8 Tips for running a successful photography business
Understandably many people are worried about their businesses at this time. It’s a difficult period for many businesses and, of course, there is a lot of uncertainty.
If you have your own business, some of your questions and concerns may revolve around “Do I have enough financial security to get through this?” “Will my clients be financially sound on the other side?” “How am I going to cover my rent and business expenses during this difficult time?” “Will the economy bounce back?”
These are all valid concerns, not just for photographers but for all businesses.
As difficult as it might be, try to keep a level head and good business sense. I’ve been in business for nearly 30 years, and what I’ve learnt is that business is not complicated — running a successful photography business comes down to a few key points that if understood, make working through tough times a lot simpler.
I outline my top eight tips for running a photography business below, and I also cover this in two 'Live Business Advice For Photographers' shows.
1. Supply and demand
This is, without doubt, the most fundamental part of business and one that people often neglect to appreciate. Quite bizarrely, many people start a business without doing any groundwork or research, often on just a whim simply because they like the idea of being self-employed or doing something they enjoy. This is just nuts!
Working for yourself and making a success of it takes at least 10x the effort of just having a decent paid job, and it comes with a multitude of other headaches too. But that’s not the main point, the main point is if you haven’t done your research or run the numbers then you are going to fail.
In the video above, I provide a simple example of Joe, a hat maker who didn’t do his research. By neglecting this fundamental part of business, Joe did not realise that there was already too much supply and not enough demand for hats in his city.
You can see from that very simplified illustration that it’s important to do your research. Don’t assume that you’re going to make a comfortable living just because you think you’re good at something.
Doing your research before you start any business is crucial.
When I started my studio business 25 years ago I’d already worked as a photographer for five years and had assisted in other studios, so I knew the industry from an inside point of view. I then looked very carefully at my own demographic area to discover and understand the supply and demand.
At the time I concluded that there were only three credible suppliers in my area and plenty of demand. I researched all of the potential market places where there would be demand from (such as electronics, banking, tourism etc) and I started to analyse what these sectors were doing in terms of advertising and imagery. I carefully analysed the standards of work that they were receiving from their current suppliers. Could I do it better? Could I deliver a better service and could I compete on price?
One rule that I’ve learnt from this is don’t expect the customers to switch allegiance, even if you can offer all three of those things. Often businesses have built a relationship with their current suppliers and it can take a significant effort to move them away from that relationship.
Now let’s assume you identified that the demand was appropriate compared to the supply and that you were able to compete effectively with the current suppliers. Now you have to consider how you’re going to reach out to the ‘demand’ and let them know that you are a new ‘supply’ option.
2. Know your audience, what they want and how to target them
This is called targeting your market and it must be done with the right messages and material. In my case, if I was going to target an electronics manufacturer then there would be little point in me showing them my wonderful pictures of fashion, food, cats, or anything else. They simply wouldn’t care.
So think carefully about who you target and what you target them with. One of the most useful things to consider is the target market of the businesses that you want to work for — what are they trying to say to their target market? If you understand this then you can give yourself a better chance of winning business by appealing to that and really focusing on what you offer.
There is one simple fact in business: nearly every business always wants to make more money and that is their primary focus. They only use the services of a photographer to deliver a better message about their products so that they can sell more of that product or service to their customers. That’s it.
So can you help them do that? In the video I explain why you shouldn't faff around with this point and believe that you’re there for ‘artistic’ reasons. You’re there to help them make more money or to look better, but ultimately it’s about helping them make more money. Yes, it sounds cutthroat, but that’s capitalism, and if what you do doesn’t help them with their business, then you won’t be doing it for them, for long.
Once I’d identified the businesses, the target markets, the supply and the demand I then had to let them know that I existed. Your Instagram page or an email about your website is not going to bring the work in I’m afraid.
I receive about 200 emails every day. I scan past them and because I’m busy, I often neglect them and they end up getting lost in the noise. And I’m not the only business owner who does this. Why would any business pay attention to your paltry request for them to look at your website?
Find the decision-maker — the person in charge of marketing, art direction or the boss — and get something on their desk. Then follow it through with a telephone call and a request for a meeting. Never assume that an email is enough because it’s not.
As I became more established and the type of clients I wanted to work for grew, I produced a number of books and materials (which you'll see in the video) to send to advertising agencies and art directors. I sent them on loan and a courier would be arranged to collect them after a given period. This provided the ideal opportunity to contact the client and ask ‘Did you receive my book, can I come and see you to discuss it?’
I also used to send out newsletters showing that I was busy and that lots of companies were choosing to use me — this was a way of staying in touch with past customers and letting potential new customers know that lots of other successful companies were using my services.
All of this is called marketing, and if you’re not good at it then think about employing someone part-time to handle it on your behalf. Or, if you are a highly skilled photographer with incredible work, you might want to consider using the services of an agency to market you and bring work in for you. If this is the route you go, remember there will likely be a 30% commission for doing so.
