Getting started is the hardest step in becoming a paid, professional photographer.
The second hardest?
Let me start your day with a stomach ache:
– You wrap a photo shoot, plug your card into your reader, and see…nothing. No files, no nothing.
– You’re sitting at home in your PJs and your phone rings at 6:15… “Hey – yeah, we’re here at the City Park; we were supposed to meet at six o’clock, right?”
– You go to delete an image in-camera and instead format the whole card.
– You are just starting out a shoot and your battery dies…with your backup sitting at home on your kitchen counter.
– You’re in the middle of processing a dozen youth soccer teams worth of individual and group photos, and your hard drive grinds to a halt.
– You hear the sickening thunk of your shutter breaking, mid-shoot, and your camera just says… “Error 99”
– You show proofs to a client and they sneer. “This isn’t what I wanted at all.”
Did your stomach flip too?
Mine did every time these professional nightmares became a reality for me. Indeed, I’ve seen and survived every one of these horrors, and countless more over the last 14 years.
These are the kinds of nauseating experiences we photographers fear the most. That fear can be paralyzing, especially in the start-up phase when you feel the most vulnerable.
So many photographers – perhaps you, too – have never even hung their shingle out to go pro because of these fears.
Many good photographers have pulled pulled their shingle and boarded up the windows because of these fears becoming reality.
It’s a damn shame. They had so much more to give. You have so much more to give.
One guarantee in life and business is that something, at some point, will go wrong.
But there’s an equal and opposite guarantee: you can and will survive, move on, and thrive, if you choose to.
You can rebound.
Every time LeBron, Kobe or Carmelo miss the game-winning shot, they hit the lockers, lick their wounds, and prepare to bring their A-game the very next day.
They study what went wrong. They practice and prepare for next time. They shift the odds as much as humanly possible to make sure what went wrong never goes wrong again.
When The Going Gets Tough…
Let’s be real about two things:
1) Human beings have survived wars, gunshots, dismemberment, torture, atrocities beyond understanding – any professional or personal embarrassment you could endure as a photographer doesn’t even rate on the scale of suffering others have experienced and from which still successfully moved on.
2) Every person’s experience is unique and their own – just because others have suffered far worse, that doesn’t invalidate the gut-wrenching you experience when you screw up.
I can’t help you skip the gut-wrenching part, but I can assure you that if you just keep moving forward, the stress will subside and be buried under a mountain of good experiences.
Most clients will be gracious.
Angry clients will move on.
I’ve made a lot of clients (and grognard photographers) mad over the years. People love to vent; they may even get a few hallelujahs from their friends, but the drama is wholly forgotten within days – if not hours.
If you keep moving forward, serving clients above and beyond the call, creating great experiences for them, the chorus of glowing testimonials will outshine any negative attention. Even four-and-a-half star products on Amazon have haters – do good work, and the bad is drowned out by praise.
…The Tough Get Going
The steps to Damage Control are:
- Accept – Don’t let your ego multiply the negative effects of a bad situation. Accept that you screwed up (or accept that’s what the client truly believes, if it’s debatable). Don’t make excuses. It is what it is.
- Apologize – Don’t duck your head inside your shell and pretend it never happened. Be the first to point out the mistake and how you should have handled the situation.
- Ask – Here’s a powerful tool, courtesy of advertising bad boy Donny Deutsch: “What can I do to make this right?” Empower your client to tell you exactly what they want to happen.
- Act – You now know what to do to remedy the situation, at least as best you’re able. Do it. Go above and beyond to please your client. Give them the same great experience you’d give any client. Often just doing what you say you’re going to do to fix the problem erases every negative feeling the client has.
Now here’s the hard part.
And here’s the tool you need to get through it:
Failure = Opportunity
Making a mess of things is a beautiful opportunity to provide a level of service far beyond your clients’ expectations.
Has a restaurant ever screwed up your order?
Did any of them handle the situation with such humility, grace, and generosity that you actually liked them more because of it?
Did you share in amazement that story with friends, family, coworkers, even strangers?
Failure is a stepping stone on the path to success.
Unless you live a charmed life, you will stumble and fall – with regularity – along your road to becoming a successful part time professional photographer.
As soon as you can accept that Failure = Opportunity, you will remove a boulder’s weight off your chest.
Failure is an inevitable and valuable learning experience, and failure will happen with or without your fear and worry. Shift that energy toward practice and preparation.
