Why 85% of Photographers Fail & How You Can Succeed!

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Well hello there new aspiring photographer! So you want to make money with your photography? That’s great…as long as you’re prepared for the bumps, peaks and valleys along the way.  In fact, did you know that 85% of photographers fail?

According to Dane Sanders in his book Fast Track Photographer: In the 1st year, 60% of photographers give up their business. Of that remaining 40%, another 25% will fail within the 2nd year. The ones that make it are the remaining 15% who endure through the 3rd year.

The goal for us today is to give you all the info you need to be in that 15% success bucket and not in the 85% that sadly don’t last.

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Of all of the questions that I see each and every day on our active Facebook page, groups and emails the one that I see cause the most frustration, pain and confusion is “what am I doing wrong? nobody is booking me!” But just so we’re clear…just because you have a camera and posted some photos on Facebook doesn’t mean people will be lined up at your door to hire you.

Ahhh yes, another day, another frustrated photographer in awe why their calendar isn’t filled up with client bookings.

Now, in all seriousness though, despite my sarcastic tone above I am totally on your side…I really am.

I was in your shoes at one point. And I know what worked and what didn’t work. I’ve also managed to create a pretty darn large photography blog from ground zero with no initial fans and no budget.

So what’s the trick? What’s the magic secret?

Keep reading because this tutorial is for you. Warning, if you simply read all of this and just let it roll off your shoulders without it sinking in – good luck to you, but be prepared for more frustrations.

However, if you are serious about making big strides in your photography and dream of earning an income to help support your family…bookmark this post because you likely won’t find this info anywhere else.

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I never grew up with a camera in my hand. I never even went to school for photography.

You see, I was a finance graduate and unbeknownst to me at the time, a young entrepreneur in the making.  My co-workers and I would day dream during lunch and chat about business ideas…you know, so we could one day NOT work behind a computer and desk all day in our offices and cubicles.  It was 2008 in the middle of the “great recession” and soon after I purchased my first home here in San Diego, CA.  I was eager to find a good side business to help offset my expensive cost of living (thanks to San Diego real estate prices) and help provide for my girlfriend and myself.

Wedding Photography. Boom!

The perfect side business.  I worked during the week…weddings are on the weekend & the pay was great – even for new photographers like me.  Seemed like the perfect idea.

There was really only one problem…there’s A LOT of other wedding photographers here in San Diego…well…and this other problem, I didn’t even own a camera… So here I was, in la la land with my wild idea. As I told more and more others, the reactions were all pretty much the same…

“But Cole, you don’t even have a camera…”
“Yep, I know, but dude, internet! I can learn…”

…and off I went and purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D40 with an 18-55 zoom kit lens and 55-200 with 1 SB-600 speedlight.

A few days later I got to work and started immersing myself into the books I bought to learn the fundamentals of photography. I practiced and practiced and got better and better. I took my camera everywhere. Then I started taking photos for free of my friends to get more experience and build a portfolio.

A few months later I was ready to assist others on a wedding – and that’s where I hit some major issues. Nobody would reply back to my emails…at all. I was striking out pretty bad but luckily managed to get 3 gigs as a 3rd shooter before the assisting gigs dried up… It was time to try and book my own clients…

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The Craigslist Hustle

I really didn’t have many places to turn nor many options available for me to try and start booking weddings but I did have a website and physical portfolio with my work…I just needed people to see it.  So I turned to Craigslist – I already knew there were people searching there because I had seen all their posts.

I’ll never forget that first inquiry I got, I was so excited!  I was sitting at my desk at my “real job” when I got the email…and they wanted to meet with me. We met at Yogurtland for some frozen yogurt and what do ya know, even though I was SOOO nervous, they booked with me on the spot!

My first wedding booking for $500 on a small 4 hour package.  I continued the Craigslist hustle for the next 9 months or so and as time went on I began to get more and more word of mouth from my existing clients and naturally phased out of the Craiglist circuit.

We had 28 weddings booked for our first full year in 2010. The goal was lots of clients for experience, word of mouth marketing and to polish and continually improve our portfolio.

Now let me fast forward the rest of the story for you…

From the very start we’d let natural economics and supply and demand dictate our prices – since we did have a limit to the number of weddings we wanted to do each year as we were still doing this alongside our full time day jobs.  That said, every 5 bookings or so we’d incrementally raise our packages higher and higher.  Which made sense not only from an economic standpoint but from a quality of work standpoint.

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Our average per wedding bookings were pretty close to this as we averaged right around our goal of 20 weddings per year:
2010 – $1000
2011 – $1500
2012 – $2000
2013 – $2500
2014 – $3000
2015 – $4000
2016 – $4800

As you can tell from the numbers above – first and foremost we invested the time and worked our way up the ranks from year to year.  Patience is important!  Also, truthfully, even as a newer photographer the side money was good, it was really good to be honest – as long as you have a good handle on your labor cost and make sure your editing time doesn’t kill all your profits.

