Masthead header

10 Rules for Being a Successful Photographer… And How to Break Every One of Them

A couple of nights ago, I was at the monthly meeting of the Tiger Lily’s Warrior Princess book club (where we read young adult and classic childen’s novels and discuss them at Church Street Coffee and Books— it’s pretty fantastic and you should join us), and we were talking about a scene in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, in which the main character Junior transfers to a new school. He ends up punching another kid for horribly insulting him, and when the kid doesn’t punch him back and start fighting (as anyone at his old school would have done), he stands there completely confused, and calls out after the kid who’s now walking away: “Wait… what are the rules?” He had never considered the fact that there would be a new set of social guidelines to learn in this new environment and he realized that he had to somehow figure them out in order to follow them and fit in.

My friend Carrie talked about how she was a classic rule lover and follower, wanting everything to have specific steps she could follow to ensure success, and I nodded in agreement. If ever there was a Type A goodie-goodie who absolutely hated getting in trouble growing up, it was me. I just wasn’t a rule breaker. I liked having someone tell exactly how things should be done so there was no uncertainty or risk of failure.

That is, until I started this little photography business of mine.

Back in 2009, when I decided to turn my longtime hobby into a career, I very seriously considered going back to school to study photography. If there’s one thing I knew I was good at, it was school. I loved having a syllabus and deadlines and I wanted step-by-step instructions for becoming a great photographer and running a successful business. But the more I researched, the more I realized that it was going to cost a lot of money, and these days, there are so many free tools and resources out there that it’s completely doable to teach yourself most things. Once you add in practice, experience, and guidance from mentors, you’re going to get everything you could have in a classroom and then some. So that’s the route I took.

I began soaking up every piece of information and advice I could get my hands on. And in those early days, I was very easily influenced and persuaded by all the people I admired. If Amelia Lyon was editing with Totally Rad actions, then I was editing with Totally Rad Actions. If Jasmine Star was going to WPPI, was going to WPPI. If Zack Arias said he used Alien Bees for off-camera lighting, then guess what I was going to buy? I spent lots of time following other photographers on Twitter and trolling message boards and reading blogs.

But then a funny thing happened. I started hitting my stride. I settled into a shooting and editing style that suited me, I started booking steadily and staying busy (busier than I needed to be, truth be told), and the more comfortable I felt in my own skin, the less I felt compelled to pay attention to what other people were doing. One of the best things I ever did for myself was to adopt the mantra “unfollow, unfollow, unfollow.”

But here’s a confession. Every now and then, I’ll catch a glimpse of what’s trending in wedding photography right now, or I’ll hear about the insane traveling and shooting schedule of a photographer I admire, or I’ll see some amazing image in my Instagram feed, and the uncertainty tries to creep back in. I’m reminded that even if there aren’t stated rules for becoming a hugely successful and talented photographer, there are definitely implied ones, and I’m not exactly abiding by many, if any, of them. And as much as I would like to say I brush it off and move on with my life, realizing how fortunate I am to be doing what I’m doing and how satisfied I am with my current way of doing things, I don’t always. Maybe it’s the rule follower in me. But then I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama’s quote, “know the rules well, so you can break them effectively,” and I wonder if maybe I’m not as much of a rule follower as I thought I was.

So in the spirit of rebellion, in case there’s anyone else out there who has ever felt like a weirdo for not following the spoken or unspoken “rules” for success in our industry, I thought I’d share what *I* perceive to be some of those rules and how (and why) I’ve broken them. Before I begin though, HUGE disclaimer: there are many wonderful and crazy talented photographers, some of whom are my good friends, who fall into one or more of these categories. And I think they do amazing, jealousy-inducing work and they are great people. So I want to make it clear that there’s not anything  inherently wrong with any of these things, and in fact, some of them can be really good things. And that’s the beauty of being a creative small business owner and the whole reason for this post: you can go your own way. Find what works for you and go for it unashamedly. My point here is that it’s okay not to do or want the same things that a lot of others do or want. That’s all. I’m sure there are rules that I follow that you think are silly and you break all the time, and that’s okay! Life would be so boring if we all did and liked the same things, after all. So if you follow any (or all!) of these rules and it’s totally working for you, THAT’S OKAY! In fact, it’s good! It means you’re figuring out what works and going with it! And now let’s jump in…

