5 Stages Every Successful Professional Photographer Must Go Through

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I think every new photographer goes through a number of stages. They’re milestones that an emerging pro must go through to mature both as an artist and a businessman. Each stage has its own challenges and lessons. And overcoming the challenges and learning the lessons becomes the key to becoming a successful photographer.

I hope this article provides new photographers with a roadmap that will help them navigate this road with more confidence.

STAGE 1: WHO AM I?

This is a time of trying to pick a direction and discover an identity. Questions about personal branding, photographic style, marketing and communication are very pressing – and are very difficult to answer with certainty at this stage.

You will be asking yourself questions like:

“What should I write on my website? How am I different to other photographers out there? What niche should I cater to? How should I price my services? Or – should I price things AT ALL or work for free?”

It can be a frustrating time, a confusing time – and it’s also a time where most people quit.

Whenever you see a photographer’s website with just a few photos and a blog post dated September 2007 that says “Woo-hoo! I just started my photography business!” – that’s how you know you’ve spotted someone who was defeated by the confusion of Stage 1.

STAGE 2: HELLOOO…. CUSTOMERS?

This is a time where a decent enough identity is established and a relatively acceptable direction is picked. A lot of it has been “borrowed” (did I say plagiarised?) from other photographers.

This plagiarism is done not out of evil, but of lack of experience – you simply don’t yet know how the market functions and how to communicate to it, so you copy others who seem to have the answers.

It’s vital to view this “borrowing” as just a phase. If you copy other photographers for too long, you will get stuck in this stage and fail.

Your website is now live; it has relatively decent (mainly borrowed) copy. And your portfolio would be up to “credit” level, if we were to apply a University grading system. It’s competent, but to write home about, (or the modern-day equivalent of that cliche that’s much more important to your success: it’s nothing that people will share and talk about on social media). There’s still very little traffic to the website, but some enquiries may trickle in through social media and word of mouth.

You will begin to be preoccupied with the following questions:

“How do I improve my portfolio? How do I get more people to my site?” As a businessman you will begin to see the need to learn about – or pay someone to do – SEO, marketing, branding, publicity, advertising.

And as an artist, you’ll begin to notice your work improving. And you’ll be looking for new skills to improve it with.

family photography

STAGE 3: WHAT IS MY VALUE OFFERING?

When a photographer begins to wrestle with the concept of value, it’s a sign that he is maturing as a businessman.

The easiest way to create value is also the most overused one – it’s to reduce your prices. And that’s where everyone starts. But that’s also a dead-end strategy, because in a race to the bottom there’s always going to be someone who will be willing to work for less than you do.

The key is to find out what your competitors are not providing to the customers – and to offer it as part of your business – at a price that works for you.

“How do I create something that others aren’t providing? What do customers really need?” Those are your new primary dilemmas. This is time to sharpen your marketing.

It’s tempting to think at this point that everything has been thought of, that your competitors have every aspect of the market covered and that there’s no room for a newcomer like you. The truth is that most markets are dominated by a few main players (who charge top dollar and are backed up by reputation) and a sea of “other” players who compete mainly on price.

The main players are often too old, too stuck in the past, too slow and too lazy to see all the opportunities – (and threats) – coming their way. They’re just doing things the way they’ve always done them, and are hoping that the world will stay the same (it won’t). The “other” players are too inexperienced to be even thinking like this. They’re still just trying to copy the big players (refer to Stage 2).

Your job in this stage is to think ONLY about a) your customers and what they need and b) your competitors and how you can outmaneuver them.

STAGE 4: WHO ARE MY CUSTOMERS, REALLY?

You should have already have a good idea about what your customers want from the previous stage, but here it’s time to sharpen your vision and your communication. This is where you begin to become selective.

In previous stages, you’d take any customer enquiry that would come in. And so you should – experience in shooting, dealing with customers and increasing cash flow in your business is infinitely better than sitting at home watching YouTube.

But you’ll begin to notice at some point that you enjoy dealing with some types of customers more so than with others. You’ll connect with some and you won’t connect with others.

Predictably, the photographs you’ll produce when dealing with those customers will be much better. Your experience of life, of working in your business and of producing results will be altered significantly by the customers that walk through your door.

