Today I'm delighted to introduce Amber of Liberty Pearl Photography, an award-winning wedding photographer based in the south of England who documents joy, love and happiness in Devon, Cornwall and beyond.
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I started my photography business in 2013. That’s only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime, especially when I look back on all that’s happened. When I think about all the mistakes I’ve made along the way, well, it feels more like two lifetimes!
But mistakes are just wonderful little learning opportunities in disguise. And while I have had my fair share of big mistakes, I’ve been able to learn and improve as a result.
So I thought I might share with you ten things I wish I knew three years ago when I started my business. There was some valuable time, energy and money that could have been put to better use if I’d just had a little more direction and wisdom. While I would not have changed my decision to start my business – I love what I do!
Here are a few pearls of hard-won wisdom you might find useful and helpful no matter where you are on your journey as a photographer and small business owner. Hopefully by sharing them with you, you’ll be able to avoid these mistakes, and have a smoother and shorter route to success!
1. Be Organised
I have been running my business for three years now and I have come to learn that good organisation is absolutely critical. It’s not only the matter of being neat and tidy and having everything filed correctly, it really comes down to saving yourself lots of time, money and a few headaches along the way. When my business started out I only had 1 or 2 enquiries a week and 1 wedding or photo shoot per month, now with up to ten enquiries per week, 30 emails per day, and up to 100 weddings and photo shoots per year it’s very hard to remember everything. I now have processes and work flows in place for every element of my business and it has changed my life.
Here are a few examples or where I made mistakes….
Invoices: I never used to have a reference number on my invoices or a clear system of recording when payments were made. So when it came to my end of year financial report, I didn’t know who had paid or how they had paid. When I finally got up to date with everything (which took me weeks) I realised 2 clients hadn’t paid their remaining balance before their wedding and one of them was 10 months before! Fortunately they were lovely people and when I explained situation and apologised for not sending them the reminder email before their wedding date they promptly paid.
Calendars: I only used to add my wedding bookings into my online calendar and one day there was a glitch and it didn’t show a wedding booking, so I almost made a double booking. Now I have an online calendar and a wall calendar where I write all my paid wedding bookings onto straight away. I now always check back through emails for the date when answering an enquiry as well as the calendars just to be sure I don’t double book!
Image libraries: I wish I had set up a good system for my image galleries and catalogues when I started as a photographer. Now when I am looking for something from a few years ago it takes me hours to find. Now I have everything organised into months and years and it makes everything much easier. I now have less stress and more time and energy to focus on my photography, making it better and more creative.
So my advice is get organised now and save yourself time, stress and money in the future.
2. How to attract your ideal client - know your ‘why’, be authentic and show your true self
I wish I had been more confident in my own style when I started out as a photographer. I knew why I loved photographing weddings but I felt like I couldn’t be different and had to be like all the other successful photographers before me. My website didn’t mention what I was passionate about and certainly didn’t mention why I was different from other photographers.
How do you figure out why you do what you do? I had to take some time and really reflect on my own personal style and my own personality. I had to keep asking myself why I do what I do. I started by writing down my ideal wedding, if money was no object what would be my dream wedding. This really made me put myself in my brides’ shoes; it showed me the most important elements of a wedding and what I value the most. Then I realised that the most amazing weddings I had photographed were just like the wedding I had described. I then added my favourite wedding images to my website from weddings that I absolutely loved being a part of and really felt moat comfortable attending. I then included a description of these weddings, which started to attract more of these wonderful couples. It was like magic!!!
3. Get the photo right when you take it rather than having the mindset - I can edit/crop that later in Lightroom / Photoshop
There are no shortcuts on the road to success. You have to do the work and put in the time. That being said, there are ways to make it easier; if you keep your photography editing process simple and get it right in camera, it will save you more time and money than any action set will. Focus on learning to see the light, shape the light, create the light and capture the light. When I started out as a photographer I was quick to take photos that were not straight, had incorrect exposure, cluttered backgrounds, and bad composition with the thinking I could ‘edit that later’ when I got home after the photo shoot. But little did I know it would add hours onto my editing time. I should have been developing my technical ability based on my photography skills and what I captured in camera, not in postproduction techniques. When I finally figured this out, it saved me a lot of time with postproduction.
