Photo Studio Business Strategies
I've learned From Over Forty Years as a Professional Photographer

Statistics (in Canada and USA) reveal that 87% of professional photographers are in business less than two years.

But I have survived over forty years, full time with photography being my only source of income in this super competitive business. Surviving three recessions, and constant pandemic lockdowns over two years. Yes I know, bragging but I am very proud of that.

Let me share some business strategies, tips, and advice with you. Hopefully they will make your life as a professional photographer easier and more successful. 

Some of these business strategies, tips and advice may seem counterintuitive and contrary to what others claim or have taught you but the fact is they work and my forty years in business proves it.

I'm still busy shooting five days a week so I am not open for questions at this point.  

Here's What I have Learned in no particular order...

Spencer Studio Ottawa -Robin Spencer

Automate everything you can.

Make your life easier by automating as many of the behind the scene mundane tasks as you can. I subscribe to a service that books my appointments online, collects deposits and payments, collects all the customer data/contact info I need, sends confirmations, sends reminders and sends requests for reviews. If a client wants to cancel or reschedule it is all done behind the scenes and does not involve back and forth phone calls. Saves me so much time and works 24/7.

I also subscribe to a retouching service. They do a great job at a great price and I use them when either I'm too busy to do it myself or honestly... when a retouching job is beyond me or I figure it will take too long to fit into my daily workflow.

The best photography education you can get is from shooting weddings.

Weddings teach you how to create great photos often in small horrible spaces and under horrible lighting conditions. They teach you to pose beautifully and quickly. They teach you problem solving and creativity and of course to think fast. Weddings teach you how to relax nervous brides quickly, deal with controlling mothers and drunk uncles. 

They teach you to be able to work in any situation quickly and produce great images.

The best book ever written for professional photographers...

Without doubt the book that will help you the most is How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Written in 1936, it gives timeless advice on dealing with people, yes also difficult ones, becoming likeable, getting referrals and repeat business by treating people like they want and deserve to be treated.

Hey if you can't relax people and make them smile naturally it doesn't matter what lens you use or how good your lighting is.

An Endorsement From Bruce Hudson...

"Robin is a freak of nature in the world of professional photography. He's extremely creative behind the camera and in his approach to marketing his craft. Robin has a way of cutting through the BS with his blunt humor, yet showing a true passion for the clients he works with and the people in his community.
Study with this man & you will take away the secrets that you'll need to become successful in any business."    
  

Bruce Hudson

Mastercraftsman PPA,

Member of Camera Craftsmen of America

Grow up! Dress nice and show up on time.

Take pride in your profession, look and act professional. I have a great true story about this, ask me if we ever meet in person.

Learn To Pose Heavy People

Hey heavy people don't want to look even heavier in photos, I say that as one. Say what you want about "old fashioned, out of date" classic portraiture but those classes/workshops teach flattering/corrective posing and lighting well. It's true that most people do look heavier in photos. Three dimensional objects (people) and turned into a two dimensional object (a photo) usually makes them look wider. Yes short lighting will help, but proper posing will help more. Also helping your client choose the right clothing, colour, fit etc. will make a huge difference. You need to learn this.

Learning to fix double chins in Photoshop is another must, almost everyone over 25 has one and they are self conscience about it. 

I'm talking real life clients here, everyday sessions. Usually when you show up/see a posing lighting workshop/seminar they are using professional slender fit beautiful models and that is absolutely no help to real life photo sessions. 

Paying Taxes and Bills the easy way.
For years I struggled to pay taxes and bills at the end of the month or quarter and I wish I figured this out sooner. After years in business my sales were reasonably consistent so it was easy to estimate how much sales tax, my property taxes and income taxes I would need to pay.  At the end of the year I added those three numbers together, round up slightly then divided by fifty. 
Then set up an automatic transfer between bank accounts so that every Monday the bank would automatically transfer that amount (1/50th of my upcoming tax bills) from my business checking account in to a business savings account.
Yes I know there are 52 weeks in a year, the extra two transfers help build a little financial cushion.

