Working Out the Details of Running a Photography Business

A couple posts ago, I’d mentioned I’ve been working on the business side of my business. Did I also mention that I’m not a naturally business-minded person?  Well, it’s taken quite a bit of focus on my part to try to become a business-minded person. I’ve been in a state of gray area for a while as I’ve been figuring all of that out. I don’t yet have a website set up to refer potential clients to (facebook just doesn’t seem like the proper channel to post that information), and though I’ve had a set pricing sheet made out and printed for quite some time, most of my inquiries are online or over the phone and I’ve been working with four different internet-capable devices (only two of which are my own, and one of which is portable but severely limited on functions and ease of use) meaning I have no pre-typed, saved info to send to potential clients and all of my online inquiries have been fielded through lengthy emails BURSTING with information, often times much more than the original inquiry involved, just to cover all my bases and make sure my client and I are on the same page as far as how the process works. While the response on this has been good, the time that goes into typing all of that out (especially on a phone) each time I have someone ask me about a shoot has been unbelievably inefficient, and I feel that I leave people waiting on a response for too long. Also, I’ve only recently acquired a large amount of storage to keep all of my information on, so I’ve been working pretty hard to get all of it in one place. I feel like I’m finally making some progress!
As I’m gearing up for my first wedding shoot next week, I’ve also been working on my final wedding contract that I will be implementing for my next wedding after this one.  Now, this first one isn’t much more than a portfolio assignment, since any money I’ll be receiving for it won’t actually be “payment” so much as reimbursement for what I’ll be spending to shoot it. This is totally fine with me though, because I need portfolio work right now, and she’s a friend. Now, this doesn’t mean I’ll be shooting friends’ weddings for free in the future by any means. I’m treating this more as an introductory phase. I’m sure I’ll be more than happy to offer my services at a discounted rate for my friends in the future, but so much goes into shooting a wedding that it just wouldn’t be feasible at all for me to frequently shoot weddings pro bono. Not to mention, I’ll be trying to run a BUSINESS, and that business will be what ultimately pays my bills, keeps me fed, and… well… perpetuates my business. If I don’t get paid for my services, even excluding the question of paying my bills and keeping me fed, I won’t be able to keep myself and my equipment insured and up to date, I won’t be able to advertise myself, I won’t be able to pay taxes on my business, I won’t be able to provide certain features of my packages because I won’t be able to pay for them before handing them off to clients, and basically… I’d just be back to hobbyist level. And that’s a REAL expensive place to be as a photographer.
Anyway.  I’ve been thinking about what all I want to include in my wedding contracts. Of course, there are the non-negotiable items that you’ll see in every contract, but each photographer has to make decisions on other aspects of how he or she wants the business to run. Personally, I will be offering a few different package options for weddings, ranging from a budget option to a fairly lush, deluxe option. I decided to do this for two reasons: first of all, I remember being a bride on a budget and having to make a decision on photos. I really wanted some GREAT ones, but I just didn’t think I could afford the photographer I really REALLY wanted- my amazingly talented cousin, Hannah Pendl (then Wright) of Hannah Grace Photography. I’d had offers from other photographers who I’m sure wouldn’t have charged a fraction of what Hannah normally costs, but I was just set on the type of work she produces- dreamy, artistic images that are full of life and retouched with professional editing software, BY A PROFESSIONAL who knows what she’s doing. So anyway, I was UNBELIEVABLY excited to be able to have Hannah do my photos for my wedding, and she hands down, 100% blew my expectations out of the water! The images I received from her literally brought tears to my eyes, because they were better than I could have ever asked for. That was my first lesson in QUALITY. 
Anyway, back to my point on the packages (sorry, I tend to get off topic a lot, especially when I remember my wedding…).  I wanted to offer a budget option to my potential clients so if they happen to fall in love with my work, they aren’t necessarily deterred by unbelievable prices.  My budget option includes 4 hours of footage on the day of the wedding, full edits on a set number of final images, and a disc with the high-resolution versions of those final images and legal printing rights granted to the client. It’s a pretty basic package with a lower quantity of images which reflects the low price, but my clients will still receive the same quality of work as my higher paying clients receiving a higher quantity of images and special package additions. My second package simply has a higher quantity of images and a longer allotted shooting time (8 hours). My third package includes an even higher quantity of images and the addition of a coffee table book and either a print or a watercolor painting, painted by me. The fourth option will include everything the third one includes, but I’ll be taking the bride to get her hair done professionally as well. Eventually I’d like to add other features to this package to give it a bit more value- things such as makeup and mani-pedis, and even perhaps a complimentary bottle of wine or champagne as the bride is pampered for her big day, but I haven’t quite worked out those details yet.   
I’ve also decided to include the printing rights with the cost of the package. I don’t do this with any other type of sessions.  I decided to do this mostly because a wedding session is expected to be a much higher ticketed session than any other type of shoot, and it just gets some of the confusion out of the way.  It’s surprising how many people don’t realize that a session fee means just what it says: you’re paying for the SESSION, the photographer’s physical time spent with you and the time spent editing, not the rights to the final images or the time she put into readying them on a disc or online gallery for you. So since being a bride is stressful to begin with, I just wanted to eliminate that one thing that could cause a ripple in the plans. Not to mention, I’ve never actually met anyone who didn’t want their final wedding photos.
So anyway. I’ll eventually have four different contracts written out, one for each package, but they’ll all be relatively the same other than the description of services offered, and a few other select things.
