The Business of Art: Three Business Tips for Being a Better Photographer

A few weeks ago a friend told me I have nothing to worry about re: my business’s future because of the quality of my work. While that’s so wonderful to hear, especially since I delivered his engagement photos earlier that week, it got me to thinking. The harsh reality of being a full-time artist is that it’s not the art that trips most of us up; it’s the business.

Most artists become professionals because they want to be a great artist, not a great business person. You learn pretty quickly that you can be the most incredible artist in the world, but unless you have your shit together for all of the un-sexy administration and un-fun business side of things, you will not succeed.

Luckily, I love thinking about business bs. Blame it on the fact that my parents were both executives in corporate America, or maybe it’s my Ravenclaw nature, but I read articles about SEO in my spare time and try out new office management systems with Christmas morning excitement. I also spend a lot of time thinking about what’s working, what I love about it, and what was a mistake.

Sharing this kind of business nerdery makes my heart happy. No seriously, I went out for breakfast and spent at least an hour with Naomi of Urban Row Photography just talking about our business systems, and it was delightful (the delicious Artifact drinks didn’t hurt either). Since I love having these conversations so much, I wanted to share three thoughts about how I make artist life and business work for me.

Three Business Tips for Being a Better Photographer

BTW, I’m not sponsored for any of this, I just like talking about the things that I’ve learned and sharing what’s made my life easier. If you have any thoughts, other things to try, comments, whatever—I’d love to hear them!

  1. Systems, Systems, Systems: Why I Love Táve

    Like a lot of photographers I know, I didn’t pick up a camera and start taking photos with the intention of building a business. Hell, the reason I picked up a camera in the first place was because the photography teacher at my college was cute and I needed another class senior year. But because I started with the art and not the business, my systems for running a business were pretty much thrown together out of immediate necessity instead of well thought out plans. I had a pretty slap-dash set of spreadsheets, then I used 17hats for a while and poked around at a few other options like HoneyBook. Now though? Now it’s to have and to hold with Táve.

    Why Táve? Because it is All. The. Things. No really, there’s so much to this system. I’ve been with Táve for two years and still feel like I have so much more to learn about how it can help me. But that’s the great thing, it’s a program I can grow into. This is overwhelming to start with, but having all the data in one place means when your business is ready for something bigger down the road, you can just start using more of the features as opposed to having to migrate data and learn an entirely new interface.
    But what does Táve actually do for me? It’s like an office manager and secretary all in one. Contracts. Invoices. Emails. Task lists. Reports. From inquiry to end-of-year business charts, Táve helps me organize + stay on top of all my work, then see what was successful and what wasn’t after the fact.

  2. Stay the Course: Pick What Works and Stick With It

    There is always something new and shiny. Then something newer and shinier. Then the newest, shiniest, hottest, most useful thing ever that will bring you all the fame and fortune and glory you could ever want. (Spoiler alert: there is no single program, workshop, piece of gear, or system that will bring you all the fame and fortune and glory you could ever want). I’ve felt this need for the best new thing the most in choosing my client gallery delivery program.
    As I mentioned at the start of this, I’m a nerd. I like features and systems and new options and experimenting with all of them. For getting photos to clients, I’ve used burned CD, USB drive, SmugMug, Zenfolio, Shootproof, Pixieset, and Pic-Time. In all of this experimenting, going through so many different options, the take-away for me has been to just pick one and stay with it. There are pros and cons to everything, and each of these options fits someone just right while being totally wrong for someone else. I used to think SmugMug was only for amateurs, then met folks making $10k a wedding were using it. I know folks who swear by Shootproof, but its interface just leaves me feeling lost. Currently I’m on Pic-Time, which has things I love and hate almost in equal amounts. After a lot of swapping around and going back and forth in the last two years though, I’ve realized that in the end they will all do what I need them to do—get my images to my clients and allow them to buy prints through the gallery if they want to. For me, having one consistent collection of my online galleries is way more worthwhile than switching to a new system that maybe has a different gallery layout or maybe incentivizes print sales more.
    TL;DR: I don’t care what you pick, just pick it then put on blinders and stay with it unless you’re actively facing a problem you need to fix.

  3. GTFO: Stop Working 24/7. No Really.

    I started this blog post by saying the reason so many artists fail at business is that they don’t do the work, but life is an endless mix of contradictions and I firmly believe that putting business to the side for a minute can be the best way to move it forward in the end. I have worked 60+ hour weeks, shooting and editing and being chained to my desk until I plopped on the couch for a 10pm dinner before rolling into bed. You know what’s not great for creativity? Burnout. You know what’s not great for business? Utter lack of creativity and drive. You know what makes people quit after three years in business? Being a burnt out husk of a person who hasn’t seen their friends or eight hours of sleep in the last three years and doesn’t even get artistic fulfillment from their work anymore because all creativity is gone.

    When so much is wrapped up in your business (heart & soul, blood-sweat-tears, all of that) it can be really hard to step away from it, even for a minute. If it takes 9 hours to answer an email instead of 9 minutes, you could lose that job! If you go out without your phone on the only Saturday you have free for 2 months, what happens when a major blog asks about using your image in a feature on their Instagram feed and you aren’t there to say yes immediately? (In case you’re wondering, the blog uses someone else’s image and you’re bummed you missed out but you get over it and still have a career even without that social media boost).

    Entrepreneurs are praised for the grind, the hustle, the 24/7 work week. We live or die by the new email alert on our phones, even when it goes off at 3am. I’m sure this is a sustainable way of living for some people, but it isn’t for me. If I’m going to give up that much of my life to a job, even a job I love and get so much fulfillment from, I also want health care and sick days and to stop paying self employment tax.

    So, I let myself take breaks. Ideally I’d give myself one whole day off a week, but right now I have three weddings and a portrait session waiting to be edited and a whole slew of administrative tasks to accomplish, so instead I do things like stop working at 8pm, take a bath before bed, and start the morning with a walk through the trees to the dock near my house. I lose 4-5 hours a day of potential work time this way, but gain 4-5 hours a day of reset and unwind and recharge time. That’s a pretty fair trade-off to me.

    Speaking of, it’s time to get off this computer and go outside. I’d love to hear if any of this is helpful to you, if you think it’s total garbage, or what kind of ice cream you’re going to have when you take yourself out for a break from work :) Comments are on, or feel free to email me hello@devonrowland.com