It does take time to figure out how to run a successful business as there are so many moving parts. You can be an awesome photographer but if you don’t know how to run a proper business, you won’t succeed.
I learned a ton about running a business when I was assisting other photographers right after I graduated from college.
In a two year period I assisted over 35 different photographers. A few of them were very successful and, sadly, a lot of those photographers were not good at running their business at all.
This little two year experiment taught me what to do and just as important, what NOT to do when running a small business.
In this post I’m going to list the most common mistakes I see photographers making with their business – and it’s not just those that are starting out that are making these mistakes either. I see a lot of photographers who have been working for a long time making some of these mistakes too.
Table of Contents
Mistake #1 – Pretending you aren’t actually in business yet
This is a big one. There are many of you who are starting out or doing this part time and getting clients, but you are pretending you aren’t in business at all. What I mean by this is that you are ignoring what you need to do to get your business set up legitimately.
I keep getting told, “I’m not sure I want to do this full time”. Guess what? The governing entities in your area DON’T CARE! You absolutely must set yourself up properly as a business, even if it’s only part time!
The other thing I get told is, “But I’m not making much money yet. When I make more money, then I’ll set things up properly.” Sorry, that’s not how it works either.
If anyone is paying you anything, and I mean anything (even food that you are given as a trade instead of cash!!!) at all, for your services as a photographer – YOU ARE IN BUSINESS! End of story. Period. That’s it.
If you aren’t making that much money yet, a lot of cities have various programs for people just starting out. They will often have quite a large income exemption rule before you have to start paying for your business license, as one example.
You need to learn what is required for you to be running your business in the area you are in. You might be very surprised how easy and inexpensive this actually is. Please seek the advice from a small business attorney in your area.
Most photographers tell me that they aren’t set up yet because they are afraid of the costs, but they haven’t even done the research to know what those costs are. So instead they are running a business illegally which puts them at a huge risk of getting caught – which means penalties and fines that will cost way more than what it was going to cost them just to set things up properly.
Have a look at this post for more info on what you do need to set yourself up properly. You might need a business license, a home permit, a seller’s permit if your state has sales tax, etc.
Mistake #2 – Your business is set up BUT you don’t have insurance!!!
This goes with mistake #1 above. With a lot of the photographers I coach they have a business license but they don’t have insurance.
This is a huge mistake and is putting you and your clients at risk.
Picture this, you are shooting at a restaurant and Johnny the high school track star trips on your tripod, breaks a leg and loses his full scholarship to college. Who do you think they are going to come after for that? They’re going to come after you, then if you don’t have insurance, they will go after the restaurant who didn’t know they were supposed to require proof of insurance before you step foot into the space.
Just because no one has asked you for insurance proof yet, doesn’t mean you don’t need it. EVERY business must have liability insurance and photographers need equipment insurance, plus a few more things.
Please do not step foot into another business to take pictures before you get your insurance.
Mistake #3 – Not knowing who your target market or ideal clients are
My college degrees (yep, I’ve got two of them) did not prepare me for running a business. In fact, quite the opposite. I was told, create a portfolio, now go get clients. There was no instruction about how to create a portfolio that would attract the kind of clients that I wanted to shoot for.
I created a beautiful portfolio that quite honestly, was more appropriate for fine art work. I wanted to work in advertising, but wasn’t creating advertising type images. I was creating images for myself, NOT for an end client in mind. This is a huge mistake that a lot of photographers are being taught.
You must take some time to figure out WHO do you want to take pictures for. Research this. Or if you still can’t figure that out – please hire me for a one on one coaching call so I can help you figure it out.
If you don’t know who your ideal clients are going to be – you will not succeed as a photographer. Once you know what kind of clients you want, creating a portfolio of work becomes much easier.
Mistake #4 – Not Investing in education to improve your skills
I’ve invested a lot of money in education. I STILL invest a lot of money in education. You will never be done learning – and that’s the fun part about photography! That’s why it stays interesting. Things are changing all the time.
There are so many of you who absolutely refuse to pay a single dime in educating yourself, and I’m sorry but it shows in your work. You are not learning the basics of your craft. You are spending way too much time on Google and YouTube thinking that is your education.
I get a lot of students in my programs that I have to un-teach very bad habits they’ve picked up from watching too many YouTube videos. Even the big YouTubers don’t get everything right and they are teaching you their bad habits.
You must look at the source. What is their background? What formal training did they have? How long have they been doing this? How much experience do they actually have with clients in a real shooting environment – and I’m not talking about food blogging. I’m talking about commercial food photography work.
Look at local colleges in your area. Those instructors are vetted by the college as a reputable source for information.
If you can’t afford that, join my program, Food Photography Club until you can afford it. I actually have several students in my program while also getting their photography degree at the same time. If you want to shoot food, you won’t find a college program that only focuses on that.
