Tips for Surviving and Thriving as a First Year Photographer
People keep asking me,
"how long have you been doing this?"
And that's an odd question, one that should be simple for me to answer, but I'm finding actually quite complicated.
First, what is this?
Photographing? Since I was in middle school and my friends and I would stage mini photo shoots and short films as our favorite extra-curricular activity.
Running a business as a professional photographer? Technically... about to hit the 5 year mark but I have a hard time actually legitimizing that. See, my first "year of business" was for lack of a better phrase... kind of like an idea tornado. Others might call it a sh-- show.
From a place of mixed desperation, swirling inspiration, wild adrenaline, a touch of guilt, and a whole lot of fear, I started walking this line.
These images are from one of my very first maternity shoots -- please note the awful and inconsistent over-processing, awkward/amateur tilt angle, and bad crop. #facepalm.
Oooooh what I wouldn't give to have these locations back to shoot in again when I know what I'm doing!!
That first year after I got my professional gear and a passion on my heart, God placed professional mentors in my life through essentially miracle circumstances. My husband spurred in me a drive I'd never experienced before. And suddenly it wasn't just kind of cool idea to start photographing people here and there for extra cash-- it became a mission. Except I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I registered my name as a business because I wanted to be legal and 'official' but really... I was a far cry from legitimacy.
Four years later, I finally feel like I'm getting the hang of things and when I look back at my early "work,"and it sort of makes me want to do this:
This is what business looked like in a nutshell:
I had a masters in education but no formal education on photography so my starting point was to buy textbooks about it. I would spend hours reading them and my camera manual after dinner each night.
I would walk around town awkwardly with my camera, practicing manual mode and exposure on street signs and flowers because I lived alone in a strange city 70% of the time; I swore everyone was staring at me and saying 'what a fraud' on a regular basis.
I had one 50mm prime lens, my DLSR body, and a bag-- that was the only gear we could afford and it gave me anxiety to carry because they were the most expensive things I'd ever owned.
I took an online course I purchased off Groupon to learn photoshop.
I charged $50 for my first client session an it was at noon in full sun on a rocky beach with a toddler. Disaster.
I was too poor/cheap/self-doubting to purchase anything other than the essentials so I designed my first "logo" with clipart and stock fonts.
I burned all my clients' images to a CD and wrote their last name on the front with a sharpie before sticking it in the mail.
I hand-edited every single image in Photoshop and they were so overdone I actually had people email me and ask me to dial it back because their kids looked strange.
When I started doing product sales (because I thought I had to to be "legit"), I invited clients to my 200sq ft living room apartment where I hung a couple 8x10's on the bare wall and printed off a price list on computer paper.
SO IF YOU'RE JUST STARTING OUT AND IT'S FEELING PRETTY OVERWHELMING, TAKE COURAGE.
Work on your craft-- like really work on it, WITH PEOPLE, as much as possible before you even think about the business part.
Invest in quality materials and learn how to use them properly.
Don't get too wrapped up in the appearances and the stuff ; just focus on the product and the people first.
Don't be so concerned with appearing busy and good that you forget to work on actually getting busy and good.
Start by shooting for free as long as you need.
Side note: I felt so shamed at the beginning by all the professionals out there and the material I was reading about "bringing down the industry" by shooting for free and how "shooting for family and friends for free would delegitimize your work" and how "charging a low rate would only bring in crappy clients who would take advantage of you and you'd spend your career in a money hole hating life." Okay. I get it, but also there's this little nugget-- you have to charge what you're worth.
And allow me to reiterate... I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING. Pretending to be good and legit did not make me good or legit. And even though I was trying and working really hard, I was too concerned with what people thought about me and missed out on a lot of opportunities to really hone my skills more quickly.
You know what hurts the industry? People calling themselves professionals when their work is not -- and that was me. A facebook page and business cards don't make you professional and people can see right through it. Just because I offer a luxury and quality experience now, doesn't mean I believe every photographer should and doesn't mean every client needs or wants that. That's okay. Everyone should have images of their family somehow and no photographer starts out from day 1 being a professional so the industry just needs to accept that.
Learn from others
There is a lot that goes into the business side of photography, including design, marketing, editing, connecting with people, developing a brand and personal style, and a slew of others things -- none of which I had experience in. Because I was able to dig up an insane amount of dedication and downright obsession with becoming better, I've taught myself a lot of those skills, and am still learning! Always, the best and most efficient learning I've done has come from others who have done it first.
And don't get so tied to your art that you take everything personally. Criticism is simply fuel to get better.
All this to say... yes, I've been "officially" a "photographer" for 5 years, but no, I was not professional for 5 years. That is a blurred line. Somehow people started placing their faith me and I grew. A lot of people didn't and I felt defeated. But most importantly, I kept going. There are a lot of photographers who start and become successful seemingly overnight, but that was not my journey. It doesn't matter. My lessons were hard-fought and painful, but I was in control and I was determined-- I still am-- and that's something I'm proud of. I reached a point where even though I recognized I was way in over my head, I had a choice: either swim back to security, or trudge forward make it work. Like REALLY WORK. The quiet whisper in my heart said there was more on the other side. When I became discouraged and comparative, as I still do sometimes, I remember it's worth it.
Life is about the journey. I want to be doing this for a very long time and I want to do it in a way that is sustainable and fulfilling for myself, my family, and my clients-- sometimes that takes a little more time to figure out.