Special New Year Edition: Professional Photographer Panel Q&A

Hey Peeps,

I had this little idea to do a little Q&A with some photographers out there that work their asses off and know the nitty-gritty of what this life is like.  Some are old friends, while others have become new ones.  Regardless of our relationships, they have ALL been inspirations to my own work.  

Well what started as a little idea blew up into a great adventure of tossed emails, Facebook messages and even a Skype session stretching 4 time zones.  

Each conversation gleaned some fantastic information and perspective from these visual artists that will hopefully give some of you insight and a more prepared head start if you are interested in the photography business.


The contributors selected were:  Dane Sanders, a California-based photographer, educator and author of Fast Track Photographer  and The Fast Track Photographer Business Plan;  Shaun Simpson, a commercial/portrait photographer in the Halifax, NS area;  Cyndi Gordon, a freelance photographer working between New Glasgow and Halifax, NS;  Anthony Ha, he leads the photography of Intervalia Studio One in Dartmouth, NS with manager Mark Franche;  Billie Chiasson, a Toronto-based fashion/beauty/fine art photographer;  Brian Larter & Karen Murdock, (happily engaged) directors of Aperture Studios and FIZZ in the Halifax, NS area;  Liam Hennessey, a Halifax-based wedding/boudoir/creative photographer of Applehead StudiosDawn Melanson, a wedding/lifestyle/portrait photographer working from Greenwood, NS;  and a special video message with his take on these questions is Jake Garn, the “whimsical fashion photographer” and instructor of creative workshops via his site, Shoot For Love in Salt Lake City, UT.  

Please take a look at these artists sites if you haven’t already, they are a cornucopia of talent and information.

***  ALSO CHECK OUT THE AMITGUPTANEEDSYOU LINK HERE, AND AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS BLOG!! ***

I tried to limit the questions to 3 or 4, but the sources of information was so fantastic that I couldn’t help but add a few more.  There is some swearing.  

You have been warned.  

Let’s start with our first question:


1.  What is the single biggest mistake made by beginning photographers?

Shaun: 
Not spending enough time playing; I’ve learned you have to take risks; try things that may not work, try things that shouldn’t work.

Cyndi: 
In my opinion, the biggest mistake is advertising yourself as a professional and then charging prices so low just to beat out other photographer’s whom you know have been doing this for way longer and are more advanced then yourself.  I myself never proclaim to be a professional, and I always state that there is much more for me to learn and strive to accomplish.
Anthony: 
Comparing themselves to others.  The “I want to be as good as him” or “Why can’t I get my shots to look like hers” are what holds new photographers back.  While it may help to emulate someone else’s style, especially if the style is popular…  It doesn’t help you grow as a photographer and eventually you’ll come to a plateau.  Each photographer is different, with their own unique vision, but a lot of times we get too wrapped up in our idols.
Billie: 
From what I have observed and seen, the biggest mistake that can be made as a photographer beginning in the industry is to assume you are at the same level of photographers who have been shooting for many years.  The honest truth is that your not!  Regardless of your background, it is going to take time and patience to form a name for yourself. 
Brian & Karen: 
The biggest issue I am seeing with today’s photographers who are just starting out is they don’t know how to take a photo.  Anyone can simply pick up a camera, say smile and push a button, but most of the time they don’t know what goes into the shot.  They are not taking responsibility for 100% of the photo.  Being a photographer isn’t just owning a fancy camera and some lenses, its understanding the mechanisms that go into it, problem solving for last minute issues and capturing exactly what you see in your mind.  If it’s not exactly how you envisioned it – it’s a shitty photo.

New photographers should be assisting and helping other photographers. Learning from them before they even think of calling themselves a photographer.
Dane:
Two things:  they underestimate how much work it is going to be… and they think it is all about photography.  The function of building a business is (from) a fundamentally different muscle group than the function of taking a picture.  There’s tonnes of great examples of people documenting this.  I talk about this in my books, but you know The E-Myth by Michael Gerber… if they haven’t read that – they just have to, it’s standard, they have to think entrepreneurally about what they’re up to.
Liam: 
Biggest mistake: thinking that after they graduate people will call them and just pay them to take photographs of them.  The next biggest mistake is setting pricing according to where they think their work ‘ranks’ among the competition.

Dawn: 

There are many mistakes, but not charging for what they’re worth is, basically what I think is the biggest.  I have seen a few new photographers in my area not charge for what they are worth. Eventually they end up burning themselves out, and quitting.




