Unless you’re a natural daredevil with a hot and hasty reckless streak, chances are you’re feeling some trepidation about quitting the day job and heading into the unknown, i.e. the rollercoaster life of a wedding photographer.
I know I did. When I left academia to pursue photography as a career, I left the only life I’d ever really known. Plus, I didn’t really make an obvious sidestep from one creative existence to another. In my previous life, I was doing a lot of research, reading, teaching in my field – no, not Photography, but Politics. And frankly, the prospect of change was terrifying.
Seven years later, my life seems to have come full circle in a strange sort of way, and I regularly employ the skills that I honed in a University context in my business. How? Well, I mentor creatives, teach workshops and write blog posts like this one to help and educate those just starting out in this ultra-competitive industry. In short, I want to produce the sort of content and support that I wish had been more readily available in 2011 when I was frantically Googling and cold-calling established photographers for advice and opportunities. (Want to know more? See my Education page).
But for now, I’d like to share a check-list of the sort of things I wish someone had sat me down and told me before I handed in my notice; a sort of distilled inventory of the must-haves and need-to-knows. Ready? Let’s go!
Putting in the Hours – Let me be completely frank: is your technical skill up to the job? Have you been a second-shooter for a pro, practised in all sorts of conditions, taken photographs for free (actually, never think of it as being ‘for free’ in the early days – it’s a huge investment in your skill and more photographs to add to your portfolio!)? You need to be certain that you can produce the goods on any day of the week, and that only comes with experience. As a wedding photographer, a couple is depending on you to document the most important day of their lives. That’s a huge responsibility and one you can’t afford to take lightly.
Your Network – As a creative, it’s crucial to surround yourself with a supportive artistic network. I’ve written before about my early attempts to get in touch with established photographers, to shadow and second-shoot for them. It’s a money-can’t-buy experience and, as well as learning about photography on the job, you’ll also see some of the reality of the self-employed life: the fluctuating work patterns, the personal interactions, the moments of joyous inspiration. If you get really lucky, as I did, you’ll begin some hugely valuable career-long friendships. So if you’re stalking a particular photographer’s stunning website or admiring their Instagram, stop procrastinating and pick up the phone.
Professional Help – Be self-aware enough to know not only your strengths but also your weaknesses. Work out where you need professional help, whether it’s in web design or accountancy (or both, and more!) and make some appointments. Again, think of it as an investment rather than an outlay, and I guarantee that the resulting peace of mind will be worth it.
Money, Money, Money – Do your sums. How much money do you need as a minimum to pay your bills, fill the car and buy your lunch every month without going into a tailspin of anxiety? That’s what you’re aiming for. And what income is projected by your current bookings? I’m not suggesting that you’ll leap straight from a day job into generating an equivalent income from photography though, which is why you’ll need some savings. A wise owl told me that I should really have between 3-6 months’ income squirrelled away as a safety net before handing in my resignation.
Time-Management and Support At Home – From talking to other photographers and your own experience, you should have a fairly realistic set of expectations for your self-employed life – peaks, troughs, editing turnaround times etc. Now you need to take a long, hard look at your domestic set-up. If you have a partner, how will your new business impact on your life together? If you have children and have drop-offs and pick-ups to think about, what’s your new plan? And what’s your back-up? Is there anything that could help your transition into a different work/life balance – a cleaner, an ironer, doing your shopping online, a better set-up in your home office? Make use of organisational tools, online or otherwise – I’m a huge fan of Trello, for example. The key point is this: try to anticipate where and when stresses might arise and head them off at the pass.
Getting a Head Start – With your skills, portfolio, support, website and social media good to go, start generating interest in you and your work. Establish your online profile and have a plan. Post regularly and with a variety of foci – your work, your ethos, client feedback, blog some wedding inspiration, the list of possibilities is endless! Make sure your voice is professional, but personal. Engage and interact. After all, the wedding industry is built on love, and building relationships through open communication is a huge part of the process.
Aaaaand relax! Finally, remember that working for yourself in a creative industry is completely different to working for ‘the man’. The stakes feel higher, the peaks are more exhilarating but, at the same time, the potential setbacks are more devastating. It’s tempting to drive yourself into the ground – to work all hours, to neglect other commitments and responsibilities as you build your business – but it’s vital for you to book in some downtime to avoid burnout.