What it Takes to Build a Photography Business

Photography: Josh McCulloch

Choose a career in movies and everyone will tell you that your first years will be spent waiting tables. Set your sights on medicine and you know you’ll have to spend four years in undergraduate digs, and several more sweating through medical school.

Aim at building a professional photography business though, and you might think it’s as simple as buying a camera, renting a studio and taking bookings from the lines of people hoping that you’ll shoot for them.

The business side of photography, when it hits, can be a little shocking.

That was the case for Josh McCulloch when he graduated from Canada’s Western Academy of Photography in Victoria, BC in 2003. The result wasn’t pretty.

“If you think you can just roam around and take pictures, and get paid to do it, you’re dreaming,” he told us. “After school, I quickly learned I wasn’t prepared for the real world of being a self-employed photographer, and hung up the camera completely for almost three years.”

Fortunately, Josh didn’t mothball his website, and in 2006, he received a call from Parks Canada inviting him to bid on two photo shoots they were planning on Canada’s west coast. The organization had seen his online portfolio and been impressed by his images of hiking and backpacking trips. Josh won the bid, discovered that he really did want to be a professional photographer and set out to learn the business side of the photography industry.

Today, Josh describes himself as a commercial and editorial photographer who specializes in outdoor sports and lifestyle photography. He works primarily on location and his clients include Popular Mechanics Magazine, Tourism Vancouver Island, British Columbia Magazine, Explore Magazine, Adventure Kayak Magazine, and Cecconi Simone Design. His stock images are also sold through his own website and by stock companies in the US, UK and Canada.

Photography: Josh McCulloch

Josh’s return to professional photography isn’t just a success story for him though. It’s also a lesson for all of us in what it takes to become a successful self-employed photographer.

Find your Specialty
The first part of that lesson lies in the Parks Canada’s decision to call a photographer in the hope that he would enter the running for a commission. Josh started shooting to document his own outdoor sports activities and it was those pictures that led him to study photography… and to his first professional job.

Today, Josh still takes pictures that attempt to relate people to their surroundings and which make the viewer feel that they were there too, clinging to the rock or leaping over a stream. They’re the sort of images that are attractive to a particular market but which are appealing for an outdoor enthusiast to shoot too. When we asked Josh, who once spent three hours sitting on the edge of a helicopter flying 50 feet over the Pacific Ocean for a shoot, whether he found the pictures more exciting or what he had to do to get them, he talked about the importance of the final product and the feeling of seeing your image on a screen, hanging on a wall or on the cover of a magazine. But he admitted that it was “a bit of both.”

If you can find a specialty that has demand and which you love doing, you’ll have made at least one good business decision.

Don’t Put All your Photography Business in One Basket
The second comes when you choose to diversify. Most of Josh’s marketing efforts are spent on search engine optimization for his website. Together with word-of-mouth, this provides most of his new sales. Josh’s site ranks first and second on Google for “Commercial Outdoor Photographer” and “BC Stock Photos” respectively.

But when clients reach Josh’s site, they’re presented with a range of different purchase options. Commissions make up most of his business, generate the most revenue and produce the highest profits. The fall in licensing prices has reduced the income from his stock images so that they’re now about level with his greeting card series, and print sales only make up about 5 percent of Josh’s revenues.

The cards are a new endeavor for Josh and suggest that he’s always looking for new ways of putting his images in people’s hands — and receiving money for them in return. They’re taking a bit of work to market and distribute, most of which seems to involve touring retail stores, but Josh hopes that the graft will soon be behind him, leaving him with one more way of making money from his photography.

“Once the distribution is set up (hopefully by the end of the year for the most part), filling orders will be much easier and require less time,” he predicts. “Diversification seems to be key these days, and the cards are another good stream of revenue for me.”

It’s clear then that creating a photography business requires time, effort and knowledge. Part of getting right involves choosing the right specialty, marketing well and diversifying your revenue streams from the start. Do that from the beginning and your camera might spend the first three years hanging around your neck instead of on the wall.

5 comments for this post.

  1. Robin Gartner Said:

    I really enjoyed this post on Josh McCulloch. I am a 2006 graduate of the Western Academy of Photography and the past few years has been a struggle to say the least. I had no idea how difficult it would be to promote myself let alone finance my equipment and occasionally eat. You get lost in that part and its easy to forget why you are doing it at all. It's the shoot days that keep me going but I think I'll bookmark this sight for those in between days 🙂

    All the Best,

    Robin Gartner

  2. Holli Said:

    Great Photos! Love em'! I want to become a famous singer! This really inspired me!

  3. Taylor Said:

    I'm young and really want to become a self-employed photographer or work for a magazine some day. This is really helpful and inspiring. And the pictures are just gorgeous!

    Love it.

  4. Matthew Said:

    I am literally in the situation where I am starting my own photography business because of how sick I am of the prices charged for poor wedding, portrait and just about any other photography toady. I have learnet more in the last 12 months than most professional photographers have learned in a life time. Purely because I make photography my life. Normally out of 520 brilliant photographs I only get 50 "keepers" not because my composition is bad or the are useless but because I set such a high bar when it comes to the level of performance that i provide.

    I think the key to making it as a photographer is to love and be unquenchably passionate about photography and its essence or you will be sorely un successful.

    That is a fact that many many professional photographers will not tell you.

  5. Bob Said:

    The article was a very good read.

    @Matthew: While your objectives seem admirable, I think perhaps you are somewhat misguided. A professional photographer who wants to stay in business cannot afford to create over 500 images to get 50 "keepers", especially in time critical situations. At a wedding for example, you will not be able to take 10 shots of the bouquet being thrown hoping you get a keeper. Many times being a professional means being able to get it right, or as close to right as possible, the first time, which may be the only time you have. Obviously, if you are doing still life photography in a studio setting, you can take as much time as you choose. That being said, your portfolio should obviously reflect your high standards and only display your "keepers". As for the prices charged, be aware that wedding photography is not for the faint of heart - you are taking on a huge responsibility and also liability. In my view, many wedding photographers are not paid nearly enough for their time investment and the responsibility they assume, which is precisely why I do not do wedding photography.

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