2.  What should be your top priorities in the photography business?
Shaun: 
Simple; develop a reputation for being trustworthy, sincere, and dependable.  I honestly believe you can’t take a great photograph of someone unless they have trust in you and your abilities, and you put them at ease so they’re not afraid to be real.  For me, those are the most important things.

Cyndi: 
Never stop learning; never mistreat your client (not only because it is not polite but also because word-of-mouth is a huge way for people to learn about your work); and mind your business (do not interfere with drama going on between other photographers/models/designers etc.)
Anthony: 
First and foremost; to have fun.  If you’re not having fun in an industry like this – why bother? Get a normal job.

Second, if you’re doing it to make money… make sure the end result is what the customer wants.  Just because you think something is artistic, doesn’t mean the client will.  Just because you think something is tacky, doesn’t mean the client will.

Third… progress.  Never stay still.  Never be complacent.  Always learn and always move forward.

Billie:  
My first and foremost top priority is to deliver quality images that represent myself as a photographer and a person.  Never give anything less then what your happy with, even if it means cutting out a couple of images.  Quality over quantity!

Secondly, ALWAYS continue learning.  You can do so by simply taking photographs and learning something from every photo set you do.  Or reading books and/or taking classes to help develop and build your skills.

Lastly, have pride in your work and never settle for less then what you deserve.

Brian & Karen: 
1) Marketing. learn to sell your self and what you create.

2) Stand out from the crowd.  There are a ton of self-proclaimed photographers now.  You need to stand out from them and be seen.

3) Hire an accountant.  You’re a photographer; not an accountant.
Dane:
I’d get clear on the mark I want to make, so kind of what’s your vision for your business?  For example, I was in a conversation with a photographer I’m trying to help out right now, who in really broad strokes likes photography, likes events, likes corporate.  But he’s just very general in his perspective and as a result he’s invisible;  no one knows who he is and he’s really good. What’s required is for him to get clear on the mark he wants to make, and once he gets clear on that he can execute it.

Until you’re clear on where you want to go, you’re not going to get there.  So the first thing is to know where you’re going, the second thing is to know where you’re at and the third thing is realize how much work it is going to be to go from A to B.  You have to commit and focus everything you have.  You have to work your ass off.

Liam:
A vision for exactly what they want to be. i.e. wedding, commercial, etc.  – it doesn’t matter what it is, but they need to be self-aware of who they are and what kind of photographer they will be.

Methods and policies.  Set them, create them.  Automate anything you do more than once. Automated email, client booking files, edits, photoshop, etc.  It makes expansion easier when there are simple and defined steps of how things are done in your business.  The only creative part is shooting.  The rest is business related.  Automate it as much as possible.

Dawn: 
1. Know your craft, and your camera. Gain experience, go to seminars, get together with other photographers, and ask questions. Back in the 1990’s I used to talk with an awesome local photographer whom I admired, and he was always giving me advice on how I could improve. I still talk with him from time to time, he is always a source of inspiration for me and others in my area.
 
2. Keep good business records like receipts, purchases etc. Your accountant will love you, and you will know the cost of running your business.
 
3. Wow’ing your clients. Make your clients want to come back for more. Give them an experience that they won’t forget. It’s the little things that make a difference. Word of mouth is what will bring in business for you.

3.  What is your best advice for dealing with the stresses that come with running your own photography business?
Shaun: 
I think the biggest stress is just making sure that you’re always pushing yourself to work harder and better; always wondering if you’re pushing yourself in the right direction.
The only way I’ve been able to move past that, is with experience, and tons of practice; that’ll raise your confidence level, and give you a stronger belief in the quality of your work. Constantly evaluate your work compared to your idols in your field; don’t try to copy them, but learn from them by understanding why their work is successful. Having confidence in your work will help you constructively criticize your own work, and accept helpful criticism from others.
Cyndi: 
The way I handle the stress is to know what I can and can not handle.  Never over-promise yourself to your client and you can normally always exceed their expectations that way.  I also try to take a few breaks a year where I will not shoot anything but personal photos or what I love to shoot for a few weeks, be it nature, animals, etc.  Just shoot for myself, for fun, to remind me why I got into photography and why I love it so much.
Anthony: 
Just relax and take it one step at a time.  With anything, stressing about things only makes things worse.  Be disciplined in your work, but don’t hold on too tightly.

