How to turn pro

Aug 14, 2008 | Business | 12 comments

If you’re like many people who are starting out on the path to being a full time professional photographer, you may well feel that an inner passion for taking pictures is the driving force for your switch from hobby to career. If so, this is just the guide you need.

Taken at ISO 1600 on a Canon 5D using natural light from an open door.

Taken at ISO 1600 on a Canon 5D using natural light from an open door. I love taking pictures in low light as the soft, subdued conditions help create a wonderful mood in the shooting room of my studio. I used a monopod to steady the camera at 1/20th second exposure.

First of all, you are not alone. In fact, a recent resurgence of photography fueled by the plethora of sub £500 DSLRs has triggered a burning desire of would be photo pros. Although the thought of turning pro could have been at the back of your mind for years don’t rush the planning stage. Start by spending a few weeks doing some research and a clear path will start to emerge. You need to study the true viability of your start up business before you commit to going it alone.

Keep in mind these wise words of Albert Schweitzer “An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere while the pessimist sees only the red stop light. A truly wise person is colour blind”. Do trust your intuition and try to stay objective. Don’t rush into your first business. Get things right from the start. Do your homework and follow this five point plan.

Taken using a Haselblad H1 fitted with a Phase One P25 back. The spotlight look was created in Photoshop.

Taken using a Haselblad H1 fitted with a Phase One P25 back. The spotlight look was created in Photoshop by holding back the highlights from everywhere else but the key subject. The viewers eye is always drawn to the point of highest contrast in an image.

1. Research the market

Just because you can take a picture it doesn’t mean someone will buy it. Or, just because you can photograph a wedding it doesn’t mean people will book you at a high enough rate for you to make you a profit. There’s nothing smart about working flat out running your business for no profit. You won’t be an entrepreneur, instead just a busy fool.

You need to create a product line that is significantly unique and meets a natural demand. Sometimes the gap in the market that you are aiming to satisfy is there because it’s difficult to make money in it. For instance if you are intending to photograph weddings it’s worth noting that some album products are expensive to source, take ages to design and have a low perceived retail value. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make a profit from them – there are opportunities everywhere. When you go looking, and you do need to look hard, you may find a graveyard of businesses that offered those albums. If you intend to start a corporate photography business ask yourself what images do people want to buy and how do they want them delivered? Market research can be as simple as talking to potential customers, or spending a few hours on Google. Look at future trends and emerging technologies. Perhaps you can offer your clients a digital download facility of their files on demand from within an ecommerce site so they can pay for what they use when they use it.

Taken in the Brisbane Powerhouse using a Nikon D3.

Taken in the Brisbane Powerhouse using a Nikon D3. There is a smoke machine in the building that is activated from time to time. I used the smoke and sunlight to good effect to create this Hollywood look. Plus 2 stops of compensation and a monopod were vital to capture this shot.

2. Prove demand

Once you think you have a unique product, ask yourself will people buy it? Many people start out in the business of photography because they’re good at it and enjoy taking pictures for themselves, rather than someone else. To determine if there is demand for your work, assess the size of the market and the number of other photographers serving it. Then look at what they offer: is there an opportunity to be different, cheaper, more expensive, higher quality, lower quality? Go back to step one and do your research to see if customers are there. Be brutal and remember, people that are being nice to your face in the research phase won’t necessarily turn into clients when your business starts.

Taken using ISO 1600 on a Canon 5D using window light.

Taken with ISO 1600 on a Canon 5D using window light in my studio shooting room. The shadow caught my eye and became the motivation for the shot.

3. Understand your business model

Photography is difficult to pigeon hole because it has such diversity in genre. Are you going to be a service provider, a retailer, a business to business trader, or a creative? What are the rules of retail and what triggers buying decisions? How do businesses network with each other? Are there advantages in being a limited company or perhaps a sole trader status is going to be ideal? Should you take on freelance work or are you self employed? What about VAT registration? What about credit facilities for clients, Do you need merchant card services and online payment facilities? Where are you in the supply chain and how reliant are you going to be on external suppliers? These are all questions that will eventually need answers. You can do a bit of thinking and research now to help build a better overall picture of your trading model. You will need to enlist the help of business professionals and start building a team around you of people you can trust. Life partner, trade suppliers, accountant, and business adviser, bank manager or mentor to name but a few.

