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The Truth About Starting a Photography Business From Scratch: Why Waiting to Organically Turn Professional Won’t Work

Having photography as your full-time job is desirable for many. But what’s it really like to start one from scratch?Over the years, I’ve read and heard a lot of stories on how photographers ended up working in this industry full-time. One discussion I couldn’t find before I made the leap and I can’t recall ever seeing it since either is about starting a photography business from scratch. What do I mean by scratch? Well, that is, starting a business without a foothold already: without contacts, substantial start-up capital, jobs, or contracts ready and waiting, and so on. Most people don’t just organically fall into the career — though there are of course cases in which that does happen — and instead have to start from, for all intents and purposes, zero.Waiting to Organically Turn Professional Will Be a Long WaitI started photography in my late teens while working a full-time job in sales for a franking machine company (I don’t want to know how many people have to Google what that is)! A colleague shot the occasional wedding as what would be known as a “weekend warrior,” I suppose. I’d always had an interest, so he helped me buy a DLSR and a lens. I fell in love but didn’t for a moment consider that it could be a career for me. I honestly don’t remember why, but I suspect it had something to do with the average wage if you searched for those metrics. Dissatisfied with life, however, I resigned from my job and went to university to study… nothing to do with photography.During this time in higher education, I honed my photography, realized the areas I was (and am) passionate about, and practiced every chance I got. I started my own blog, which in a roundabout way lead me here, and I started doing occasional paid work. The work was infrequent, earned me next to nothing per year, but it was enjoyable and gratifying. I spent the whole time I was at university (which ended up being five and a half years) telling anyone who asked or suggested I ought to pursue photography as a career that I wanted to keep it as a hobby so I didn’t start hating it. I was lying to them and myself; the truth was I didn’t know where to start or how to start. I had said if it were to happen organically, I would be thrilled, and I hoped it did.The problem with the term “organically” is it’s far too passive. Building a business — particularly one in a competitive field — doesn’t just happen to people, or if it does, it’s lottery level odds. By waiting for it to happen organically, I wasn’t advertising, I wasn’t canvassing, I wasn’t actively networking, I wasn’t trying to find work; I was just working on projects that fell into my lap. There are a precious few businesses, let alone new businesses, that can survive with such a mindset, and certainly, they don’t thrive.By the end of my Master’s degree, I realized the period in which I could organically go pro had closed. I started interviewing for post-graduate jobs, and I got one. Any regular readers of mine might remember this story and that it was at this point I had a meltdown and eventually understood that the only thing I wanted to do, even if it paid much less, was work in photography. It was time to defecate or get off the latrine, and I guess I chose to defecate. From Zero to OneI’ve borrowed the title of Peter Thiel’s excellent book, though my meaning is different. When I decided I was going all-in with photography and build a business for myself, I soon came to the conclusion that I was at zero. I had a handful of contacts from little jobs I’d worked — nothing that could be called a platform to build off of really — and no money. Actually, that’s not entirely truthful, I was deep in my overdraft and with credit card debt and student loans up to my eyeballs, so no money really is a positive spin on my situation back then. So, what was it like? Rough.When you start a business, it’s hard to fully gauge how much hustle you need to even get the wheels turning. I was contacting companies and people left and right, all day, every day, looking for any work I could grab. I was asking friends and family if they know of anyone who might use a photographer, though I didn’t even know what “type” of photographer I was. As a result, in one week, I took a guy’s headshot for LinkedIn and then photographed an industrial drill bit being welded for some wall art of a local company. I was working longer and harder than I had ever in my life by far and making a scratch in return.
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