3. Learn more and constantly improve
While we’re on the subject of sending out your work, before you decide to go into business you have to ask yourself if your work is really good enough. If you’re a wedding photographer, portrait, fashion or product photographer, how does your work compare to that of your competitors?
If it’s not right up there and you can’t confidently say that it’s as good or better than your competitors then you need to up-skill yourself and better your work. This takes dedication and practice. Karl Taylor is the perfect place to do that — we teach you key skills that will set you apart from your competitors and provide you with the knowledge to create professional-level images.
Now, how can you get an unbiased view of how good your work is? The simplest way to find out how good your work is is to do what I call an unbiased test.
I explain this fully in the video, but basically it involves collating your best work and that of your competitors and getting an unbiased audience to give their feedback.
Run this test across as many people as possible and if your images don’t come out as the first choice, stop crying and find out why.
Ask them what they didn’t like about image A, B, C etc and try to gain some constructive criticism from this. Be realistic about your capabilities. Too many times I’ve seen photographers with delusions of grandeur (myself included when I was younger) and this will severely limit your ability or willingness to learn.
Don’t think because you know the difference between ‘hard light’ and ‘soft light’ that you’re some sort of studio master. If you can’t explain to me what resonance, refractive index, lighting gradations, shadow density, inverse square law and fall off are and demonstrate that you know how to control all of them then I’m afraid you don’t know as much as you think you do. So get yourself back to our classes on Visual Education, stop pretending that you’re a photographer and start learning for real.
Now let’s assume that you’ve got the skills, that there is a demand (and not too much supply) and you’ve done a good job on your marketing — what do you do next?
4. Stay connected and build relationships
It’s all about building relationships. The most likely clients you will get are repeat ones and that will be based on you doing a good job and working well with them (by that I mean your personality). Do you have the right sort of personality to get along with people, for them to warm to you and like you? If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good your work is — people don’t want to work with someone they don’t get along with. So you need to ensure your people skills are good too.
You can help improve your people skills by joining organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce, or networking at trade shows and events, business breakfast clubs etc so that you can get into the habit of communicating with people. All of these things are great opportunities for networking and building relationships and building your confidence with people.
Trade shows are another way to build relationships. If, for example, you’re targeting drinks companies or an electronics company, why not visit those types of trade shows. It will allow you to learn more about their market, who their customers are and the type of marketing and display images that they use at these events.
It also allows you to introduce yourself, leave a brochure and talk with people that often wouldn’t give you the time of day. But you need to do it confidently, if you’re not capable of introducing yourself politely and making a confident friendly conversation then you’re not likely to do very well at being self-employed.
Once you’ve built relationships and have clients then the chances of repeat business are high but don’t neglect to collect data. This is extremely important.
I still work with art directors that have moved agencies three times in the last 10 years simply because I’ve kept track of them, their work and what they’re doing, and I’ve made the effort to maintain that relationship.
Build a database, learn about your clients, their names, numbers, email etc and log it all down. Every job, every budget, every birthday — anything and everything you can and use it! In five years when you’re trying to remember the name of the art director or client you worked with on a great shoot you did, you will be kicking yourself for not keeping a database.
5. Identify your best customers
The 80/20 principle tells us that 80% of our profits come from 20% of our customers. Although this isn’t always the case it’s always important to be able to see which customers are the best to work for. Who pays the fastest and who needs a lot of chasing?
You need to do an honest roundup from time to time to discover which customers are just a pain and which ones are the best. Focus on those customers you’re happy with and who pay you on time and dedicate less time to those that don’t.
6. Preparation, awareness and strength
Always prepare for the worst. I nearly went bust twice. From 1995 to 2000 the stock market grew by 400% and people were throwing money around like water. The internet was taking off and everyone who had a dot com was being portrayed as the next big thing. It was all of a load of rubbish though, and in 2002 the whole lot came crashing down when everyone finally realised it was all hype.
The result was lots of bankruptcies and a recession. How resilient would your business be if it lost 50% of its clients or revenue? Now, this, of course, is perfect timing — right now we are staring down the barrel of a post-COVID-19 recession and we still hadn’t recovered fully from the 2008 economic crash — can you survive? Have you got contingency funds to get you through and are the majority of your clients likely to be resilient, because your resilience often relies on theirs.
What can you do when things hit the fan? Can you smarten up your act, your message, your advertising, your website? Can you work on portfolio images? Can you adapt?
For example, right now we are going through a very difficult period, the whole western world economy is virtually at a standstill, but does that mean you need to be too? What can you do during this time to be productive? There are plenty of productive things you could be doing during this time that will benefit your business when things return to 'normal', which I discuss in the video.
7. Entrepreneurialism, passion and motivation
Entrepreneurialism is a key attribute of being self-employed. Essentially it means being adaptable, spotting opportunities and being willing to take a calculated risk. In 1999, like many people, I recognised that something significant was going to happen, something that wasn’t going to happen for another 1000 years. It was the turn of a millennium to the year 2000. Everyone knew it was going to happen but only a few people decided to look at it as a business opportunity.
