Becoming A Professional Photographer in 2014 (And Living An Amazing Life) – Part 2.

This post is the second of a 3-part series on starting your own photography business in 2014. If you didn’t catch the beginning, you can find it here.

professional photographer

The BUSINESS Context.
A business cannot exceed the power of the person who builds it. To put it another way – your business is a direct manifestation of the mindsets which run your own life.

If you don’t experience power in your life and you make yourself happy through validation / putting down others / elevating yourself / buying stuff, then your business strategy and tactics will follow similar patterns.

If, however, your life is centred around contribution, sharing and creating, then you will create a business model and culture which will reflect those traits.


“You Own A Media Company.”
This is something that I heard Gary Vallerchuk say and I was floored.

In How To Become A Successful Full-Time Photographer In 1 Year: The Ultimate Guide I said you need to think of yourself as a contributor first, businessperson second and photographer third.

I think Gary captures it better. The “businessperson” part in my statement needs to be refined to say “You’re an owner of a media company”.


Why Should You Believe Me?
I don’t care if you’re a wedding photographer, fine art photographer (or a bakery owner, for that matter) – if you’re in business, you’re dealing with people.

And people these days are living and buying on the Internet.

They enter the Internet, more often than not, through the feeds of their social media platforms. More specifically yet, they do it on their mobile devices.

And they don’t come to buy anything. They come to connect, to be inspired, to be entertained and to escape their realities.


I’m A Little TV Station.
Regardless of what business you’re in, if you are in business in 2014, you’re in the media business.

The day I began to think of myself as a little TV station that really, really cares about photography, entrepreneurship and empowerment, everything changed.

becoming a professional photographer

Content Is King, Blah .. Blah .. Blah.
If you think of yourself as a photographer first, it’s normal to view tasks like editing photos, learning photographic skills, answering emails from customers as your priorities.

Of course, those are critical tasks and should not be ignored. However, there are plenty of skilled photographers out there with very clean inboxes who are not getting paid. That is not the aim of this game.

What you need is exposure, some of which turns into paying customers. Thankfully, social media has created plumbing on top of the Internet which has made that easier than ever by producing relevant, valuable, shareable content.


The Trouble With Photographers.
When you think of yourself as a photographer (before being a media business owner), producing great content and participating on social media typically gets relegated to the category of “that annoying, but necessary thing I must do – and I will, when I get the time”.

However, if you consider yourself to be in the media business, producing content becomes the centre of your business model.

Repeat after me – after your YOU context, your next most urgent priority is your BUSINESS context. Specifically, the business of making a difference to others by publishing content that you’re passionate about.


The World Is Changing.
The barriers to starting a photography business have never been lower. A WordPress site, Gmail, some freebie templates & logos, a few social media accounts, PayPal and AdWords will provide you with most of the infrastructure you need for next to no cost.

A camera which cost over $10K ten years ago now costs about $1K. And the photographic skills which ten years ago were shrouded in mystique are now freely taught on YouTube.

There are photographers who built their careers by posting to Instagram.


The World Is Changing, Part II.
Organic Google search traffic has emerged as the “maker or breaker” of entrepreneurs; to many artists and small business owners it’s still a mysterious, somewhat evil black box which incessantly disrupts their business by incessantly changing its algorithms.

Social media, once viewed as a temporary fad, is now a critical ingredient without which marketing efforts are almost guaranteed to fall flat on their face.


Traditional Advertising Is Dead.
How many big, fancy photographic studios have you seen close doors in the last 5 years?

Many of them relied on traditional advertising and brand exposure through their shopfronts in shopping malls.

Trouble is, people don’t shop by strolling through malls any more.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Many do – while staring at their mobile devices, looking through recommendations of their friends in their social media feeds and interacting with brands which post excellent, shareable content.

All while expensive advertising, banners and slogans of the shopping malls sail right by, unnoticed.

becoming a professional photographer

Traditional SEO Is Dead.
SEO must be viewed in a larger overall marketing picture. (And a reminder – that picture must be, in turn, viewed as part of your overall YOU context).

The trouble with SEO is that it’s viewed as an necessary evil. Just like in the 1990s photographers had to take out ads in magazines and treat those as a necessary overhead, photographers in 2014 think of SEO as a tactic they have to buy.

Manipulating Google is still possible, though I think we’re beyond the point where it’s a sustainable business practice.

Which is why viewing yourself as a media company is critical. In this context, all of SEO best practices become a natural extension of what you do.


Cash Is Fuel.
Your business should serve a purpose that’s greater than just making money. However, a lack of money will kill your business, so in many ways your business is subservient to it.

After I got some cash flowing through my business I began to awaken to its creative force.

Before, I was catching myself treating cash as an end goal. And sure, cash is still important in a sense that I have responsibilities that I need to pay for. However, that’s the human being in me talking.

When viewed through the lens of a typical human being, cash is largely something that allows consumption. When viewed through the lens of a businessperson, cash is something that allows creation.


Profit vs Wages.
A big mistake entrepreneurs who are one-man-band operators make, is confusing revenue with profit and wages.

When you start, your revenue is not even enough to cover your wage and its business expenses (so you probably have to work another, “real” job to make up the difference).

One day you get to a point where a business can sustain your wages and bills – just. It’s critical to realise that, at this point, you’re still making zero profit.


Cap Your Wages.
As soon as you grow beyond that point, you’ll notice a temptation to spend the extra money on yourself (because I worked hard and deserve it, dammit!).

You begin to treat your profits as an ever-increasing wage. I get it, it’s tempting to start dreaming about the cars and the fancy apartments.

It’s critical to limit that spending, because those initial dribs and drabs of pure profit, if leveraged in your business, will help you a lot more than if they were spent on expensive shoes.

Business is competitive; you need to reinvest your profits into it and leverage that cash. If you treat all your profits as your personal spending money, you will not beat your competition.


Don’t go into debt to finance your photography business. It’s easy to rationalise that you need $10-20K for a few camera bodies, lenses and lights – and go take out a loan.

Excitement of ownership quickly becomes a burden of repayments.

Renting your equipment is more expensive (per job). However, when you’re renting, you’re not just getting the gear – you’re also purchasing a reduction in risk. At the beginning, before you’ve found a solid business model and discovered how to convert your time and money into profit, a reduction in risk is a very worthy “purchase”.


How I Did It.
For my first few jobs I found a friend of a friend who was willing to lend me his Canon 5D for a weekend; I then rented a couple of lenses in addition to the tune of about $150.

After a while, when business picked up I began to rent the entire set-up. I tried to book as many shoots into a weekend as I could and then found a rental shop which had a great weekend deal (about $300 for a Nikon D4 + a couple of lenses). Revenue from one job paid for the rent, revenue from the others became profits.


This article is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Read Part 3.

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Simon Pratley

Great article Steve. I like your logic and I can see how it would make a difference to starting a small photograph.. ehh I mean media business!
I look forward to your next post.

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