This is the first post in a 4-part series by pro photographer, Whitney Scott, to help you succeed as a business owner and lead a balanced life.
Making it as a pro: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Unless you enjoy working late into the night, having no insurance, benefits & retirement plan, working weekends, and generally living at or below the poverty level, you should not be a full-time professional photographer.
I remember having a full-time job working for somebody else. It wasn’t ideal. I’d sit in my clean, quiet office at a computer paid for by someone else, attend meetings required by my company, write reports for my boss. I would daydream about a career in photography (which I already did for fun on the side), thinking about how great it would be if I could wake up when I wanted in the mornings to do the jobs I myself had scheduled. How great would it be if I could wear clothing that was artsy and not necessarily “office appropriate”? I could linger over a morning latte and skim Pinterest for session ideas, spend a couple hours editing, do a quick session at sunset and be done for the day!
My husband, David, and I took the leap into full-time photography in 2009. BOTH of us. No other source of income. It’s difficult to determine even now if that was really brave or really stupid… probably a lot of both. It was a leap of faith for us at the time, and we felt it was the right thing to do.
How I wish that I could go back and tell that young couple “faith is a good thing, but faith along with preparation is a great thing.”
It all seemed to make such sense. I had this “passion” for photography, and if I had such passion, how hard could the reality be? Let me answer that for you:
Really, really hard. Have a panic attack and a good cry in the bathroom hard.
The view from the top: put on your oxygen masks.
Here’s a quote from photography business guru, Laurence Kim:
“I actually can’t think of a worse business than photography…In fact, if I were teaching at a business school … [I’d] have my class think of a business that builds zero equity, had zero scalability and zero barriers to entry. It would be interesting to see if my class could come up with professional photography.”
Here’s what that all means:
Zero barriers to entry – there are no qualifications to be a photographer. You don’t have to get a degree, no certification, no experience is necessary. Anyone with a facebook page and a camera can call themselves a “photographer.”
Zero scalability – Unless you are going to create some sort of employee-run chain of photography stores, you are simply trading your time for money, and you’ve only got a fixed amount of your time that you can trade!
Zero equity building – Used to be, you could build up a great studio and eventually sell it, but not any more. The day you shoot your last session, is the day you stop making money. All your imagery has already been sold to their one potential customer. You may be able to sell your gear, but that is all.
Zero benefits – Unless you have a spouse with a good job and benefits, you’re going to be stuck purchasing your own health insurance – a price tag that is getting heftier all the time. You are also responsible for your own retirement funding, a feat that requires long-term discipline and delayed gratification.
Discouraged yet? Well, there’s more. As a member of the Professional Photographers of America (PPA), you have access to their benchmark survey, which gives you real numbers from real photographers as well as recommendations for how you can be most successful. You can find the survey in its entirety here.
The most recent survey from 2015 says, “most home-based studios require a sales volume of $100-150,000 to achieve a robust profit level” (the same numbers for a retail studio are $200-300,000). As a home-based studio owner the recommended percentage of YOUR compensation – what you get to actually keep is around 45% (35% for retail studios).
These numbers are the “ideal” scenario, not the “average” scenario. The true numbers based on the survey data is that more than 50% of studios gross, on average $49,000, which means an owner’s compensation of just under $18,000.
Success: 99% perspiration…er, preparation.
So about now you’re saying “Whitney, I thought you were a nice person! Why are you smashing my dreams into little bits? You do this for a living and seem so happy; don’t you want me to be happy too?”
My answer to that is Ann Monteith. She’s the author/compiler of the most recent PPA benchmark survey and was our (for lack of a better word) drill sergeant when we attended a weekend workshop with her early in our business. It brought us to our knees. There was frustration, tension, tears, but at the core of it all was the reality of the numbers: knowing where our business was and where it needed to be if we were to succeed. Ann Monteith was not our friend that weekend, but her hard lessons have made her our BFF now, because we learned how to set ourselves up for long-term success and now have not one, but two photography businesses that are thriving.
When you know the scale of the mountain you are about to climb, only then can you prepare yourself for the journey. And this is the good part. Now that you know the reality, the equipping can begin. If you haven’t been frightened away by the realities of this occupation, then perhaps you do have enough passion to make it happen. I can promise you this: the blog posts that follow will be much kinder. And that is good, because I much prefer being nice.
**Be sure to check out Whitney Scott’s popular in-person sales video that has helped hundreds of professional photographers maximize sales through effective pricing strategies and low pressure techniques that naturally lead to an increase in profits.