and sizes, so set different kinds. Goals for the day. Goals for the week. 5 years from now.

Taking a morning or day to just sit and write out some goals make a huge difference!

On the flip side, realize there will be times you may not reach them or make mistakes along that way. That’s ok! I spent way too much time beating myself up on failures or things I didn’t get to. But in the end, I have learned valuable lessons from those moments. And I am glad I have had something to look to or strive for.

10. Under Pressure

I have this horrible habit of putting a ton of pressure on myself. I don’t know if it is because I am the oldest of five kids or just my personality. But, I can quickly feel the weight of things. This business has definitely given me pressure in a few ways.

One, the pressure of providing financially. My hubby is a teacher, a fantastic one! But, as you know teachers don’t have the biggest paycheck, so working has been something I have done to help provide. And as our family has grown.. so has the expenses. Which means I need to be sure my paycheck keeps coming in. Six years ago I hired on my best friend full time. So I also need to make sure hers will continue to go through too. And this business is not consistent. It has seasons of busy times and seasons of slower work. This can create a lot of pressure. It is still something I struggle with constantly. But, I have learned that God is never going to leave us or forsake us. I know He will provide (because He always has before and He promises He will).

Another pressure in this business is pleasing others. Because this is an art form, it is personal. I remember it used to hurt my feelings when a former client went to another photographer after using me. I always felt like it must have been because they didn’t like what I was able to give them. Over the years, I have learned this isn’t always true and that people have lots of reasons for bouncing around to different photographers (these days everyone probably knows at least 5 of us.. there are so many photographers!)  And everyone is different, so there will be lots of people who’s style of imagery they prefer doesn’t align with mine.

I also used to (and still do) struggle with complaints or feedback from others. It isn’t easy to listen to others’ opinions of you and of your work, especially if there are more negatives than positives being shared! This was really hard for me because I haven’t heard too many complaints in the past 9 years (thank goodness). So when I have, Id take it too hard. I really let a simple bad comment make me feel like I am failure. And I was totally being silly about it.

Even yesterday, I had a conversation with a client. He wasn’t even complaining, but because he started to say he wanted a few changes with some images. I was tempted to feel like he wasn’t happy and I did a bad job. But the more I thought, the more I realized this is just part of business. And some of these moments can be teachable times for me. If the complaint was because of a miscommunication, how can I do that better next time? If it was a certain angle or perspective they don’t like, don’t use that on them again. If I want to become better at what I do (whether its managing clients or actually taking photos), one of the best ways to know what to fine-tune is to be ok hearing feedback and comments.

Thanks for letting me share 10 random things I have learned. These are not all my ideas, some are words of advice I heard along the way. I just knew years ago, I would love to read something like this!

If you have any advice you would like to add, just leave some in the comments below!

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