Tips for starting a photography business?
January 11, 2011 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Tips for starting a photography business?

So I just found out I love shooting photography and I would love to use it to make some money on the side. My full time job is a teacher but that gives me plenty of time during the summer and on breaks etc to take pics (Don't worry, I know it takes time, and it's not just something to dabble in. I've been a post-processor for a wedding photographer and been a 2nd shooter at weddings so I know what's involved in the whole process).

I wouldn't mind being a full-time photographer but I'm not putting all my eggs into that basket just yet. My problem is I hate taking posed shots so I wouldn't be in to portraits weddings etc. I love candid shots and street photography but I have no idea how to turn that into a business/make money on that.

Tried the stock photography thing and it's just not for me. Should I try contacting shops in the area and see if I could hang some pics up there?

As I said I'm just getting started so what you see if from 2-3 trips around Denver and the mountains.
posted by no bueno to Work & Money (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps I'm in a sour mood today and feeling uncharitable towards photography as a hobby and as a profession. Take the words below with many grains of salt.

You said, "I hate taking posed shots" so I feel like I can say, "Well, then don't worry about making money on photography."

The people that I know that are successful for-hire photographers are the wedding / graduation / family portrait grinders. The vast majority of their job is taking posed shots. To be cynical about this - if you don't learn how to take them and fake enjoying taking them then you have made your career path easy because you're not going to be a day-to-day professional photographer.

I like taking pictures of things I like taking pictures of. I know that sounds simplistic or even stupid, but that's the enjoyment I get out of photography. It sounds like you're at or near the same place, but you're wondering how to transform your love into money. I don't think you can. Sure, you may get a "showing" at a local coffee shop, or you can publish some vanity press book of your images, but in this day and age with everyone and their brother having a DSLR and claiming to be a "photographer" you're going to have to be head and shoulders above the crowd to even get a second look.

I had a long discussion with an artist friend of mine years ago when I started doing photography and by the end of it I had decided that not only was I not going to seek out commissioned work, it was okay not to do so. Since then I've been rather happy just shooting what I want and how I want.

So. My grumpy words condense down to this:

Either keep shooting whatever you find yourself wanting to shoot for the sake of the shot itself or suck it up and learn how to do proper portraiture and go for the grind. For me and all the other photographers I know there's not a middle ground. Either it's your vocation or your avocation but it is rare that the two are one and the same.
posted by komara at 10:06 PM on January 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

You know what? Ignore my previous statement. It should have read like this:

I love candid shots and street photography but I have no idea how to turn that into a business/make money on that.

When you figure it out, let the thousands of hungry Flickr users know.
posted by komara at 10:08 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Haha. Thanks, I guess. Apparently everyone is in the same boat. Like I said, not necessarily looking to make a living but some extra summer money when I'm not teaching would be nice. Even where to look for freelance jobs... Checked Craigslist but didn't see too much.
posted by no bueno at 10:13 PM on January 11, 2011


You don't like posed, portraits, weddings or stock photo [are you sure: that kinda sums up your portfolio].

Some tips:

1) You're talking like a fine art photographer. Start looking up galleries with photo shows and check em out. You could check out museums too (but keep in mind you gotta know your stuff to get into the museum level--this is the place to go to see the heros).

2) Go to a lot of shows. Don't be discouraged if you don't like what you see. I'm a fine art photographer and I don't like most of what I see. Art is just like that. You gotta search for the stuff that matches you, like finding music.

3) If this doesn't feel right then you might consider teaching a photo class. Teach the photo you wish was happening. Sounds like you already have a start with this.

4) If this does feel right and you're overwhelmed then you might consider going back to school. Fine art photo is complex. Finding a program that works the way you move can really put you in the position you want to be in.

5) Don't throw out point 4 automatically. There is a growing number of reputable low residency MFA programs that are highly compatible with an ongoing job. MICA has the one I'm the most impressed by.

6) If this does feel right and you feel like you could do it then your first step is changing your portfolio to reflect your interests. Remember: in art, no one will believe you can do it until you prove it. Go out and get those candid/street photo shots you love.

posted by Murray M at 10:23 PM on January 11, 2011

Response by poster: Murray - Thanks for all the pointers.