It worked so well I added a little extra to my Monday transfer amount and I had enough to go on vacation put aside.
An easy calculation, For every $1000 you will owe, transfer $20  to your savings account every Monday.

I then did the same for business credit cards. There are certain business expenses I had that were consistent every month. Automatic charges like insurance, online proofing, Photoshop (billed monthly), online booking service etc.
Again, you just print off your monthly charges, add up the recurring business expenses then divide that total by four. Again so every Monday the bank was set up to automatically make payment on my Visa for that amount.

I use Mondays because much of my work is on Saturday so my bank balance is always very good on Mondays.

If you have a "Plan B" you've already lost.

Having no Plan B ("Something to fall back on") means you have to succeed because there is no other option or easy way out. When paying the rent, making car payments and feeding your family are dependant on your income from photography you learn to become a better photographer and better marketer fast. WARNING, if you have a "Plan B" it will end up becoming your "Plan"

Consider this: Don't raise your prices, just drop your smallest package.

This depends on why you want to raise your prices in the first place but just dropping your smallest package might be the answer. 

Including Bonuses

Including bonuses instead of discounting is better for the client and better for you. 

Always choose education over entertainment.

I was never one to spend any time playing video games or just wasting time on non productive activities. I read books, listened to audio books, and went back to college night school learn business, professional photography, sales, marketing, and customer service.

Investing in business classes in night school or a photography workshop will do much more for your success than buying a new wide angle lens. 

Buy One Of These Things

If you are doing professional photography you need a hand held Incident Light Meter. More accurate and relievable for accurate and consistent exposure than the meter in your camera, that measures reflective light.  The better ones also measure flash output but even the cheaper ones will help you get perfect light ratios.  An incident light meter really helps with consistency and will speed up your editing process saving you time and money. 

I own three of these, different models, huge difference in prices. In the end they all give the exact same exposure readings. The most expensive model I have has lots of functions you will never use, like changing the LED screen from blue to pink...stupid. Buy a low to medium price meter that has the basic functions you need. Always carry an extra battery, buy a second (back-up) meter if you can afford to. Yes, they are that important.  

Spencer Studio Ottawa -Robin 2021-89.jpg

The public know the value of your work better than you do.

People know to the penny what your work is worth, they know if you are over charging for the quality of work you do. You need to constantly be testing price. I have seen so many photographers let their ego get the best of them and they price themselves out of the market. If sales volume is down, either get better quick or lower your prices.

The 2nd Best book ever written for professional photographers... and anyone in business

The book that had the major impact on my business strategy: product mix, packaging and pricing 

The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less by Richard Koch. 

Very simply the 80/20 principle shows clearly that 20% of your services/products/time/clients generates 80% of your income and conversely 80% of your services/products/time/clients only generate 20% of your income. 

Once I read this and was able to identify other 80/20 ratios there are in business it changed my business forever. Yes, I was a total sceptic until I went through my own spreadsheets and found how accurate this was. I changed and continue to change things so I focus on the 20% that gives me the 80%.

 

Don't Be A Jerk

I'm always shocked and saddened by the lack of creativity and ethics of so many photographers. They complain constantly about clients copying their images and yet they are the first to copy things like slogans or tag lines from other photographers and studios. They copy websites and pricelists word for word. There is one photographer that copies my prices and packages word for word then undercuts me by $25. 

"Mediocrity is Death"

Do I even need to explain? I suspect this is the reason professional photographers are usually out of business so quickly. Mediocre photography, mediocre customer service, mediocre sales techniques, mediocre marketing.

Don't "Play The Role"

It took me decades to learn to be just me. Photographer dress like they think photographers do,  they act like they think photographers do, they try to present themselves as "photographers" not as they truly are. Photographers are copiers by nature, just be yourself it's much easier and people will like you more.

