I anticipate this post will be a practical guide so grab a coffee and have something ready to take some notes. My intention is to give you a handful of strategic advice that I used to start a photography business from scratch, using an entry level DSLR camera working my way to professional gear photographing everything from portraits, to newborn photography, birthings, weddings to modelling and commercial shoots. If this post is received well enough and I get some good enough feedback I will consider making a longer form version, maybe even a video series or something of the likes. Are you ready?
Note: This post will not cover the tasks such as business registration, business accounts, etc. there is plenty of professional advise on that around the web, particularly important for your own counties regulations which I recommend you seek.
A brief background
I was never really creative when it came to art or drawing so the thought of being a professional photographer had never crossed my mind. In fact before I became one I often looked at togs as nerds, weird people that did photoshoots of people with shadows over their faces in black and white mode. It just wasn’t appealing. Then one day I bought a new MacBook from a department store and there was a promotion on at the time where all purchases would come with a bonus Canon 1000D DSLR. Again, I thought nothing of it – using it occasionally for family outings etc. – in automatic mode of course. I knew nothing else but how to switch it on and press the shoot button.
One weekend while I was away a friend of mine explained that the “little red dots” in the view finder were focal points that allowed you to focus on something and “blur out” other parts. I was curious. Partly because I like technology and secondly, I’m fascinated by something that stimulates my learning, particularly when it is technical and perceived as initially complicated, something for me to figure out.
A few months later I was playing around with the camera and setup a shoe on my bed and started snapping. I vividly remember I took one particular shot that I was thrilled about, lighting was great, focus was nice… remember, I was photographing a shoe, on a bed! A part of me said “I can do this” and then that was it, I practised more, nothing complicated, just playing with light, focus, “blur” (soon to be known as depth-of-field), bokeh, etc. and began getting more confident. Keep in mind at this stage my photos were still terrible – but they had some promise.
My decision to start a business
One sunny day I went to the park to do a photo session of my little boy – just for fun for my wife and I to have some nice pictures of him. I fell in love with the camera and the process of doing a “shoot”. The pictures I took were reasonable, often drawing a question to my wife “Oh look, how good does this one look? Look at the blur! Oh look how nice his eyes look in this one, it’s so sharp!”. I came home that day and decided to start a facebook page. I called it “Siladji Photography” and that was the seed which began my photography journey. At this stage I was making no money from the project. I just decided I would start a page and let everyone know I was in the game so to speak.
At this point I will say that with practise my skills were getting better and I could see it had further potential. Photography is quite subjective and one persons likeness to your work will be very different to another. With that said it’s very easy for anyone to gain some paid work if they have a little skill. The continuous income comes when you deliver a quality product that is consistent with your brand.
Doing what I knew
I first went to facebook as a platform for my business because it was a social platform I knew and it had the power of viraility. I knew that if someone liked something it had reach amongst their social groups and I knew I could capitalise on that.
I setup a small business page on facebook and named it after my surname because I believe in the power of having a personal brand. I invited all of my family and friends to like the page. Now for some this will work, for others I respect you may not have the support there. If you fall under the latter you may have to work a little harder in the beggining to gain traction but it still works. A small handful of people will follow you and you may have an additional 1-2, maybe more, friends-of-friends follow you. This is where it starts. Thank your followers when they like, comment or share.
Setting up the engine
The engine of your business will be the service you provide, i.e., the photography shoots you do. In order to transact this service you need to be clear about what you will offer, the brand around it and how much you will charge.
When I first started I charged in one hour blocks as a minimum and offered a base package of a 1-hour shoot with a selection of the hi-res colour images and black and white equivalents. These were presented on DVD disk (would now otherwise do it on USB) and presented in a branded bag closed with matching swing tag. My images were candid, if outdoors taking advantage of the sun and anything green, so I went with an organic theme. I would stick to this theme through the years of service and it became known that’s how I delivered my product. If one was being delivered I would Instagram it or Facebook post it and tag the recipient – it created an atmosphere of excitement and often conversation, which can create leads.
I would typically offer three packages;
- Base package – Shoot with images as noted above
- Second package – Shoot with images with a framed print of their choice, or canvas
- Third package – Minimum three hour shoot with images. I would offer a bonus offer on this at cost-benefit to the client to add a print to this package also, structured such that I made more too
As my work quality increased and my business built traction I would get more enquiries for bigger jobs such as events and weddings. With that I put together a series of events packages, in particular wedding packages such that when enquired I could respond quickly, consistently and confidently.