It's not that I don't like weddings, I've been a second shooter and loved it because I could still capture the moment. I have yet to see anyone who can take a posed wedding photo or portrait and make it look completely natural. Some are quite good or pretty close but never completely natural. Those shots sum up my portfolio because that's what I've had the opportunity to shoot thus far. I know I don't like them because I've done them but I feel like I produced some decent images while shooting.

I've definitely considered going back to school but with my current financial situation it's just not possible right now. I'm also supposed to be finishing my M.Ed. and getting ELA certified. Would love to go back for an MFA(hopefully do someday) just not possible right now.

I'd also love to teach a photography class but I'm guessing that follows after the schooling(and much, much more experience) so that will probably have to wait as well. Definitely going to be working on expanding and whittling down my portfolio in the near future. It's not the case that I feel like I should be making money on my photography, and that's definitely not why I shoot, but I wanted to find out if it was a possibility. Guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.
posted by no bueno at 10:37 PM on January 11, 2011

Well, the people I know got into it several ways...

My friend makes quite a bit of money with his photography . At first he was able to contact local coffee shops and asked for a week/month to hang his photos. He sold all of them.
Then he was hired by one of those customers to take photos for album art.
Then he started having gallery shows... which he does now.

Another friend I have is a photographer. But for weddings and NPO fashion shows and other assorted things that are mostly of people posing. She networked through the school she went to in Boston.

A client the company I used to work for was a successful photographer. I asked him about how he got into it. He said he would take photos of parades and local events and submit them to the paper. Eventually they used him for a lot of freelance work for that paper and eventually some well-known papers.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:53 PM on January 11, 2011

Best answer: Very little of my business has anything to do with actually taking photographs. In fact, to everyone who emails me for advice on what classes to take, I tell them to pursue business classes instead of photography classes. Absolutely anyone can take a good photograph. Just look at Flickr, or the back of your mom's camera. But not too many people know how to run a successful business. And in creative ventures like photography, it's easy to get wrapped up in emotions which tend to confuse or contradict the essence of running a business (i.e. to generate revenue and earn a profit). If that's your goal, as komara alludes, you'll need to treat it like a business and, mission one, find out what people will pay money for. (Hint: for weddings, it's the posed shots.)

At this stage in your development, you should read Dane Sanders' Fast Track Photographer, which will help you understand opportunities that are inherent to your personality. Not everyone wants to deal with the business part of photography, so this will help you decide whether you want to wear the hat of business-owner or freelance shooter (and what opportunities are available to both).

And if business school isn't possible for you, I highly recommend the Personal MBA program, and, more specifically, their curated list of business books. If you want more of an experience than simply reading books, there's also a whole community of self-paced learners ready for discussion.

Another book you should read is Light: Science and Magic, which is pretty much a bible when it comes to lighting theory. This won't address your immediate concerns, but it's a book that every photographer should read over the course of his development. In this age of "style" being defined by post-processing effects and filters that are available to everyone, it's my opinion that the best way to differentiate yourself is going back to the basics and mastering lighting theory.

And speaking of mastering theory... I'd really challenge you to focus your energies on that which you loathe! Meaning: posed shots. I don't know that it's true for you, but typically people starting out tend to develop a hatred for things they're simply not comfortable with. And that's understandable and valid! I hated posed shots too until I figured out how to perfect them. Now, I look forward to them. Reason 1: doing them "right" instantly makes you look amazing compared to the masses of other photographers who don't know what they're doing. Reason 2: they're like dump trucks full of money. Check out John Mireles's lookbooks for suggestions. And develop a habit of exploring the work of photographers from the old-school days of film. The "rules" were written ages ago, and although a lot of people like to break them these days, they're still valid, if not even more important.

Two final resources: The [b] school is a popular online school/community of photographers who help each other develop their skills. And Open Source Photo is a free online community that helps provide insight as well.

Hopefully something in there will get you pointed in the right direction. Right now is a very interesting time in photography -- it's both extremely challenging and extremely easy to get into. With so many people calling themselves a photographer, it's difficult to set yourself apart from others. But at the same time, there are so many free resources online these days, that everybody has the tools necessary for success. So don't get discouraged -- just keep pushing through.
posted by Hankins at 11:41 PM on January 11, 2011 [8 favorites]

"Guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too."

posted by j03 at 12:17 AM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Civil_Disobedient wasn't trolling. His answer was the best nutshell explanation of why your chances at success in making money shooting exactly what you want to shoot, and only what you want to shoot, won't work.

