Becoming a successful professional photographer requires more than just being able to shoot a pretty sunset or stunning portrait. It's about how you run your business.
Perhaps I should start by discussing what I mean by successful. It’s not about fame. Nor is it about earning lots of money. Those are just by-products of success. For the purposes of this article, a successful photography business is one whose photographic work is of a quality that satisfies their clients, and who can run a business that keeps those clients happy. Hopefully, it will be a useful read for potential clients searching for a professional photographer too.
There is plenty written already about taking great photos. So, this is all about running a business. The secret to doing that well is working on your reputation.
It Takes Time to Get a Good Reputation
People are savvy. They’ll check a business history and if it has run successfully for more than a couple of years, it’s a good sign that it is reputable. Many photographers give up in the first year or two, especially if their photography or business management skills are not up to standard. Professional photographers often only turn a profit in their third or fourth year of trading. So, it takes dedication to succeed.
Saying that, the duration of a business is not the whole story.
All great photographers start somewhere, and there are some superb start-up photography businesses I happily recommend, and I've passed on work to them. Similarly, I know some established photographers whose work I don’t consider to be up to scratch.
When it Goes Wrong
When was the last time you had great service from a business? How many people did you tell? Compare that to the last time you had a really bad experience. Statistically, bad experiences get retold ten times more than good ones.
Consequently, if things go awry, and they will, a good business will make sure it does everything it can to rectify that wrongdoing and change that bad experience into a good one.
Word of Mouth and Online Reviews
The world has changed from the days when what mattered most to a business was word of mouth. It's still important for photography, but it has also evolved. The last twenty-five years have seen the emphasis on internet reviews, but consumers are becoming more cynical about those. Online reviews are a great way to share opinions, but they are also falsified, both by the business leaving positive reviews for themselves, and by competitors leaving bad ones.
Many businesses will receive some negative reviews; things do go wrong. People read the 1 and 2-star reviews more than the 5-star ones. They then pay attention to how businesses respond to complaints. Your reaction to criticism makes a difference in how potential clients will view your business.
After being engaged by a client, always ask them to do you a favor by leaving a review, and they most likely will. It takes moments and, over time, makes a huge difference. Future customers will read the positive, indifferent, and negative reviews to get a good feel for your business.
Once you start advertising your business online, you will be inundated with spam emails offering to boost your Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Ignore them. They cannot deliver what they are promising.
When you first start out in your business, the chances are that you will not be well known. You’ll have a brand-new website that is populated with your best work, but not many people will visit it. Additionally, because your website presence is new, it will be penalized by Google. There’s no quick fix for this, and those who try to cheat it will get caught out.
There are basic SEO rules you can follow when setting up your website, and your web developer should know these, and then the rest is down to time, keeping the site up-to-date, promoting your hard work, and getting linked to from other websites. Appearing on the first page of Google doesn’t mean your business is worth engaging. It just means you have got your SEO right.
How you behave online will impact your business too. On an article I published here recently was a nasty comment. It wasn’t a constructive counterargument to my opinion, which I would have enjoyed, just a mean statement. What surprised me was it was made by another professional photographer who runs a studio. What kind of advert for their business is that? Would I ever use or recommend their services? Would I offer them an interview to help boost their profile? Nope!
Procurement managers carry out research, discovering all they can about their potential suppliers. That studio would potentially lose contracts because of the mean comment made by the owner.
Being kind to others online pays off, being mean will cost you.
Working For Free
Especially for the start-up photographer, it is tempting to do pro bono work to get a good local reputation. It’s something I recommend doing with caution. By giving work away for free, photographers are raising the expectations that professional photography is available at no cost. That undermines the industry. Furthermore, it’s not a prize when your picture is used for free by another business to help boost their profits. You are just being taken for a mug. That's not good for your reputation.
Recently, I was approached by a local authority to let them use for free a photograph that I sell as a limited-edition print. They wanted it for a new display board in their town square. The display board itself cost more than I paid for the last lens I bought. Yet, they were not prepared to pay a local business to provide a photo. Of course, I declined.
Nevertheless, we all have our pet causes that we support. If you are going to give away your work, then that’s where to give it. There’s nothing wrong with offering free or discounted work to local charities and organizations that you believe in. But, ask them to do a press release about your collaboration. In that way, you both get something for free.
Treat Your Suppliers How You Would Like to Be Treated
I have a couple of former business customers that I politely turn away when they approach me for work. Why? One of them was rude and unreasonable, the other was always late paying their bills. I don't need their work. Furthermore, I won’t ever use their services, neither will my friends.
Your suppliers may also be your potential customers. Simple things like paying those suppliers promptly, and being courteous and friendly to their staff result in greater respect for you.
If you are good at what you do, then your business will grow. Being successful means offering first-class customer service. Every client should walk away feeling that you have gone beyond what they asked for. People will soon get to know that you can deliver what they want, and they’ll come back time after time.
Do you run a photographic business? Have you got any hints or tips to pass on to others setting out on a journey to becoming a professional photographer? Have you had good or bad experiences with professionals? It would be great to hear about your experiences.
