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The Ugly Truth : It Takes Money to Make Money
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The Ugly Truth : It Takes Money to Make Money

by liana on May 6, 2010

Starting a business is a Catch-22. I’ve touched on the topic before in previous UGLY TRUTH post titled Red is Normal for the First Few Years in Business.

Unlike some other photographers who teach it’s okay to take out a $60k loan to spend on advertising and equipment, you’ll find me teaching quite the opposite.

SURE you will need to buckle down and spend some money in order to get your business up and running, but how do you do this without going deep into debt!??

Here’s what I would do if I was starting out from scratch opening a photography business:

1. Read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover from cover to cover, twice. Listen to his show. Become a debt dominatrix like me. Get passionate first and foremost about getting your personal finances in order. Make sure you’ve dumped the debt AND have an Emergency Fund (EF) before diving into business full time.

2. Get a day job. Or two or three. Make sure you AND your spouse (if applicable) are maximizing income any way possible. If this means you have to wait tables and work at the job you hate for a while longer, do it. If you have to scrub dishes at night and teach at the YMCA on weekends, do it. I did it (yes, all of those – even the scrubbing dishes part!) If you don’t have the plush EF plus a few tens of thousands of dollars to start your business with yet, keep on working to pay the bills and save up to invest in your EF and business.


3. Learn, Learn, Learn. Shoot Shoot Shoot. Go work for free for anyone who will take you. Bend over backwards for them, helping them with all the mundane office tasks and be grateful when they let you shoot with them. Develop your style and brand identity EARLY so you don’t waste lots of time and money refining and defining it over and over again later. Build your portfolio. Don’t copy your mentors or the photographers on all the blogs you stalk. Pave your own road to success by discovering what style, experience, and processing is unique to you. Remember that Photoshop is like the brain – you only really ever use 10% of it. Learn the 10% and move on. Photoshop will suck up your time otherwise, especially if you’re just learning.


4. Know your NUMBERS before you start. If you’re not priced right, you’re bound for failure. I’ve met quite a few photographers who, upon running their cost analysis, find out they’re loosing money off of every shoot! One actually said to me “well, I’ll just have to shoot more then.” (YIKES!!!) I quickly reminded them that shooting more, when loosing money off of the shoot, means that you’re digging yourself into a bigger proverbial hole. Go learn from PPA, join us for a Boot Camp, or if you’re already business savvy check out the Number Cruncher to make sure your numbers are in check. I developed Boot Camp and the Number Cruncher and the DVDs for the sole purpose of sharing this knowledge that is so crucial to success.

5. Rent equipment and just “say no.” Just because your favorite photographer has 17 of the best Canon or Nikon pro digital lenses, doesn’t mean you have to have what they do in order to be successful when starting your business! Some of my top-rated, most-awarded images are from weddings I shot with just a Canon 20D and 24-70mm. I photographed my 7th wedding for over $7,000 with that same setup (plus backup of course and my 2nd shooters had other lenses to zoom in closer and go wider). You don’t need a $200 camera bag or the most expensive letterpress business cards to be successful. In fact, I still love my $10 black Old Navy tote to carry my lenses in for weddings! Sure, I use the lens-specific tote on occasion, but it’s not a necessity. Make sure you have a few solid camera bodies and lenses (even older models work GREAT still!) and rent the rest. Slowly build your bag of equipment. You’re not going to have time to build your business and portfolio if you bankrupt yourself first by investing in things you can rent for a while first. Plus, if you rent a variety of lenses and cameras you’ll have an opportunity to see which ones you REALLY use and love, and focus on getting those first.


6. Build a great website and distinguishable brand. You can build a great website these days for as little as $300-400 total or $40-50 per month with sites such as BluDomain and Showit. Make sure you show your best, consistent work. Write a bio, include a picture of YOU, and don’t talk about where and when you got your first camera. I don’t care. Your clients don’t care. They want to know who you are and what makes you different from the other half a million photographers out there. Build a brand board and start a competition on LogoSauce if your current logo/identity sucks. If you’re not sure if it sucks, go ask the Digital Wedding Forum or someone who works with brands for a living. They’re more likely to tell you the truth. Your friends and family probably won’t. If you’re not sure how to go about this process, you can watch what I did on the Brand Camp DVD.

7. Get involved. You won’t get clients by being holed up behind a computer. Go join a club, association, or take up a new hobby. Attend as many industry events as possible. Make friends with these people, don’t just send them your materials trying to solicit business. They’ll refer you naturally if they genuinely like you and your work. Plus, it makes being a photographer so much more fun when you’re getting to know others in your line of work!


That’s what I’d start with if I was building a business from the ground up. There are no perfect answers and everyone’s situation is unique but one thing is universal – if you have a strong financial foundation, everything else is much easier. Build your business on a strong foundation, so when the storms of life come, you and your business are prepared to ride out any disasters.

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May 7, 2010 at 6:20 PM

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tamara Young May 8, 2010 at 12:48 AM

I love this post! If you were near me, I’d hug you! I’m still working my stressful day job that used to be a career before I found my passion. Not many discuss the unpleasantries of starting a business like debt, being in the red, working 24/7 and I truly appreciate you for doing so.

A few things I’d add…Prepare for lack of sleep. Have a fund for Energy Drinks and good java! 🙂

E May 10, 2010 at 4:40 PM

Liana, you are awesome. Glad my frustrations and headaches could through you help many others 🙂

Brian Palmer June 4, 2010 at 3:55 PM

Great post Liana and awesome information packed in as well! Thanks for sharing!

Deanna Rose July 18, 2010 at 6:29 PM

Thank you so much! My DH and I are on DR’s plan and it’s been on hold for a while because he got laid off and I’m preggo!! This post was really encouraging to do things in order. Loved it!

Bailey Fox September 30, 2010 at 5:44 PM

Thanks for the post it actually pepped me up a bit! I recently opened my own studio space and I’ve been chugging along for about 9 years for Lifetouch. I photograph for their sr. division and every day I hate it more and more. Today I got to the point where I just wanted to toss the camera at a mothers head. Some how she felt it was my fault she couldn’t get threw the phone lines… They just don’t understand that as far as this company is concerned I’m a monkey that pushes buttons, I have no pull in the customer service department. I need to just keep doing it and dreading it and pushing myself because I know I can make it on my own. But I need this job to continue paying my mortgage until my space is up and running 100% I guess I can be thankful that its not dish washing at least its a day job that I get to keep my lighting and skill levels alive!…. Soon I just have to keep telling myself soon! And no loans, cause I was contemplating that…

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