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Avoiding Common Mistakes that Can Stifle Your Success

President John F. Kennedy once said, “A mistake is an error, uncorrected.” It’s always been one of my favorite quotes because, to my mind, at its core is a message of empowerment--specifically, that I can choose to take a negative outcome and make it right by putting in the effort to do so. Using JFK’s quote as inspiration, I thought I would share a few examples of errors that have the potential to become entrenched as mistakes within our photography and/or our business. I’ve seen these come up over and over again for clients in my coaching practice and Lord knows, I’ve been guilty of each one on this list! Anyway, here goes:

Not Running a Business Like a Business

This one appears obvious at first, but it’s easy to let it slide, especially as we start getting busy and our life is consumed with shoots, editing, and delivering photos quickly so that our agent clients can get them onto the MLS for their clients. Given the multiple things that need to be taken care of on the “back-end” of the business, it’s important to make decisions that will allow us to maximize the limited amount of time we have every day.

For instance, time can be saved in the bookkeeping aspects of our business simply by using software rather than posting everything manually into a basic spreadsheet. To help our community in this regard, over the past few years, PFRE has written an annual post on the best business accounting software platforms on the market. PFRE also posted a great article on the value in examining your financials on a regular basis, to make sure we stay on top of things. This includes having a clear sense of your cost of doing business. Garey Gomez, PFRE’s 2019 Photographer of the Year, has written a really good, two-part article for PFRE on this very topic. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Personally, the resources that probably have had the greatest impact on my own photography business were John Harrington’s book, Best Business Practices for Photographers; and especially, David DuChemin’s book, VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography. Both books cover virtually all aspects of running a photography business.

Not Having a Financial Buffer

Setting aside a pool of money to help you to weather a financial storm, whether it be a very slow photography season or a global pandemic, is always a good idea. Mike Kelley, who has colorfully referred to such a savings account as a "f*#% you fund", wrote a terrific article on this topic about a year ago with lots of insights on how to go about establishing such a fund. The goal is to determine a minimum threshold (e.g., a capacity to pay the bills for six months) and to always have that amount of money locked away.

One of the biggest threats to this noble goal is to chip away at our slush fund by regularly making withdraws from it to buy gear. Perhaps there may come a point when you simply can’t get to a “next level” without that new piece of gear but a financial counselor would tell you that the money to buy it should be the amount you have saved above the minimum threshold amount in your slush fund.

Not Prioritizing Professional Development

Yes, it can be a lot of fun spending a little down-time every now and then, going onto various “rumor” websites to get the latest info or specs on upcoming lenses/cameras/flashes, etc.  I have been guilty of this, for sure! If you absolutely have to buy a piece of gear, then yes, you should take the time to do your due diligence. However, in terms of making you a better photographer, taking the time that’s spent on rumor sites would be far better spent on having a good conversation with a coach/mentor or reading articles/watching video tutorials on improving our craft, and then trying out the new techniques we’ve learned about.

Not Giving Thought to the Type of Photographer You Want to Be

It is so important to get a sense of who you are as a photographer, and specifically, to have some understanding of the types of images you want to take. Having this understanding will inform so many other decisions in your photography and in your business, including the types of photos you capture; who your target clients are; how you market yourself to them; what professional development choices you make; and so on. This is why “understanding yourself” is always the first step in developing a personal brand. I’ve spoken about this a number of times over the years on PFRE, including here.

Not Trying to Find a Way to Distinguish Yourself

Building off the previous point--and at the risk of sounding trite--if your images look exactly like those produced by your competitors, then agents will simply pick the photographer who offers the lowest price... and no one wins in this race to the bottom. There are, of course, many other ways to distinguish yourself (i.e., service excellence, service offering, speed, convenience, value, experience/expertise, etc.). Making an effort to find out which element(s) sets you apart is almost always time well-spent.

Relying on the Wrong Source of Input/Feedback

While it’s really nice to have our work complimented by friends and family, we can’t allow the praise and compliments we get from those who are not familiar with our field/genre of photography to influence our path. This is particularly true when choosing images for our website or other marketing materials.

Instead, try to find trusted sources--i.e., photographers who are more knowledgeable and experienced than you are, in how to find the best path to improve your photography, based on your current skills and longer-term aspirations, and/or navigating the ins-and-outs of the industry. Finding corresponding types of expertise to support you in managing the “back-end” of the business is also important. After all, as per the first bullet point, we want to run our business like a business, right?   

Trying to Make Everyone Happy

I’ll be saying more about this one in a future article, including a new twist on the moral of a story from Aesop’s Fables!

As I said earlier, I have made every single one of these errors (and many more!) but I’ve worked hard at trying to address them. I hope you’ll take some time to add a comment about other “errors” that we all need to address in our work before they turn into mistakes. Anyway, I hope the post--and JFK's quote--has been helpful to you.

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.