Why Photography is an Investment
It’s 6:00 am. I’m sitting here at the dining table, coffee in one hand (waiting ever so patiently for it to do its job) and phone in the other. I’m mindlessly scrolling through Facebook – which isn’t really my morning norm, to be honest. I don’t generally log in to social media until much later in the morning. I’m also not generally blogging this early in the morning, so I hope I’m making sense today.
In my mindless scrolling, I came across a post in a local Buy/Sell/Trade page that slows my scroll to a complete stop. A new photographer has offered free sessions to the community. It’s not the first post of this type I’ve seen, it happens almost daily.
You’re probably thinking something like, “Here we go again, another photographer on her soapbox”. So, let me preface the rest of this post with a few things:
- I swore I’d never make one of these posts but for some reason I felt called this morning to actually speak up.
- I believe in community over competition and that we all start somewhere. There is only one way to learn after all and that is practice. Free sessions are usually the way to do that when you’re portfolio building – heck, that’s how I started.
- Some people think the industry is saturated and think that it’s impossible to build a photography business when the photographer down the street is offering free sessions. I believe that there’s a photographer for everybody – price, skillset, personality, we’re all unique.
Now that that’s out of the way, onward with my point: you get what you pay for and I believe education increases understanding. So today, I want to shed some light on what goes into running a photography business and why photography is an investment.
Let’s tackle the bigger picture of owning a photography business first.
In 2016, I decided to get “legal”. I started with research on the best business structure for my business and decided to form an LLC in the state of Virginia (where we lived at the time). Following the setup of the LLC (which in Virginia is a flat $100 for initial registration), I applied for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. The process is free, but necessary for tax purposes.
Next, I had to get legal with the county in which my business address was located. I had to apply for a business license – which was free for businesses making under $100,000 annual income. That varies state-by-state, county-by-county.
Now that my business was legitimate, I knew that I needed a way to protect my clients and this business that I had just created. So I invested in lawyer drafted contracts. These contracts layout payment terms, what I’m promising to deliver, business practices, model releases, and so much more.
But of course, paper contracts are less and less common these days. So then I invested in a client management system that takes my contracts and turns them into digital session agreements. From one place, I can send session agreements, collect payments, track bookkeeping, and communicate directly with my clients.
And since I started collecting payments, I needed a place to store the payments I received because when you form an LLC, the income that you make should be kept separate from personal income and bank accounts. So I had to research and setup a business bank account. It should be noted that most business accounts are not free and there’s usually a monthly fee.
Okay, so now we’re making money and we have a place to store it. But Uncle Sam always comes knocking every Spring. So to be prepared for that, I set aside 30% of the income that I make from every single session for tax purposes. That leaves 70% for salary (if I choose to take one), gear, education, marketing, all the things that go into running a successful business.
Here are a few other big-picture things that I’ve come across:
- I had to pay sales tax to the state of Virginia for every album or physical product that I sold. This was filed monthly and, eventually, quarterly.
- I had to renew my LLC with the state of Virginia every year. The fee is $50/year to remain active.
- Insurance costs are high, since it covers the photographer’s service AND the expensive gear we use to do our job.
- When we moved to North Carolina, I had to form a new LLC (because North Carolina does not recognize foreign LLC’s). So I had to go through the whole process listed above again AND close down my Virginia LLC. The LLC formation fees in North Carolina are $125 initially and $250 yearly after that (that’s not a typo by the way).
So now that the business is setup, I have to find clients.
I do a lot of my “marketing” on social media. But here’s the thing, I do not own my Facebook page or my Instagram account. Facebook and Instagram own it. And if something happens to either of them, all that hard work is gone. Here’s what I do own: my website, my blog, and my email list. On a yearly basis, I invest in the renewal of my domain name (the website address you clicked on to get to this post), my server hosting (where my website lives), and my SSL code (which tells every visitor that their information is secure on my site).
More important and more costly than all of that is the investment of time to maintain said website, blog, and email list. Here’s where some people would say to outsource. In my opinion, you pay either way, either in your own time, or someone else’s.
Yay, I got hired! Now what gear do I need to do my job?
You don’t need a fancy camera to start a photography business. Heck, I started mine using a film camera and eventually got a Canon Rebel Xsi. But over time and with experience, a good photographer knows that investing in quality gear will improve the quality of their work. I currently shoot with a Canon 5d Mark iii that I purchased in 2014. My main lens that I use is a Sigma Art 35mm. In fact, the only other lens that I own is a 24-105mm L series, and I rarely use it. Why so little gear? Well, for starters… lenses aren’t cheap. But also, my 35 is a workhorse and I’ve learned so much about myself as a photographer by limiting myself a bit.
Other hardware that’s often overlooked:
- Quality SD cards
- External hard drives
- Laptop and desktop
And the actual hardware isn’t the only thing I use on the daily. I subscribe monthly to a bunch of software to make my job possible. Photoshop, Bridge, Blogstomp, Pixieset, Plann, these are just a few of the backend programs that I use.
But honestly, the gear and the software does NOT make someone a good photographer. The drive to learn does. So in addition to the hardware and software that I invest in, I also invest in education to continue to learn, grow, and provide my clients with the very best experience I can possibly give them.