Another thing I’ve been considering is the due date of payment.  With my current wedding, I didn’t have a set date for her to give me the reimbursement payment, so I’m kinda still waiting on it. I know, I know! “Terrible idea! Everything has to be set in stone before hand! Blah blah blah”, but as I stated before, this one isn’t exactly about making money and being all “business-y” so much as earning portfolio material and doing a favor for a friend. She signed a model release form during our consultation, and that was my main concern on shooting this one. Now, if the wedding day comes and I still haven’t received payment, it is understood that I won’t be shooting the wedding, because I won’t have the money to put into my gas tank and get there.
Of course, for my first truly paying customer I’ll be protected from loss, whatever way it may occur. My partially finished contract states that a 50% non-refundable deposit be put down to book the date. For the purpose of my first year or so when business is (likely) relatively slow, I believe I may draft a version stating that if someone would like to book me, they can tell me the date in advance and I will mark it and keep it open for them for up to 6 months in advance of the date, and that the 50% deposit is due at the 6 month mark to keep the date reserved. If payment is not received the day it is due, I will issue a polite reminder and the client will have a 24 hour grace period before I open their date back up to other potential clients. At that point, it would become a “first come, first serve” type of ordeal, and whoever makes the non-refundable 50% deposit first will officially book the date. My reasoning for wanting to work this way is that first of all, I know money is a bit tight for many younger people in my neck of the woods and parents don’t always foot the bill like they used to be expected to, so making a large payment many months to a year in advance can be a difficult move to make for a young couple, especially if you don’t have all the details worked out yet. I would be disappointed as a bride to be in the position of desperately wanting a certain photographer, but not being able to book them many months in advance because I simply didn’t have the immediate funds to do so, so I’d possibly like to give the option of a “temporary booking” for a certain date if the wedding is more than 6 months down the road. Another reason is that I know there are many swift engagements that may only be 6 months long, or even less in some cases. I don’t believe that a couple should be rejected a photographer because of this, but I also won’t be able to take them on as a client if I’m holding a date for someone who hasn’t paid their deposit. So in cases of engagements that are 6 months long or less, I will require the 50% deposit immediately to book the date, as long as the date they choose is already open. If weddings pick up for me in the future, I’ll likely change my contract to the more streamlined version and state that in order to book, you must pay the 50% deposit on the spot, no matter how close or far away from the wedding you are. And I don’t even know if I definitely will do the temporary booking thing- just something I’m trying to weigh out in my brain. Either way I do it though, I will require the entire final payment no less than two weeks before the wedding. 
Funny story on how I came up with that particular practice, and I’ll get to that here in a bit. I know many photographers require payment either the day of the wedding, or even before the images are presented to the clients. These can both be great ways of doing business, but in my own experience, these can cause two different types of problems: First of all, your wedding day is an exciting and EXTREMELY stressful day. No bride or groom, or even parents of the bride and groom want to be bothered with silly details of paying their vendors on the biggest day of their lives. Money is a touchy subject, and I personally feel it’s better to leave it out of the wedding day altogether so I’m not adding additional stress to the couple-to-be or their parents. Secondly, if payment is due AFTER the 8 hours of shooting, however many hours and dollars spent on the road going to and from the venue, plus up to 40 hours of loading, culling, and editing is already done and the couple just flakes out on purchasing their images for whatever reason, the photographer has still put all of that time, effort, and money into something that he or she will ultimately not get paid for. Sure, they may have not handed the images over to the couple, but the work was still done, the time and money still lost, and the photographer wasn’t able to shoot an actual paying gig that day. See what I mean?
Now for my story: Obviously since I’m just now building my business, you’re probably aware that I haven’t always been a photographer (in fact, if you’ve been reading my posts so far, I’ve stated that already).  I have, however, dabbled heavily in arts and crafts for my entire life.  When I was actually working for a call center a few years ago (worst. job. ever. by the way…), I was once commissioned to make a wedding veil for the older sister of a couple of girls I went to school with. Now, I’ve always had the tendency of selling myself short, and usually didn’t charge much more than simply the cost of materials for anything someone would ask me to make for them. So I only quoted her $30 for the veil, and put several hours of work into it, not to mention the gas to meet up and deliver it.  Guess what? I MADE THE STUPID MISTAKE OF NOT RECEIVING PAYMENT FIRST.  And guess what again? To this very day, I haven’t seen that $30, and she lived happily ever after with a free wedding veil, while I lived burned-ever-after with the loss of the $30 I spent on materials and the time I put into making it. Lesson quickly learned.
Although, I don’t want to leave that story on a sour note: I also was asked to make a wedding veil for my cousin’s bride-to-be a few years ago. I was HAPPY to do it, and without payment because she was soon-to-be family and I’m always inclined to help out those I love. So I made the veil, she looked breathtakingly gorgeous, and we went about our lives. Then a few weeks later, mom gave me some money and said it was from Lydia for the veil, even though I didn’t expect it. I thought it was unbelievably sweet of her! So between the two scenarios, I guess it almost evened out.
Anyway, the moral of my seemingly pointless rambling: Sometimes you gotta live out some mistakes and losses to properly know how (and why) to set business practices in action, especially if you’re not a naturally-inclined businesswoman or man to begin with. Fortunately I’ve already learned some of those lessons through other applications, so I only have a thousand more to learn 🙂  