Billie:  
Remind yourself why you started photography to begin with.  Was it to photograph the general public and do portraits or boudoir?  Were you interested in Fashion and Beauty Portraiture?  Artistic nude?  If your not doing the type of photography that you love, then there is a better chance that you WILL be stressed out.  I sometimes get frustrated, or upset or drive myself crazy with photography but that stems from my love for my craft and my perfectionism and drive to create images that are beautiful and reflect my name correctly.  It’s the best kind of stress!

Brian & Karen:  
Separate work from home.  Buy a point and shoot and take photos with it for family and memories. Never lug all your gear around for fun stuff, because then you will feel like you are working.


Dane: 
Well what if the stress wasn’t stress, I’d reframe the context.  I feel stress all the time; I’m a father of four; I’m married; rent is expensive; Christmas just came and went; how am I going to pay the bills next month? – those are realities for everybody.  

In the stresses I have to ask myself the question,”What is the most resourceful way to tell myself the story about my life?”  

Let me give you an example.  

So I’m three years old, my dad dies in a car wreck and I could tell a lot of stories about how I’m a victim, and how I never had a dad and how I got betrayed by God – that’s one story.  Or I can say,”That’s not very resourceful, what’s another story I could tell myself that would be as resourceful or more resourceful than that?” like,”What if this was all a big set up for me to become a certain kind of person that would set a great example for my son to have a great life or my daughters to have a great life?”  I would say the second story is more resourceful than the first story.  

So when you find you’re telling yourself a story about how stressed you are – stop it, and tell yourself a better story.   What stresses you, is making up meaning about the circumstances that you can’t control.  

My friend Amit Gupta, who runs Photojojo, has leukemia.  He could tell himself a story about how awful life is for him right now – he’s waiting for a bone marrow transplant, he’s trying to live – or he could tell himself another story, like,”Hey, I could rally the whole world, because I have a massive reach and influence, for people to start swabbing their cheeks so that people(needing marrow transplants) could begin finding matched donors and possibly a match for me…”, so instead what he’s done is leverage the moment and tens of thousands of people have swabbed their cheeks … that means thousands of lives will get saved – even if it’s not his.  I would think that is a more resourceful approach to dealing with stressful moments.  It is always bigger than yourself if you let it be.

Liam:  
When you run your own business, there is always going to be stress on some level.  I’m in no place to be giving my expertise on that.  It goes back to knowing what you are.  If you’re shooting what you love and setting and surpassing your goals…it’s all good.  No stress.

Dawn: 
Be super organized and never procrastinate with what needs to be done, always have things done before they need to be done. Map out a plan of attack, create a workflow and stick to it, from the first contact with your clients until delivery of the final product. It will make life a lot less stressful. It does for me anyways!!

4.  How do you know what to charge for work?

Shaun: 
*twitch* – That’s always a difficult question to answer.  I try to calculate a rate that potentially covers all related expenses around the shoot, and a few extra dollars I can reinvest into my work.  Larger commercial shoots are always a bit more complicated to price, but honestly it is part calculation – part negotiation – and part guesswork.

Cyndi: 
This is probably the hardest question to answer because you do not want to overcharge for work that you are still learning, and you do not want to purposely undercut other photographers in the business.  I did a lot of research when it came to my own prices; I put a price on my time, work and product and added it all together.  Then I compared it with other photographers work in the city that I thought my quality of work was parallel with just to ensure that I wasn’t undercutting them or way overpricing myself.

Anthony: 
Check what other people are charging for your skill level, and be HONEST.  Realistically, no matter what you set your prices to, someone will tell you they’re too low and someone will tell you they’re too high.  Just remember when taking advice from other photographers – that this IS business.  They may not have your best intentions in mind – no matter how good the advice may sound.
Billie: 
Honestly, if your just starting out with photography or DO NOT have the skills yet to take photographs to suit your clients needs, it is best to NOT charge than insult the professional photographers who are trying to make a living.  Once you feel your skills are good enough to charge your clients you need to weigh the costs of your gear, living and overall time with the client to determine what your rates should be.
Brian & Karen:  
Ask.  Ask your peers and other professionals.  Don’t just toss numbers out there.  Also you need to find out what it costs you personally for every hour you work.  Decide how many hours you want to work a year, after a bit of math you will figure out what your minimum cost is, then add profit.  It’s not simple – but it’s far from impossible.

