Photography Business: ‘Working Your Way Up’ Theory

Grain silo storage.

There’s this philosophy entrenched within the photo business world-that you need to “work your way up” the ladder. Where does this come from? Why is this concept so prevalent for a photography career path? You’ll mostly hear this concept thrown around on the forums and such when people are discussing how photographers price their work. A lot of traditionalists actually feel that you need to start at the bottom and work your way up to a decent living over the years, enjoying the “starving artist” phase for the appropriate number of years.

This is total BS. I’m not sure why its popular in our industry, but let me be clear-the people promoting these ridiculous ideas…they don’t have your back. Photography is a tough industry-if you are in it, hopefully you don’t have misconceptions that this is going to be a sure path to riches. But does that mean you need to accept living below the poverty line? It’s just that so many photographers struggle and toil for years and years, and at the end of it, they don’t have two nickels to rub together. Yes, they got to do what they love, but did they have to give up all financial security in order to do it? Many of the old school photographers will insist that the only path begins at the bottom. And for those that consider themselves “artists” instead of business people, well that might hold up. There are other ways to break into the industry besides starting at the bottom with the lowest rates in town.

There are two sides to a photography business-the photography side and the business side. They do not necessarily go hand in hand, meaning the most sucessful businesses are not always the best photographers. You can be a great photographer, you could be an ok photographer. This has nothing to do with how well you can run a business. Can you charge higher rates than someone who has better work than you? Absolutely. One’s got nothing to do with the other. Can you open the doors with mid-level or even high end pricing? Sure you can, if you can pull it off.

We never started with budget pricing. Before we ever printed up a business card, we knew we were going after the high end clientele, and we set our packages accordingly. To back that up, we had a flawless presentation-high end sample albums, gorgeous brochure, established looking business cards. Why work our way up when we could just enter the market sideways? It’s just good business sense.

So don’t think you have to work for free or practically. You don’t need to “work your way up” and that way of thinking is not going to help your business. It’s time to start thinking and acting like a business owner, not a starving artist. If you need help with that, you’ve come to the right place.


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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Chantel October 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Hi Lara,
First of all, I love your site. I recently came across it while searching for what to bring to a client consultation (wonderful advice btw!). I’m new to the wedding business and I actually want to target those brides who may not have $5,000 to spend on a photographer. I know you’re in the high-end market but do you have any advice for me?
Thanks so much for your time!

Chantel

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Justin March 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Great post. I agree with you that nowadays there’s countless ways to break into the photography business and you don’t necessarily need to “work your way up”. You can just put up your own website, take classes or even learn online. However, it is indeed extremely competitive especially in big cities. One way around it also I think is to always keep in mind that there many, many types of photography you can do as a business and you’ll only become a better photographer if you experiment in as many types of projects as possible. I feel some photographers that are struggling only focus on one or two types of photography. What’s your take on that? Do you feel like a photographer should specialize in one or two types of photography or do you think all photographers should be well rounded? Which type of photography do you feel has more potential nowadays as a business? Weddings, events, fashion, products, stock photography..? I’m particularly curious about stock photography. Do you or do you know anybody who makes a good profit from it?

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Ed June 21, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I love the honesty and good advice and examples given.
I thought for sure you had to “work your way up.” Even in Lara’s cause, they did too. But they didn’t do a slow gradual work your way up. They studied hard, got their portfolio, then came out of the gates running.

And being this was your own experience, gives it credability.

Thanks for sharing!

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Lara White June 22, 2012 at 7:46 am

thanks Ed, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you are right! And we also worked our way up through the high-end market as well, and of course that took time.

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Veronica from SC June 17, 2012 at 5:42 am

Dear Laura, thank you for posting. My husband and I are in the beginning stages of setting-up our wedding photography business. We are currently going through the legal aspects of setting the business, getting insurance, and trying to define the right type of business we want to establish (s-corp? Partnership? LLC?).

We have just shot a couple of weddings of friends (as wedding gifts) and we have done several portrait sessions for family and friends. But I have to admit that our friends weddings were more the small, intimate type, not the ones in huge, fancy venues. My question is, if we want to build-up our portfolio, how should we approach the photograpers in town that are well stablished, have been years in business, and are like the “signature” photographers that all families aspire to get? I know one of them is like 3rd generation photographer in the family, and the other one in town is the “I’m an artist” type, and for her Facebook posts we know she hates the rookies coming and trying to “steal” business when she has been 20 years working her butt off. Wouldn’t they see us as a threat to the business (altgough I’m thinking to target weddings beyond the limits of our town)? If they say “yes” and allow us to second shoot a wedding to build-up our wedding portfolio, do you have any advice on the Do’s and Dont’s of a second shooter? How will the right to use images work in this case? Will we have shared rights over our images?

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Lara White June 18, 2012 at 5:49 am

Every photographer will handle the rights of the second shooter images differently. If you are getting paid as a second shooter, you may be asked to sign a work for hire contract, in which case you do not own copyright or have any rights to the images. Since you are getting paid in this case, it is a likely scenario. If you second shoot without pay with the express purpose of building your portfolio, be upfront with the photographer about what you hope to achieve.

You can also add to your portfolio (and improve your skills) by practicing at home with some details and a model. For example, you can take a wedding invitation (you can order free samples) a paid of wedding rings, a custom cocktail, a pair of shoes, purse, jewelry, champagne glasses etc. and create lots of detail images. You can also shoot the front of a church and popular reception venues, to create some nice scene setter type images. Work with a model (or two friends) and shoot a getting ready scene in a nice bathroom or bedroom, with makeup being put on, etc. A young girl in a nice dress can be your flower girl, etc. Get creative.

http://www.photomint.com/shooting-a-wedding/10-tips-every-second-shooter-should-know/

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Jensy October 26, 2011 at 11:47 am

Hi Lara,

I love all the help you are giving, there is no resource like yours! My question is: When you shot your first weddings before you even had a portfolio, what price point where you at? Had you shot a few weddings already but at a lower price point? Or, did you start off at a high one?

Thanks,

Jensy

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Lara White October 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Hi Jensy,

That’s a great question. When we decided to start a wedding photography business, we spent the first part of the year just learning and researching. Geoff was the main photographer initially, and he second shot with numerous other photographers that allowed him to build his portfolio that way. He worked for free with the understanding that he could use the work to build his own portfolio. He also took courses with Bambi, Monte, Bruce Hudson and many others. We studied different business models, marketing, selling, packages etc. for about 8 months. Basically, we educated ourselves on everything we possibly could. When we decided we were ready, we bought space in a bridal show coming up in the next two months. During that two months, we put together sample albums, wall art, designed a logo, put together a killer brochure, and built an amazing bridal show booth. We worked our asses off, and did more in that 6-8 week period than we’ve ever done. And we invested in our business and in our education. We made all our collateral look high end, our website, our portfolio, our business cards, our brochures.

Now, with template web designs and logo and marketing packages, it can be done for a lot less time and money. And printing costs have come way, way down, and you can print high quality in small quantities.

But we didn’t want to start at the bottom, that has never been how we do things. So we did the work required to be high end right out of the gate. I will not lie, it did cost us a lot of time and money to do that, and we both had significant business skills to back that up.

And the first package we booked from that bridal show was our third level package, at $6800. We were confident, we had enough business experience, and Geoff had raw talent as a photographer. We were terrified that our clients were going to ask how many weddings we had photographed, and everything would blow up in our faces. But because we did everything to perfection, no one asked. In fact, it was years before anyone ever asked us that question.

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Bradley March 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm

” He worked for free with the understanding that he could use the work to build his own portfolio” – So you did work your way up from working for free then really right?

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Lara White March 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm

That’s a great point Bradley, I guess so! However, it was very limited and very strategic. It was a couple months before we launched our business and he second shot about 6-10 weddings (for free) to build his portfolio. It was also a way to learn from more experienced photographers about how to handle the types of situations that pop up on the day. Later, one of the photographers who had originally mentored Geoff began shooting for us as a second lead photographer.

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Robert From NY October 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Some good advice here. Am planning my first offline business and wondering what price point I should initially go with. After reading this considering with going more high end with the prices a bit. I have also found that people tend not to respect your product and services as much if your prices are too cheap.

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Sarah July 12, 2011 at 9:11 am

Great post, I appreciate you taking a stand on this issue. As a new photographer, its been really disheartening to hear that I am supposed to live in total poverty for several years, simply because others did.

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Lara White July 12, 2011 at 11:27 am

thanks Sarah, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We avoided that route from the beginning, as we knew that all the relationships you build up will not carry over into a new price point. So what we did was focus on creating a really great portfolio, and then used that to create impressive sample albums, wall art and a stunning brochure. That really allowed us to move right in to the upper end of the wedding photography market from the very beginning.

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