Over these past years I’ve learned a lot in the field with our own successful business and I’ve coached a lot of aspiring photographers as well.  In fact, there is nothing I enjoy more than watching the photographers inside Cole’s Clique grow and pierce through their initial struggles to start producing really amazing photos!

If you’re serious about earning money with your photography you’ll really need to pay attention to these “12 commandments” below.  It’s the real deal without the lame “sugar-coating” so pay attention.

My 12 Commandments for Earning Money with Your Photography

1. Product – Your actual “product” (that’s your photography & client experience) is the most important element that needs to get 100% of your focus and attention when first starting out. You can have the best marketing out there but if your product sucks, you’re screwed and certainly will never thrive.
Key takeaway – push yourself hard to always be taking better photos and never stop learning.  Especially focus on areas of weakness & conquer it!

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2. Word of Mouth is #1 – You really need word of mouth marketing but that’s hard when you are just starting out. The key? You have to focus on volume of bookings, even if low prices or even a few free shoots. These initial sessions aren’t to make you money but to jump-start your business and get you some momentum. You must go above and beyond for these and really “wow” your clients so they will gladly tell their friends and leave you a good review.
Key takeaway – its up to you to create the buzz & get people talking, go after it!

3. Tell EVERYONE You Know – Are you super shy and introverted? Too bad. Time to get over that. The FIRST thing you need to do (aside from taking amazing photos) is to tell literally EVERYONE you know that you’re a photographer and you’d love for them to check out your work and keep you in mind anytime they hear of someone looking for a photographer. Believe it or not, your family and friends WANT to help you out, this is the easiest way to get their help but it starts with you and you have to tell them. How should you tell em? Direct emails, text, messages on FB. Just don’t do a totally blanket email that isn’t personalized at all… it’s worth your time so do it right!
Key takeaway – don’t allow your shyness get in the way of you growing your business. 

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4. Beat the Competition – When I first set out on my journey I knew there were already a ton of amazing wedding photographers, so if I wanted to break into the market, I needed to outperform a majority of the competition. Sorry, but it is what it is and its the darn truth. Today it’s even MORE competitive and literally EVERYONE is a photographer…so how are you going to standout? It’s not going to be easy but if you’re prepared to hustle and outwork most of your competitors you’ll start getting bookings.
Key takeaway – there’s too many other photographers in your market all competing for the same clients, you must always put your very best effort forward to get the bookings early on.

5. The Market Dictates Pricing – Given the crazy low barrier to entry in this industry with mega competition, your pricing really needs to be in line with your market. And then once you set your prices you need to listen to the market to then make adjustments. If you’re booking everyone who emails you, you’re too cheap (even though when starting out, high volume is great). But if you’re getting emails and inquires but not booking any of them, the market is telling you you’re charging too much relative to your quality of work. The truth hurts, but you have to be able to put aside your emotions & adapt to build a successful business.
Key takeaway – if something isn’t working, fix it!  It doesn’t matter what you think you’re worth, it matters what someone is willing to pay for your services so pay attention to the market.

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6. Posting on Facebook & Instagram isn’t “Marketing” – That’s great you have a Facebook and Instagram page with 100, or even 500 people following your page but unfortunately for you, only about 3% of the people on your page will ever see your posts in their newsfeed unless you pay for advertising. That said, if you are surprised that nobody is booking you despite you posting on Facebook with photos from recent sessions – don’t be. You should be focusing on word of mouth and anything to get your work in front of the right audience, even if that is through Craigslist as I did early on.
Key takeaway – if your “marketing” plan is only posting on social media, think again because that won’t cut it these days.  Effective marketing is getting the right message in front of the right audience, figure out where your “right audience” is and go after em!

7. There is no substitute for “hustle” – If you want to own a business where clients just walk on in, then don’t be a photographer. It just doesn’t work that way. Hustle, motivation and an unwillingness to give up is what will always separate those that find success and those that do not. The choice is yours. No one can really teach hustle – so ask yourself how bad you want this. I can promise you, if you really want it, you WILL find success.
Key takeaway – Are you really prepared to put in the work?  Most aren’t…so if you are, you’re already one step ahead!