Some good advice here, thanks Ivor. Of course, this all applies to many different businesses, not just photography.
What do you do with bad customers who don't pay your invoices or don't pay them in full? It's not always possible to just turn them down. Some are in a position where they talk bad about you (because you turned them down, they are offended), which can hurt or even harm your business.
I have a client who is an employee of a company I work for. The client has placed a private order and pays slowly or not at all. If I refuse him, I run the risk of losing the company's order as well. So I bite the bullet and help him anyway and stay nice.
Yes, it's a difficult one.
The secret is to distance yourself from the debt recovery and create an automated system to wave the stick. In reality, it can be all manually produced, but made to look automated.
I start by putting the terms in a footer on the invoice and telling them that an automated second, increased, invoice will be sent after 30 days. Here in the UK, and I guess it's the same there, there is a statutory minimum payment time, and a minimum penalty fee that is based on the national interest rate + 8%.
Next, I submit an automated, friendly reminder after a couple of weeks, followed up closely by a phone call. "Hi, it's Ivor here. Please would you check your spam folder for my invoice. My accounts system has just flagged that it hasn't been paid yet, and you are usually quick at paying. This one seems to have slipped under the radar. " I have had a regular client who had genuinely missed an invoice because it had gone to spam.
If still no joy, a third email gets emailed from an "automated", no reply address (noreply@myaddress) telling them that non-payment of that will be automatically escalated to a debt recovery agency after a further 14 days, and then further recovery fees will be payable. Include "This is an automated email, please do not reply to this address." in the text.
If the reminders appear automated, then the client doesn't blame you directly, and they know they are in the same boat as anyone else who doesn't pay. The threat of a heavy stick of a debt recovery agency, which will have an adverse effect on their credit rating, will do the trick if they are deliberately holding back payment.
Hope that helps.
Yes, stay focussed on your accounting until paid. I recently had a client from California who didn't pay me. That employee is based in NY and I knew she was new to that company so we worked together in a very friendly manner to figure out what was going on. It turned out that the bill was addressed to the proper person but that department would not do anything with it because I was not in the system. Instead of telling my contact what she needed from me or contact me directly, they just did nothing. All we needed is a W9 from me. Typically it's the accounting job to let you know. I have a rule to never put pressure with my contact as most of the time these types of issues are not related to their work. Middle people like most of the contacts I work with are more in a buffer position where my job is to make it smooth for them to deal with the assignment they get from higher up. I think I helped her learn the process and she was extremely apologetic and hopefully we build enough trust for her to send me more work in the future.
Thank you, Ivor and Benoit. In my 25 years as a self-employed person, this has only happened to me three times that I got into difficult situations and they were relatively small bills. I have managed them.But I lost an original client because the guy who was and still is employed there is one of those who always haggles and wants to get the most personal profit out of every situation. I bet you all know people like that. But since he had signed a contract, there was no way for him to get out, but he got his revenge a year later and the company's next project was given to someone else. - But in 25 years, that's nothing. All the rest of my many clients were and are trustworthy people. Some of my clients I have had for more than 10 years. After all, I have only lost man-hours and no money that I had to invest before (for goods).
Letting go clients is not easy but sometimes a necessity. I used to have a great high end jewelry, small chain client and the print and web designer would always bring the items with her when we were allowed to shoot big name brands. She moved out of town and at that point, I had to pick up at the store and sign for the items and return them same day. This was way more than I could cover with my standard insurance and since they were not regular enough, I dropped that account because coverage was going to be too high to be safe. A competitor was trying to get the client from me and I was glad he was taking over the risk. I loved shooting jewelry, but to this day I think I made the right decision.
Jan, you can't be passive with clients like that. I mean I am not in your situation with double income from one source, but I once worked with a client I was told would eventually stop paying. The day she did, I asked for my money a few times, probably waited 2-3 months with no call back or any reply and then I just billed her client. I got paid the next day (by her, not her client). She hired me and paid me another time but I think she stopped her business soon after. Plus, there is no legal use of the images if not paid and that's something I haven't had to remind a client but would have no issue putting that pressure if this ever happened.
What a lot of businesses don't realize is that their bad payments affects their standing. There's an organization close to me that didn't pay a builder for months. The clerical assistant kept coming up with the excuse that the printer wasn't able to print the checks. Needless to say, the builder - a well-known and popular figure in the community - was less than happy and told people, and now everyone in the community knows that the organization is not to be trusted. Consequently, it gets shunned. I bet that failure has cost the organization thousands in higher bills to cover the risk of non-payment, and lost clients from a lack of trust.
Exactly. Two things are most important: pay your bills (on time) and never talk bad about other companies in a business environment. Just keep your mouth shut, even if there are a thousand reasons.
On the other hand, Ivor, I know people who rarely pay their bills, have gone broke several times, have collections and IOUs, and still drive big cars (not the newest ones) and walk around like nothing ever happened. They always find their victims.
Very true, Jan.
Thank you Zaza.