How to Build a Photography Business That Will Thrive for Decades with Phillip Blume
What’s your long game? It’s an important question, but one too few photographers ask themselves when starting a business. Over the seven years my wife Eileen and I have coached photographers to make their studios more profitable and manageable, we’ve noticed an alarming trend: Most photographers don’t have a plan.
Sure, most of us have a plan for this week. We know we have to edit three wedding projects before another day passes and our clients grow antsy. We have great intentions to blog or submit images to publications (fingers crossed). Or we may get ambitious enough to create a spreadsheet that calculates our profits and expenses so we’ll know the exact number of sessions we should hope to book next year. (That counts as long-term planning, right?)
Of course all bets are off if Netflix or Facebook delivers something new to divert our attention.
It’s a painful cycle, isn’t it? Is this really how we want to spend our precious lives? Of course not. So rather than scraping by day to day, take the first steps toward building a business that allows you to thrive for decades.
You might think burnout is the last thing you need to plan for. After all, you’re still young and energetic, and photography is your passion. How could you ever tire of your passion?
But it isn’t photography itself you risk getting burned out on, since taking photos represents just 15 percent or so of a studio owner’s job. Burnout is the number-one reason over 70 percent of photo businesses don’t survive beyond five years, while only a fraction of those hit the 10-year mark (which our own studio officially celebrates this year). The burnout comes from endless hours in front of computer monitors, constant defense against abuse of your copyright, occasional thankless clients, unrecoverable computer crashes, lost weekends, missed family events, strained relationships and the pressure of mounting bills and subscriptions. The list goes on. With all these pain points, day-to-day planning will never be enough to earn a decent salary—much less a nest egg for the future.
After 10 years shooting weddings, I attribute our continued joy for this challenging genre to two things: our choice early on to shoot a maximum of 15 weddings a year and our streamlined system that educates wedding couples about everything they should expect.
The photographers we coach often ask us how we make a living shooting just 10 to 15 weddings a year. This is a great example of where short-term thinking might become lethal for you. When we opened Blume Photography in a small poverty-ridden market during an economic downturn, we could have assumed there wouldn’t be a demand for luxury photography. But we were luckily dead wrong. We placed our priorities first, priced our services accordingly and looked for clients in the right places.
To accomplish great client education, we began to use a mix of software automation (via ShootProof and 17Hats) together with our own growing collection of strategic email templates for all occasions. If you aren’t a natural writer, you can buy template copy from coaches in your field. Otherwise, every time you write an original email, do so thoughtfully and save a copy. Once you’ve identified and answered every common client question, you’ll have something prepared for any situation. Our communications are customized, clear, concise and preemptive.
Choose Your Tools
To make sure your business’s assets don’t run dry, start with the basics. One of our best decisions early on was never to go into debt. As entrepreneurs we believe in taking risks—but not foolhardy risks. Don’t “invest” by putting all the best gear on a credit card and thereby sink your boat before you even leave the harbor. But don’t skimp on what you need, either.
I recommend that every pro photographer start with two reliable, full-frame camera bodies (one as backup). Select cameras with dual card slots for immediate image backup. Don’t let the megapixel marketing game fool you. You don’t need an expensive 42MP camera to go pro. And there’s no shame in buying refurbished or “entry level” equipment. We’ve always purchased refurbished and used the same cameras for eight years until this summer, when the entry-level Sony A7iii became an extremely affordable and impressive upgrade option.
Equally important, research and invest in a fail-proof backup system. I’ve watched too many talented artists lose their business reputation over lost photos because they didn’t back things up. Do it religiously. It is never a question of if, but rather when, your hard drive will fail.
Our first hard-drive fail wiped a year’s worth of wedding photos and fully edited wedding videos from our computer. One minute our computer was running well, the next it was gone. A pricey attempt to recover our corrupt disk ensued . . . and also failed. Thank goodness, all our Raw photos and video clips had been duplicated automatically onto our Drobo 5D3 (which we place inside a fireproof safe every time we leave home), and in addition was backed up in the cloud. The crash still cost us a month of reediting photos and video, but our clients never knew and our business was saved. Now we keep our ongoing edits up to date via Apple TimeMachine and a smarter workflow.