Taken in a Bristol bar inspired by the painings of Edward Hopper

Taken in a Bristol bar using just natural light. The light, shapes and mood in this image is inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper.

4. Work out the figures

So, you’ve established there’s demand in a growing market for your unique photographic products. Well done; but now you need to determine if it’s going to be profitable to produce those products in quantity. Put together an income and expense sheet for a typical job. This should include all direct expenditure but not the indirect expenses. Direct expenses are things like albums, prints, and travel costs. Anything that can be attributed to a particular job. Indirect expenses exist if you get jobs or not and they include depreciation on cameras & computer systems, marketing costs, branding, web sites, insurance and utilities etc. Once you have these figures together create a budget for the first three years that factors in everything. A budget can be put together in Apple’s new ‘Numbers’ software or Microsoft Excel.

Income – Most new business start ups wildly over estimate the sales they think they will get. If anything, be a bit pessimistic with the number of jobs you predict to get. If you are going to photograph weddings don’t factor in too many after sale prints, parents albums or online sales. Your business model needs to be robust based on core sales. The packages you offer must have adequate profit built in. If you are going to be shooting commercially you will need to do extensive research to determine how many days a month you can realistically get work. Your expenses will be easier to predict as the day to day job costs will be on invoice and met by your client. Make your financial forecast realistic and aim to enjoy exceeding your expectations. If the figures say it isn’t going to happen, don’t ignore them. Go back and rework your master plan. You will have much more fun running a profitable business than one with a high turnover and nothing left for you.

As a rule of thumb it’s a good idea to be profitable by the end of year one, that means to have more income than expenditure on a monthly basis from month 12 onwards. Then in year two you can start to recover your start up capital and finally be debt free by the end of year three. You will return your first trading profit in year three. You can offset the losses in year one against profits to be tax effecient. All this time you will need to be drawing a salary and meeting this cost will be your biggest cash flow challenge.

Taken using a Hasselblad H1 with Phase One P25 back and a 210 mm lens wide open at f4

Taken using a Hasselblad H1 with Phase One P25 back and a 210 mm lens wide open at f4. By choosing to use a low camera height I kept the girls eyes at a higher level than those of her fiance. The mood and expression of the man are vital even though he is very out of focus.

5. Be unique

Take a close look at any successful business and there’s a very strong chance you’ll see it has a clear USP, or Unique Selling Point. It’s something you need to develop as you plan your own start up. A USP is much more than just a marketing tool. It’s something that needs to be at the very core of what you’re doing – part of your business’s DNA, if you like. So, what is a Unique Selling Point? It’s the thing which sets your product or service apart from your competitors in the minds of your customers and potential customers. It gives your business its edge and makes it stand out. Look at the words that make it up. Unique means no other business does it yet, and Selling Point means the reason a customer chooses to spend money with you – i.e. not just a gimmick, a reason to buy.

If you’re the only wedding photographer to offer a honeymoon shoot as part of your package, that’s a USP. If you are the only commercial photographer in your patch to offer an online secure image bank for your clients then that’s a USP. A portrait photographers USP might be to have an interior designer integrate his or her photographs into the clients home by designing custom frames and other products for the spaces. Beware of thinking that competing on price or service is a USP – for a small business it can’t be, because it’s not unique. Most photographers think they offer the best service and are competitive on price.

Develop a strong USP and your customers will focus less on price. The photography market is falling over itself with cut price part timers saturating the bottom levels. There will always be someone prepared to take pictures for less money than you so rise above the price comparison point with your strong genuine USPs. Don’t panic if you can’t think of a USP right now. You may find it easier once you’ve got a few satisfied customers under your belt, as the reason people are attracted to you and your photography might not be the reason you originally thought. Feedback from delighted customers might just be what it takes to develop an idea into a USP. Use your creativity in the way you run your business not just taking pictures.

Taken in Bristol using a Hasselblad H1 and a Phase One P25 back. The wide angle lens was put to good use to strengthen the lines of convergence. The text adds a location stamp.

Taken in Bristol using a Hasselblad H1 and a Phase One P25 back. My 35mm wide angle lens was put to good use to strengthen the lines of convergence. The text adds a location stamp that may have great relevance to the children in years to come.