4. People Skills Are Very Important Skills
Photography is a people business. Even if you’re a product photographer, your clients are people. And the better you can work with, and take care of, the people you do business with, the more success you’ll see.
Here are a few tips that will help you gain more friends and be more successful in your photography business:
How To Improve Your Connection With Your Clients
Smile: I smile constantly all day. Everyone says I am just too happy. I smile at pretty much anyone I come into contact with. You should try it, it will really brighten up someone’s day and make you feel so happy!
Remember names: I have been so bad with people’s names in the past, it’s embarrassing when you can’t remember a couple’s name during a photo shoot, especially when you are asking them to do something, or move slightly to the left. It helps to practice your clients’ names before a shoot, and repeat names after meeting people. I write them on my hand to help me remember. Doing so makes an enormous difference in the way people relate with you.
Ask people questions about themselves: I have the huge problem of taking too much, and it can be quite over powering, so this is something I have really tried to work on; I just get too excitable, I can’t help it! So now during wedding meetings I ask people about themselves, their wedding, their expectations of their photographer and listen. You’ll find yourself in some of the most interesting conversations ever. You’ll be amazed at how well it works when you are genuinely interested in other people.
Experience: You want to make sure the client has a great experience. Go above and beyond in every possible way. I try to think of new ways to make my clients happy, so I send them little thoughtful gifts before their wedding, hand written notes, and surprise them by delivering a beautiful box filled with prints from their wedding day and other lovely treats.
Not only will your client trust you, which results in great shots, but a good experience also means your client will refer you to others.
5. Referrals Are Essential
Word of mouth referrals are the most powerful sources of bookings for photographers. People are way more likely to trust the recommendation of a friend or another supplier than an advert in a magazine.
Here are a few ways to get referrals:
Clients: Set up a formal referral program that rewards clients for sending new business your way. Or you can simply give them a stack of business cards along with their photos, and let them know just how much you appreciate them telling their friends about you. Or do both!!
Venues: I am now a preferred supplier for a number of high-end wedding venues and it is easy business, the customers just come to you! Don’t be afraid to contact local wedding venues and ask them how you become a preferred supplier at their venue and they might just offer you an opportunity.
Other wedding suppliers: By supplying product photography you can help to build the professional portfolio of other wedding suppliers. I achieve this by asking my brides for their suppliers list; I then contact the suppliers after the wedding with the photos as a gift in return for being credited. By sharing these images it creates new contacts and referrals, I have had so many bookings from florists, venues and wedding planners who have used my images on their websites.
6. Make time to network
When I set up my business I felt very lonely, I had gone from working in a large corporate shared office environment, to working at home on my own, and it was a shock! As a photographer and a new business owner, you need to network and meet more people like you. Starting a business is hard work and networking is a great opportunity to learn tips from more experienced business owners and to meet people on the same journey as you. If you can’t get out then there are so many online groups, forums, clubs and collectives, out there so join whatever you can. I met a wedding photographer at my first networking event for wedding suppliers, and she said she had seen my work around and asked if she could refer me to her enquiries for the coming year because she was fully booked. We now refer about 10 wedding per year to each other so it is a win win situation.
So get out there and network, everyone in the industry is really friendly and would love to help in anyway they can.
7. You are not just a photographer
When I got started I thought that if I had great photography skills, I would have a successful business. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. When I started I had one photo shoot per month if I was lucky, the rest of the time I was busy with the more important tasks of running a business. I didn’t realise how much admin there is with a photography business.
If you’re starting and running your own business, you need to wear a many hats. You are a photographer/customer service expert/book keeper/marketing director/social media strategist/creative director/website/copy writer/graphic designer/PR manager/administrator, and pretty much any other title you can think of.