To celebrate this important occasion I decided to release a special large format calendar of images and make it available to businesses as a collectible that they could send out to clients, personalised with their company logo.
Many of these companies would not normally have produced a gift like this for their clients but I recognised that, given the significance of the year 2000, many companies would actually jump on board if I marketed it correctly. I made a lot of money from that project.
Over the years I’ve also shot images purely for stock purposes that have been very successful and sold time and time again - because I’ve identified specific words that needed describing visually, words like ‘Growth’, ‘Wealth’ ‘Assets’, ‘Natural Balance’ etc.
I’ve published books and partnered with landscape photographers during periods where I wasn’t as busy as usual and sold thousands and thousands of copies.
Many years ago I also recognised the need for a local photo library, providing stock images for tourism, hospitably and local business so I partnered with dozens of the best amateur photographers and created a searchable photo library CD and a website. This was successful for many years, until the bigger stock agencies came along or others arrived and replicated what I was doing, but I still made money.
I also created an online gallery selling mounted prints, which was successful for a few years but then, unfortunately, died a death so I closed it down. What went wrong? Other suppliers came along and overwhelmed the amount of demand. Too much supply and not enough demand.
In 2006-2007 I recognised the rapidly growing interest in digital photography and I started running evening classes and workshops which did very well. Then in 2008 came the economic crash and some of my commercial work dried up so I put all my spare time and efforts into developing the training side of my business.
Now I have one of the top photography education platforms on the planet, but I still operate and shoot commercial photography for many of the clients that I’ve shot for over the years.
Six years ago our business was starting to struggle due to the decline in DVD sales and the limited studio space that we were operating from at the time. We wanted to expand into live shows and new courses but simply didn’t have the facilities or space to do it. My business partners and I took the calculated risk to invest literally everything we had into new premises, technology, a membership platform and to relaunch our business from Karl Taylor Masterclass to Karl Taylor Education.
We nearly went bust, we took a huge gamble with our own money, not involving outside investors, and it took a few years of very hard work, but it paid off. But never assume that things can’t change again overnight and I’m willing to accept that as part of business.
So business is also about looking for and finding opportunities and it’s something I still do because I enjoy it.
If you don’t find yourself to be an extremely motivated and passionate person then you’re probably not cut out for being self-employed. You have to want to get out and try things, but also be prepared to fail. Failure is the best learning tool for success, but if you’re not willing to try because of a fear of failure then it’s unlikely you’ll succeed. Going into business is about calculating risks, not ignoring them.
I personally know some multi-millionaire business people who had a great idea or product and they marketed it at just the right time. But sometimes that can also be down to luck - the right thing, at the right time. Some of those same business people have launched other things that have also failed. But all of those business people learnt from their failures.
Now, of course, platforms like ours are here to help you acquire the right skills for your photography business, whether that’s improving your post-production knowledge, lighting and conceptual skills or offering business advice. But we can’t do it all for you, you have to be realistic about your prospects, do your research and consider carefully the cornerstones of business supply and demand.
8. Expert advice, knowledge and mentor guidance
Don’t believe everything you’re told by so-called 'experts'. Many of the people giving out advice on Youtube were breastfeeding when I was shooting campaigns and making a living from photography.
Now that’s not to say some of these people haven’t made a good business, just be aware that it might not be in the business they’re offering advice on.
So choose advice carefully. Look for evidence that those offering advice have the real-world skills to match. Social media is not the real world. People that talk about ‘the hustle’, the ‘coffee’ and the ‘lifestyle’ are trying to sell a dream rather than help set you up for reality. I can tell you now that reality is much tougher.
If you want to know how other successful professional photographers have made it, take a look at my guest interviews on Visual Education. You’ll learn the truth and gain the insight needed to put your best foot forward.
The final point I make in the video is that you should remember that working for yourself isn’t for everyone - many photographers produce their best work when they’re just doing it for pleasure. But if you do want to go into business, try to stay balanced.
While business can be difficult, it doesn’t all have to be cutthroat. Some very successful photographers I know also contribute immensely to charity projects or by giving their time back to the community. Don’t let business turn you into something you don’t want to be.
Hopefully this has given you some insight and food for thought - and maybe even a necessary reality check. If you are truly passionate and willing to put in the work you can create a patch for yourself, even in a crowded market, and running a business can be extremely satisfying and a rewarding career path.
For more advice on how to run a successful photography business, take a look at our Business course. This covers fundamentals such as how much to charge for your photography; what areas of photography earn you the most money; understanding the commercial project workflow and how to run and grow your business.
You can also watch two live 'Business Advice For Photographers' shows, where I address many of the concerns photographer face when starting or running their own businesses. You can watch the first show here and watch the second show here.
For more advice that will help you make a success of your photography business, take a look at our Business course. This includes useful business advice for photographers, covers essential information and includes useful business documentation that you can download.
You'll also find valuable insight in a number of our live guest interviews with top photographers. These professionals have generously shared their knowledge and experience, revealing what they've done to make it to the top.