The Art of Business and the Business of Art: Being a Professional

Chelsea-Class of 2011

The term “artist” is thrown around a lot these days. I see a lot of self-proclaimed “artists” describing their passion for photography, and how they just enjoy creating images for people. They don’t want to deal with all that “business stuff”. Unfortunately passion alone does not pay my mortgage and the grocery store doesn’t seem impressed when I say, “But I’m an ARTIST,” when I go to check out.

This is definitely the case with senior photography. If you want to run a successful business in senior photography, or any genre of photography, then you cannot be afraid or ashamed of the word “business.” You must be a professional in all aspects of your business. Especially photographing high school kids. Last year during tax season I watched my wife’s anxiety and frustration as she sifted through receipts, renewed our professional memberships, added up sales and expenses, etc. I made my Facebook status “there is a big difference between being a photographer and running a photography business.”  Today I will discuss professionalism in running a photography business.

As I mentioned in the previous article, I love interacting with and empowering people. I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in social work and I have worked with teens, couples, families and children. This is probably the main reason I love doing what I do. Photography is a great creative outlet and shooting seniors is a wonderful medium to make people feel good about themselves, create images that last for generations, and document a major milestone in their lives. But, my wife and I also spent 10 years each in pharmaceutical sales and we learned what to do and what NOT to do when it comes to business.

1) What do I charge???

If you want to move into the realm of professional photography AND be respected as a credible quality business then you have to charge for your services. It seems that ever since the Enron scandal, “entrepreneur” and “profit” have become evil words in our society. I am not ashamed that I want to generate income for me and my family by providing a service that I have invested my heart and soul, my resources, my time, and my finances into over the last decade. And I am grateful that people want to invest in my business. It doesn’t make me any more evil than the doctor who helps make sick people better or the hair stylists who uses a pair of scissors to cut hair. They both charge for their services. And I am going to go out on a limb and say that both the doctor and stylists charge an amount that is generally relative to what you get in return. In other words, for the most part…you get what you pay for.

Now the next step is building a body of work with senior photography. So how do you charge for work when you don’t have work to charge for? Well you do have to build a portfolio but I suggest giving yourself a deadline to build your portfolio during your “scared to charge” phase. Let everyone know that for the next 3 months, 6 months, whatever, you will be offering portfolio building sessions but after a certain date you will begin charging X amount for your sessions and products. That way you are setting a goal for yourself and alerting family, friends, and customers of changes well in advance. You are also experiementing, practicing, investing in learning your skill…not only with your camera but with your customers too. When you do decide to charge, make sure your work and customer experience can back it up. I get at least an email a week asking something like this: “I was wondering if you could Photoshop my pictures to make them look “better” or look more like “yours”. “We decided to go with a cheap/free/uncle/friend photographer and they didn’t come out too good. Can you fix them?”

What does that even mean? It would be easier for you to build a time machine out of the free disc that your images are on and travel back to that exact moment and redo to the shoot with a professional than for me to fix beyond repair, blurry, orange tinted, dark eyed, pictures. Professionals are professional because they do it right, they do it well, and they back it up.

2) Invest in your business.

What happens if one of your seniors breaks an ankle on a shoot, or someone is injured in the car while transporting your seniors and their parents to another location? What if your gear is stolen or dropped in the creek? A professional insures themselves and their gear and has policies in place to eliminate this type of concern and worry.

Behind every good man may stand a good woman. But behind every good business there also stands a good accountant, business manager, and lawyer. You should also demand that the best service and quality be provided for your customers and want that demanded of you. That is why we invest in workshops, training, top equipment, and professional organizations both nationally and locally, and in delivering quality products on a consistent basis.

3) Professionals act professionally

Use some common sense and project an ora of professionalism and class in everything you do. Customers are turned off easily and image is everything. This is certainly true in social media. Facebook is a wonderful tool but is also a powerful weapon for cowards hiding behind the keyboard. Making passive aggressive comments and insults along with being a drama king or queen projects a bad image and screams unproessionalism. Customers see right through this. Do not put down other peoples’ business or their work.  Stand by your work, your service, and your products. Degrading others doesn’t make your pictures look any better.

Another photographer once asked me why I tag all my images that go up on Facebook. The main reason is to monitor comments.  Remember when shooting high school kids that comments putting people down or calling children derogatory names should not be tolerated. By tagging myself, these comments can be monitored. Also remember one bad experience from a customer can erase 100 other good experiences. Always go above and beyond. Word of mouth is unmatched when it comes to any business.

I am going to close with a harsh statement. There are plenty of amazing talented “artists” that serve coffee everyday at the coffee shop. Not because they aren’t talented or gifted with their camera, musical instrument, writing, etc. But because they don’t understand the importance of running a business. Words like “profit” and “sales” are not evil. As “cool” and talented and you think you are you have to be a business and learn business IF you want to be successful with senior photography. It is just as important as the art. Without it you cannot and will not survive. Facebook and blog comments do not pay the bills. Even a quarterback with the greatest arm in the world is useless if every play is a running play.

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