Dane: 

I think there’s a lot of methodical processes you can employ to get a retail price of what you offer and I think that there’s two sides to the equation.
If I’m going to feel good about what I’m selling and believe in it, because ultimately – especially as a service provider – it seems like the prevalent issue of photographers is they don’t believe their product is worth as much as it is because they wouldn’t pay that much for it themselves.   
So its really an internal dialogue around,”How can I raise the price just a little bit more than I feel comfortable with?  Hopefully someone will be foolish enough to spend the money on it, then I’ll believe a little more.”  And the reason I think the cost-of-sale approach can make a lot of sense is because it encourages people to understand experientially how much money they’re spending as an investment in the hopes of making money.  
So cost-of-sales is an appropriate way to do it.  If you’re selling physical products, it’s easy to figure out what your cost-of-sales is; so if my $2.20 8×10 from WHCC is my product cost then that’s easy to work into the equation – where people get confused is how they value their time.   
I would say that a rule of thumb on approximation is to just give yourself a conservative, reasonable number and remember to count all of your hours.  So if I’m going to sit down and take anyone’s portrait, I realize that’s going to be a 5-6 hour commitment.  If I only pay myself $30/hour (which is pretty reasonable for a skilled profession like photography – considering plumbers make $85-$150/hour), id say that at $30/hour that’s reasonable for all skillsets.  So if I’m going to take someone’s picture, that’s going to cost me a minimum of $150 for $30/hour.  Just to click the shutter once – this is my time.  So if your sitting fee is less than $150 you’re paying people to take their picture.  Like if I’m going to take on a job and they want to pay me $500 for an 8 hour wedding and to hand them a disk; just realize that you’re not actually in business – your actually paying people to take pictures.
Liam: 

It’s simple math. How much do you want to shoot, how much do you want/need to make and what does it cost for you to operate as a photography business? If your numbers fit within the current market value of whatever it is you’re shooting then you’re all set. If it doesn’t fit then re evaluate your own numbers. It has NOTHING to do with how good or not good your photography skills are.

Dawn:
Everyone is different, and what works for someone might not work for others. I am primarily a wedding photographer, and in my fee that I charge, I factor in a number of things. I make sure I get paid for my time, my images, editing, my business costs, travel the list goes on. It’s all factored in. You must know your business costs and what you’re putting out to be able to incorporate it into your pricing structure. Don’t undervalue yourself. Your art, your time is worth it! Never look at what others charge in your area, you are not them. Only you can truly know what your worth is! 


5.   How do you balance home and work life?

Shaun: 
Thankfully my partner is an artist as well, so he is pretty accepting of the long hours; especially the nearly non-stop post-production work sitting in front of the computer.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to keep a limit to the number of shoots I have booked for any day, week, or month.  I’ve found that if I have too much work in front of me, I have to fight the urge to rush through the editing; rushing things never benefits anyone.

Cyndi: 
This also goes back to knowing what you can handle.  If you know you can not shoot and edit 10 shoots a week, then do not book that many.  If someone really wants to work with you, they will wait.  I try to ensure that I set aside a few hours a day to edit photos after my day to day chores and activities.  Keeping balance was hard at first because I wanted to have everything done right away, but now I know that quality photos take time.  I would rather tell a client it will be a longer wait and give them something stunning then rush myself and give the client something mediocre.  Again, if a client wants your work; they will wait.

Anthony: 
Honestly, I don’t.  My home life is pretty much my photography life.  It’s the love of my life, for better or for worse.

Billie:  
I don’t in any way or form consider photography “work”.  I also don’t have very much of a home life.  My main priority is my career and I could care less about having a life aside from photography.  I breathe and live photography and it is all I think about.  That being said, the general public does not always have that mind set.  The best suggestion I can give without having the experience would be to prioritize what you want in your life the most.  Setting out goals for yourself and attaining them and setting limits for yourself so you are still able to have the balance between your work and your home life.
Brian & Karen:
I will soon be moving my computer and editing equipment to my studio and nothing will enter my house work related. Home is for my family and sanctuary.