I'm entering my 36th year as a full time photographer, and I have friends in the business who've shot for international publications, books,end advertising, high quality fine art, and nearly anything else. I consider a couple of them world class. In some cases they are even decent businesspeople.

They're scraping by.

My annual income from photography has always put me in the top 10% of what photographers in the USA make, which is not saying a whole lot given how low the cutoff number is to fall into that group. I remain there because I've been around for a long time, have a steady and loyal client base, and am willing to shoot jobs that I don't particularly love about 70% of the time.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:06 AM on January 12, 2011

Check out Over the last year, Mark, like the Jonathan Coulton of Photography, quit his job and established a successful business as a photographer.

You're not local to ATL, but if you can swing it, consider applying for one of his internship cycles and see what you can learn. Otherwise, Mark's a nice guy and if you write him an email with some specific questions he might be able to give you some insight.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:06 AM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: To all those who've provided insightful positive feedback, thank you!!

@hankins - My undergraduate degree was actually in business so I'm part way there! I was asking more about the opportunities available than the business side of photography but your suggestions were very helpful. I definitely have some reading to do. Thanks!

@imjustsaying - The reason I considered it trolling was mostly because of the site we're on. Usually ask users expected to be helpful. If you don't have something worthwhile to say, why bother saying it? I understand it's not going to be a walk in the park, not full of money and I'll have to shoot stuff I don't love doing. Do you think I'd be a teacher if I was interested in making lots of money? I do it because I love it. I feel like I might have found the same thing with photography and was curious about any opportunities out there.

@j03 - I've found that if you're willing to work hard enough it is actually possible to have your cake and eat it too.
posted by no bueno at 6:24 AM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: No Bueno,

I hear you.

You sound like you got a lot going on (teaching, finishing a in-process degree, etc).

Here's my best advise for that context:

People only have so much energy. There are real limits that everyone has to negotiate (time being one of the harshest). For example, it's not likely to be a successful lawyer and a diver training for the olympics simultaneously: both require full time focus.

I've been an artist working professionally for about 10 years. I'm successful obtaining international gallery and museum shows. I have the sort of career that is statistically difficult to make happen. The reason why I've accomplished this is I've chosen this single goal and haven't veered.

In art, you can't serve multiple masters. You have to go for it all the way or you'll never be able to compete with the people who art going for it all the way. The truth is that there are enough opportunities out there for artists to make a living. The hard truth is that this number of opportunities is about the same size as the number of artists who are putting all of their energy into it. [Of course there is no way to quantify this--this is just how it feels from my perspective.]

The worst thing for an artist to do is move away from their goal of making art. One of the best traps out there--and this is a huge myth--is to pursue something that is not art, like business (like a previous poster suggested, which I disagree with). The myth goes like this: pursue something stable for X number of years to make X amount of money and then switch to doing what you love. This is a terrible idea.

I have many friends who are living like that. What nobody realizes is that you become like your environment. All of those X years shape you. And you get used to having X money so it's hard to then switch to an artist budget. You like that new car and the nice coffee maker.

Nobody switches. I've never met one [and I'm always looking: it's becoming a side research project]. Lots of people think they will make their money and switch. In reality, they get used to their life that has nothing to do with their interests. This is one of the reasons why people have mid life crisis'.

Summed up: if you want it, go for it. Move in that direction. Or keep it as a hobby (that way it will always be fun). You might be asking too much to keep your job, complete your degree, and start a new biz in an unrelated area.

Choose your battle carefully and then use all your energy to win it.
posted by Murray M at 6:59 AM on January 12, 2011

> It's not that I don't like weddings, I've been a second shooter and loved it because I could still capture the moment. I have yet to see anyone who can take a posed wedding photo or portrait and make it look completely natural. Some are quite good or pretty close but never completely natural.

I think this statement is important. A comparison: I shoot a lot and show off very little. On rare occasion I will show my unused shots to my friends and they all say, "Oh, wow, these are so good. Why didn't you put that one [on Flickr / in your portfolio / on that CD of images]?"

