As a South Jersey wedding professional for over ten years here is my advice to you on how to become a photographer!
Once upon a time I had a dream to be a photographer and create beautiful images. I thought it would be fun. I would show up- dance, drink, play, shoot and it would all work out. After a lot of years and encouragement from friends I jumped in and did it. I started a photography business.
I was bad, seriously horrible. Friends, family and parents would say “That photo is beautiful!”, and it was via instagram standards. In hindsight I look at what I used to call work and I cringe. To a “non-professional” saturated colors, people smiling and a pretty location are all you need. That’s a lie. I did more free shoots than I can count for practice and I should have done even more. When people tell you your work is great in the beginning, know they mean well but remember they have no idea what white balance or ISO mean. Rip yourself apart. Be mean. Be honest. Work harder. It will take ALOT of time but you will do better. You will get there. I am not writing this blog because I feel I have made it, or that I am finally “there”. I still am my own worst critic and have ALOT to learn. I am sharing what I wish I knew before I started.
The first step to becoming a photographer is spend ALL your free time reading, trying, failing, succeeding and LEARNING. I gave up time with friends, morning of sleeping in, and then some. My time on the beach with friends even included books and me taking notes. If you want to be good spend 3, heck even 4 times the amount of time you think you need on learning. Don’t talk about it, get up every day and be about it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, your skill set won’t be either. Now that you have spent a year, two or more throwing yourself into this and taken photos of everything from apples to your friends kids, you can move on to step two.
Your second step- expand your gear and learn more. By now you have realized that you need several thousand dollars of equipment to become a legit photographer. For family sessions and things you can get by with less, but if you want to do weddings you need at least $10,000 in equipment plus business and insurance costs to get started (more on this in step 3). If you think you can skate by with less, I am sorry to tell you that you can’t. I tried. I failed. I got bailed out by some AMAZING professionals. I look back now and realize although my price point matched what I was able to offer (that is another side of this I will save for another day) as a professional I was not holding myself to my own standards. The more equipment you purchase the more you can be prepared for, the more your horizons widen. If you don’t understand what 1.4 can do VS 3.5 you are not ready to move on to this step. Yes- you can get some great portraits with a best buy camera and kit lens. I am not knocking that. I am saying that if you want to market yourself as a professional and ESPECIALLY if you want to do weddings you need to have a full arsenal of gear and know exactly what to do on a moments notice. It’s scary at times and incredibly awesome. Imagine shooting an ourside wedding with perfect cloud cover then BAM- your worst nightmare happens. The cloud moves and you are in full sun with the worlds weirdest shadows and the first kiss is going down in 2 minutes…. An amazing opportunity that is worth it’s weight in gold is to work for free for a professional you admire. Offer to assist and carry bags at weddings. What you learn sweating and running around all day for free is more valuable than anything you can get from a book.
Steps two and three are super fun, nerve wracking and most of all EXPENSIVE. I am sure by now you are saying “How am I supposed to do all this when I am not making money yet?” There is no magic answer. I am sure by now you have gotten some cash gigs here and there – that is the natural progression of things. Life is expensive. Starting a LEGIT business is expensive. Having a facebook page and getting paid once and a while isn’t what I call a legit business. That’s a thing you are doing. Step three is the confusing and boring part. It’s time for you to become legitimate. Register your business trade name, get a tax ID, set your self up with an amazing accountant (big shout out to Dan at Liberty Tax), design a website, marketing materials and a Facebook page. Think you can figure it out yourself? Perhaps you can. I thought I could and made some very expensive mistakes. It would have been MUCH cheaper to hire a professional from the beginning. I am in the double-digit thousands of mistakes. I wish I were being dramatic for this blog post, but sadly I am not. Don’t take advice from everyone and their mother. Hire a trusted professional, do your own research and do what is best for you and your business.
Now you are legit and probably 2-3 years deep into this 5 year plan and moving onto to step 4 – working. Yes, five years. That’s how myself and many other professionals I am friends with are/have done it. Price yourself accordingly for your area and skill set. At first you will underprice to get clients, we all did it. Then after time you will realize the amount of work and time that goes into contracting, driving, shooting, editing and you will realize you are not making any money. In fact once the enthusiasm wears off (it will) you will realize you are making about $6 an hour. I charge about $300 for a Lifestyle session. Most people think “$300 for an hour?! She must be loaded!” Let me show you a little math. $300 + 7% sales tax = $321. $21 goes to the state off the bat, that brings us back to $300. On average 30% of money small business makes gets paid into taxes and things, now we are at $210. I then have to pay insurance costs, gas, equipment (besides an expensive body just the memory cards are about $75 each then lenses, straps, cases, batteries and SO MUCH MORE), editing software, computer to handle it all ect. These fees can vary based on how much you book a year, travel ect but lets use $30 for arguments sake. We are down to $180. From here I need to pay myself and pay my business. We are not one and each need to make money to survive and grow. I estimate a session takes me 8 hours. 1 hour shooting time, 1 hour total travel, 1 hour of emails/contracts/questions, 1 hours of marketing/bloging/ect, 2-4 hours of editing, 30 minutes to upload from card and back up, 30 minutes to watermark/blog/facebook preview – and there is 8 hours of work. Break all that down and I am not living some rock star life, but I am living the life I love. Don’t be afraid to up your prices as your skill set grows. Under pricing actually effects the entire industry. In the beginning I thought that was crap – I just wanted clients so I could do what I love. I look back now and realize I sold myself short and the amazing professionals around me.
Life is rolling along and things are going well – this is the step I consider myself in. Step Five. Step five is critical – this is where you realize you may be living the professional life you dreamed of. This is also where you realize there is so much more to learn and that you basically have to go back to step one and do this process all over again over the next few years. It’s a stressful and never ending cycle with the most AMAZING results. You are now doing what you love, what you dreamed of. I have 23 weddings booked for 2014, I will photograph growing families, newborn babies, pregnant mommies, first birthdays, couples in love and make ladies feel like the best version of themselves with boudoir. Life is good, real good.