1. MAKE IT YOUR ULTIMATE GOAL TO ALWAYS BE GROWING AND GETTING BIGGER.

These days, it seems that once a photographer hits a certain peak with the growth of their business and client base, the logical next step is to take it even further. Go full time, hire associates, get an amazing studio or office space, start a product line, host a million workshops to share all your secrets, etc. Once you’ve built your brand, you’re told to monetize the crap out of it. Well, the truth is…. I really have no interest in most of those things. I happily work from my little home office. I’ve never had employees or outsourced any of my work because I prefer to keep the number of weddings I shoot manageable, so that I can still be in charge of the entire process. I know that if I keep this up, I’ll never be shooting 40+ weddings a year… but that’s not my goal. That’s the furthest thing from my goal. And call it a lack of ambition, but I don’t want to develop the next greatest camera accessory or set of Lightroom presets. (I much prefer to buy what other people make. ;)) Call it a lack of business sense, but I would much rather meet up with another photographer for coffee and chat one on one than charge for (and plan, and market, and execute) a big workshop where I would probably find myself vomiting in the bathroom beforehand and wondering why anyone would ever pay money to hear what I have to say.  Perhaps this is a photography business on a small scale, but it works for me. (Oh, and if you’re not doing photography full time and you’re feeling pressured to quit your day job even if you’re not ready or really wanting to, go read this post by friend Gail on juggling the nine-to-five and a part time business. Amazing insights.)

2. MAKE A PROFIT… A WHOLE LOT OF PROFIT.

Expanding on #1, it’s really tempting to look around at what the photographers in the big leagues are charging and think that everyone except you is raking in a six-figure income. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: raise your prices, raise your prices, raise your prices. And is there some truth to that? Absolutely! There are plenty of photographers out there who are underestimating the value of their time and talent. And even I’ve gotten emails from other photographers asking why I don’t charge more or why my pricing hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past few years. I’ve found that a lot of photographers can talk endlessly about numbers and rates and what’s competitive, but to be honest, the answer is pretty simple for me: I know what my ideal client can afford to spend, and for me, the sweet spot between making a modest profit while not alienating my target market is pretty much what I’m charging. (Although they’re about to get raised a bit, so email now if you’re wanting to book a 2015 wedding at my current rates! :)) Granted, for some of the weddings I shoot, the cost of hiring me is about 5-10% of the total wedding budget, and for others it’s closer to 50%, but I love that variety. Whether budget or high-end, all of my weddings share a common thread: laid back, fun, in love couples with a bit (or a lot!) of a creative streak. And I want to be able to shoot all of their weddings, regardless of their budget. And you know what? I’m making a decent living off this business of mine. I fully realize I’ll never have a $150k+ yearly salary, and that’s A-OK with me, because I didn’t get into photography to get rich quick. (And God bless you if you did, because you’re in for a long, hard road.)

3. BE A GLOBE TROTTER.

You know how it seems like some photographers are in new, exotic locations shooting weddings every single weekend? And how it seems so glamorous, what with all those stamps in the passport and mai-tais on the beach the morning after the wedding? And how it seems like photography is basically just a perfect way to get paid to travel the world? Trust me… As someone who has been fortunate enough to travel a decent amount all over the country to shoot weddings, that’s not the reality. Don’t get me wrong… I LOVE traveling and I’m so thankful to my clients for giving me a chance and an excuse to visit places I might not ever get to see otherwise, but traveling for weddings is stressful. I never used to be a paranoid person until I started going through airport security with thousands of dollars of equipment strapped on me. And on top of usual wedding preparations, you’re factoring in making travel arrangements, taking at least two extra days away from work and your family and friends for flying or driving, and if you use a second shooter, you’re planning for them as well. Every time I’ve traveled for a wedding, all the work and extra time and potential stress has been worth it, but trust me… it’s still work. :) I don’t know how photographers do it when they’re traveling almost every weekend. I imagine it would take a huge toll on your personal life.

