I’m like a lot of women out there. I’m a military wife, and photography is not only my passion, it’s also my full time job. I balance my life around being a wife to my husband who has been serving in the Air Force for 9 years, being a mom to 2 little boys, and being a very, very busy photographer. There are a lot of people like me, but I also know there are others who are also wanting to transition from hobbyist to full-time photographer.
I wanted to write this in order to be able to answer a lot of questions I get. This is more of a compilation of all the wonderful questions I get via email, and facebook.
I would be lying if I said how easily doable being a full time photographer is. The facade sure looks like that I am able to dictate my schedule whenever I want, on days or times that I want. The honest to goodness truth is it takes a lot of thick skin, good management, and a really good understanding on how to balance life not only around your schedule, but also around your spouse’s schedule. Also, being upfront and briefing husband on what the job entitles is a bonus, just like how he tells me the up & up with his job. I’ve been doing the juggle for the past almost 4 years I’ve had my business. I wouldn’t trade it for the world though. I am having fun and never been happier in my life. (If you would like to read on how I got started, you can read about it here.)
So in no particular order, I will chat up in this entry a few things I have learned over the years, and a glimpse of how my life works, and things to consider before going pro with your hobby.
Gear: I started out with a Canon Rebel XS and a 50mm f/1.8 lens. It was a $500 setup. I thought, for as little as $500.00, I will be able to start a business. I used to make a joke that it is so much better than my original plan of going to culinary school, which they quoted me at $65,000, and then starting a restaurant after. It’s true to an extent. I had to upgrade gear. There were a lot of factors which added to my now setup. I won’t add the math, but I shoot with 2 full frame cameras, and a variety of lenses. Some of the things that added to wanting and needing new gear are things like I’m a newborn photographer. Unlike others, I cannot build a studio in my home, or rent studio space. There was always that possibility of PCSing, which we eventually did. I also am not able to shoot at my then home all the time, and cannot at all at my current home, which then sends me to my clients’ homes. Doable, except not for my starter camera. Every home is different, every space is too. I needed gear that can handle low light in case I don’t have any light. I needed lenses that allowed me shoot in small spaces without sacrificing my quality of work. They add up. Props are not cheap either (you can check out cost here.) When business picks up, and word spreads about a business, a variety of lighting is then offered to a photographer. It will then present challenges to the current gear one is using.
It’s not exactly cheap: Going off on how gear is pricey, it’s not the only thing that needs to be factored in. There’s reliable good SD or CF cards. Then there’s the editing software just to start off with the basics. Lenses are another thing, but this one is personal preferences. There are pro photogs that can work with just 2-3 lenses, then there’s people like me that like a variety. I also have a backup body, because I have experienced where my camera has failed during a shoot because that’s how technology works, so having a 2nd camera worked out perfectly because I was able to finish the session without a hitch. I shoot 2 full frame cameras, and 8 total lenses ranging, and each item run between $500 – $3500. Yes, that’s EACH. I need pro gear. I cannot use plastic hobbyist lenses. I’m not afraid to get down and dirty during shoots, so I need my glass and my camera body to be made out of metal to withstand the work I make them do. Then there’s gear insurance, liability insurance, computers, prop costs, taxes (both state and federal), gas money, sitter budget, allocation for car repairs since I travel for work and accumulate mileage, website costs, gallery costs, products, but basically these are just my basic needs to run a business. In other words: it’s a very expensive business. How did I make it work? I priced myself accordingly and put my paycheck towards my gear, and it took a while to build. What I do recommend if you’re looking into going into portraiture as a profession is to look into the mid-range lenses such as the 50mm 1.4, 28-75mm f/2.8, and the 85mm f/1.8. They are priced cheaper, at $300-$500 and great starter portrait lenses. They also hold their value pretty well. Once you do pick up business and ready to upgrade, they are easy to sell. Facebook has a ton of used gear groups and people are always looking for these lenses. Avoid getting a full kit with what looks like bells and whistles, it will be a waste of an investment. This is what I did and it prevented me from tapping into our family budget when it came to gear upgrade and I upgraded according to the gigs that I got. It did take me, in my accountant’s words, into my 2nd year to finally make a profit =P.
