How my Business Evolved – The Original Plan for My Business …. {Virginia Professional Photographer}

2008 is about when I finally had the nerve to say I was going to “open” my business.  Of course, the story started many years before then – with many different cameras, learning to develop film, then learning the digital age, etc.  But for me, I was facing the empty nest years as my youngest son was going off to college in the fall and I knew I needed something I could sink my brain into and do for ME.

So I convinced my husband that I could do this.  Seriously, I had convinced him of other ideas over the years, so I’m sure he looked at me with those adoring brown eyes and was thinking…”we’ll see how long it lasts”.    I know he didn’t doubt my eagerness, but…

You see, the biggest obstacle I was facing wasn’t my ability to learn, or my readiness to learn.  I knew I could get that part.  My obstacle was going to be my confidence.  My ability to get over my own fears, and put myself “out there” for ridicule, criticism, and yes, possible failure.

And that, my folks, was the hardest part.  It still is in many ways.  I will always battle my lack of confidence but I now balance it with the knowledge that I’ve come so far, and I’m always going to work hard to do the very best I can.  I joke that I “jumped off a cliff” at some point, and sometimes I’m still free-falling, but that’s my emotional side.  I’m “feeling the fear, and doing it anyway”.  Someone told me that many years ago, and it sticks with me every day.

Ok, back on track.  I had to decide what I wanted to DO with my business.  So many people open up a photography business and look for quick money – which is why so many new photographers do one, or both of the following:

1 – become a wedding photographer

2 – shoot and “burn” images for clients

Weddings – So, becoming a wedding photographer immediately was NOT going to happen.  BEST DECISION I MADE in the beginning!  Honestly, my fears held me back and I’m glad they did.  I feared making a mistake that would impact someone else’s memories forever.  And seeing what I see now, some folks haven’t learned that yet.  You simply cannot just “become” a wedding photographer.  You have to not just learn, study and experience weddings, you have to be completely prepared for anything that will come up on that day.  You have to have made an investment in equipment and lighting AND have a solid post processing plan to deliver said images.

No, I wasn’t touching that until I was SURE I could do it.  And yes, that meant I turned people down who thought I could do it.  But I knew I needed better equipment, and more plans in place before I would take that on.  So weddings waited until I was about 3 years in, give or take.   And even then, I had a LOT to learn.

Shoot and “burn” as a business – well, honestly everyone does this to start in some way.  You take family, friends, etc out and take hundreds of photos and give them EVERYTHING digitally.  We like to call it “portfolio building” in the beginning – basically you need images for a website, so you give yourself and your products away for next to nothing.  Then you might say, hey, this is easy – I can do this and easily make a couple of hundred dollars each time.  Uh huh.

Well, once I realized that I was actually killing my own business, I knew I had to quickly NOT do that.  You can’t buy new equipment with the little bit of profit left over from that business plan.  You can reinvest in yourself, you simply can’t grow.  And, you can’t change that business plan easily without losing an entire customer base that will ONLY hire you if you work that way.  And finding new clients every time you want to raise your prices, well, there will always be another newbie who will shoot and burn cheaper – so you will have a hard time in that market if you truly want to make money.

I had to quickly decide that selling digital files was ok, but I had to be paid for my actual time or this business was destined to fail.  I had to actually analyze my numbers – my real, honest, COST OF DOING BUSINESS numbers.  That was a hard lesson.

Good news, I figured that one out in just a few sessions.  So I quickly put together a price list and then started selling prints.  Again, I thought I was smarter than so many that have gone before me.  I hated packages, so I didn’t offer them (big mistake), and I thought it only “fair” to my customers to make my prices similar to a consumer lab – like Costco, etc.  Hmm…again, figured out that in the end, I am not selling the paper the image is printed on, or in commodity mode like the big box folks – I’m selling the time I took to take the image, and the talent I acquired along the way to be able to create the ART I was selling.  I had to be an artist, AND a business person.

I tried, and was successful with, maternity and newborn photography.  But for me, although I love babies, I just couldn’t spend 4+ hours with babies to only get maybe 15-20 images.  I wanted something more dynamic, something that could move faster.  And although maternity images were fun, they all led to taking the newborn photos too – so I had to quickly make the decisions – did those specialties feed my soul, AND could they make money too?

For me, on a per hour basis, no.  And since I was already into figuring out how much I needed to make to stay in business and grow, for me those specialties were NOT going to work in my business plan.

But many, many people do make it work.  Remember I said, you have to find what works for you?  I made the decision to NOT do newborns and maternity because of the way I wanted to work, and the work I wanted to do, didn’t fit with those clients.

But I learned a LOT.  And had I not done those for years I wouldn’t have met great people who not only encouraged me, but have stayed with me for all these years as friends too.

I rather quickly learned that I loved working with teenagers, and families.  I even had the courage to say, NO, I wasn’t going to take on work that didn’t help me learn my specialty.  So I actually turned away work like babies, and birthday parties.  Sounds like a bad idea, right?  But in the end, it was good.

And so my journey changed course, and defined itself better.   I wanted to find the best photographers in those areas I’d identified as my goal specialties – and see how they made a successful business.  I went to expensive seminars and read blogs, books, watched videos, and more.  Always coming up with the same answer – the decisions others made to run their business a certain way didn’t work 100% with my area, my place in my business at that time, and my own abilities at that time.   But I made those investments (seminars, forums, products that promised to make things easier (ha)) at a time when I didn’t really have the income to do it – and I learned the tough lesson – I had to forge my own path, with the information from others as tools, but not as my road map.

And that meant no one was going to tell me what equipment to buy, or how to use it.  No one would or could tell me how to market, or how to price myself.  No one could tell me how much I could make, or IF I could make money at all.

I was on my own.  Which is another reason I tell folks “no” when they want to learn from me.  You really can’t learn from someone else how to be in this business.  You can learn some things, yes, but if you don’t learn them for yourself you won’t get why …. and you might even miss something that works for you, but didn’t work for someone else. You aren’t doing for yourself the best you can – so I say, jump off a cliff and keep your eyes open all times!

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