4. GET PUBLISHED. FREQUENTLY. LIKE EVERY DAY IF POSSIBLE.

While I am so thankful to the blogs and magazines who have have published my work and shown off the amazingness of my clients through the years, and I do have them to thank for a few of my bookings, the reality of the-getting featured game is that it involves a LOT of rejection and unnecessary second-guessing of the vendors’ talents and/or the bride and groom’s ability to throw a ridiculously inspiring, impressive, original wedding. I’ve submitted many a wedding to blogs, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s a perfect fit, only to get a rejection without any good explanation. For every wedding I’ve had featured on one blog, I’ve gotten probably 3-4 rejections. Again, for no good reason other than it’s someone else’s blog and they have every right to select only what they want to share. It’s an extremely time-consuming process fraught with many emotional implications, and here’s a secret: no matter how big or amazing the blog is, I’ve only booked a handful of weddings due to a client finding me there. These days, we’re so overloaded with inspiration that I think a lot of brides are paralyzed by an inability to make decisions. I actually advise a lot of my brides to spend less time on blogs and Pinterest because I’m not super thrilled with the one-upmanship wedding culture they have created. (And yes, I’m fully aware that I’m somewhat part of the problem, but I am trying!) Now don’t get me wrong… I ADORE creativity at weddings. I just don’t love the questioning of that creativity. And do I still feel a rush when I get an email from a blog or publication I love saying that they want to show my photographs? Of course! I’m not a cold heartless corpse. But that rush is nothing compared to a thoughtful gift or thank you note from a client after they see their wedding photos, or the happiness I feel when I’m surrounded by craziness on the dance floor at a reception, dancing along to Pharrell while I shoot. Other people’s wedding photos can be fun to look at, but nothing beats a real life experience or connection.

5. SHOOT FILM.

A controversy waiting to happen, I know. But I’m going there. Again, I feel that I should preface this by saying that many of my friends and photographers I admire shoot film and I think their work is gorgeous. What *I* want to say right now is that I don’t think the medium matters, whether you shoot digital or film or both. Shooting with film does not a fine art photograph make. There are puh-lenty of digital shooters whom I consider to be brilliant artists. Shooting with one or the other doesn’t make you more of an artist, the same way that using oil-based paint doesn’t make you more of an artist than using watercolors. And honestly if you have to ask someone, after looking at their work, whether they shoot digital or film, it probably doesn’t matter to you as much as you think it does. While I do looove the color and bokeh of film photographs, and I fully understand the ways it can change the way you shoot for the better (yes, I read Film is Not Dead just like everyone else with a pulse), there’s just too much I love about digital to make the switch. Yep, you heard me right. I LOVE DIGITAL. You don’t hear too many photographers saying that these days. There are many reasons that it works better for me (some of them are outlined in this post by Jessica Claire), but the bottom line is that the reasons don’t matter. If it works best for me, then I shouldn’t feel bad about choosing it. These days I feel lesser than the moment anyone starts talking about film and how it has “soul” (as if digital photos don’t), and there are entire posts on wedding blogs dedicated to proving why film is better and why you should choose a wedding photographer who shoots film. (Ironically these posts aren’t usually written by photographers.) So if I sound defensive, and I’m trying really hard not to, it’s because these kinds of debates have a real effect on my business. I’m all about educating clients, but what want for them is to hire someone whose work they truly connect with and not care so much about how the photo was created. Whether it’s a film photographer or digital photographer, it shouldn’t matter. It’s taken me a long, long time to be confident in my digital-ness, but here it is. WHEW. I feel much better having gotten that off my chest. :)