Transitioning from hobbyist to professional: Portrait photography is a profession that doesn’t require a degree in order for it to be a profession. It’s true. What it does require though are legalities. If one takes even a single dollar, and marks it as income, or what I often hear, a way to make some money in addition to the military income, it then becomes a business. Please, please, check with your local government and get appropriate permits. Once you make money off it, it’s no longer a hobby. Even a $35 session you offer will add up within a year. Get permits, learn about your sales tax laws locally. And then factor in how 30% of your income will have to be paid up come tax time. Price accordingly to your skills, market, and to be able to save 30% per session towards paying come tax time, both federal and state. Live on base? I do now, and I had to ask for permission first from the housing if I can operate a business in my home. Each base housing is different since some are privatized. I know there are some housing companies that do not allow businesses to operate in the homes, some do but you can’t dedicate a space as a studio, it needs to be taken down, then there are some where it’s just allowed. It all depends, but please check. You do not want to jeopardize your spouses’ career and your home by trying to go under the radar.
Don’t get into it just because of the potential $: I’ve always done art so this was easy for me. But I understand with our lifestyle that every little bit counts. That’s the thing though with art; one has to enjoy it in order to create beauty, and not something forced and contrived. Do photography (or any art) because it’s what your heart is telling you to do. Don’t just do it because it has potential income coming into it. Fall in love with first. I would normally say learn to date your art before you marry it, just like with any relationship. The joy the comes from the passion is immeasurable.
We’re light chasers / My schedule is actually pretty hectic: We chase light, specially if you’re a natural light photographer like I am. That means I don’t really dictate my hours: the sun does. I work around when the sun sets, and that determines my schedule. Sometimes that means I can work really late in the summer evenings, or before my husband can come back from work on winter evenings. My schedule isn’t as flexible as it seems to be. Weekends are hard and need to be pre-determined. I am gone and working on the weekends because it’s my weekdays. It’s when most of the families I work with are available, and sometimes I do work weekdays because half of my market is military. Military members don’t exactly work a standard 9-5 Monday -Friday job, so I find myself booking weekdays also, sometimes on days my husband is off, sometimes on days my husband is also working. We pre-plan our months to make sure I block out certain days in order to spend time with family. But then there’s weather, and I have to prepare myself and my family for that. Once home, I do have to edit. I have to have set office hours or it would be next to impossible to get any editing and bookkeeping done. Even before shoots, I try to get office work done. What this means is that I can work maybe an average 6 hours/day in the office, 4 hours on site including driving. A 10 hour work day is pretty much average for me, sometimes more when I do decide I need to edit at night time. it is one of those things that need to be considered specially to work around deployments, or TDYs.
Price yourself accordingly: Also in relation to the past topic, pricing yourself accordingly works amazingly in so many ways. I’ve heard things such as “I don’t want the community to feel I’m ripping them off” to “Military families simply cannot afford that.” I can’t even attest to how true those statements are in regards to service member paychecks. But just like how they have their own career, I do too. In my career field, I also have to respect those around me and what is the market price according to my skill, location, and experience. Even those with very little experience but have done enough practice for basic photography 101, and they start a business, deserve a proper and fair pricing for themselves. As explained before, one needs to learn how to invest back into their business. On average, a business owner typically puts 30% aside to pay taxes. This is one of the hugs factors for price, and also, all the upkeep mentioned before. The prices professionals have are not made up just have it up there; quality work is attached to quality prices. I still do however have 50% of my market to be military families. I offer military families a standard 15% off their whole session and products. I also offer payment plans to all of my clients. I typically already book up months ahead anyway, so the payment plans work out for a lot of clients to coincide with pay periods. Please remember that pricing yourself extremely low not only hurts the industry, but will also hurt you once you have built a portfolio and need to raise prices. Working for $50/per session doesn’t mean your work ends at the session with editing and product delivery and consultation. For example, I spend an average 20 hours per client from consultation, wardrobe selection, email correspondence, the actual session, editing, troubleshooting at times, product packaging, and delivery. If I were to price myself at $50/session, I’d be working at $2.50 and that’s even before I pay my sitter if I do need to work if my husband is not available (TDY, Deployment, at work), and all other expenses. For comparison, when I used to work at Jamba Juice as a shift manager, I used to earn $12/hour, and working for $2.50 and then I don’t even make minimum wage compared to how much I earned when I was in college vs having myself as my own boss is just slightly depressing, and would end up not only hurting the industry, but hurting the household because of where the time and the money is allocated.