I met a photographer and got to know him well. He was very easy going and funny. But his website and his dealing with clients was very serious and corporate. He didn't last long in business.

Your Mom was Right

Don't talk trash about your competitors it only makes you look bad. As your mom often said "If you have nothing nice to say then don't say anything at all."  

The 3 Things You Need To Do To Start Any Successful Business or Career

1: Discover what you love to do

2: Get so good at it that people will pay you to do it

3: Let everyone know how good you are.

Always Send Up...

There is a saying in this industry: "Always send up, never send down."  When someone calls you to do an assignment and for whatever reason you can't shoot it refer them to another photographer that is better than you or more expensive. It will help everyone plus it keeps standard high in your profession. 

The More Often You Shoot The Better You Get

Kind of obvious right. It was shocking how rusty you get if you hadn't shot a wedding in a while, the first wedding of the season was very hard. Shooting a wedding every weekend, or two a week you'd simply fly. 

I discovered that was the same with studio portraits, doing two or three a week was OK but when you got to two or three a day there was a confidence, a professionalism and a flow. Life and the quality of the images became Zen like.  Busy is good.

In the down times or off season, borrow a friend or the neighbours' dog and practice and shoot and try new ideas. 

Understand The Difference Between "Sales" and Profit

Break down every service you offer, figure out the average time it takes you to do each one and the total expenses to produce and deliver each. Calculate the true profit per hour on each service, then concentrate your efforts on the greatest profit per hour services.  Yes, very obvious to anyone that has studied business, most photographers just don't get that and are often impressed by the big sale numbers.

I had a friend ask me, if you bought a million dollars worth of gold one day and then sold it the next day for a million dollars, what would your sales be? One million dollars I said. And what would your profit? be he asked. Zero I said. Think only in terms of profit he suggested.

You Have Complete Control Over Some Things....

You have complete control over some things, even things you think you have no control over. But surprisingly you do. It's your business, your ideas, your strategies and of course lots of coffee LOL.

And there are other times you have absolutely no control over, the economy, advances in technology, competitors that undercut you etc. You need to learn the difference, you need to learn to adapt.

Reviews Teach You....

Reviews are great, besides the obvious marketing advantages. They are insightful, people always said they loved the photos but the common threat was that I made them feel relaxed. Most people hate to have their photo taken and come in stressed and nervous but ended up having a great time.  Review showed me I had skills I didn't know I had.

There are Only 3 Ways to Make More Money in Any Business.

1: Get more customers

2: Increase the size of each sale

3: Increase how often customers buy from you

Hang Out With People Better Than You

Yes, I know old advice but worth repeating. Make it a point to meet, do lunch, do coffee with people that are better than you, smarter, richer, more successful, classier.   

Don't Buy in Bulk.

Yes it makes sense to buy in bulk, maybe you will save 10-20%. But things change too fast and I'd hate to think how many items I have thrown in the garbage. Over the years thousands of my business cards, you get a new phone number, a new degree, a new logo, a new colour scheme or you update your branding. 

When digital photography took off and people wanted digital files I was stuck with thousands of custom printed photo folders, verticals, horizontals, and ovals. All pretty well useless now.

I remember throwing a whole case of CD ROMs in the garbage when it became faster, cheaper and easier just to transfer them online.

To Become Successful, Study Success....

Read everything you can find, or buy audio books by Brian Tracey, Seth Godin, Jim Rohn, Dan Kennedy, Zig Ziglar and Jay Abraham. Most of the new success authors/coaches are just a watered down, long winded version of the old classics. Brian Tracey gives you more ideas per minute than any others I have discovered.  

Learn the cashflow cycles in your business

Watch for the monthly, yearly and lifecycle of business cash flow patterns. They are predictable after you have been at this business for a while.

Here's a big one. March is always a bad month for photographers. Yes we made a ton of money during December (Christmas sales), January and February are traditionally very slow, plus that's when you get huge bills from labs, album and frame companies. Come March your Christmas income is gone and you struggle to pay bills.

