When New Photography Businesses Go Wrong

Photography: graceish

Everyone makes mistakes, and that includes photographers.  For most of those mistakes, there’s a delete button that removes the missed shots and wipes out the worst pictures, but when it comes to building a photography business, even the smallest error can prove to be expensive.

That’s certainly true of what must be the most common early mistake: pricing. New photographers tend to come into the business with a background in shooting for fun. While they might have spent a great deal of money on equipment and travel in order to take great pictures and hone their skills, those expenses were usually written off as the price of a passion rather than the cost of doing business.

They neither know how much it really costs to produce a picture, nor do they care a great deal.

When you’re starting to charge clients, however, and when you plan to live off the income those sales generate, failing to calculate and include all of the costs involved in photography means that you will, inevitably, be dipping into savings.

The good news is that it’s not a mistake that photographers make too often, and when it does happen, it tends to occur before turning professional. Early bookings might not cover all of the costs involved in travel, time and printing but they do deliver valuable experience and a portfolio of shots. Even cheap one-off print sales or low-cost stock licensing that benefit the buyer more than the photographer teach the seller a useful — if painful — lesson about the true costs of printing, mailing, framing and usage. Those early pricing mistakes are avoidable with a little care, but they’re not fatal and as long as the lessons are learned, they can help to build the foundations of a successful photography business.

It’s a Mistake Not to Market

Failure to market is more serious. This is something that photographers do all too frequently, usually because it’s just so difficult, slow and time-consuming. Photographers would much rather be behind the lens posing the model or instructing the couple than sitting at a computer writing metatags for search engine optimization.

But it’s still essential. It’s essential to have an attractive, effective website. It’s essential to market that website, to use Facebook to push images and stay in touch with clients, to encourage referrals and recommendations, to send out press releases that maintain the profile of the business, to advertise in the places you know clients are likely to be looking, and to invest time, effort and even money in marketing copy that builds trust and converts leads.

Jasmine Star, an award-winning wedding photographer in Orange County, California, listed failing to build a website as one of her top five photography mistakes. It didn’t kill her business but it is likely to have cost her a lot of valuable work until her — now very impressive — site was up.

Errors in pricing and marketing can hit your bank balance or retard your growth but they aren’t fatal to a photography career. That’s not true of all photography mistakes though.

Theft is a Career-Killing Mistake

Two months ago, Dana Dawes, of Dana Dawes Photography, an Atlanta photography business, posted an ad on Groupon that offered a one-hour shoot, a DVD, a free print, and a 20 percent discount off additional prints for just $65.

That might have been a mistake in itself. The price was so low that the ad quickly picked up orders and responses, including a note from one commenter who speculated that it would have been impossible for a single photographer to complete all the bookings the offer would bring in, “even working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

The real trouble though began the following day when “SP” added a comment that began:

“Groupon, you are dealing with a thief here. This photographer does not own all the photos on her website.”

Describing himself as a professional photographer, “SP” explained that he had become suspicious about the lighting and conversions in the pictures on Dawes’ portfolio. He took one of the images off the website, un-distorted it, ran it through image recognition software and discovered that the image actually belonged to a photographer called Morgaine Owens. Additional stolen images were identified, and Dana Dawes was even accused of copying her About page from another photographer’s website.

Despite claiming that she owned the rights to all the photos on her site, Dawes quickly deleted the pictures — a move which had all the effect of a signed confession. Groupon eventually refunded everyone who had bought her Groupon but not before Dana Dawes’ reputation took an enormous beating.

She’s still offering photography services, but anyone Googling Dana Dawes’ name is likely to come in for a nasty surprise, and while the shots in her portfolio are now likely to be hers, they’re also poor enough to turn away most leads with an eye for an image.

Plagiarism is never excusable, especially when you’re using stolen images to win work, but the lack of a broad portfolio can be a real problem. New photographers who want to demonstrate their ability to shoot weddings need to work as an assistant or offer their services to friends and family for free in order to build a collection of images that show off their talent. Looking for an unethical shortcut is an error of career-killing proportions.

That mistake is unusual, although not unique. There is one other mistake thought that is no less dangerous and far more common: having unrealistic expectations. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for a professional photographer in 2009 was just $29,770. A quarter of photographers earned less than $21,150 and only 10 percent picked up more than $62,340.

Believing that you’ll be happy as a photographer is a reasonable expectation. Believing that you can build a business, pay your bills and enjoy your work is reasonable too. But believing that you’ll get rich from photography? That’s probably a mistake that experience will quickly correct.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Regina Photographer Said:

    I'm glad that this photographer who stole images got what was coming to her. That is shameful and it's a crime that she's still taking pictures "professionally".

  2. Luke Stanton Said:

    I am currently starting up a wedding photography business and like this article says, pricing your images correctly vital. although I am not pricing individual images I have decided to start off by offering a budget wedding package and build my business as my experience grows.

  3. Sarah Murray Said:

    This was a great article! I just started marketing myself for portrait and wedding photography, although it is now what I want to do forever it will help me graduate college without debt! Thanks for all the great tips! I was going to skip the website but now I think I need to reconsider.

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