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8 responses to “Working Out the Details of Running a Photography Business

  1. It sounds like you’ve got a solid business plan here 🙂 Much better than the “Oh i guess I’ll show up an hour before the wedding” verbal contrat that I have :p

    • Hahaha. I used to be a pretty trusting person, but I’ve been commissioned by so many people for so many things and have had such various experiences with them that I’ve become a bit less of a trusting person. A good thing in the business sense, but it kind of makes me sad that I DON’T have that trusting personality I used to have haha.
      Do you play your violin for weddings?? Hahaha I totally wish I’d thought about the fact that you played last year! I wanted live music but didn’t know of many people who played string instruments other than basically all of the groomsmen, one bridesmaid, and the groom (so none of those would have worked out). I guess I didn’t really know you very well back when we got married though… Boo!

  2. Good luck at your first wedding shoot. I’m sure it’ll go really well. That’s a lucky friend of yours who gets your services almost for free. Also, sounds like you’ve put in a lot of thought and effort to run your business so although you claim not to be a business savvy person, I think you’re doing a mighty fine job.
    And your story about the veil sounds all too familiar. I HATE taking money from people I know and have made that same mistake too many times. I remember a specific commissioned painting that I charged hardly enough to cover my materials, and the painting probably took me 20 hours to complete. I have yet to get paid for it too. Oh dear. But I’m learning… I still feel awkward charging what I believe my work is worth but I force myself to do it anyways (although still always give a discount to friends/family/students, but within reason now).