You will begin to ask yourself some new questions:

“What kind of business do I want to create? A business where customers are high-maintenance, dominating, don’t know what they want, high-strung, and don’t care about me? Or do I want customers who I genuinely like, who are easy to work with, who are relaxed, easy going, could easily become my friends and who I connect so well with that I’d love to have a beer or dinner with?”

And it’s a no-brainer, right?

This is the end of the road where you rip off copy from websites of other photographers. To attract a certain type of customer, you must create a solid brand identity for your photography business and communicate it through every webpage on your site, through your every written and spoken word, your logos and and your values.

Have a look at the our philosophy page on the family photography website I run. It’s not just a list of hollow slogans – it’s an organic set of principles from which I live my life and have built my business from. It communicates something that the business stands for. And it appeals to a certain type of customer who also finds those values important.

It’s the way I pick and choose my customers.

The more precise your communication, the more it will attract a certain type of customer. And – importantly – it will be the same reason why some people will choose not to be your customers. And it’s important for you to be OK with that.

family photography

STAGE 5: MAKE IT RUN BETTER!

This is the stage of polishing things. Realistically, you should have been doing this all along, but right now is the time to take it up to a new level.

The main question for you to address now is: could my systems and processes be better?

Do you find yourself doing the same task over and over again? Do you have templates for your most common emails and forms?

Do you have a systematic way of handling your images – from camera export to mailing final edits to your customer? What about your enquiry handling processes – do you follow the same steps every time or is it a haphazard process? Do you have checklists to make sure you didn’t miss anything?

Do you miss appointments? And do you find yourself retyping customer’s data into different programs? if so, then you probably have a bunch of separate systems handling your email, website submissions, appointments, invoices and shopping cart. It’s time for you to integrate them all into one system to handle all of it.

Do you still manually do all your accounting or have you found an employee on Freelancer to do it quickly and cheaply for you?

Same goes for coding – when you need to make a structural adjustment to your website, do you still tinker with code yourself for hours? Or do you have a tried and tested coder at your disposal who is just an email away?

Don’t forget that your most depreciating asset is time. Your time is what you create value with and is what sets you apart (and ahead) of other photographers. If you waste your time doing menial stuff, others are catching up with you.

At any point in time, you’re either getting further ahead or are falling further behind. Your goal is to set up your business in a way which frees up as much of your time as possible – without sacrificing any of your value offering.

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  • Comments
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  1. Bobby Rinkle

    Thanks for the tips! I just opened my gallery,plan on focusing on what I like to do. Need to update my website more often now that I have hired my son ! He is much faster and better at this than me.

    • Reply
  2. Denver Photographer

    Good article. Never stop learning! Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
  3. Nino

    A really good point on STAGE 3, as most often photographers tend to forget that’s it is still a business or trade. 20% skill and 80% business acumen. That’s why photographers need to continue improving their craft and of course learning the finer points of running your own business.

    • Reply
  4. Jason Rodgers

    Im on stage 3. Really interesting read, thank you for sharing.

    • Reply
  5. Steven

    I’m glad you found it useful.

    That point about value offering has been the most instrumental for me.

    When I think about customers more than I think about myself things really begin to move :)

    Steven

    • Reply
  6. Raleigh Photographer

    “STAGE 4: WHO ARE MY CUSTOMERS, REALLY?” begins an awesome self assessment that I wish for many young photographers trying to comprehend the responsibility of running a business with only a technical background in photography. Getting to stage four is a blessing (assumes we’ve made it that far)! Identifying your niche market brings a greater level of peace and assurance going forward!

    • Reply
  7. Katelin

    Great article! I am currently working my way into photography and blogging along the way. I’m hoping my site is a place for amateur photographers like me to get information and learn along with me. Your article has wonderful ideas and questions that I think all of us should be working on answering. I featured it in a post about Photography Blogger today! Thank you!

    • Reply
  8. Jiri Ruzek

    Great article, I teach most of these things in my courses. I would also add a question “What do I want?” in the meaning what am I expecting and what is my goal …. I think it is also very important for the career

    • Reply

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