As I approach fourteen and a half years in a career as a professional photographer, I've decided to take this random milestone to reflect on some lessons that I've learned along the way. I'm not sure why exactly I felt compelled to evaluate my career at this particular moment, but I did feel compelled to share some of the most important lessons that I feel that I have learned over the years.
Plan thoroughly, but be prepared to improvise
Preparation is essential to being a professional. It's always important to go into a shoot with a plan for how you hope things will go. Over the years, however, I've learned that sometimes there are times when you have to let go of the plan and improvise in order to get the job done. Being so committed to a plan that you can't adapt to a rapidly changing situation can sometimes be as much of a curse as showing up unprepared. Sometimes some catastrophe blows your plan to bits, but sometimes the stars can literally align and should pack up your lights when you've been given the gift of the most beautiful light you could imagine.
Invest in equipment wisely
I'll admit to the fact that sometimes I get caught up in a bad case of gear lust. It can be so easy to spend your way into oblivion, so I try to keep a few things (most of which were my brilliant wife's idea) in mind before I light my credit card on fire.
- I remind myself that just because I can expense it, does not make it free.
- Do I have a plan to make this particular piece of equipment actually pay for itself within a year?
- Is this piece of equipment a solution to a problem that I have (or immediately anticipate having), or a solution in search of a problem?
- I try to think of my gear like an employee - I want to invest in quality and reliable products to do work that needs to get done.
Seek out colleagues, not competition
Freelance photography can sometimes be a lonely and isolating experience. I honestly believe that the best way to succeed is to network with fellow local photographers. It helps to have a sounding board to bounce ideas off of, and it helps to have a group of people that you trust to collaborate with for jobs down the line.
Over the years, I've built up my business in Chicago, Long Island, and Frederick, MD. Each time, I have been fortunate to happen upon some really great local photographers, but more than that, I've been really lucky that I've happened upon some really great people. And that aspect is really the important one. A positive attitude and great work ethic is so much more important than being an exceptional photographer. I like to say that I can teach someone to be a better photographer, but I can't teach someone how not to be a jerk. Mentor those whose skills need polishing (and be willing to be mentored as well), and surround yourself by team players, as it will make things go so much more smoothly when you collaborate on a job together.
Build lasting relationships with clients by seeking out and meeting their needs and communicating with them effectively - be the expert they're paying you to be
As my business has developed over the years, I've made efforts to make client retention a priority. I have some clients now that I've been working with for over a decade, and in a career that isn't necessarily known for income stability, it's great to have clients that you know will call year after year.
That sort of relationship doesn't come easily. I invest a lot of time getting to really know my clients. I find out who is important to their organization, so at events, I am focusing on the faces make photographs more valuable assets to their organization. I ask lots of questions beforehand, so that I am prepared to meet their needs on the job and can let them do their job while I do mine. I include myself in the planning process as much as they will allow me to, so that I can suggest ways to make it easier for my clients to get the shots that they want, while keeping my footprint to a minimum. By being open to being a member of their team, I've been able to keep many of my clients for a very long time.
Remember, more than being able to produce great photographs, as a professional, you have to make yourself an asset to your clients and be someone that they actually want to work with again and refer to their network.
To sum up...
Plan, but be ready to adapt. Don't spend all of your money on crap you don't need. Work with good people. Be a good person that people want to work with again.