When you’re new to an industry or career, there are always mistakes you make along the way. After a decade in the photography industry, I started to see those patterns – including mistakes that I made. Here are the mistakes beginner photographers make, and how to avoid them.
1. Not obtaining a business license in your state
It’s easy to get swept up in the notion of just starting a photography business. Here I am! Doing a creative thing! I want to start charging and making a little money and being my own boss!
But it’s important to remember that there are steps you have to take to legally do business in your state.
It varies based on the state, from $10 every two years to a couple hundred dollars a year. Sitting down with a lawyer will help you to determine the best course of action for the amount of business you hope to do and what will protect you best in doing that business.
2. Skipping out on contracts
You might think you’ll know all your clients and they’ll be omg-the-best-ever but ultimately you have to remember – this is a business. And when money is involved, many clients will be quick to turn on you even when you thought your relationship was solid gold.
Having contracts in place for every type of work you do helps protect your clients, but also to protect yourself. They outline the expectations of both parties, label delivery timelines, what happens in emergencies, literally everything you could possibly think of. Contracts will legally protect all parties involved. They’re not scary – they’re the standard. But this beginner photographer mistake could make your career short-lived.
3. Not having clear policies
A close follow up to not having contracts, is not having policies to refer to. While there are some policies you won’t know to have until you reach that situation for the first time, there are some you can consider right from the beginning. How long will it take to deliver images? How do you edit them, what’s included, and what’s not? What’s the hourly charge for extra work? When are payments due, and what happens if they’re missed? How do the clients communicate with you, or cancel?
Having a document of basic policies and commonly asked questions will help guide your clients in a better way through your experience, and will also give them a landing page to refer to instead of having to email you for every question they have.
A good way to build on your policies is to make a document of every question a client ever asks you – then add that question and answer to your FAQ or policies page.
Remember to be flexible the first time a policy arises that you don’t have an answer to, and then every time after that stick to your new procedure.
4. Forgoing gear and business liability insurance
This is the scariest thing to encounter – when photographers don’t have gear insurance. While you may think that you’ll likely be able to afford any replacement of your $150 nifty fifty lens, as you start getting into high-end equipment gear starts to cost more than most folk’s first cars. Imagine having a camera body break on you, and having to replace that $3000 camera on the fly?
Even beyond that, is business owners who don’t carry a general business liability policy. A business liability policy helps to protect you and your clients from anything that may happen while in the care of your business. This is especially relevant for wedding photographers who may interact with hundreds of people at any one given event. This mistake by beginner photographers could potentially hurt your business, or event your clients substantially.
A business liability policy will protect you from things like a guest breaking their ankle after tripping on your lightstand, or you directing a client into an unsafe location where they result in an injury. While you may think these things would never happen to you, they do, and will – an insurance policy to help mitigate those situations (as well as strong contracts) will help lift the burden and keep your business and clients safe.
5. Forgetting about backup gear and data backup procedures
Gear insurance is great to replace equipment that breaks, but what if you’re in the middle of a session or wedding? You can’t exactly rush off to your insurance company and have them immediately walk through the door with new equipment.
Have a double copy of every piece of equipment you plan to use (if you use equipment minimally) and always keep it on hand for situations that cannot be re-done. While you may be able to schedule a new family session and apologize profusely, no couple will be willing to drop everything and recreate their entire wedding day to accommodate your mistake.
If you know that you primarily use a 35mm lens, carry a backup version in your kit. If you sometimes have to use an external flash during dark events, carrying two of them in your bag. Always carry 2-3 cameras in your bag in case of equipment failure. Never let your lack of a replacement body or lens be the reason somebody’s wedding or session is at-risk.
In addition to backup equipment, always keep multiple copies of your files – both client photographs, and any documents/images/etc used for managing your brand. Harddrive failures happen in just a split second, and cost hundreds of dollars to retrieve, if even possible. Have multiple hard data backups and at least one offsite backup for everything you deem important to you, and keep your data safe.
6. Undercommunicating with clients
While you may think there are some details that your clients don’t need to know, these details that aren’t shared are often what sparks questions. Every opportunity you get, overshare details with your clients.
While you may work with hundreds of people every year, you may be the first professional photographer your client ever hired, and they don’t necessarily know how the process works. Over-explain every detail you possibly can along the way, and always double check for things that need further clarification. Your openness and straightforwardness will not only manage their expectations, but garner a level of trust that results in striking images of their lives.
Your client communication is one of the biggest things that can set you apart as a professional photographer.
7. Drinking at events / blurring professional lines
While I often connect with my clients on a personal level and become genuine friends afterwards, boundaries are still in place to protect them while working with me. They must still adhere to my policies about communication, office hours, etc. and will always abide by my company policies. This doesn’t mean you don’t get to let loose and have fun, it merely means that you like your clients enough to always keep their safety and experience the number one priority.
No personal relationship will ever trump a professional mistake, so remove any possibility of blurring those lines.
Along those same lines, do not consume alcohol while on the clock at an event or session. While your couple may absolutely want to take a shot with you or encourage you to have a beer, remember that most business liability insurances won’t cover you if you were under the influence and caused an injury or mechanical mistake. While you might think you’re okay to have just one, remember that on a wedding day you’re usually under-fed and dehydrated – and that does not mix well with even one Whiteclaw.
If you wouldn’t have a drink at a 9-5 job, don’t have one while working a session or wedding. I’ve made this mistake in the past too – it’s easy to get caught up in atmosphere of an event or session. It’s easy to forget that this is still a business and career with risks and consequences. Encourage your clients to do what feels safe to them, but trade your vodka shot for water and they’ll love you just the same.
BONUS: The mistake of focusing on creating trendy images over a meaningful experience
Your clients should never hear the words, “I saw this cute new pose on Instagram, let’s try it!” come out of your mouth. They should never hear you say, “it feels uncomfortable, but looks great on camera!” They deserve so much more than that.
Trends will come and go. Extremely orange editing and angles on hands towards the sky will be a moment of right now, but those trends will fade and you’ll be left with the embarrassment of being 2020.
Focus on the experience your clients will have over any trendy image you want for your Instagram that’ll go out of style sooner than you can plan next week’s grocery trip. Your clients will have a lasting memory of what they were feeling in the moment a photograph was taken and they will always find that to be more important to accomplishing your trendy goal.
What mistakes did you make in your early days? Did you fall trap to any of these? We all have room to grow, so share your growth in the comments below!
Hey! I'm Makayla, a wedding photojournalist based in Duluth, MN and Saint Paul, MN.
I believe that stories are best told untouched, undirected, and with intentionality and meaning.
This blog is a space to share advice for couples about weddings, advice for photographers about witnessing events with intention, and steps to create decisions based on your values and what matters most to you.
Grab your favorite beverage, pull up a chair, and let's get to know each other.
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