Starting a business is terrifying, especially for us artists, ever prone to sensitivity. Then we step forward as professionals and ask to be compensated? The internal dialog is murderous:
“Charlatan! Deceiver! You’re not worth it! You don’t know what you’re doing! People will mock you! You will disappoint every last client! You will fail in the most public, embarrassing ways possible!”
The demons of fear are particularly harsh – and convincing.
Add the boiling embarrassment of an actual face-plant into failure, and you may as well call the gravedigger.
That’s the feeling we artists often default to. That’s how we think failure is supposed to feel. That’s what our parents taught us. That’s what school taught us.
Let’s create a paradigm shift, right here, right now:
Failure can feel good.
Because failure is good.
Failure is learning.
Failure is progress.
Failure means you’re trying.
Failure means you’re taking risks.
Failure means you’re doing work.
Failure means you’re lapping everyone still sitting in front of their computer wondering what life would be like if they weren’t scared.
Failure = Opportunity.
Internalize that truth – the truth that failure is not a death, but a rebirth – and you will approach professional photography with a rare and powerful confidence.
That confidence enables success – it enables you to focus your energy on bettering your art and business instead of fruitless stress and worry.
Learn to Rebound – with confidence going into every shoot that you will learn and grow from it, come what may – and you’ll holster one of the most powerful professional tools you can wield as a photographer.
- Write down this piece of sage advice from Bob Parson’s dad: “They can’t eat you.” Stick that where you can always see it.
- (April 29, 2013, update: Thank you to my wise readers – after enough good advice that this recommended Next Step is just too foolish to responsibly suggest as an actual method to beat your fears, I’ve struck it from this list. I leave it here for posterity. Thank you to readers Hiep, Amy and Jason specifically for providing a professional compass directing readers away from this advice. Jason speaks truth: Murphy’s Law will ensure that every aspiring professional photographer has the opportunity to fail, learn, and grow from their experience.) ***
Want a trial by fire? Book a photo shoot. Do the photo shoot. Then go home, and delete the photo shoot (I’ll give you a moment to absorb that one). Call (don’t e-mail) your client and tell them your card had a malfunction, and you’re so sorry, but the photos were lost. Apologize. Ask them how you can make it right (most likely a free second shoot, a free CD of processed photos, and a promise to back-up everything directly after the shoot). Act on it. Your client may tell you to kiss off. They may say no problem, let’s try again. No matter what, you will learn first-hand that failure is temporary, often preventable, and wholly survivable. This is extreme, but if purposely screwing up a photo shoot is what it takes to get you past the fear that’s paralyzing you, then do it. This is madness? This is Sparta! (February 2013 update: Let me add a few words of clarity: My friend and fellow photographer Hiep challenged me on this idea, and deservedly so. Let me be very clear: this trial by fire isn’t for everyone. Almost every photographer I visit with is stuck on a specific fear, and the fear of completely bombing a photo shoot is one of them. This is some high-powered medicine: only take it seriously if you are truly stuck on the fear and worry that screwing up a photo shoot will be the end of your career. Take my word for it if you can, that you’re going to fail often, and every failure is a blessing that takes you one big step closer to success. But if you’re paralyzed by this specific fear, then truly, face that fear head on. You’ll find it’s like pulling off a bandaid – temporarily sharply painful, but once you deal with the problem professionally and with grace, you will immediately realize it is what every failure is: a learning experience. Hiep wisely advises moderation: “Purposefully screwing something up to ‘test’ out different ways to deal with it is just wrong. Not only are you wasting your time, you’re wasting your client’s time. I would rather wait until something happens beyond your control, and deal with it then. There’s no reason to intentionally mess something up, then go and lie to your clients and see how they’d react.”
- Put yourself in the middle of other situations of failure, even if just mentally. Role play with a family member or close friend. It sounds cornball, but it makes a difference – it helps your brain build the neural pathways that bridge the gap between what could go wrong, and how you’ll react if it does. The best sales trainers in the world role play, role play, role play, with their proteges before they call on their first client. Give yourself the benefit of that same preparation.
- Brainstorm session: Get out your paper and pencil, and make a list of ways you could screw up a photo shoot, from forgetting the shoot completely to accidentally formatting your memory card. Get it all out of your system, every last spoken and unspoken fear. Now make a list of ways you’ll deal with each of these failures if they occur. And last, make a list of ways you can prevent these failures from occurring. This act alone should purge you of the majority of the fear that’s holding you back. File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
- My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
- If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!