A few weeks ago, I received an email from a college student in another state, whom I’d never met, asking if she could interview me for a paper she was writing about entrepreneurship. She’d found me on social media and had been a fan of my work for a while, and thought I’d be a good person to interview about the challenges of starting a business. Me! Little ole me. I was so honored.
Michaela, thank you for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with you. I’m always willing to be an open book because I wouldn’t be here without other people who chose to share their experiences, too. I don’t have it all figured out - I never will because no one does - but these are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far as a wedding photographer and what I’d tell myself if I could go back just a few years in time.
Starting a Photography Business
How did you start your business?
The Big and Bright actually started out as a blog. I've always loved to write, and entrepreneurship intrigued me, but I wasn't sure if it was for me, so I started interviewing some passionate creative entrepreneurs and telling their stories. I learned a lot from the artists I interviewed, and at some point along the way, I picked up a camera for blog photo purposes and realized that my passion for storytelling went beyond words. Photography challenged me, it let me be incredibly creative, and once I realized I could build a business out of it and took the first few steps of the small business owner journey, I knew it was the entrepreneurial path for me.
How did you measure success when you first began vs. now?
For me and for many creative entrepreneurs, the big mark of "success" in the beginning is going full-time - being able to quit my day job and pursue this dream wholeheartedly. Of course, that happens more quickly for some than for others, and you have to be savvy about it. I had to wait until it was financially realistic and responsible, and the growth required for that took a long time. I was in business almost two full years before I was able to go full-time. Although I was really proud to reach that milestone and consider that a significant personal success, I definitely believe there are other (maybe even more important) success metrics for a photographer. The quality of my work has improved, my work-life balance has improved, and I'm able to offer my clients a better overall experience. All of those things could be considered ways to measure success, and in that vein, I'm always improving and always reaching for the next level.
How do you advertise your business locally?
Aside from buying two locally targeted Facebook ads in the last two years, I really haven't paid for any advertisements. Some photographers find local bridal fairs and regional bridal magazines to be effective advertising strategies, but I couldn't justify those expenses starting out, so I chose to make the most of social media and word of mouth, which don't cost a thing. Befriending other vendors in the wedding industry and supporting their businesses plays a huge part in word of mouth "advertising", because vendors' recommendations can go a long way! Also, as trivial as it may seem, using local hashtags on Instagram and geo-tagging my posts has proven to be a really effective way of driving inquiries.
What made you choose Dallas as the location for your business?
We moved from Oklahoma back to our home state of Texas for my husband's job right after I went full-time with my business. I'd anticipated this move though, so about six months beforehand, I changed my social media profiles and website to market myself as a Dallas wedding photographer instead of Oklahoma City so I'd start gaining exposure in the Texas market.
Running a Successful Photography Business
Do you travel to other places to photograph events for clients and how far would you go?
I definitely travel! I have good friends who live all over Texas and Oklahoma, so if I have to travel far for a wedding or a session I'll try to make a trip out of it and stay with friends if I can. It's a great excuse to visit people I love! Road trips are my jam.
That said, some photographers market themselves as destination wedding photographers. I don't; not because I don't love traveling, but because it's important for me to separate work and vacations. I would fly to photograph a destination wedding if I really clicked with a client and they requested it, but I don't necessarily seek out those opportunities - just a personal preference.
Have you ever turned down a client?
Thankfully, I've never had to turn down a client. I'll probably deal with this at some point, but I do think there are steps you can take as a business owner, marketing-wise, to help avoid these situations. I try to be really transparent on my website about my pricing, my personality, my beliefs, and my style, so by the time someone inquires with me, they already know they'd be a good fit. So far, the only reasons I haven't been able to work with potential clients are because the particular package they wanted didn't fit their budget or because I was already booked on their date.
What are your responsibilities as the business owner?
Small business owners wear so many hats! Working wedding days, taking photos, and editing those photos only make up a fraction of my actual work. Behind the scenes, there is a lot of bookkeeping, paying sales taxes, keeping up with state and federal taxes, maintaining equipment, and investing in research and education. Wedding photographers dabble quite a bit in the planning side of things, too - creating timelines, answering questions, and being a general resource for their couples. Actively engaging on social media and communication in general -with potential clients and current clients - probably takes up the biggest bulk of my time as a business owner aside from the actual photography.
When you first opened your business, what did you do to become more successful?
I practiced on anyone and anything who would let me, and I invested in education. I saved up money to be able to attend two different small workshops taught by seasoned photographers, and I bought a couple of online courses that really helped me get better at the technical aspects of photography. Second shooting with other wedding photographers taught me a lot, too, and helped me improve when it was my turn to be the lead photographer!
How much money did you need to start your business?
Starting out, I needed enough money to buy minimal equipment and a minimal website, plus the necessary funds for becoming an LLC. In total, I probably invested $5000 when I started my business. The investing never stops, though! Camera equipment is incredibly expensive, as is a good website, a good client management software, and other business essentials.
How did you obtain the money needed?
Because I was still working full-time at a salaried job when I began my photography business, I was able to save up extra money fairly quickly to get me by until I built up a steady enough stream of income from booking sessions and weddings.
How do you determine the price for your sessions?
When it comes to pricing, I take into account the education and equipment I've invested in, the quality of my work, and the quality of the experience clients receive when they book me, plus all the other expenses I have to cover. Obviously when you're starting out and your skills aren't as developed you have to price yourself accordingly, but as you improve and gain more experience, you need to raise your prices to reflect your quality of work and to be able to make a decent profit! There's nothing wrong with photography being solely a hobby, but for me, it's how I pay my bills, so I have to charge what I know my time and skills are worth.
Advice for New Photographers
What do you think makes your business stand out against others?
Individual artistic style is part of what makes any creative business stand out from the pack, and I strive for a certain look that's unique to me, but I think what really sets my photography business apart from others is the experience. Everyone can say they provide great customer service - I don't think I necessarily provide any better service than other photographers out there - but I do think there's a level of transparency, of trustworthiness, and of friendship that my clients have with me that they appreciate.
I always have clients and potential clients tell me that they appreciate my responsiveness and are surprised by how quickly I get back to them and answer their questions. I just like to treat people the way I’d want to be treated! Just like in any friendship or relationship, you click with some and with others, you don't. I hope what I put out there just encourages more clicking with the right people!
What advice would you give aspiring photographers or entrepreneurs?
Your version of success won't look like anyone else's. It's so easy to get caught up in comparisons and feelings of self-doubt. You have to have confidence that if you're improving your skill set, serving your clients well, and keeping your priorities at home where they need to be, you're doing just fine.
Is there anything else you want to tell me?
Entrepreneurship isn't easy, but it's worth it! I wouldn't trade the challenge and the flexibility for anything.
For more on how I started my business and other advice for new photographers, check out my posts about why I pursued photography and how I got my photography business legally up and running.