Going Pro: A Year Later
by Eric Leslie
On January 11, 2012 I set a bold goal of transitioning into a professional photographer by June. I would be walking away from my web development career into the world of self-employment. Today, it's a year later and I was supposed to cut the cord from my 9-5 six months ago. Did I accomplish my goal? In part I have, but I am still sitting at a desk working for someone else.
So what did I actually accomplish?
On the practical side of things, I have built a solid foundation for a portrait photography business. One of the first things I had to do was build up my portfolio. In the beginning, I shot for free and for everyone that was willing. In hindsight I needed much more than a portfolio, I needed some experience. Shooting something like a wedding is a high-pressure and fast-paced environment. Learning how to operate my camera, setup lighting, pose people and do it all with a smile takes time and you can't learn all of that reading a blog.
Finding people who want their pictures taken for free is easy. The trick is securing those life-sustaining paying clients which is a complicated problem when you're bootstrapping your business. I couldn't just throw a bunch of money at the problem. At first my only serious plan for finding clients was through word of mouth on Facebook. I would share tagged pictures of all my portraits so everyone's friends and family would see the shots. Many photographers generate their leads this way, but they are much more connected with their local communities than I am. I'm still practicing this, but it has yet to lead to a single shoot for me. It's just going to take more time for me.
I didn't want to wait forever to start generate leads through word of mouth. So I branched out into advertising through Google Adsense. I was able to target very specific keywords and people searching between Redding and Chico. This generated traffic on my website, but my phone never rang. Why? I believe it was related to my pricing in relation to my non-existent reputation. You can read advice on blogs everywhere exhorting photographers to charge what their worth. The bloggers are speaking to the epidemic where photography is slowly getting devalued. Many photography consumers including some businesses have this expectation that photography should be very cheap or free. While I completely agree this is a problem and that photographers should charge what they're worth, I just don't think you can charge whatever you want right out of the gate. Even if your photography is as good as those that do charge premium prices, you may not be worth that much yet.
Yes, your work has to be world-class, but your reputation and brand-awareness are almost more important that the quality of your images. It's supply and demand. If no one knows who you are, there is no demand for your services. When the demand grows to a level causing you to work too much, you can charge more. All of that to say I was charging too much. I clearly list my prices on my website, so I never got called.
Concurrently, when I changed my pricing I also worked on my website's portrait pages. There were two big problems with my website. The pages that explained my portraiture were somewhat hard to find and they didn't do a good job explaining what I do. I wanted them to have a clear message and I wanted them to be beautiful. So I cleaned the text up significantly and I dotted them with big copies of my best portraits. What these pages need to do is completely win over the reader. By the time they get to the bottom where they see the pricing, they will have already decided to hire me. At this point, the price is easier to talk about.
Those changes were important, but they weren't doing me any good if no one was looking at them outside of the expensive Adsense clicks I was paying for. Up until this point, I hadn't paid any attention to my rankings in the search engine result pages. For simple local queries like "Red Bluff Photographer", I wasn't landing on page one. It was time for some search engine optimization (SEO). Focusing on ranking for local searches, like my example above, I managed to move up the second spot behind the established studio in town pretty quickly. About four months ago, I earned the coveted #1 result for most of the local keywords I'm targeting. Stay tuned for another post going into more detail about SEO for portrait photographers.
To answer the original question asking what I actually accomplished, I earned bookings. In fact my summer calendar is filling up with weddings fast. Factoid: I didn't know a single one of the clients I booked personally and they were not referred. What this means is my business is growing without relying on word of mouth and all the work I put into SEO and perfecting my pages is working. My clients are doing a Google search, see my listing ranked #1, click on it, discover my packages, like my work and thought my pricing was merited. Shizaam! When word of mouth starts to take into effect, I'll be getting leads from two sources instead of just one. Two sources for leads will level out the flow of leads keeping work in front of me and food on the table.
I cannot emphasize enough how important having a great website is. There is so much more than registering a domain name, setting up Wordpress or Smugmug template and putting some pretty pictures on the internet. I don't know about you, but I have this tendency to want to get everything perfect from the outset. This leads me to get less done because I want everything to be just right. Please don't be afraid to make mistakes. Do your best, learn what works and make changes. This process of iteration never ends. You may be thinking I wasn't very specific about what I did to those pages to make them better and you're right. Everyone is looking for the recipe for a successful website when there isn't one. Everyone is different and their website will have to meet their unique needs. Keep learning and keep experimenting.
Stay tuned for my next post where I talk about the new goals I've created after learning a few things that worked and many others that haven't.