I’ve had more than a decade of experience working as a freelance designer, and nearly six as a commercial photographer. I also mentor students from colleges and universities, write editorials for magazines, give inspiring talks to groups and businesses, and offer my skills and knowledge through my business, Paul Petch & Co. I’m only human and make mistakes, just like you. Over the years they get less frequent. I manage to cope wearing the multiple hats you have to don when running a few small businesses, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons on the way. I’d love to share these with you if you are considering becoming a paid shooter.
These 10 tips have helped me as a photographer, businessman, and person over the years working commercially. Please note that these are my opinions, and like anything in life, they won’t necessarily suit all people and businesses.
1. You are a service provider first, an artist second
It took me quite a few years to understand this concept as a creative. We all love what we do and can get really attached to our work, while forever challenging our own skills and art. Clients don’t give a hoot, though.
When you set out as a commercial shooter the client wants your take on their imagery, for sure. But striving to deliver the end result, which is a physical product (in my mind anyway), is the really important element. Look at the job of a plumber, doctor, dentist, or whatever you want, really — there is a problem to be solved or result that needs to be provided. As photographers we are no different. From first contact find out what the job is and the outcomes required. Ask what the budget is and then go from there. Is it a head shot or full body? Group or a couple? Is it for personal or commercial use? What outcomes does the client want from the imagery? Will it be early morning or during the harshest part of day? Inside or out?
Your goal is to find out what the problem or need is, and cater to it. Provide a solution.
2. Learn by assisting
I’ve had some great assistants and some not so great, and here is my advice if you want to get involved with photographers and get more skills under your belt.
Generally, I look to get a few basic things out of an assistant on a shoot. They hold lighting, make sure gear is safe and out of the way, and are on hand to support the photographer and cater to the client’s needs. As an assistant, focus on these aspects of the shoot, and before long you will progress to setting up gear.
If you get the opportunity to shoot with another photographer, don’t muck up the chance to learn and be part of the bigger picture. Make the shoot an educational opportunity by listening carefully to the photographer.
What you must not do on a shoot is take advantage of the situation by shooting the subject or event for your portfolio. I’ve had one experience where the assistant was helping at a live performance behind the scenes and shot images, then sold them to performers. This is the quickest way to never get invited to assist again.
Keep in mind when on location you are not there to give advice to the crew or photographer unless asked. There is nothing worse than assistants telling photographers how to shoot in front of clients (even if they are doing things wrong in your eyes).
Make sure the photographer’s gear does not get damaged or stolen. If gear is stored in cases then be sure it goes back into the case, and the case is properly closed. Open cases mean rain, dirt, and other nasties can destroy gear. Gear that if broken creates a heap of issues for the photographer. Treat gear like you would your own.
3. Get a bookkeeper and accountant now
I know new stuff is shiny and smells good. I know the magazines and stores are telling you that you need an f/2 lens. I know that you want a full-frame camera and studio lighting. I also know the business needs to pay the bills and I learned the hard way, by ignoring the fact for many of my early self-employed years.
As a creative it’s unlikely that numbers are your passion too, so rather than leaving receipts in a box that you will get around to later, start right away. The positives of getting your books balanced from the start is you will also have an idea of what you are earning and spending, with a clear view of overheads.
It’s hard to pay the bills when you don’t know what your monthly outgoings actually are, so don’t get caught out, and make finances the top priority of your business. Not gear.
Bookkeepers are not all equal either, so shop around and look at what you are getting for your monthly outgoing.
4. You don’t need the latest and greatest gear
None of us want to hear this when in the middle of a spending frenzy. But, hand on heart, I guarantee you will be OK starting out with a cropped sensor camera and a few simple lenses. You can master lighting techniques learning with ambient light and cables to fire affordable speedlites with basic stands and umbrellas. Sure, this set-up requires you to think more, but that means you are learning the practicalities of making your situation work.
Then there is processing files. A Mac from a few years ago will do just fine, and Adobe’s Creative Suite is cheap as chips these days for your workhorse.
The best advice I can give to anyone starting out is to avoid the temptation to buy on credit, and be one of ‘those guys’ who are selling kit month in month out to pay the bills. You can of course be on the other side of that equation, and buy the kit being sold for a song.
You will outgrow entry-level kit, but it will take a few years while you master your craft. As business grows and you understand the reason for new gear, then savour the fact that you have earned this upgrade to make your job easier, quicker, and more fun.
5. Don’t give up the day job
It’s a huge step working full-time as a photographer, and not to be taken lightly. It will be a steep learning curve working for yourself, and the overheads, client management, photography, learning, etc. can be intense. So work at the foundations part-time.
Keep your regular income from your current job and get your business up and running before going full-time. Getting your head into the finances should be the top priority, then the photography. Boring, right? But important.
This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 64. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: