Every so often I get emails from people asking me questions about what equipment I use, how I learned and whether I have any advice for those starting out in the photography business. I try to respond to all of these requests when I can, but as a photographer still busy ironing out any kinks in my own business, as well as a mom of a 3 year old and wife of a wonderful husband there are only so many hours in the day.
I came across a frustrated post today in a forum from another photographer who was finding requests like this draining for her. Several others commented that they were feeling the same way and that when they would take the time to respond they often didn’t even receive so much as a “thank you” for the information they so kindly took time out of their lives to provide. Overall in my life, being positive even in a negative situation is something I strive to do. I laugh at myself. A lot. So while I never saw the lack of a simple thank you or appreciation for the time I have been taking to answer such questions, it really is something that should not take time from my business, family and current clients all of whom deserve my utmost attention and the majority of the time I have to give.
That being said, there are a great number of people who have helped me on my journey to starting my own business and succeeding in this industry. They took the time to mentor me, respond to my questions and provide me with guidance to have the best start possible. I would be remiss to not provide anyone asking me the equation with which I took my photography skills from something like this image:
What do you do with a nude newborn? Stick a flower over the offending bits and call it a day right? NO! This is NOT what you do and this is only a small part of what makes this a terrible baby photo of my poor, sweet daughter. She is also on a black background with no shadowing to create a sense of anything other than her floating in outer space. Further to that she is not in FOCUS and she is underexposed. Oh and no, she did not have jaundice, I just had no clue on how to properly white balance and achieve correct skin tones. Sad newborn photos for us and while I love them, I still wish we had hired a professional as well as enjoyed my early attempts at photography so that we’d have something from then we could hang on our wall.
And the method I used to learn enough to take my imagery to this level:
Just to prove my daughter does get nicer photos than that in her life here is one from last year in the spring. Guess what? I still see a lot wrong with this photo that most people not trained in photography would never notice. This kind of critical eye is what will keep you growing as an artist (It still feels weird to call myself an artist, but I am trying to own that role now. Maybe it will always feel strange).
Here’s a recent newborn that isn’t mine, but that is more similar to my first attempts with my daughter only done the “right” way, with a professional level of knowledge about lighting and posing of newborns.
Wow. Does it ever make me feel naked to show some of my worst and earliest attempts at photography! Now that that’s out of the way I am going to provide the information I give out to those asking for my help. You may be reading this because I have sent you to this link, which is my intention. This way I can still help those looking for assistance, but retain some moderate levels of sanity at the same time.
I would like to start by making a disclaimer that I do not know it all (stop laughing now) and I do not have nearly all the answers. I do not offer formal mentorship because I have not been running my business for long enough to feel comfortable taking people’s money for the knowledge I have gained. These tips and ideas are simply the formula that I followed and it’s what worked for me. There are many means to the same end, but…you probably are here because you asked so there you have it.
Firstly, I did not get into photography to make money. I have always had a love for photography and spent many high school hours in the darkroom at school and at the arts center. Your first love HAS to be photography as an art form to be successful. If you want to get into this to make some “quick money”, stop reading and investigate other career options. The costs to setting up a legitimate photography business the CORRECT and LEGAL way are great and to be perfectly honest I did not start to turn any profit until this past year (and it was modest at that). PHEW! Putting myself right out there again! Haha! The start up cost has to come from somewhere. Either a business loan, personal savings etc. I am fortunate enough to have had a very understanding husband and family who had faith in me from the beginning and trusted me to invest our personal savings responsibly. Most do not have enough in savings to do this and to be honest, neither did we. We put ourselves into debt and have spent the past year paying those debts off and we still are not done. Photography is not a quick fix for your money problems. <---period. Now that we have that out of the way, I actually had plans to become a teacher before I became a full time photographer. I completed my bachelor's degree BEFORE even considering starting my business and if you don't already have a Plan B in place I would highly recommend having one as photography is not a "sure thing" by any means. Photography businesses fail daily in today's economy and it is not an easy road to travel at the moment. The first forum I discovered about photography was a place called I Love Photography (http://www.ilovephotography.com). There are a number of incredible people who were (and still are) a part of that forum who helped my skill level grow in leaps and bounds. I decided from early on there that I was not going to even start a business until I was accepted into something called PrePro. The main part of the forum is free, but business cannot be discussed on the free side so you have to submit 30 images and apply to be accepted to PrePro which is where you gain access to more information about the business side of photography. You are granted access to this section ONLY after your technical