The answer is that my standards for what I think makes one of my photos good is far above their standards. I really and truly want to only show off the images I love, even though I could put out so many more for consumption if I just used the metric of what everyone else likes.

Which brings me back to your statement - you might find that wedding portraiture lacks the quality of "feeling natural" and that no one can do it justice. That means that if you took said wedding portraits you wouldn't want to show them off because you wouldn't find them good enough. Great, we're in the same boat - we both hold our works to a higher standard than most of those viewing said works.

Except in the case of wedding photography or other for-hire portraiture you have to be willing to suck it up and hand over the goods even if you don't think they're your best work.

imjustsaying said "I remain there because I've been around for a long time, have a steady and loyal client base, and am willing to shoot jobs that I don't particularly love about 70% of the time."

To me - and I hesitate to put words in his or her mouth but ... - it seems like this is exactly what I'm talking about. They know that what they're producing is not art, not even close, but it's what the customer wants and they are willing to do it.

Again I'll state: if you love photography then shoot for the sake of the photo itself, and put the thought of money out of your mind. If you want to become a good or great professional photographer then I think Hankins had a lot of great advice and great links - but you're going to have to make peace with sometimes handing over photos that you don't love in return for making a living.
posted by komara at 7:14 AM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: Murray - Thanks. I have a lot to think about. I really do appreciate the realistic yet positive reinforcement.
posted by no bueno at 7:18 AM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: (honestly, no bueno, what's really going on here with my comments is this: I went through exactly what you're going through a couple of years ago. "I'm actually decent at this! And I love doing it! How ... I hear people make money doing it. Is that true? Could I do it?" Deciding not to pursue photography as a source of income and leaving it as my hobby was one of the best decisions I've made. When I need to satisfy that artistic itch I can go out and do it, and never once have the monkey of commerce sitting on my shoulder. When I pick up my camera bag it is a delight, not a burden. From my position it is easy to say, "Make the same decision I did - do it for love, not money."

I'm not good enough to have someone important look at my "portfolio" and exclaim, "Good lord! We need to have this man in a gallery! Get him his own show, now!" and neither are you. Hardly anyone is. Maybe one day we will be - at least that part is uncertain. I just keep shooting to satisfy that itch. I guess I'm just trying to give you an example of one person's experience that seems close to yours. Just on example in a field of advice.)
posted by komara at 7:21 AM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: komara - Appreciate the voice of experience. It definitely has crossed my mind that I might end up loathing photography(or at least no longer loving it) if I'm forced to shoot what I don't want in order to make ends meat. I'm definitely just keeping it as a hobby for now. I want to continue to love shooting and I'm not ready to leave the world of education, I guess I just wanted to see what the possibilities were. Thanks MeFi for helping me kind of work through this!
posted by no bueno at 7:38 AM on January 12, 2011

Well, ask me again next week when I'm in a better mood and I might say you're selling yourself short thinking that you can't find a way to make money doing a thing you love, so ... don't listen too much to me.
posted by komara at 7:47 AM on January 12, 2011

Have you read Dan Heller's site?

Also, I had a quick glance through your portfolio, for example this shot is one of two that seems to have underexposure and white balance issues, unless that really is the way you want to share the experience with the viewer.
posted by TrinsicWS at 8:59 AM on January 12, 2011

The answer is that my standards for what I think makes one of my photos good is far above their standards.

My ex had this same issue. She was very critical of her own work (natural, i think, and probably a good way to get better). But when you're doing portraits / weddings / etc for cash, remember 95% of people don't know about lighting and composition and all that. They make a pretty snap decision based on gut feel, and are comparing it these days to Facebook photos and snaps from their friend's iPhone.

But having watched her try this same thing, I think the other posters have it well covered. You can make money in a couple ways: weddings, portraits, commercial (product photos and such). And 90% of it is business stuff, getting clients. If you're good at marketing and sales and self-promotion you can support yourself this way. If not, it's probably pretty unlikely. My ex liked marketing/sales as much as photography so this bothered her less than it does some photographers.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2011

Mod note: removed the link, please put it in your profile if you'd like people to take a look at it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:56 PM on January 12, 2011

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