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5 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started My Photography Business

April 7, 2022

There’s nothing like the rush of starting a new business. It almost feels like that “first day of school” energy — so much excitement, a little bit of nerves, and a whole bunch of unknowns in front of you. There will be hard days, sure, but something about growing your biz as you grow your […]

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I'm a photographer, educator and weekly podcaster. I left teaching in a First Grade classroom to build a thriving photography business, and inspire and teach other like-minded women how to build, scale, and create a photo business. I am so excited to meet you!

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There’s nothing like the rush of starting a new business. It almost feels like that “first day of school” energy — so much excitement, a little bit of nerves, and a whole bunch of unknowns in front of you. There will be hard days, sure, but something about growing your biz as you grow your passion is magic. 

I loved those early days, but I definitely wish I could have lunch with years-ago Jillian and tell her a few things that would’ve made my first years of business even better! Sadly, I haven’t worked out how to time travel quite yet, but I can do the next best thing — I can tell those things to you. Wanna hear what I wish I’d known when I started my photography career? You’re in the right place. Read on, sister. 

1. Take time to solidify your why. 

I can hear you now: Ummm, we’re all photographers because we love photography. And yes! That’s a great place to start. But digging a little deeper will pay off big time. There are all kinds of photographers out there, but what kind of art brings you to life? What’s your purpose and your passion behind the photos you snap? 

Discovering your why gives you clarity in your path, and it helps you create art that aligns with your goals from day one, instead of taking years to figure it out. Even better, when your business clearly represents your visions, passions, and interests, you’ll attract clients that align with those things, which means you’ll have a lot more fun at work. It’s also important to know your why when those hard days pop up. When your purpose is greater than the trial you’re facing, it’ll carry you through every difficult moment. 

Still trying to figure out your why or your purpose? Ask yourself these questions: 

  • What makes me come alive? 
  • What are my natural strengths?
  • Where do I add the greatest value? 
  • How will I measure success and fulfillment in my life? 

2. Don’t try to shoot everything. 

We all experiment with subjects and styles as we start our photography journeys, and that’s totally okay! It helps us to gain experience and figure out what we enjoy most. But, as soon as you can, niche down into your sweet spot and only book sessions that align with it. There’s room at the table for photographers who shoot weddings, senior photos, families, newborns, branding, and just about anything else you can think of — but you’ll rise to the top when you find the lane you were born to run in.

Trust me, I know how scary it feels to say no to work, especially in the early days! But when we narrow our vision, we actually expand our opportunities, because clients we’ve dreamed of know how to find us. On the flip side, when we try to appeal to everyone, we appeal to no one. Having a specialty is a megaphone to our audience that says, “Hey! Here’s what I’m really good at!”

Some reminders to keep in mind as you niche down into your specialty:

  • Only shoot the kind of sessions that inspire you and fuel your creativity. That’s how you’ll create your best work!
  • Only show what you want to shoot. It’s important to build a portfolio that attracts the right kind of clients.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. I promise, it’ll lead to better yeses down the road. 

3. Your clients trust you. 

Psssst — even if you’re just starting out, you’re the expert in the room. Act accordingly! Honestly, most of the time, clients don’t actually know what they want, they just can’t wait to see amazing photos. They trust you to deliver a beautiful end result! Your confidence will get a serious boost when you start walking into shoots knowing that you can offer beautiful work instead of wondering, “What does my client want this shoot to look like?”

Just think about it: you’d never go to the orthodontist and tell them your plan for fixing your teeth, or tell your contractor how to install the latest updates in your home. Photography is a service-based business, too, and it’s our job to set the expectation and show off the skills we were hired for. 

Here are a few tips that’ll help you act like the expert you are: 

  • Develop your style and brand. Now that you’ve identified your niche, it’s time to put it to work and create a portfolio you’re proud of.
  • Show your work. A cohesive portfolio and social media feed gives clients a great idea of what to expect from you before they even book.
  • Communicate your expectations clearly. Let your clients know what you’ll need from them, and let them know what they’ll be getting from you. 

4. Being busy is not the equivalent of being successful.  

Go ahead and engrain this one in your brain! The number of shoots on your calendar is not an indicator of how healthy or successful your business is. In fact, a calendar that’s overflowing might actually be a sign that you’re doing waaaay too much. Here’s the thing: you’ve got to decide how much your time and art are worth, and build a business structure from that foundation.  You could be shooting a dozen $200 sessions each week, making you overtired and keeping you from your best work, while someone else is making twice as much for each session and keeping things in balance. Cheap isn’t the way to go, in my opinion!

Want to set yourself up for success financially? Here’s what to do. 

  • If you’re turning clients away because you’re too booked, raise your prices. It’s as simple as that! 
  • Don’t forget to factor in time for editing, business expenses, and the cost of your expertise.
  • Crunch the numbers to find the right volume of sessions that will allow you to reach your business AND your work/life balance goals.

5. You’ll get to make incredible connections and lifelong friends. 

My younger self would have been totally thrilled to hear this! Sometimes, you’ll just connect with a client during a shoot, and end up building a friendship outside of your business that lasts a lifetime. It’s such a privilege for me to document families and tell their stories through my lens — and it’s even cooler to see them book me year after year! I don’t take that honor lightly. I know that these photos may be passed down for generations to come, and I love getting to know my clients so that our sessions are even more meaningful. 

Here’s why building relationships also builds your business:

  • Hello, repeat customers! Having longevity in your client relationships is great for your business, but it also makes your work so fun! It’s like catching up with old friends. 
  • When your client has a great experience with you, they’re going to spread the word. You get free marketing just by being a great hang and a great photographer. 
  • Your work gets so much more meaningful when you care about who you’re photographing. 

If I’d known these five things when I first started my biz, I would have saved myself a lot of worry and a few embarrassing moments — but I’m glad I went through it all so that I can share those parts of my journey with you. I hope you feel empowered to be the expert, hone your craft, and build client relationships like never before!

Ready to find more freedom and fulfillment with your photography biz?

My Art & Heart course teaches you how to succeed in business, build relationships that last, and find your signature style. Get on the waitlist — doors will open again before you know it!

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I’m Jillian Goulding, a photographer and educator raising babies and building my life in Sacramento, CA.

Over the years, I’ve transformed my side hustle into a thriving photography business that has taken me and my camera to the beaches of San Francisco Bay, the pages of People Magazine, and the screens of Extra TV.

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