6. BE A HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM.

Wayyy back in those early days, when I was fascinated by the rockstar lifestyle of husband and wife photographers, I had some pretty high hopes that Jamie would be my permanent second shooter and an essential part of my business. It’s hard not to think it’s a perfect set up when you see it work for so many married people out there. Travel together, work together, spend every moment together…. living the dream, right? :) Well, we figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be a long term solution for us. Jamie just doesn’t feel quite the same way that I do about weddings (but not many normal people do, so that’s ok), and he just wasn’t passionate about it. And he says I was way too bossy. ;) So I had to accept pretty early on that I would never be one half of an impossibly adorable husband and wife duo, kind of like our friends Wes and Emma. (Seriously, they’re so cute it’s ridiculous.) What I didn’t realize at the time was what a blessing in disguise that decision was. For us. Jamie pursued his own passion, web and software developing (honestly I barely have a clue what he even does), taught himself like I taught myself photography, and has become really great at it and has had one amazing job opportunity after another fall in his lap. He loves it so much that he does it in his spare time, for fun. It’s actually kind of great to see his passion develop in the same way mine has with photography. He both make decent livings, we’re both fortunate enough to have careers that we love, but we don’t have to be doing the same thing for that to be the case. We may not spend every moment of every day together, but when we are together the time feels more meaningful and full of things to talk about. And when we travel together, it’s for fun and not for work. Do I occasionally wish I had a permanent second shooter and get secretly jealous of husband and wife teams on occasion? Of course! But it’s not worth sacrificing Jamie’s happiness. I’d much rather spend wedding days with my friends who are just as obsessed with weddings as I am. :)

7. BE A SOCIAL MEDIA AND BLOGGING MACHINE.

Ah, online marketing and self-promotion. Probably the one thing I’ve gotten worse at with every passing year of being in business. ha. When I first started out, when I didn’t even really have that much to blog, I was blogging a few times a week, about everything under the sun. And it was great, because it really did help me to build a following and connect with people that I never would have otherwise. I truly enjoyed it. And now, in 2014, this is maybe my 3rd or 4th blog post in six months? It’s not that I don’t still enjoy it, because I’m actually loving getting to sit here and just write my heart out. It’s that I don’t have time… or I don’t make the time, because I feel guilty not spending all of my work hours staying caught up on editing and emailing. You know, taking care of my clients. You can tell me all the reasons that’s wrong. That’s okay. But it’s where I’m at right now. I’ve got about 10-ish weddings I’m dying to share, and it may be that I sit down in July (during my down time) and blog all of them back to back. And not blog again for another 3 months. And Google will probably hate me and my readership will keep dwindling, but I think I’m okay with that. It’s just that my priorities have changed, and the busier I’ve gotten, the more protective I’ve become of my personal time. It’s all about balance. That’s also why my last tweet happened 3 years ago. And why I rarely check Facebook anymore. (Well, and because all their changes to business pages have basically ruined by ability to reach clients that way anyway. I’m honestly *thisclose* to deleting my account altogether. This video gave some strong arguments in favor of doing so.) I never even signed up for LinkedIn despite the hundreds of connection requests I’ve been emailed, because I knew it would be just one more thing to keep up with. My 2 social media vices are Pinterest (which for me is all about home decor and DIY inspiration, my other true creative love), and of course Instagram. Unsurprisingly, they’re both photo-based, and as a photographer, that’s truly what I love seeing. I’ve had to figure out over time that I will just never be the business owner who takes a social media marketing class and makes sure to update 10 different accounts every single day in order to be “active” and reach clients. Truth be told, the majority of my clients come from referrals from friends and other photographers anyway, so I’m kind of relieved that it’s not an absolute requirement anymore to be “connected” all the time. (I’ve also been convicted by videos like this one and books like this one that being glued to a computer or mobile device every waking moment is not exactly a healthy way of life.) So the point is, if you feel like you also kind of suck at keeping the world updated on your every movement and thought and achievement, I really don’t think it’s such a bad thing. I do have the Internet to thank for connecting me with some of my closest friends, but moderation is key. And if you’re not enjoying it anymore and it’s becoming another chore, it’s really okay to cut back or to pick and choose one or two outlets to post with. Sometimes, the pressure we put on ourselves to constantly be creating new content can end disastrously. You don’t have to be a prolific blogger or tweeter to be a happy and successful creative business owner. 