Local Community First
When I talk about social marketing, modern businesspeople are far too quick to assume I mean marketing through social media. Modern tech is both a blessing and a curse—a blessing because it opens up the world to us but a curse because we’re tempted to think our businesses rely on online “celebrity” to succeed. After all, our idols have 20,000 followers on Instagram, right? But is a large online audience responsible for a studio’s success?
More people every day are experiencing social media fatigue. Even during social media’s rise, real face-to-face interaction and in-person relationships remained the currency of small business success. But now more than ever, you can succeed by joining your local Chamber of Commerce, delivering photos in-person to a wedding planner and showing up to networking events. As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” My advice to you is counter-intuitive and may be hard to swallow, but it works: Never ask for favors; instead; think of ways to collaborate and offer value to your industry neighbors.
Due to intermittent reinforcement (the same force behind slot machine addiction), pressure to get likes is driving us crazy. It’s best shown by Skinner’s classic rat-and-pellet experiment from the 1950s. Researchers provided one group of rats with a lever that, when pressed, provided them with a food pellet every time they pressed it. The rats pressed the button only when hungry, played on their exercise wheels and lived a happy life. A second group of rats was given a similar lever, but it didn’t provide any food. These rats investigated the contraption but eventually lost interest in it. These rats too remained healthy and active throughout life. A third group was given a lever that sometimes provided a food pellet. Each rat might press the lever nine or 10 times before getting food. They became anxious and obsessed with the lever, fearing they might miss out on the food it provided if they left. They didn’t use their exercise wheels. Many died of exhaustion.
Sound familiar? Escape those dopamine-inducing Facebook notifications, and you’ll find more measurable success in the real world.
Create a Valued Brand
To create a brand that’s valuable, you first must create a brand that’s valued. That might sound obvious at first blush, but don’t underestimate the power of branding to increase the financial stability and long life of your business.
Get-rich-quick schemes may work sometimes, but they fizzle just as quickly. Have you ever avoided someone in the grocery store aisle because you knew if you spoke she would give you the essential oils elevator pitch? I can’t count how many friends I’ve had to mute on Facebook because their sales posts began spamming my newsfeed. Brands that focus only on product trends or prey on a universal hope to get rich fail faster. But if you focus your brand on your values, you can succeed for a lifetime.
Photographers shouldn’t focus their advertising, webpages or consultations too heavily on the photographs we create. Photographs are a mere product. We also must not focus on our “competitive” pricing, which is to focus on monetary concerns. Instead, we have to ask ourselves what we really care about. What do we feel is important in life?
Eileen and I have focused our wedding studio on the value we place in strong marriages. We’ve focused our business on celebrating life through photos that preserve family history, and we’ve reclaimed life through personal charity and photo projects that help impoverished children around the world. There’s no substitute for the deep personal connections we make with people through our shared values, personal stories and charitable projects. These are the people who become loyal clients and brand ambassadors for years to come. It’s no easy task—begin thinking about your deepest values and how you can embody and express them in your business.
The Road Ahead
The anniversary issue you’re reading now didn’t end up in your hands by accident. It celebrates yet another year of continued growth for Shutter, an innovator in the photo education space. This publication doesn’t reach readers around the world because its writers were surfing Facebook. Shutter and the entire Cincotta family of companies are the realized dream of one guy, Sal Cincotta.
Before Sal became an internationally recognized Inc. 500 company, I was writing for his much smaller online-only version of the magazine. Can you imagine how proud we felt watching it become the widely distributed industry force it is today? But how does Sal repeat his successes with business after business? Through confident, long-term planning.
This summer, Eileen and I are celebrating our own 10th anniversary since going full-time as Blume Photography. Our hearts are full. Yes, we’re still a mom-and-pop photo studio operating from our home in rural Georgia, but make no mistake: It wasn’t by accident that our small studio, which serves one of America’s hardest markets, became a Bulldog 100 fastest-growing business. It’s no accident that we’ve rinsed and repeated our steps to create other successful studios. At the end of the day, big thinking allows us not only to travel the world with our three children, but also to plan for retirement while giving back to charities that mean the world to us.
That’s the dream, isn’t it? So stop living just for today. Write down your long-term goals. Dare to dream big. Break the goals down into manageable action steps. Then turn off Netflix tonight and buckle down. You’ve got this.