The sooner you realise that you’re going to need to become good at a LOT of different things, the sooner you can start improving at them all. Great photography skills are important, don’t get me wrong. But you need to have lots of other skills to make a successful business.
Make sure you understand what is involved in starting a business. It’s important to have a business plan, an understanding of sales and marketing, and a financial budget. It doesn’t matter how awesome your photographs are or how good your equipment is if you can’t get yourself organised, deal with clients, and market yourself effectively, your talent will be wasted.
8. Branding Is important but printed brochures and untargeted advertising is not
When it comes to your branding, creating something personal, unique and consistent is super valuable. It helps you stand out from other photographers, and communicates who you are.
But when it comes to ordering branded printed products, be careful. Don’t think that the huge order will save you money, because chances are you won’t ever use it all. This is especially true near the start of your career, when you’ll potentially change your branding a couple times before finding the right fit.
Don’t get caught up in the advertising scams, lots of wedding magazines or national newspapers will call you and say things like ‘ we have come across your website and we love your work, we know you will be perfect for our brides’ or ‘we are running a special bridal feature which will go out to over 200,000 people at Valentines day’ I wasted so much money and never had an enquiry. I know will only advertise if I am guaranteed a double page editorial in the cost, usually they say no but then some publications have gone ahead and featured my work and it has been worth the money spent.
So think twice before you pay out for things when you first start your business.
9. Hire an accountant and outsource as much as possible
These have been some heavy lessons, so here’s an easy one to give you a break. Hire an accountant. I put this off for 18 months, and when I finally got around to it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it earlier and he actually got me a tax rebate! So it was worth the fee.
An accountant is there to help you save money. Sure, you pay them to do it. But they should be saving you a lot more than you’re paying them. Plus they save you a LOT of time and headache. So just do it. The first time I had a meeting with my accountant I felt so relieved to know that a professional was looking out for me and my business!
When you’re just starting out, you can’t afford not to multi-task, so you will be doing the admin, editing, web updates and graphic design. However, once your business is established, it’s not a bad idea to delegate responsibilities, even if it’s on a temporary basis.
To do this you need to recognise your strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re great at taking pictures but not so passionate about editing, I know this is my weakness; I want to be behind the camera and getting to know people, not stuck behind a computer screen for hours at a time. If that’s the case, find a freelancer to help you in your areas on weakness. You can virtual assistants to help with admin, copywriters to write blog posts in your style, and there are lots of online editing groups to find people who are passionate about editing.
I have had my ups and downs, but I’m committed to being the best photographer I can be and I try my hardest work to give each customer a great experience, which has in turn built my reputation.
I now have more time doing the things I LOVE! Not feeling bored and uninspired by the mundane, but important tasks.
10. Find the Work Life Balance - yes it does exist
Ask my friends and family, and they’ll tell you that for the first year of my business, I was pretty much invisible. All I did was work, day and night and spend time with my daughter when I wasn’t shooting a wedding or stuck behind a computer editing the wedding. While I learned and progressed a lot in that time, I also came close to burning out on multiple occasions, and I was not very happy or healthy.
These days I try much harder to create a balance between working and taking time away from work. I book holidays away with my family, have spa days, invite friends over for dinner every week, go for coffee breaks with friends during the daytime and arrange activities after school to do with my daughter, we love going to cafes and just chilling out.
It’s still a challenge, especially when you’re self-employed, and know that your business is the only thing keeping you from being homeless!
But that balance will not only keep you sane, but also help you to enjoy both life and work more. You know how they say absence makes the heart grow fonder? Spend some time away from your business, and chances are you’ll look forward to getting back to it. And that genuine energy will help you do even better work!
You have to look after yourself or your business will suffer, you’ve got to show up at your best - mentally, emotionally, physically and creatively. Make sure you’ve prepared the most important piece of gear you own: you! Show up as the best version of yourself, ready to work HARD, focus fiercely and listen carefully to ensure you anticipate the needs of your client completely.
See Amber's Liberty Pearl Photography branding in the portfolio!