8. GET FAMOUS.

I was having a conversation with another photographer recently and we were talking about “celebrity” photographer culture. She told me that she had talked to a photographer who actually specifically said “I want to get famous.” This person was trying to associate herself with all the right people, carefully curating her social media feeds to reflect a certain lifestyle (perhaps not entirely true to reality), offering to work for free (or very cheap) all the time in order to travel to exotic places and collaborate with certain vendors, overstating her level of closeness and friendship with the big time photographers. All to become more famous. This is actually a much more common occurrence than you might think. Honestly, I’ve had to unfollow a lot of people who constantly put out the my-life-is-straight-out-of-an-impeccably-styled-photo-shoot vibe. I totally get wanting to put your best foot forward, or only feeling compelled to share things that are pretty and positive and happy, but dang. There’s a point at which it stops becoming inspiration and starts becoming an endless rotation of humble brags. Once upon a time I, too, used to think I wanted to be a big famous photographer, until I started hearing the truth through the grapevine. (Because yes, the truth does get revealed. You can only fool people for so long.) Tales of all these “famous” photographers and their behind-the-scenes personal struggles, things like drugs and broken relationships and even prison (!!), things that don’t look so pretty on Instagram. And I realized that yes, my life might be kind of small and boring in comparison, but I’m actually happy. I don’t feel compelled to be always chasing the next biggest and shiniest thing. Again, maybe this makes me a less ambitious person, but I can accept that. I really don’t think that fame and fortune is all it’s cracked up to be. (But if you’re famous and fortunate and LOVIN’ IT, feel free to call me out. I don’t mind. :))

9. HAVE A DISCIPLINED AND SUPER PRODUCTIVE WORKFLOW AND DAILY ROUTINE.

Every now and then I’ll come across an article or blog post by another photographer in which they share their daily schedule, and I promptly want to lay down on the floor and just give up because I WILL NEVER BE THAT EFFICIENT. You know the ones… “This morning, I woke up at 5:30 am, went on a 6 mile run, showered, prepared and ate a delicious and healthy breakfast, and got my inbox down to zero…. All by 9:00 am! Doesn’t it feel great to get your day started on the right foot?” I mean…. WHAT. I’m honestly doing good to shower before 10:00 am. Sometimes I eat breakfast, sometimes I forget to eat and then wonder why I’m suddenly raging with hanger. My inbox is pretty much never at zero (sigh). And it’s taken me awhile to realize it, but this is kind of the beauty of being self-employed. *I* can determine how I work best and most productively, and even though I don’t always make the best decisions, it’s kind of a beautiful thing to have that freedom. I eventually realized that it’s okay to not work a standard 40 hour work week Monday-Friday because I usually work about 15 hours on the weekends alone. And it’s okay to edit for 10-12 hours straight one day and then spend the next running errands, meeting friends for lunch, reading a book, etc. Granted, to have this kind of schedule, you do have to have a self-starter personality and give yourself deadlines, but it’s really kind of freeing to not have designated work hours. I know what I need to get done and when I need to finish it by, and I always do. How I get from Point A to Point B shouldn’t really matter all that much. I’m a grown woman, and if I want to do my work in my PJs at odd hours while dancing to Jason Derulo songs in my chair, then so be it. :)

10. BE ORIGINAL. 

I used to think that in order to be a really great photographer, I needed to reinvent the wheel every single time I went into a wedding or shoot. I needed to get some National Geographic-worthy shot from an angle no one had ever thought of before, with some insanely amazing lighting setup. But here’s the thing. I’m a wedding photographer. And wedding days are typically chaotic, with a whole host of unpredictable and uncontrollable factors (our crazy Southern weather not the least of them). There are beautiful moments unfolding all around me, and then there are details to think about and more formal portraits to take and certain traditional shots that I’ve grown to love capturing because even if they’re not the most creative, they are timeless, and they are heirlooms, and they will be passed down for generations to come. So treating an entire wedding day as an experiment in originality isn’t really the smartest approach, in my personal experience. I *do* have a general running list of photos in my head that I pretty much always take. And I’ve grown to love that process. Because what I’ve found is that to me, what makes a photo unique are the people in it. The moments that are fleeting and can’t be recreated and might only be remembered with the click of my shutter button. And the more I try to think of some earth-shatteringly new way of documenting wedding days, the more likely I am to miss the specialness that’s already there. That said, I don’t think that’s a good excuse to turn wedding photography into a formula, so at every wedding I do push myself to think outside of the box for at least a few shots. This keeps my creative juices flowing without turning the wedding into the Morgan Trinker Show.