Dane: 
Here’s the deal dude:  your work and your home life are not in conflict, they have to be married. Right now I’m on a retreat, getting away, trying to get clear on what happened this past year what I want to do next year, I’m not in San Francisco, I’m away from my family – I’m on an interview with you.  I am not committed to my family right now, I am whole-heartedly committed to you and this conversation.  When this conversation is done, I’m going to hang up and you’re dead to me.  
I’m totally focused on what the next thing is.   
So the trick isn’t,”How do I balance?”, because balance sets this tension where these are in conflict – they’re not in conflict.  There’s a great little poetry book called Three Marriages; marriage to your spouse, marriage to your work and marriage to God, and you’ve got to figure out how those three can actually not conflict.  And when they can get harmonious – watch out because you will be a force to reckon with wherever you go because you get to bring those powerful marriages wherever you go.  I am passionately against balance.  And you know what else?  Point to somebody who actually is balanced, I don’t know anybody, especially anybody who’s actually made a contribution.
Liam: 
It’s a lifestyle that works for my family. Work life/balance is a myth. There’s no such thing. We commit to being 100% present on whatever we are doing. If it’s family then it’s family. No cell phones or shoots or iPads or meetings. Nothing. No work. When we work, that’s it. No kids. No interruptions. I work a ton, but it’s early in my career and I don’t have the benefit of a pension plan and my business will be worth very little in 20 years if there’s nothing to sell when I want out. So I work a lot now, set high goals and shoot exactly what I want to shoot. A bit sidetracked… it’s totally about balance, but this work/life balance thing is corporate speak and does’t exist if you ask me. Balance according to whom? Your boss would want you working all the time and your family wants you home all the time. Balance that.
I shoot away from home a lot, especially over the winter so we make time to travel together and take time away from it all. Marse (my wife) gets away with the girls from time to time as well so we always make sure we are having fun.

Man that’s a long answer. Sorry.
Dawn: 

Make sure you set out business hours, and don’t answer emails or do any business things after these times. I take time off for holidays, and vacations, and other days that I need. This will help you avoid getting burnt out. Source out if you need to, to give you back that time you require.
I had the honor once of meeting a well known film photographer in my town who came to our photography club once; a very inspirational man. He mentioned to us that because he was usually booked on weekends for most of his career, he missed a lot of important milestones in his children’s lives. He was so busy with clients and their weddings, portrait sessions, etc, he hadn’t made time for his own family. Those are things he could never get back.
Family comes first in my book. I refuse to miss the important things in my family’s life. Make sure to always take time for yourself, be it weekends off, birthdays, Christmas. Make memories for your family!

6. If you could write a message to yourself to when you first started out, what would you tell yourself?
Shaun: 

As someone who is completely self-taught in photography and post-production, I’d tell myself to invest more time to mastering the craft. I’ve spent most of the last decade or two learning how to use the camera, how to setup lighting, and how to edit the shots. Taking a class or two along the way probably would’ve been helpful, and perhaps sped up the learning process a bit.

Otherwise, I’d say start taking more risks more often, and start working with other talented people to push each harder to put out the best work possible.

Cyndi: 

I guess I would tell myself to relax more and not to be so over critical. Just to have lots of fun with it and never give up, keep striving to be the best I could be and not be to worried with comparing my work to so and so 🙂

Anthony: 

“Slow down and take your time. You have all the time in the world. Invest in a good light meter, and don’t bother with cheap strobes!”

 
Billie:  

Light is the most beautiful thing in the universe, without it we would not exist. Respect and honor its beauty.

Brian & Karen:
Take business classes and hire and accountant.
Dane: 
Focus.  Focus – focus – focus.  I would focus… it’s kind of back to the commitment conversation; it would be more resourceful for me to not have to switch gears so often.  If I could deepen my commitment in certain areas for longer stretches, I would get a better return – and I am doing that increasingly.  But I thought I could do everything in every direction.  It’s well documented that multitasking is not very efficient compared to monotasking. 
Liam: 

Honestly, I would tell myself to enjoy it. I wouldn’t change a thing I’ve done to get here. I’m happy where I’m headed and I’ll work my ass off until I get it.

It’s pretty simple. Put in the time and you will be successful. If you don’t think your work is good enough to be at such and such a price, get a part time job and get better at photography. Get ‘that good’. Shoot for free until you are ‘that good’. If you keep comparing your work and prices to someone else and don’t feel you measure up…get ‘that fucking good’. Don’t bring the market down with your shitty photography. Get better. It’s not instant; but it’s not impossible. It takes time and investment in yourself.

Dawn:
Be yourself, don’t be someone else, and never forget it!


Now our final contributor, Jake Garn shared his perspective towards these issues:


I would like to thank everyone on the panel, Shaun Simpson,  Cyndi Gordon, Anthony Ha, Billie Chiasson, Brian Larter, Karen Murdock, Dane Sanders, Liam Hennessey, Dawn Melanson & Jake Garn.  I wish you all the best in 2012 and beyond!!

Also, I hope all of our readers will check out Amit Gupta’s website to get swabbed and save even more lives in the coming New Year.





Thanks again to everyone and be safe out there celebrating – I want to see you all next year!!

Laters,

Michael Carty
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