With respect to weddings for example, I typically offered the following;
- Base package – 10 hour coverage with images as noted above
- Second package – 10 hour coverage with images and a premium quality album
- Third package – Full event coverage and a selection of products including albums, enlargements and printed products
The price range across my general services ranged from $150-$220 per hour, events usually fetching around $450-$500 per booking and wedding packages typically sat around an average of $3200 to $5K+. These prices were chosen very early on and varied little.
When a discount was requested I declined. I knew the value of my work and the efforts required and would not move on price.
Most people agreed with my quote and booked. For more firmer requested discounts I would offer a bonus print (low cost) for perceived added value over a reduction price. If this failed I would comfortably leave the business on the table and loose the sale. Clients that heckle this hard to reduce your cost will often give you grief during the shoot, the edit and complain about your final delivered product and are not worth the headache. I faced very little, if any client issues from memory by managing the expectations of my clients this way. Think about that if you are facing these problems regularly.
Getting bookings and telling a story
98% of my bookings came via facebook. My page was setup such that my contact details were readily available and my cover photo design pointed to the “message” button for bookings. My response rate was typically within the day (even though I still had a full time job at the same time – hustle baby!).
In the early days when just starting out, it’s ok to let people know your new. Offer a small number of early-bird offers at an attractive price point and deliver the finished products within a fair time frame. From there as time goes on deliver your products with consistent quality and in fair time. Usually 1 – 2 weeks for an event. A wedding can take a few more weeks due to image volume but communicate that with the client and you should have no objection. You’ve also usually developed a relationship with the client by this stage so they are accommodating.
Strategically, after each shoot I would select one of my favourites, blur it out completely and watermark it with “sneaky preview coming soon” in a typeface suited to my brand, again tagging my clients. If you choose to do this on another social platform the principle is the same.
Within 24 hours I would share (with pre-obtained permission) approx. 5 images from the shoot, again tagging my clients. This would generate conversation online – of which I would engage, without selling. This allowed me to add additional value, get to know people and be myself. This would usually be followed by a friend request or another inbox message enquiring about my work.
The generally accepted ratio of released previews to new bookings made was 1:1, i.e., for every shoot and subsequent preview online I released I would make about one new booking. Keep in mind I only had about 200 likes on my page but still ran a successful side hustle. It’s not quantity – it’s how you use what you have.
I would always respond to private messages with conversation in context around their event. If they asked price I would always disclose. I have found some businesses prefer to wait for a face-to-face or call to discuss. Coming from corporate sales I value the power of closing via phone however I found in the photography business it wasn’t required.
Ideas for generating leads
- Seasonal and theme sessions – Easter, Valentines, Christmas etc. I would create visual advertisments in the form of posts to my followers advertising seasonal or themed promotions.
- Test out paid promotions – Facebook, for example, has exceptional data for targeted ads. When starting out this can be expensive so you can do it old school at the start. One-by-one hustle per booking. It’s more fun too. I think from memory I paid for one promotion but found better ROI on my own doing.
- If I was out of previews and my inbox was quite I would come up with a promo – special for first 5 bookings, a promotion or special of some sort good for the first five that contacted me. I would use this tool strategically as I knew those five new shoots would generate me an additional 3-5 more during good periods in post bookings. Remember, I was pulling roughly 1:1 shoot to book.
- For regular clients that booked me as their regular photographer for family events etc. I would offer a 10% off thank you card for their next business – this was different to being asked to discount and would encourage and provide repeat business. Do good work once, repeat forever.
- Early on I participated in one TFP shoot. These are generally organised by a group of upcoming business guys and girls that are new to the game and wanted exposure. We had a themed session around weddings and had a team of models, hair stylists, make up artists, dress and accessory makers and we spent an entire day on location doing shoots. In return for their time, I gave them images for free. This landed me in an international magazine which was a nice outcome as well as a stack of images for my promotional material. Agreements are made at the time of TFPs in order to outline what can and can’t be done with images.
As you go on you learn. I was self taught. Completely. I attended a very basic course but had learnt most of the content before going. YouTube is a solid place to learn about photography and the software associated with it. Learn a package and practise a lot. I used Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop in parallel and it’s still my go-to graphics software today – industry standard really.
These experiences are simple but proven. It takes a lot of work. Long hours and a great deal of hustle. But it pays off. Invest your money back into the business to buy valuable kit such as 1-2 good pieces of glass, a flash and a decent camera body as you get more experience.
Remember, I started out in a canon 1000D before I upgraded to more professional equipment and made bank with that. I still have that humble little camera in my kit today.
A photography business is great fun and can be fulfilling. Have fun. Learn a lot and keep testing new ideas. Good luck!
If you have any questions, leave me a comment below. Or say hi if you found it valuable.