So what does it look like from start to finish?
My session process begins the moment an inquiry drops into my inbox. I start by onboarding my client into my client management system, where I can easily track each part of my workflow so nothing gets forgotten. I send over a welcome email and guide to every client to give them a little more info about what it’s like working with me. From there, we start talking about the session they’re envisioning and once they’ve decided to move forward, I send over a session agreement.
Once my client signs the session agreement and pays the non-refundable retainer, I reserve their session on my calendar. The next step is to send over a session questionnaire, which helps me to get to know my clients a little bit better. Remember, I’m often meeting them for the very first time at their session.
A few weeks before their session, I send over a session prep guide. This is full of my best tips and tricks for preparing for their session. Then I check-in with them 3 days before their session to be sure all is well and to let them know how excited I am for their session.
Now let’s pause here for just a second and note that the welcome guide, session prep guide, and questionnaire was a labor of love. I created these tools for my clients so that I can serve them in the best way possible before, during, and after their session.
Finally it’s session day! I spend anywhere from 1.5 hours to 4 hours with my clients, depending on the type of session they’ve booked. This is my favorite part of my process! But I think there’s a common misconception that happens here. When a session ends, my job continues.
After each session, I head home and upload the photos to the computer right away. Then I back them up on my external hard drive – protecting my clients images is important to me.
Once backed up, I start the process of culling my images. Basically, I’m going through 200-600 photos to choose the best of the very best that represent the quality of work that I pride myself in providing to my clients. The end result is a gallery of images that I hand-edit to my style – a style for which I was hired.
Once editing is complete, I upload the files into my gallery delivery system and send them off to my client.
But the job still doesn’t end there.
This is usually the point where most photographers hold their breath a bit until the client has seen their gallery. I’ve never had anyone disappointed, but sometimes little insecurities find their way in.
Once I do hear back, I send some of the files off to print from my professional printer – who I’ve carefully calibrated my computer to.
In the meantime, I also choose my favorites from the session to be resized for my blog and social media. I craft and schedule social media posts and then tell my clients’ story on my blog – hoping to always remain true to who they are and tell their story well.
When I receive the printed photos back, I package them up and include a hand-written thank you note. I appreciate my client for investing in me!
I’m all caught up on editing, now what?
Oh, it’s a happy day when I’ve caught up on galleries and sent them all off! While I wait for my next session to happen, I use my time in a bunch of different ways:
- I update and maintain my website, making sure the photos in my online portfolio are current and always reflective of my skillset.
- I create blog content that I think my past, present, and future clients may find helpful.
- I create pins for Pinterest for said content.
- I invest in educational courses so that I can continue to learn and grow towards being a better photographer and small-business owner than I was yesterday.
- I plan, draft, and schedule social media content for the next week.
- I plan monthly newsletter and freebie content.
- I handle monthly bookkeeping to track expenses, income, and mileage.
So why are photo sessions so expensive?
All of my collections take into account my cost of doing business (CODB). Basically I look at everything listed above from start to finish, variable expenses, fixed expenses, education, gear, software, my time – all the things that enable me to serve my clients in the very best way possible, and place those into a formula sheet in Excel. This helps me determine a fair wage (or collection price that can be broken down into a fair wage by the amount of hours each session takes me). Charging a fair wage enables me to:
- Contribute to my family’s income and bills
- Continue to offer my clients an amazing experience from start to finish
- Not feel overworked and underpaid – which leads to burnout
Okay so if you’ve made it this far, kudos to you. And thank you, because without you, I wouldn’t even have a business. But hear me when I say these things:
- I’m in no way saying that you shouldn’t invest in a new photographer. Where would I be if nobody took a chance on me? Support them and love them through their learning process. But also keep in mind quality and experience go a long way if you’re booking a photographer for a once in a lifetime, truly important event (like weddings or birth!).
- I also think that sometimes it’s necessary to offer majorly discounted rates on new collections, if you have little to no experience shooting that type of session. For example, I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot many Fresh 48 sessions. Because of that, I offered (for a limited time) Fresh 48 sessions at more than 50% off. I based pricing off of my experience – less experience, lower cost. As my Fresh 48 portfolio grows, I’ll increase the price that I charge towards a competitive and fair wage.
The most important thing to remember is that no matter who you choose to take your photos, you’re investing in a small-business owner and not lining the pockets of corporate America. Your investment helps that small-business owner provide for their family, put food on the table, pay for their mortgage, and so much more. And perhaps even more important to remember is this: you don’t have to invest your money in order to support local business. Like and share their social media posts, refer your friends even if you’re not in the market, and believe in them. Owning a small-biz is hard, sometimes lonely, and nerve-wracking (especially for introvert owners!). Having people like you in their corner is literally the best thing ever.
Happy Friday, friends!
Hey future client! I’d love the chance to work with you! If you’re ready to document life, let’s chat! Drop me a note and let’s get started. In the meantime, check out some of my top resources for your next session.
Are you a new or budding photographer? Check out these FREE resources to help you grow in your biz: