Top 10 Things I've Learned from 20 Years in the Photo Business
by Jeff McLain
Most of my RMSP students know me as their “Basic Training” instructor who gets them up to speed with studio strobe lighting, Capture One Pro, Adobe Photoshop and basic videography. I also went to a photography school and my entire program looked like Phase I of RMSP’s Professional Intensive Program. In fact, when I went to school, our Photoshop class consisted of learning the Clone Stamp and that was pretty much it! And all the photoshoots we went on were done on our own, with lots of failures along the way — especially since we were shooting all film with no Polaroid at that time.
The educational value Professional Intensive students receive is extremely high compared to what I received — and graduates entering the field have a distinct advantage over those who attempt to gain this knowledge from YouTube only. I basically had an appetizer, and then gained the rest of my knowledge from being a freelance photography assistant, then a digital technician, and then taking on my own photographic gigs when I had the confidence to execute them. It took some time, but it has been fun the whole time, which is why I originally took this journey in image-making. It’s fun!
My first professional photography gig was in 1998 and it was an architectural job that I shot on 4x5 transparency film. The client was generally happy with the work, but I knew it could be so much better! Which is why I had chosen to go to a photography school — to become the best photographer I could. I strongly believe that we photographers should not be competing solely on price, but rather with the quality of our work. This ideal has been challenged by the ubiquity of affordable technology and a glut of quasi-professionals flooding the market. However, if there is one thing I consistently notice about the newbies who enter the field with low rates, it's that they go out of business quickly. Learning to charge professional rates that not only cover your ability to stay in business, but also cover your own salary, is a skill that should not be overlooked.
I’ve been at this image-making game for 20 years now and the scope of my work has morphed and evolved with the economy, my geographic location, the available technology and techniques, and market needs. From these changes-over-time, there are some things I’ve learned along the way that I would like to share.
10. It’s not about gear, but you need the right tools.
I remember the feeling I had when I first saw the Mamiya 7II sales brochure. The glossy surfaces of the camera body, the glowing, shimmering lens promising razor-sharp images with a huge film size and quiet shutter. I remember desiring this system, simply because the PHOTOS of it were so good! That speaks volumes to the efficacy of photography in sparking desire in peoples’ minds and burning holes in their pockets. I wanted that thing! But I knew that deep in my soul (and my business-mind) that tool was not what I needed for the work I wanted to do. Its features, while cool, didn’t meet my needs.
Your primary focus should be asking yourself, "What do I shoot? How do I shoot it?" Let the answers to these questions inform what exact tools you need to execute the images with precision.
9. Cry Once.
That all being said, the right tool for the job may be quite a bit more expensive than you first realized. I remember working with a photographer who had a camera system that was worth well over $40,000. (Linhof 679, 4 digital lenses, Phase One P25 back, at that time) But, for this photographer, that tool was the very best for his clients and his projects — and his projects paid for the system over time.
You may identify that the Sony A7sIII is the tool you need. But its price may seem too high. So, you get an A72 and save yourself a few thousand dollars. But, then a year later, you find it’s not meeting your needs, so you get an A7RII. Then another year or two later, you realize it’s not meeting your needs, and by then a new one has come out, so you finally spring for it and get it. By then, you’ve cried several times! So, it may be better to explore the options in terms of getting exactly the tool you need to produce the work you want to create, rather than settling for less.
For example, I needed a microphone for interior dialogue work. I got an Audix HC hypercardioid microphone (≈$500). And for the most part it has served me very well for a while — but there have been a couple instances where it has failed me. This microphone doesn’t have protection against "radio frequency interference" (RFI) and I’ve had experiences where my recorded track has a fuzzy-scratching type of sound that I then must deal with in post. Not fun! Whereas, had I originally gotten the right tool for the job, such as the Sennheiser MKH-50 ($1,200), I would not have had this issue. Now I own both. I cried twice.
I recommend you cry just once.
8. Customer Service is Critical.
In my local area, there are two internet service providers. They have a corner on the market and thus, they can charge a lot for lousy speed — and worse, they are both horrible to deal with when you have a problem. I recently changed my address and it took four phone calls and each call averaged about 2 hours while they passed me between departments to simply figure out how to move my service from one address in town to another. In an industry with more choices, your customer service may be what sets you apart.
Recently, when I was breaking down from a video interview I had shot, I asked the client why they chose us. She responded, “Honestly, everyone else we contacted took a really long time to get back to us and you guys had the most helpful information and questions for us.”
Being punctual with responses is a critical part of customer service. Back when I started as a photo assistant, the first tool I was told to acquire was a cell phone. My first cell phone at 24 years of age! Why? Because if a call came in for a gig, I needed to answer the phone and immediately decide if I was available or not — if I didn’t and they left a message (or didn’t) they’d likely go to the next name on their list, and then the gig would be gone.
Be punctual and provide quality customer service.
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7. Get Insurance.
I was robbed once. They broke into my home and stole my Canon 5D (version 1), and my Canon AE-1, and two of my musical instruments (They didn’t steal my banjo! Haha). My renter’s insurance would only cover cameras that are consumer-level up to about $300 in value. But luckily, I had a commercial insurance plan that was about $500 a year that covered my cameras. I was able to replace it with the next level Canon at that time and replace my instruments.
Aside from saving your butt if you get robbed, commercial insurance will also open you up to renting more equipment. Instead of owning every strobe you need, or all the grip you need, having an insurance policy allows you to rent a lot more equipment and not have your credit card swiped for the full replacement value -- you better have a big credit line otherwise! They will require your carrier to issue a Certificate of Insurance (COI) naming them as Loss Payee, for them to keep on file.
Beyond gear, you need liability coverage. Someone trips on your strobe cable and breaks their wrist. If you don’t have liability coverage, then they could come after your assets in court. But having liability coverage will protect you — and in some cases, clients require you to furnish a COI for the project to commence — so, be ready.
You can get commercial insurance from the same firms that often provide your auto insurance (multi-line discounts may apply) or through photographic organizations like PPA, APA or ASMP. It's worth investigating.
6. Be adaptable.
I’ve had a broad range of experiences with cameras. I’ve shot family portraits on film with a Mamiya 645. I’ve shot a grizzly bear on film with a Hasselblad. I’ve shot a Christmas ham on film with a Fuji GX680 III. I’ve shot still-life product with a Horseman X-Act with an Imacon digital back. I’ve worked with Nikon, Toyo, Sinar and Bronica. I’ve tweaked the dials on Profoto, Dynalite, Broncolor, Speedotron, Norman, Elinchrom and Comets. I’ve shot easily over 100 weddings between Mamiya 645, Canon 5D, Canon 5DMarkII and other camera models. I’ve photographed concerts, a SF Giants baseball player, George Lucas, business portraits on-location, product work in-studio, architectural jobs, snowboarders, babies, elderly people, football games and the list goes on and on. And each situation required planning and flexibility. This was all before I even got into videography!
As camera models have changed, and features have changed, technology has come up in quality, down in price and techniques have surfaced that we didn’t have even a few years ago! Things move fast in this industry. Life itself can pull the rug out from under you! You work hard moving in a direction, doing everything well, succeeding... and then change occurs. You have a baby. Or you must move for family. Or you have a realization that the work you have been doing isn’t fulfilling you and you really would rather be doing “X” instead. Or there’s a pandemic...
The worst thing you can do is become paralyzed by these changes — the best thing to do is to lean into them and adapt. Go with the flow. You really don’t know where things will go, what job will call you next, where you’ll be in the future. So, say “Yes” and give it all a try! And find the things that really speak to you, but that are also marketable and keep you in business.
5. Stick to Your Guns on Price.
One of the components of Professional Intensive that is so valuable is our in-depth instruction in business. From how to set yourself up, to accounting, to knowing your costs, to marketing methods — PI spans the gamut of business skills.
So many times, I’ve seen competent image-makers get out there and charge $500 for something they should be/could be charging $3000 for. And, quickly, things don’t work out for them.
Last year, I saw someone charging $1250 to shoot a wedding at a $6000 venue with 250 guests with a caterer serving per-plate. After that photographer shot 1000 images and added up their time to edit all those images and divide that time into what they were paid (after deducting for taxes) they probably found out they only made $13/hour. And that's not even including all the emails back and forth... and the miles driven...
The key to understanding your pricing is to first understand your TIME. As you start out, you likely charge too little. Everyone has done it. But the very BEST thing to do is to Google “stopwatch” or “timekeeper” and keep close track of the time you spend on the project. Then divide that into what you charged to see what you made hourly.
Once you have done this, you realize that perhaps you aren't making a decent hourly wage! Even more sobering is when you take 30% of your gross amount out for state and federal taxes and look at what is left! Yikes!
Track your time on the types of projects you do. Shot a wedding? Track your time to shoot, cull, edit, retouch, deliver. Shot a family portrait session over 2 hours? Track your time to shoot, cull, edit, retouch, deliver. Shot a promo video for a local business? Track your time to shoot, cull, edit, color correct, upload and deliver.
Then, consider your education, your equipment, and your overhead. (Your $42/month commercial insurance is a part of that overhead, for example).