Instead, you’ll get well rounded education where you will hopefully get all the core foundations of photography. There is so much that you don’t know yet, a few photography courses you find online can be helpful, but if you want to make this your career, you are going to need more education from a trusted source!
Mistake #5 – Focusing on getting clients before you have a portfolio
This one always confuses me. Several photographers I have coached hire me to help them get clients and when I ask to see their portfolio, they don’t have one. So the coaching turns into helping them create that portfolio.
You cannot go after clients until you have a portfolio of images that are exactly what those clients are looking for. You don’t have to have a huge portfolio, but you’ve got to have one.
After you have a website with your portfolio of images, you will eventually need to make a printed book for in person meetings. Until you can do that, you can use an iPad for a digital portfolio. You can’t use a laptop with your website on it in a meeting. That is a very junior mistake.
Mistake #6 – Not charging enough
Another big mistake many photographers make is simply not charging enough. There’s all sorts of reasons that you maybe be doing this like your limiting beliefs that you aren’t good enough yet, so you’re shooting for free or next to nothing.
Another reason you might not be charging enough is that you simply don’t actually know the cost of being in business and you’re not charging enough to cover your overhead – which obviously you can’t keep up for very long.
Not charging enough is a huge problem and is the reason why most photographers fail.
I can hear you. You’re saying, “Yeah, but she doesn’t know that no one will pay for decent photography in my area.” That is yet another limiting belief. YOU are attracting the cheap clients. If you really think no one will pay for your services, you need to look for clients outside your area and shoot remotely.
Mistake #7 – Not willing to put in the time it takes
Starting a business takes time. I know you want to get clients right now – you cannot force people to shoot with you. You are actually building relationships with your clients. They need to learn that they can trust you and that you can create the images that they need and want.
You build up trust with your marketing efforts. The more they see your name and your images, the more they will remember you and think of you when the timing is right.
I’m going to be totally honest – if you aren’t willing to do a full marketing plan with emails, social media posts, phone calls AND postcard mailings, this will take you about a year to start getting traction.
The more time and effort you put into your marketing, the faster you will get clients. Deep down, you know this. There’s no tricky secret to get a client tomorrow. It’s about staying top of mind so that when your client needs photography they can’t help but think of you because of your marketing.
Mistake #8 – Not using a marketing plan
This goes with mistake number 7 above. When I’m working with photographers to get clients and ask them what their marketing plan looks like, I often get told they sent one or two emails and heard nothing back. They were very upset about this and were ready to give up.
If you are only sending a random email every few months, this is not a marketing plan! It’s sending a few emails. No wonder you’re not hearing anything back.
Let me ask you this – how often do you open your spam emails? Never, right? People, when we send emails to these businesses telling them we would love to do photography for them, WE ARE SPAMMING THEM!
Side note, of course you are following ALL the rules about doing this legally, right? See the Can Spam Act of 2003 if you don’t know what I am talking about for the US.
If you are in EU or any other country outside the US, you must follow your country’s spamming laws as well – which might mean you can’t email a prospect and have to get creative with other marketing methods.
You cannot rely on email alone for your marketing efforts. No wonder you’re not getting clients if this is the only thing you are doing.
Marketing any product or service is a numbers game. You must have multiple touch points with your prospects with your marketing plan. A touch point is any way that you reach out to them with your marketing.
My marketing plans involve emails, phone calls, postcards, and social media posts. My goal is to get in front of that person and show them my portfolio. Once I meet them, it’s only a matter of time before they ask me to give them an estimate for a job.
There’s obviously a lot more to this but you get the idea. You can’t be passive with your marketing and sit around hoping your future client finds your website. You’ve got to be proactive with your marketing and drive them to your website, over and over again.
See my Food Photographer’s Marketing Kit for all the resources you need to create your own marketing plan.
Mistake #9 – Not emailing a potential prospect
This one always surprises me and goes with Mistake #8. You must reach out to your prospects in different ways. One of those touch points has to be via email – if you live in a country that allows this.
When going after a prospect that doesn’t know you yet, you won’t know what is their preferred method of communication and if you decide to not use email, you could really be missing out on a potential client.
If you live in a country that doesn’t allow you to send cold emails to prospects, you need to get more creative and use direct messaging on social media, making phone calls, and sending a printed piece in the mail, like a postcard.
Mistake #10 – Not having a website
This goes along with Mistake #5 & Mistake #8. You have to have a website to showcase your photography portfolio. Instagram and Facebook do not count for a website.
I’m sorry, but no, Instagram is not a portfolio! That is a social media site that you don’t have control over.
The goal is to have all roads lead prospects to your website – get them OFF of social media and into your world of photography.
Alright we covered a lot of things here and hopefully this was helpful to you.
If you want more information about getting clients that will regularly pay you a four figure day rate for your photography, check out this free resource I have for you.