How to Have A Successful Photography Business

Over the past 24 hours the blogosphere has erupted with both praise and condemnation to new website by David Jay with his 10 Step Guide to Starting a Photography Business. Blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts are mostly railing on David for some of his points while others are claiming it is about time somebody wrote a simple guide like this. Gary Fong even responded with a post about unqualified people who are trying to teach. I certainly have my own opinion and will both address some of the points David made with my own spin on them.

Step One – Friends are the foundation of your business

No, CLIENTS are the foundation of your business. Many of you may not have a lot, or any, friends that need wedding or portrait photography. I do believe that being friends with other photographers is hugely beneficial because it opens opportunities to learn, grow, and gain experience, but do not expect that a large portion of your work will be from other photographers. Your best clients will come from vendor referrals, if you can get them. You need to knock on a lot of doors, make friends with venue coordinators, florists, DJ’s, and every other vendor in your area.

Step Two – Go Ahead, Step Out In Faith, You Can Do It

David says you don’t need much equipment and you can probably borrow what you don’t have. The truth is that you do need a certain minimum of equipment if you are going to make sure that you capture every moment of the most important day in somebody’s life. You need to have at least two camera bodies and a variety of lenses to make sure you can capture the right shots. What if you drop and break a body or lens? What if you have a mechanical failure? What if something else goes horribly wrong? Equipment is not just an investment, it is insurance to make sure you can do what you were hired to do.

Step Three  – Service is your true value. It is the way forward in the industry & you were created for it.

Providing service is certainly the key to customer satisfaction and I don’t think David really make any real point in his section on this except to shoot for the sake of art and not care if you get paid or not. There is certainly a truth buried in there that you do not have to be a great photographer, you just have to be good enough to deliver what your clients want. Secondly, you are selling yourself and how you treat your customers that often is more important than the product itself.

Step Four – Use the hourglass approach

David suggests you offer free service to 100 people and try to get 10 jobs. Once the jobs start coming in, you start charging for it. I can’t begin to disagree with this enough. If you shoot for free, your clients will put zero value on your work. Those free clients are not going to refer high dollar clients to you because they will not value you at all. A quick check of Craigslist will show dozens of “professional wedding photographers” in almost every major city offering complete wedding packages for $500 or less. The only clients that are going to call those photographers are ones that have to because of their budget and they fully understand that their expectations are going to be inline with what they are paying. The act of giving your work away is not going to make your phone magically start to ring with paying jobs.

Step Five – Get your photos organized, edited, and safely shared, It’s not magic, it’s workflow

Talk about a wild over-simplification here. David says to import your images into Lightroom, use automatic settings, and then your his own Lightroom preset to create great images. Lightroom is a great tool and it is my tool of choice for editing weddings, but I would never simply import, use auto-tone, run a single preset, and export the finished images. Every image should be checked for color balance, sharpness, focus, exposure, cropping, framing, awkward faces, and much more. Simply running them through a set of presets is not doing any justice to your work or to your clients. Here is a link some of David Jay’s wedding photos, you might want to check these out before taking his advice on this topic.

Step Six – Honestly and authentically you. Market your brand proactively for the best first impressions

I absolutely agree that you should be honest and authentic. However, David says you should also be cute, well dressed, and talk about your dog. David does make some good points about important pieces to have on your website like your phone number, your prices, and a video. Having a little promo video is really a good idea as it can give your potential client some insight into what you are like and how you work. David also goes into a lot of detail about using Facebook, and when done correctly, I do agree that Facebook is a great marketing tool.

Step Seven – They pay you to be prepared. Get ready

This is probably the best set of information in David’s guide. You should have checklists, you need to have your gear ready, you need to have backup equipment (or as David suggests, friends with equipment that will gladly let you use their gear)…and of course, you need to buy David’s website tools to create a custom website for your customer. Ok, I am on board with almost all of that but I have yet to have a couple that wanted their own website for their wedding even if I was giving it to them for free.

Step Eight – It’s your time, Get in the game

I can’t actually fathom that David would suggest shooting a wedding with no experience. A wedding has a flow to it, it has a cast of characters, it has a specific timing. If you don’t fully understand the nuances that are involved you will not be ready. You absolutely need experience with weddings, and a good number of them too, before you try to be the main photographer for such a special event. You should intern with existing wedding photographers, work up to being a second shooter, and then work into getting to be the primary while an experienced photographer is your second. Would you like to have a doctor that has never practiced an operation before doing a surgery on you? A auto mechanic doing your car’s brakes who is “just winging it”. If you wouldn’t trust an inexperienced person to handle your important work, why would you think it is ok to risk someone’s wedding photos? To even suggest that you should just shoot as many pictures as possible and hope for a few good ones is simply ludicrous.

Step Nine – Your clients want you, not your prints

Yes, you do need to understand what you are selling and often we are not selling prints anymore but what we are selling are memories. If you cannot capture the essence and spirit of the event, and if you can’t freeze those important moments in time that people will treasure for the rest of their lives, than you shouldn’t be doing it. David does suggest that one of the best products to sell is a customized website, using the products that he sells, again along with a $29 a year recurring fee for hosting their images…surely all of your clients will pay you for many years to come to have their images online.

Step Ten – Let client demand decide, price step

Just follow David’s simple tips and be making $120,000 a year in your third year of business. You built a huge demand for your free wedding services and now its time to get rich. Forget about vendor relationships, advertising, marketing, just build up demand by not charging, then start charging and you are all set. I’m sorry folks, if it was this easy, we would all be rich.