8. Be unique – as cliche as this is, it’s true. If you want to stand out from the crowd you have to be different. You could have a unique photo style or maybe it’s your customer service that is what sets you apart. One thing that we did to be different and stand out was from day 1 we always had a sneak peek for our clients on Facebook the very next day from the wedding. Excitement was always high and they’d share the post with their friends too which wasn’t just good “wow” factor for our clients but helped with word of mouth marketing too. Later on we started making custom wine boxes with their photo printed inside with a nice bottle of wine sent to them – talk about creating raving fans! So once again – be different!
Key takeaway – being unique & memorable isn’t only related to your photography style.  Brainstorm some ideas on how you can be different while adding “wow factor” to your client experience.

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9. Befriend the Competition – Earlier I talked about “beating the competition” and I am sure many of you feel that’s so cut-throat…we’ll let me remind you that no matter how you try to sugar coat it, every time someone is considering booking you, it IS a competition and if you actually want to make money with your photography, your goal is to win. However, some of my very best friends are my actual competitors here in San Diego…and you should always not be afraid to befriend your competition.  In fact, we even discuss business with each other and help each other grow stronger together. There’s a good chance you’ll make a new great friend but also, then you can team up and trade each other inquires when one of you is already booked or potentially at a different price point. Once again…strategic word of mouth marketing!
Key takeaway – teaming up with other photographers is great for support & accountability and also sharing leads & clients!

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10. ALWAYS put your best foot forward – Don’t settle for being good, you really need to always focus on being amazing. Treat everything as if you’re going in for job interview…be prepared and be AWESOME. First impressions are everything.
Key takeaway – don’t “launch” yourself into the world until you are ready.  First impressions matter, especially when telling everyone in your circle about your new venture.

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11. Website Matters – This is your first impression…if you want to book more clients than you need to look amazing right away with a professionally designed website. Remember, always put your best foot forward. Your website is an essential asset to your business. The good news? Websites are so cheap and easy these days so there’s no excuses! My website shown below I built myself with the help of a wordpress theme and spent in total about $200.
Key takeaway – websites are expected in today’s online world, a social media page isn’t enough.  Your website is your first impression, make it count.

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12. Work Smarter Not Harder – There is no escaping the fact that you’ll need to hustle and put some time in. I fondly remember the days of waking up at 5am to get 1 hour of photo editing in before going to the gym and then work at my day job…only to return home, eat dinner and then go and do more work editing photos and answering client emails. You’ll eventually have client tasks that’ll try to zap your time. And early on you’ll have the big task of learning how to constantly take better photos. My recommendation – do not be afraid to invest in education and/or tools that’ll make your life easier and improve your photography faster. Always remember, nothing is free – you’ll either pay with your time or your money.
Key takeaway – running a business takes a lot of time and is often very stressful.  Focus on creating processes and systems to make your life easier so you can eliminate extra stress and overwhelm.

My Recommendation to You.

This post isn’t meant to be a doomsday “negative-Nancy” type post, but you know me…I keep it real. I tell it how it is. And I see so many photographers (newer and older) who really don’t understand how difficult this business is to break into.

My sincere hope is that you don’t let this discourage you but it lights a fire under your butt to go out there and be prepared to give 120%. Trust me when I say, there is nothing better than being able to earn an honest income from doing something that you love.

So I hope you go after it will full gusto and put these 12 “commandments” into action. If you do, I have zero doubt that you’ll be significantly better off than 85% of the other photographers in your local area.

If you aren’t ready to give 120% that’s totally fine too, there is nothing wrong with having your photography solely be a hobby and non-income activity, keep it fun!

Resources for You.

If you’re serious about improving your photography then you belong in Cole’s Clique where we have 12 different courses you can take, webinars with industry pros and a supportive peer group with numerous mentors & myself helping you each and every day. Join today for only $1. Click here to learn more & see what courses are already available for you.

If you need to improve your photo editing speed my Lightroom presets & import to export workflow can help. Together it’s what I utilized to cut my wedding editing time from 24 hours for EACH wedding to only 4 hours which allowed me to create raving fans & accelerate word of mouth and also have more time to take on new clients or spend time with my wife. Click here to see my presets & training.

If you need to create a website and have no clue where to go or how to do it, click here for my free tutorial showing you how to get started in literally 5 minutes. It’s not as difficult as you’d think.

If you need to look professional (which you all do!) to put your best foot forward and make a good first impression but don’t have the budget to hire a graphic designer you really need our Photography Marketing Makeover Kits which give you multiple styles to choose from and can transform your appearance over night. Click here to learn more.

Closing Thoughts.

I am tired of seeing you frustrated and ready to quit.

I want to help you.  I know how hard it can be.  In fact, I almost quit on Cole’s Classroom 3 times in the first 6 months… starting a business is lonely at times.  But if you keep pushing it usually gets better.  Often, it gets a lot better.

I sincerely hope that this article didn’t only motivate you but more importantly gave you insight that you need to make your photography business a success story and let you earn an income with your passion.

If so, then I did my job.  Thank you for reading.