I like to use the Base Fee and Personal Fee calculators outlined in the book, ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography. It is essentially a spreadsheet that allows you to plug in all the expenses of your business, and includes a cell for paying yourself, and then divides this against how many "billable" days you expect to be working, which churns out your bottom line. Which is the LEAST amount you should charge that day to pay yourself and your business costs to stay in business. Usually that number is surprising to my students as they begin to see how they should be charging more.
The first question clients always ask is,“What do you charge?” And you need to know what your bottom line is so that as they begin to negotiate downward, you know how low you can go before you are taking a major loss.
Know your overhead in order to know what to charge — and stick to it. You can’t be in business otherwise. Let the cheaper folks go out of business while you stay flush and able to produce the projects comfortably.
Below is a screenshot of a "dummy" Base Fee Calculator with fake numbers. You can see, using a Personal Budget to see how much you need to make monthly, and plugging that number into the “Personal” cell, which gets calculated against your best guess of how many billable days you will shoot gives you your bottom line.
4. Don't Make Excuses about Your Work — Let it Speak for Itself.
When showing your work, speak only positively to its greatness. Don’t say how you wish such-and-such was different, or how so-and-so wasn’t the right stylist or anything negative. Tell stories if they are informative and fun and add value to the presentation. Stay positive. You’re there to sell yourself and how you see the world.
Let your work speak for itself!
3. Overdeliver a bit.
If they ask for 50 images, no need to give them 200. Your time editing all those images will likely suffer and cut into your margins. But over-delivering a bit is not a bad thing and makes your client happy. Satisfy what they need exactly, and if there’s time and it’s relevant, shoot a bit more, the way YOU want to do it, and it’s possible they will really like the results.
I once shot a family portrait and they wanted the "in our Sunday best" look, out under the fall foliage tree. Sure. I shot it, and some other locations around their property. No problem. But it wasn’t the shot I wanted to create. Instead, I set my tripod on their backyard picnic table and then positioned each family member in a pose I wanted them in, in their usual daily attire — the way I know them personally, or at least caricatures of them. I made sure to include their dog, too. And then I composited the shots together and came up with the image I wanted to create for them. It was their favorite of the bunch. They used it for their Christmas card and even printed the image on a deck of cards for gifts to family. I overdelivered, created a fun portfolio piece, and they were delighted with the result.
Don't be afraid to execute the task. Then mix things up your own way and have fun.
2. Be Nice to Everyone.
This seems like a silly no-brainer, but it’s true. There are a lot of egos wrapped up in this industry. The best thing to do is to just be nice to everyone. You are there to work with everyone towards a common goal. Usually a big ego is a mask for some level of insecurity. These insecurities sometimes translate into conceit, so it is better to be cool-under-pressure and be the calm energy, which will diffuse another’s nervous energy and temper their insecurities. Calm will be met with calm.
One of the top reasons that I hear from my repeat clients is that they like working with me — that I’m easy to get along with. I stay calm on shoots and try to make it fun for all.
Be confident, be calm, and be kind.
1. Stay on Top of your Bookkeeping!
Imagine this: It's April 14th and you are staring at a pile of receipts and trying to piece together all the driving you did the previous year to fill out a mileage booklet. You imagine your accountant charging you a big rush fee or that you’ll incur a penalty for filing your taxes late.
Stop doing that! There are computer programs that can help you with your bookkeeping and make life so much easier! If you aren’t in a spot to afford that, then keep the following 4 items in order:
- A spreadsheet of your expenses, by month and vendor
- A spreadsheet of your sales, by month and client
- The estimated payments you made, by amount and date paid
- All your business receipts, paper clipped by month or by vendor
If you want more information and to be able to run reports on your income versus expenses per job, then using an accounting program such as Quickbooks or Quicken will make your life much easier.
My business life changed the minute I went with Quickbooks Online and could link my business bank account to the software. At the top of every month, I download my bank statement and reconcile my account. By the time tax season rolls around, my accountant can log in to my account and everything is in order, reducing their time, reducing my bill.
Reconcile your account EVERY month. Don’t wait. Make it a thing you do at the top of every month and tax season will be far less stressful. Keep your receipts. Some keep them in chronological order by month, some by vendor (like, all your B&H receipts together). I prefer by date in case there is a question, I can ask, “What month?” and find the receipt in question. Just have a system.
You’ll notice these 10 things have nothing to do with what camera setting, or what lens to use or the best gear for such-and-such. I hope that this article will get you thinking about your tools, your business investments, your service, your coverage, your flexibility, your pricing, your confidence, your attitude and your accounting. Best wishes for a successful career!