    • Thanks so much for the words of encouragement! 🙂 I’m so excited/nervous about the wedding, but it’s outdoors so I’m not TOO worried about lighting and such… only hoping the weather cooperates and stays as beautiful as it’s been the past day or two 🙂
      Ohh she’s a sweetheart. I worked with her a few years ago at the most terrible job I’ve ever had, and we sort of bonded both over the torture of the job and the fact that we’d both been in long, serious relationships… She actually reminded me at our consultation meeting that when we were working together, we’d always talk about how we SHOULD be married by then… and now, she’s getting married the day before my one year anniversary, and I’m the one shooting it 🙂 I just love how life works out sometimes!
      It can be rough trying to make a living and also make people happy. I’m so sorry to hear about your bad experience with your commissioned painting 😦 Painting is so time consuming, and I don’t think people realize how much time and effort goes into it. I recently closed a chapter in my life of painting commissioned work in a way- I used to sell custom painted Converse tennis shoes, and I was so happy with the fact that my customers trusted me enough to pay up front (otherwise I couldn’t afford to buy those $55 shoes! haha), so I never had a bad experience with painting. Other things are a different story though…
      I do think it takes some time to really charge what you think your work is worth. It also takes some lessons learned too 🙂 I just try to think of it this way: If I were in the market for something similar to what I was creating and selling, how much would I be willing to pay (reasonably, without robbing the artisan)? You’d be surprised how many people see custom work as worth more than mass-produced work. While sadly not everyone treasures an item which an artist’s self has been poured into, there are many people who do, and THOSE are your potential customers 🙂
      I’ve actually been looking at your work a lot lately… I’m not currently in the position to be spending money on artwork because life and bills and living are all shaken up right now, but hopefully after we move and get settled in I will be… And I’ll have an entire house to decorate 🙂 I’ve never been one to go for prints (unless it’s a print of a painting by a classic artist that I’m just in love with, like the Degas my dad gave me) So, hopefully sometime in the next few months I’ll likely be hitting you up for at least one painting!

      • That was very “business savvy” of you to charge up front for the sneakers. I’ve learned some lessons too and now charge a 50% deposit before I start painting so hopefully don’t run into that problem again.
        As far as mass-produced stuff goes, I certainly see the value in custom and handmade stuff and try to avoid the mass produced stuff as much as possible (except for my Ikea furniture but that’s because I haven’t lived anywhere for longer than 1 year in the last 6 years. Half wood, half cardboard furniture is a lot easier to move than real, heavy wood furniture!) I’m happy paying more for quality one-of-a-kind stuff and really appreciate other people who do too.
        Did you know that some people don’t even know the difference between a print and a real painting?! Unfortunate truth. I’ve met too many people who assume that anything printed on a canvas is automatically a painting…even if it’s sold at Wal-Mart!!! C’mon people.
        I would also be sooo honored to have my paintings hanging up in your house 🙂
        Again, good luck with the wedding, and even if it rains, that can make for some beautiful pictures! I actually prefer pictures with some “adversity”. They seem more real to me, instead of the happy rainbows and butterflies type (although I’m sure the bride and groom would disagree!). haha

      • That’s good that you charge a portion up front. Do you at least cover your cost of materials in the deposit? That way, if they do happen to back out, it wouldn’t be a total loss for you, and maybe you could sell it to someone else after a bit of time goes by and you know they’re not going to buy the painting 🙂
        I really try to keep my distance from retail places.. Anything that can be easily found used/in decent condition or handmade is what I go for. I’m a huge sucker for vintage stuff and cheap stuff that I can fix up myself.. and I tend to make anything I don’t feel like buying if I can figure out how. Part of it comes from a borderline crazy aversion to the way corporations run, part of it comes from a weird desire to live in a time before my time. And part of it stems from the satisfaction I get of doing something myself or finding a really crazy deal- one of my favorite tables is a super classy looking glass and cast iron side table with a 12-botttle wine rack underneath- twenty bucks! Another was one I got for free and we sanded it down and restained it to a handsome dark chestnut brown (and I’m eventually going to try a glass or ceramic mosaic on the top) I think part of the reason I love the free one was because we just put a little work into it and plan to put a little more into it, and it’ll be unique and exactly like we want it- and FREE!
        Haha you sound like me- I once figured out that I’d lived in 10 1/2 houses (the half is a long story…) since I moved out of my parents house- and that was only 6 1/2 years ago! One year was a year of several houses though..
        I did know that! It is a sad fact.
        Thank you so much for the support with the wedding- I had so much fun, I’m super happy with my photos, and I can’t wait to blog about it! 🙂 I was a little disappointed with the abundance of sun that day… oddly enough, a cloudy yet dry day is a photographer’s dream. Sun casts funky shadows that can make it difficult to get flattering shots- In retrospect, I would have done a few things different to compensate for the sun, but overall I’m pretty happy with them 🙂
        The bride had a horrible week involving a broken toe and an emergency change to the person officiating, among several other inconveniences…. I felt so horrible for her, because I remember exactly how she felt… in fact, my one year anniversary was the day after her wedding! She was a raw nerve before the ceremony, but I kept telling her she’d feel so much better once it was all over with.. I asked her how she felt during the reception, and she was so much more relaxed!
        I think I have another wedding in August too- a last minute favor for another friend. Haha! I’m really hoping so, because I definitely enjoy shooting weddings!

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