Business Advice from Past PDN’s 30 Photographers
April 4, 2016
Paul Colangleo photographed gray wolves in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, Canada. “The best business decision I made was sticking to the long view,” says the photojournalist, who has focused on environmental issues relating in Canada.
Jenny Riffle’s “Dead Horse Bay,” 2011, from Scavenger: Adventures in Treasure Hunting, which was published last year by Zatara Press. “The worst decision was not to have a better pricing plan in place before exhibiting my work,” she says.
A Point Reyes picnic by Jessica Sample. Shooting personal projects allowed her to grow her portfolio and her business.
Talent and skill go a long way, but business decisions can make or break a photographer’s career. In search of practical business advice for emerging photographers, we turned to several 2013, 2014 and 2015 PDN’s 30 to ask about their best and worst business decisions, and the lessons they’ve learned as a result.
WHAT IS THE BEST BUSINESS DECISION YOU’VE MADE?
The best business decision I ever made was to continue to carve out time for personal projects. It can be tempting to bounce from one assignment to another and never balance paid work with personal work. [Personal work] keeps me sane. It challenges me to produce, shoot and edit my own work. And, more often than not, it leads to other assignments, or the images end up being published in the end.
I would have to say that both the best and the worst business decision I have made so far is having my daughter. I don’t really know how to talk about it yet, because I am very much in it. It’s kind of like the first time you jump into the ocean. There is an unfamiliar vulnerability that is as crippling as it is empowering.
I have lost money, and sleep, and time—and with those things I have lost confidence, mostly in myself. But on the flip side, I feel a deeper and clearer connection to how I want to use my craft, my voice. I am a people-pleaser by nature, and it has been a revelation to not be able to say yes to everything, and to witness how this new level of discernment is shaping the path that I am on.
—CARLA RICHMOND COFFING
The best decision I made was to aggressively submit to juried shows, contests, and grants to try to get my work seen by as many people as possible. I started getting into exhibitions, won a grant and I made connections and got more shows through these connections.
The best business decision I made was attending both the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs. I’ve made a nice little network of like-minded individuals in both cities, resulting in collaborations, book projects and someone to have meals with when I’m one of those cities.
The best business decision I made was to be based in Denver. Being in a smaller market allowed me to build up my relationships with clients by letting them take a lesser risk on a young photographer. I would get hired for smaller front-of-book [editorial] shoots where there wasn’t a budget to fly someone in. And that led to larger and larger assignments.
I still shoot in Denver, but am frequently traveling around the country and internationally. If you are creating work that is good, small markets can be really great for starting your career.
Leaving Toronto (where I’m from) and relocating to New York City. It was difficult for me to make a living [in Toronto] as there was a group of older pros who really dominated the smaller scene. In New York it seems like it’s possible to carve out a spot for yourself if you’re willing to work at it.
The best business decision I’ve made is to narrow the scope of my work. Many photographers try to be all things for all clients, which is a recipe for mediocrity. I found that my niche was in portraiture and I focused completely on that. When a client needs portrait work, I want to be the obvious choice. [Focusing on portraiture] hasn’t limited the types of clients or jobs, however. I work in advertising, fashion, music, automotive, as well as editorial.
The best business decision I have made is not to restrict myself on what I shoot. I not only shoot lifestyle but now food, sports, fashion and even some destination weddings! If someone reaches out to you to shoot something different than your usual style, take [the job] and put your spin on it. It will make your work evolve and [lead] you in new directions.
Overall the best business decision I made early on was to not spend a ton of money on gear and make do with the absolute minimum amount of stuff possible until I had a bit more of a cushion. You’d be surprised what you can do with very little stuff. In fact, I think it was probably beneficial to my photography to have less stuff when I was getting started. I owned one camera body and one lens for a while and I just made do and rented stuff when I needed it. I also tried to have a really low standard of living so I could save money. Buying a few things you can rent back to yourself on shoots once you can afford it is actually a really good investment, though. A small lighting set up can pay for itself ten times over if you do it right.
The best business plan I ever made was not to cave to business. I continued making personal work even when I was working for a paycheck. I need to grow and progress as an artist, especially if it is also my job.
The best business decision I made was sticking to the long view. I turned down jobs that would have distracted me from long-term projects, even if things were lean. I think it’s easy to get derailed from your vision by other opportunities, but if you have a goal other than money, it’s easy to make the decisions that will keep you on track.
BEST MARKETING INVESTMENT
Invest in your personal work. It’s what will set you apart as a photographer, and allow you to grow as an artist. Your personal work is a reflection of you, of your heart. It’s a moment where you can be vulnerable, nurture your ideas, and perhaps [be] original.
— DIANA MARKOSIAN
My good decisions were to shoot personal projects, take on assignments that didn’t pay well [to] get shots that I really love while on assignment— in order to grow my portfolio and business.
— JESSICA SAMPLE
Turning down a well-paid but uninspiring commercial project in order to invest time and energy into an important personal project. The work I created garnered a lot of press and helped me move my commercial practice into a place that was more similar to my personal work, and therefore more gratifying.
WHAT IS THE WORST DECISION YOU’VE MADE?
At the very beginning, I racked up debt by not holding back on gear and travel. It eventually came back to me, but it took longer than expected. If I had to do it again, I would have built things up at a slower pace.
The worst decisions I’ve made have been straying from my business plan when I’m doing well and not using modern tools to keep track of my accounting. Really, get on Xero or QuickBooks or whatever software works for you and get [your finances] in order. Find a good accountant and have them help you make sure it’s all set up right so it doesn’t become an expensive and emotional burden during tax time.
I think the worst business decision I made was to become a photographer. In all seriousness though, I did sign some bad contracts that I didn’t really read.
Undercharging for some clients because they keep saying they have little to no budget for a shoot. It hurts other photographers because then clients start expecting lower rates. So study what fees and usage rates should be.
Taking every job that comes along was a terrible business decision. [For a few years] I felt like I had to accept every assignment that came my way. I ended up shooting things I was a terrible fit for, and never having time to think about what I had done or what was happening next. I got really burned out. These days, I am working hard to take only what I have capacity for and what seems interesting and a good fit.
Out of anxiety, I turned down a very well paid project in preference of a poorly paid but more prestigious commercial project before getting full details. Turns out [the project I took] was less prestigious than I had imagined, and the production surrounding it was even more difficult. Do not assume anything! And do not be shy to push for information, even when dealing with a dream client. —CHARLIE ENGMAN
The worst business decision I made was signing with an agent too early in my career, and also one that didn’t quite get me as a photographer or the direction I wanted to [go]. I was under the naïve assumption that just by having an agent, jobs would just start rolling in. In the end it cost me a lot of time, momentum, money and frustration. It made me understand that if I want to be successful, I have to be my own best advocate and that I am the one responsible for taking my career in the direction I want it to go.
The worst decision was not to have a better pricing plan in place before exhibiting my work. I learned that I need to ask one person that I trust who sells art and knows my work, and not ask everyone I show with, because I got a different answer from everyone I asked.
1. Taking anyone’s advice too seriously
2. Putting too many of your eggs in one client’s basket.
There are so many different ways to go about things—everyday business, producing a shoot on a budget, or putting a strong edit of your work together. I can’t express enough how easy it is to get caught up in someone else’s view of what you should or shouldn’t be doing. You really have to trust your gut and sometimes find your own way, following your instincts and staying true to your voice.