What’s not in David’s Guide

What is not in David’s guide…in a word…reality. Let’s face some facts here, not everyone is going to make it as a wedding photographer. I am not trying to blow anyone’s dreams or aspirations here but the harsh fact is that not everybody has what it takes. First off, you need to be a good photographer and this means having both creative and technical skills and that is just not everyone’s skill set. I know extremely creative and artistic people who simply can’t take a good photo and I know highly skilled technical photographers with no creative ability to get great shots. Secondly, you have to be good at business. The business of photography requires scheduling, meetings, accounting, planning, time management, and many other real business skills. Again, not everyone is cut out to run their own business. You will likely spend 90% of your time running your business than actually shooting and this is a harsh reality that people like David will never tell you about because its not exciting, its not sexy, and its not going to motivate you.

If you want to have a successful photography business you need to understand that it is going to take a lot more than a cool website and some basic equipment.

One last point, to address Gary’s post, I may not be a hot, fabulous woman, but I do love my LensSkins on my 70-200!


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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18 Responses

  1. Great breakdown of David's "10 step program". I have been quietly thinking to myself some of the same points you make here. I think between this and Gary's article you have both addressed some of the fundamental problems within the photography industry today. I hope that some of this backlash will tame the celebrity influence in the industry.

  2. Bob says:

    Dude, you shouldn't talk with the junk on your site:

    Horrible work man…

    • kgarrison says:

      Good point if you it was in the same context. The images you pointed to were not from a $6000 wedding and were just some basic lighting examples. I appreciate your comment regardless.

    • Mark P. says:

      Come on Bob, there are many shooters out there that haven't reached the 20-year milestone of producing world-class images, but still appreciate the steps necessary to achieve mastery of the craft. I dare say you would have agreed with this editorial back when your images didn't radiate perfection either.

      Infighting amongst the real professionals, artists and technicians in photography is a result of the saturation of the market with "spray and pray" weekend warrior types and snake oil salesmen (and women). Let's channel our efforts toward battling that culture, not ourselves.

  3. Dave T. says:

    Lighten-up Bob
    …and one shouldn't have to be a great or terrible photographer to understand when they are being fed a load of crap in order to sell more seminar's and software services.
    DJ is an enigma. He's a great marketer and his Showit products are pretty cool, but he also tends to gouge his prices and provide pretty lame seminar tours. Also, he hasn't shot a wedding in how long? He's the first of many 'Rock Star's' to quit shooting weddings & sell to other photographers. It seems there is more money in that these days when your 'at the top'.

  4. Great write up & summary Kerry! btw, don't know if you remember. I met you a few years ago at Jule workshop down in SoCal. I was on of the grooms men =)

  5. @Juvenall says:

    Regarding step four, I agree that you shouldn't do "free" work, but that's very different than "unpaid" work. A tactic I've used successfully are contests or giveaways. This lets me build some identity and a portfolio without undervaluing my work.

  6. YRaj says:

    On Step four, I have to disagree with you partly. First of all, with many photographers out there to choose from, what reason should a client have for paying what you are worth. A product is only worth what the consumer perceived benefit or value is. If you are not known or recognized, forget about ti.

    So you have to get your product known, called push marketing. To do this, you take jobs that are inexpensive for the consumer, to build your portfolio, get experience doing jobs for clients, whose expectations are not as high as the one that is paying 5K for their wedding package.

    You are right though, you could get caught in a pricing two ways, you may be in a certain clientele circle that will not be willing to pay higher prices. The other way, is that people may not want to pay higher prices that you have been charging already. One way to get around this is to show your true prices and show a discount.

    I am at this marketing stage. I will let you know when the product of becomes in demand to the point, where I can start raising my prices and still make my client feel like they are getting a bargain.

    Kerry Garrison is correct on most else though. He is giving a great dose of reality which is invaluable for starters.

  7. Great point Kerry. I like your view. I've said this to many people when I first heard of DJ seven years ago. There are great photographers that know very little marketing and that struggle for business year after year and then there are mediocre photographers that are great marketers and they become well known based on their marketing skills and not their photography skills. In my opinion DJ falls in the latter. he just happens to have a camera in his hand. Unfortunately, there are others and I'm starting to see the door slowing closing on them as well. No matter how big you are, if you don't have the images to back it up, you're eventually going to fail.

  8. I liked this issue so much, especially when you say that the photography is a service of special moments documentation.


    Flavio Luiz Melo – F&G Studio Fotografia de Casamento

  9. Addy Potter says:

    Starting a business is really overwhelming. I want to become a photographer but I don't want get in over my head. I appreciate the advice on starting a photography business. I will definitely keep these things in mind.

  10. Nate Hill says:

    I appreciate that you've shared those steps to become successful in the business. However, it cal also be surmised to three actions, be clear about what you want, know your vehicle to get your vision and be kind to the people around you as they are the reason for your dreams. I wish you success in your photography business.

  11. Lynsey Grace says:

    You listed 10 steps how to be successful in Photography business and I love the way you explained the details. This is a very helpful article for those who wanted business like this. Specially me I love taking good pictures. Thanks for posting!

  12. Thank you for these tips! I greatly appreciate it because I am planning to enter into the business of photography. Looking forward for more great articles!

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