It took us a while to figure out this simple solution. Typically we booked weddings 12-18 months in advance. With wedding deposits we'd take 1/3 down, 1/3 a month before the wedding and the final 1/3 on the wedding day like every other studio.

So we just changed that, asking for a smaller deposit to book the wedding, then getting the second payment in February, and the final deposit on the wedding day (or a week before if they preferred that to simplify their wedding day). Our  March cashflow problem was over.

Hiring Assistants, Do's and Don'ts

1: If you can, hire within your family and you will avoid a whole lot of problems.

2: Hire assistants with absolutely no interest in photography, they appreciate the $40-$80/hr. They show up on time, take their job seriously and dress appropriately.

The Best Time of Year To Raise Prices

If you need to raise prices do it in September. Advice I picked up at a professional photographers conference from one of the speakers. Makes sense, we all worry about the loss of business if we raise prices but if you raise prices just before the forth quarter, our busiest time of year you will not experience a slump in sales.

"All that junk inside your trunk?"

This is real obvious advice to any photographer that has been around for a while. Leaving your equipment in a van, SUV, or a hatchback is crazy. Buy, rent or borrow a car with a trunk for any location assignment. You don't have to look far to find professional photographers that have had everything stolen from parked van, SUV, or a hatchback. Cars with a truck is the best idea.

Mediation is for Creativity

There have been many scientific studies done on the benefits of mediation. One of the many benefits I have found that work for me is creative problem solving. When I'm struggling for the solution to a business or technical problem I often find that a creative idea just comes to me. No I never meditate on the problem, I meditate to clear my mind. Within a day or two the answer becomes clear to me and I often say that's so simple why didn't I think of that before? I think mediation cuts out that constant chatter in your head, and frees up your little gray cells to work on your most pressing problem.

One is Bad, Two is Good

As you know showing up to any assignment with only one professional camera, one professional flash is total insanity. It's only a matter of time before your prime equipment fails and always at the worst possible time. You also need to have backups for professional photo lab, framer, and album company. Open a second account with all your second choice critical suppliers, send them work now and then. Twice now I've had professional photo labs close up at the worst time. One lab closed two weeks before Christmas. Yes really, leaving hundreds or thousands of professional photographers stranded. Don't get stuck, you need backups for both equipment and suppliers. 

Pricing: Finding the Sweet Spot

As you probably know there are basically three pricing strategies: High Price/Low Volume, Medium Price/Medium Volume and Low Price/High Volume. Having been a member of several professional photographer associations for decades I can tell you their mantra is "Raise your prices, raise your prices, raise your prices." Possibly good advice, but I have seen so many professional photographers follow that advice and price themselves out of the market, then have to close up.

Don't underestimate the value of cash flow, a steady income is critical.

So test, test, test and keep adjusting your prices and packages for  a steady cashflow. The sweet spot is producing really great images at a fair price. Never copy another photographers prices, the sweet spot for you will always only work for you and the quality you offer.

Below is a list of upcoming topics I plan to expand on. So if you are learning anything check back occasionally.

 

  • Test, Test, Test

  • Assume 87% of the other photographers will be out of business soon. Find out what they do, then do the opposite.

  • Avoid the big expensive black cameras

  • Why referring work to your competitors is a good thing

  • Celebrate your competitors victories

  • 3 ways to gain credibility

  • Under Promise and Over Deliver

  • Two important things that they will never teach you in any photography course or workshop

  • The reality is that most professional photographers are geeks, not artists.

  • Always take the high road

  • Re-create/Re-invent/Re-brand yourself every couple of years.

  • Find out what clients really want and don't sell it, give it to them free.

  • Never buy the newest (first generation) camera

  • No you can't photograph everything.

Seth Godin from the book Leap First, Creating Work That Matters.

"Tools might be really nice tools, you do not need tools to make your art. 
If you are fooling yourself into thinking you need really nice tools to make your art you're just hiding.
You do not need nice tools to make your art you just need to care."