skills are proficient enough to be considering that option. Once I was accepted there, I started to read all of the information I could and used spreadsheets and recommendations to create a true business plan (1 year and 5 year plans). This was not a small undertaking. I also had to learn about Canadian tax rules, getting my name approved legally, getting my business license to that I wouldn't be prematurely shut down and insurance so that both myself and my clients were covered in case of any kind of accident. These costs were not paid for by the money coming in because at that point I had not accepted a pretty red penny for my work and no money should ever exchange hands until these systems are in place. I read all of the recommended books I could get my hands on. The very first one being my camera's manual. No really. That was the first thing recommended to me. So I got some toothpicks to prop my eyelids open and read that darn thing cover to cover. Next up was a book called Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. This book also requires the toothpicks so keep them handy, but it is slightly more tolerable. (Hmmm...this is starting to feel like school only there was no teacher pushing me to learn these things I had to keep myself motivated so that whole love of photography itself and not money thing was crucial through this part). My next challenge was to figure out where it was I would hold sessions. We were living in a small apartment and could not afford to rent studio space so my whole family sacrificed for me to use our home as a studio at that time. I would kick out my husband and daughter for sessions, clean the whole place top to bottom, move ALL of our living room furniture out of the way and set up my studio lights and backdrops every single time I had a session. After a few months of this we had saved enough to move to our current house where I have a dedicated home studio in the basement (insert huge sigh of relief here). Even this is not the perfect solution, as I still kick my family out so that there isn't noise causing distractions and I still need to clean my entire home before every session. This is all starting to sound like a lot of work right? Yep. This was all only the basics of it. The other things I had to learn about included, business, law, accounting, lighting, education, how to earn degrees and a whole heap of other stuff I don't even care to think about again right at this moment hahaha! So all in all if you want to do this for real as a business full time (and succeed at it) and if this is your passion you are going to have to be prepared from the start to put in about 80 hours or more per week. Seriously. I am not kidding. This is outside any of your other responsibilities. How?!?! You might be asking. I didn't sleep much the past 3 years. No lie. I average 5 hours of sleep per night. It's getting better now that I have systems in place, but it hasn't been easy and my systems won't work for everyone. These are the programs I use to keep myself sane so you can google them if you want more information: ShootQ (studio management software that will take you hours upon hours to set up, but will save you the same time in return once it's all running), Lightroom (LEARN IT. LOVE IT. My opinion only and others may or may not feel the same). CREATING time for myself and my family where I am not working. This helps inspire me so while it feels like it's time "off" it's actually the best fuel for my personal growth and creativity. Finally WORKSHOPS. I go to conferences and workshops put on by photographers who bring something to the table I want to learn whether it is natural light, off camera flash or business skills. They have been through it all (I recommend choosing mentors wisely that have been in business for a good number of years so that you know their business practices stand the test of time), they are providing me with YEARS worth of time saving information for my money and it has been worth every penny I have spent, and more. As far as equipment recommendations go, I don't offer many of those as it is so individual and if you do all of the things I have suggested above you can ask on the forums what people may recommend for your specific situation and you will get more opinions than just mine that way. Your needs will be individual and I cannot give a universal recommendation that will fit everyone. I will tell you that I started my business with a Nikon D80. It really is not the equipment that creates the images I show on my site it is the hours upon hours I have spent reading and learning and attending workshops that allows me to create the images and provide my customers with the level of quality they expect of me. I could actually shoot with that camera again if I had to and while there would be some limitations, of course, much of the time I could create the same images I do now with it. One tip to save you time and money is to learn each and every piece of equipment you own before buying another one and understand WHY you need the next item on your list fully before you buy it. I dove into this headfirst so I did a lot of upgrades in a short amount of time, but I never bought a single item that I didn't have a specific NEED for. Understand your needs and wants and allow for them in the budget section of your business plan. If you read this far then good for you, I admire your stick with it attitude because this blog post is pretty bland really haha! Now go tackle that camera manual and I look forward to seeing you on the forums and watching you as you grow. Hopefully I can be of help to you along your journey, once you get these basics out of the way. The beauty of joining a forum where there are high standards for technical proficiency is that you will need to push yourself to be better all the time and more people than just myself can answer your questions. I don't want to offend anyone or make you feel you can't ask me further questions either, but please understand that I may not be able to reply personally to everyone and this is the very reason I recommend forums where if one person can't help you, there are plenty of others ready and willing to help.