Take care of your community: The military world is small. Very small. Specially for job specified bases. My husband goes to one of those job specified bases. (We seriously have like a choice of 5). The chances of us running into each other again even after a move is huge. Heck, sometimes, we live amongst our clients even! My husband has been to a few bases, and we’ve been stationed along with old friends from different bases again. I thank the military community tons for how my business is now. That is why I can never take perks such as discounts and payment plans away. I cherish all the stories and families I encounter. We live in a very small world. When I moved to Pensacola from CA this past spring, I had fears of never getting any more gigs. I was wrong. So wrong. It is amazing the power of a good referral can do. One of my really good clients from CA referred me to a very good friend of hers in Pensacola, and from there, I started filling up my calendar! I even met new families whom we both hope and wish we can be stationed again in both our next duty stations. We have something special, something we need to take care of, and nurturing relationships is important. We are a bunch of travelers who just happen sometimes to end up in the same place, or know people in places where we are moving. Taking care of those relationships is key in order to build a good rapport, and I am a firm believer that it takes just one person to catapult a business, and it’s such an amazing feeling when it spreads far beyond the local area.
Competition: Because of how easy the job does look like, it cannot be avoided that we may come from areas where there is an over saturation of photographers. My quick tip on this one: ignore competition and the need to compete. Don’t be too involved in their work and their improvement. Focus on your skills, and your work. Comparison is evil and prevents fostering. Don’t compare your prices, your packages, your photos. I approach this as the mall approach, consumers go to a mall with a variety of stores to choose from. Every store has their own different market. No two photographers can create the exact same vision, and sometimes different clients go to a photographer that is a better fit for their personality and style. Client – Photographer relationship is all about chemistry. We do capture emotion anyway.
Education: Lastly, before officially making your hobby a business, check off a few things off your list. Like I said, portrait photography doesn’t really require a degree. Educating yourself is pretty much free, specially when it comes to photography basics. Majority of the information can be googled. Photography 101 Basics.
– Understanding aperture, shutter speed, iso, metering modes.
– The variety of lenses available, and what they’re for.
– Basic bookkeeping.
– Light – how to look for it, and how to shoot in various conditions.
– Portfolio build, and if you are offering it to non-friends, explain why you are portfolio building.
– Understanding print release vs copyright release.
– Understanding legalities of things, such as your rights, client rights, and location privacy issues. (Note that sometimes some locations are private. Bonus tip: It’s best to build relationships and join groups in order to ask in regards to location rather than flat out asking it on a photo. Photographers sometimes are a bit sensitive on divulging info on this specially if it’s a private location.)
Lastly, build good relationships. Build relationships with those new to the business, and those that have been around for a while. I can’t even begin to explain how much I love chatting with people on my page, even just emails of random questions. I love building relationships. I remember what it was like to be newer to the community and having photographers as friends with more experience was so beneficial in growth. It’s nice to be around people that understand you.
Bonus: My facebook page is pretty close to 4,000 followers. Once I get to 4,000, I’ll give away a free 2 hour online mentoring session to a military spouse or service member looking to get into photography as a profession! That is a value of $250.00. So please get sharing and I hope this post helped! Once I get to 4,000, I will share how to enter the giveaway.
I agree with you that photography is not cheap and certainly not easy, like most people think it is. The actual shooting is the least amount of time we work on. The post processing sucks up so much time. I wish more people understood that if we do a one hour session (or a 6-8 hour wedding), that they are not just paying for our time to do the shooting, but they’re also paying for our time to do all of the hours of post processing that is required to make our images pop. Thanks for the post. We need to educate our clients and others that this is not an easy job work-wise or money wise.