So I guess to sum it all up, here’s what I’m saying. There is no right or wrong way to be a creative entrepreneur. We’re all doing this because we probably like freedom and not having someone else tell us what to do or how to do it. So there’s no reason for us to impose rules on ourselves or other people. If you’re attracting enough clients to stay busy and be profitable, and they’re the kind of clients that are a good fit for you, and you’re taking great care of them and delivering a quality product and memorable experience, and if you truly love what you’re doing…. then you’re okay. None of the other fluff really matters. Let’s be rebels together.

(All images you’ve seen in this post are from all those yet-to-be-blogged weddings and shoots I mentioned earlier. Consider this a teaser! ;))

sharetweetpinemail

Krista - I love this, Morgan. When we were referred to your work, we could instantly see that your photography and your business was so “you,” and we were hoping for a wedding that was just “us.” When you let go of the rules and the “shoulds,” you get truth and beauty. We could never thank you enough for capturing our truth on a day when we had everyone we love in one place- how often does that happen?! You do such amazing work and you bring fun, calming energy, which spreads through the entire day. Thank you for all that you do! xo

Meghan Murphy - Thank you for this post… it was really helpful.

Jenn - So timely. And such a well thought out and well written post. As I’m in the throes of re-evaluating my pricing, how creative I actually am, where I want to go with this business, I loved this post. Thanks. :)

anna hedges - amen. amen. amen. also, you’re adorable. and i am wholeheartedly with you on this. thank you for having a heart of gold.

Sarah Becker Lillard - Morgan, thank you so much for this blog post. A few rules I’ve already broken, a few haunt me because I’m breaking them but I’m not quite owning it yet. ;) Your head and heart are exactly where they need to be, and that’s difficult in this industry. So blessed to know you! xoxo

Stacia - I ADORE this! Even as a wedding planner there is a ton of practical advice I can take from this. I think the happy medium with my business (since I’m newer) is finding ways to help it grow that I actually ENJOY, because if I enjoy it then it doesn’t feel like work and I actually WANT to do it. In the process I’m trying not to stress about the stuff that I don’t enjoy (like Twitter, I hate Twitter, and getting up super early in the morning. I’d rather sleep in a tiny bit and work a bit more into the evening, and that works for me, especially since my husband works until 8 almost every night so I’m not neglecting him in any way.) Thanks for writing the content a lot of us want to be seeing. :) I’m looking forward to working with you on August 17th at the Hunter Museum! :)

Crystal - Seriously! Took the words right out of my head. You hit everything perfectly. I was wondering if I was the only one who felt this way. Thanks for writing this!

Breanna Fogg - This is a great post Morgan!

Kelly - Thank you for being so validating, sweet Morgan. I love you, your work, your approach, your heart. You’re just an awesome person. And I am now dying to see this palm tree/seashelly wedding you sneak-peeked in this post! OMG that aisle “runner”!!!!!

Kayla F - THANK YOU for this! Ugh…so refreshing that I am not alone in many of the things I think about daily and for reminding me that I don’t have to be a cookie cutter photographer and do things that “everyone” is doing just to seem successful. LOVED this post more than you could know!

alexbee - Morgan, rock on. You are you & we all love you for it :)

Jen - Yep, yes, uh huh… it’s like you read my mind and skillfully articulated my thoughts. 10 times. Well done!

Johanna - Thank you SO MUCH for this. Basically every single thing is a thing I’ve been struggling with and now it feels like I can let go and just do things MY way, the way it feels right :)

Ki Thomas - Loved reading this. Such an honest and true blog post and I can totally relate to it all. A nice reminder to relax and be your self. Thanks for sharing this :-)

Angela - You never cease to amaze me. THIS is what keeps you ahead of the curve, being yourself. I still hope to meet you one day!

Brooke Schultz - LOVE this! I just wrote about this exact thing. The weird expected trajectory for photographers that’s somehow the same, even though we’re all completely different people running different businesses.
Thanks so much for sharing, love it love it love it.

Elizabeth - I think I just found another photographer to follow! You’re amazing!

Allison Humphries - I love this. I love your work. I can now put a name to quite a few pics that I have been voting on in the shoot & share photo contest:) Great work!

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

*

*