If you found this helpful, you may also like to read PR Action – 12 killer tips to get your business noticed and USPs – the currency of survival :)

12 Comments

  1. nathalie

    Hi Damien,

    Came across your site and stayed for over an hour (!) glued… I am starting a home based studio (for babies and children) and these pictures really made me love photography even more- you have such amazing captures- I love the lighting, poses and the colors/processing. Your techniques are brilliant! (especially love the way you get the light backgrounds to be black) As I am about to purchase my first lighting equipment, I was wondering what you would suggest- I was advised to start simple, but I want to invest wisely, so that I can add on as I grow.

    Thank you for the inspiration (and vision to aspire to!)
    Nathalie

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Nathalie,

      Thank you for your fabulous comments. I can indeed help you to make a great first buy investment in lighting equipment. I suggest you go for a 2 flash head kit like the Elinchrom BXRi 500 x 500 ‘to go’ kit. I wouldn’t bother with the cheaper Dlite kit because you will be wanting something for more regular professional use. The kit comes with a pair of square softboxes – perfect for mother, baby and child photography. Do get the optional stands as they are great value too. Once you have explored the range of posabilities with the two head kit it would be worth investing in yourself. Come on one of my studio lighting workshops and unlock your potential.
      Thank you for taking the time to explore Prophotonut. If you have any further questions or comments about lighting kits or training, give Blaise my PA a call on 01275 853204. I look forward to meeting you one day. Enjoy your photography, Damien.

      Reply
  2. Ian Lancaster

    Damien,
    Fantastic thought provoking advice, just came across this site via your twitter comments, love it love it,.
    Helpful, straightforward advice.
    Brill

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Ian,

      I hope you are well. Best wishes,

      Damien.

      Reply
  3. Steve Causon

    Hi Damien,

    Great post as usual.

    What would you say is Lovegrove’s USP?

    Steve

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Steve,

      Lovegrove is a multi faceted brand. Lovegrove weddings product was (We have stopped shooting weddings) a consistent uncomplicated natural and beautiful set of pictures taken with fun and love presented in an album. The body of work was eloquent and self supporting and the style didn’t waver for the 10 years we were shooting. No naff cross processing, spot colour, tilted pictures, sepia tone etc. Just timeless photography. A lovegrove album of 2001 will look similar to one of 2010.

      Lovegrove Consulting is my training and retail brand. Soon to be split I think. On the retail side I don’t just box shift like all the big retailers. I have more of an emporium. I select just the finest items from each range of products that serves my customers well. So when we sell just 1 of the 30 or so Gitzo monopods available it happens to be the most versatile and best suited to wedding and portrait photographers etc. If my customers were sports photographers I would supply a different model from the Gitzo range suitable for supporting big lenses up to 600mm etc. As the shop market widens we will embrace the needs of our new customers. All the items we sell are tried and tested by me personally. Again, another USP.

      Lovegrove Training including ‘Evolve’ is delivered by my me and my team. We have had ten years experience at the top of the social photography industry and we walk the talk. I teach with a passion subjects I fully understand. I dont strive for happy clients, I strive for delighted clients.

      I hope this helps answer your question.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  4. david cooke

    wonderful advice, a must read for the budding pro, I love this site it has made such a difference to my photography, thankyou.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks David,

      It’s great for me to be able to give a bit back to an industry that has served me so well.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  5. Andrew Vokes

    Thanks for the wonderful advice Damien, I have already purchased your book and am reading it for the second time and plan to re-read it many more times!

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Andrew. Do check out the business tab on this site too. I’ve posted many updated and new articles on wedding photography there. Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  6. damien

    Hi Nicolene,

    Thank you for your kind comments. I wish you all the best in your fledgling career.

    I am currently shooting a new DVD that will help you with the technical process of using Speedlights. It will be out at Christmas and will reveal the secrets of my shooting style. It is meant to partner my shooting natural light on location DVD that was released a couple of years ago.

    My best value business advice investment for you to make is probably my book on wedding photography at under £20. It is packed with business strategies and tips.

    Stay in touch. Damien.

    Reply
  7. Nicolene

    WOW! Thank you so much for this very valuable advice. You have given me so much to think about, as this is the exact space I am in right now.
    I live in South Africa and wish that I could attend your workshops, as you seem to shoot in a very creative way that speaks to my soul.
    I will be following your feeds and tweets though.
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!
    Nicolene

    Reply

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