Starting a photography business can be a great opportunity for those with a great eye and creative flair. It's a home business that doesn't require a formal degree nor are the startup costs expensive if you already have some basic equipment. But, that doesn't mean it's easy.
Many would-be successful photographers don't know where to start or where to turn for help. Today, I'm sitting down with Christian from The Click Cartel. He's sharing his personal story as a six-figure photographer and a few great tips.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been a professional photographer?
I have been a professional photographer in New York City for over 2 decades. I specialize in bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah photography. Yes, it’s a real niche! I work mostly from home and earn six figures from about 20 photo shoots a year.
Over the years, I’ve worked with some pretty cool clients, such as Gucci, YSL, Vera Wang, and Jean Paul Gautlier, and my images have been published in Vogue, Vanity Fair, InStyle, New York Magazine, Dwell, and WWD.
Yes, it feels great to have your work associated with big-name clients, but, like I tell my students — you definitely don’t have to work with big names to make six figures!
In fact, the bulk of my income has come from working for private clients — mostly families. And although I’ve personally done well in New York, I want people to know they can make great money from photography wherever they live, with clients right there in their areas. I know tons of photographers in smaller markets who make more money than I do. In part, because there is less competition, and you get to own your market.
Share with us a few of your successes. What has a freelance life allowed you to do or accomplish?
One success that stands out is the time I took a 5-hour job that was basically a freebie for a friend and turned it into $5,000.
I’ve also gotten access to some pretty incredible events. I once did a shoot of an ex-president giving a $2,000-a-person talk in a private home (you can see a couple of those shots here if you’re interested). Another fun job I did was the Tony party for Hamilton at Tavern on the Green. The places that photography can take you are unbelieveable!
Those events were fun for me, but photography is actually pretty much a work-at-home job, depending on how you set it up. Not only can you decide where you work, but you also choose when you work. I can edit, retouch, and send emails at any time of the day or night from my couch or my local coffee shop — wherever I feel like working at the time. I have insane amounts of flexibility and I use it to my advantage. I rarely travel during rush hour, and can do my shopping when there’s no crowds.
Life is a lot more fun when you are not spending hours of it in a line at the grocery store!
Also, my jobs align with the school year, so I take summers off. This year I decided to take 3 months off to travel in Europe, all while making six figures!
I still check in on my business, but that can be done from anywhere.
Because of the free time and flexibility I have with photography, I’ve been able to do a lot of volunteer work. I think the most rewarding project has been mentoring teens from low-income families to teach them how to use photography to live their dreams and make great money.
Like most freelancers, your business has evolved over time. Can you tell us a little about how different your photography business is now compared to your early days?
When I started out in photography, I didn’t have any guidance on how to set up my career. I went to NYU for photography but they didn’t prepare me for running a business. I learned that a degree is absolutely NOT necessary if you want to make money.
I graduated shortly after 9-11, when New York was still reeling economically. I struggled to make ends meet in the beginning. I was all over the place, doing whatever jobs I could find. My confidence was really low because I was not prepared for the business side of photography.
Over time, I found my niche and became successful. Now my photography business runs like a well-oiled machine that spits out cash.
What was your biggest struggle as a new photographer? How did you overcome it?
Everyone freaks out about getting enough clients at first, and I was no different. I spent my early years trying to be too many things to too many people. I took whatever jobs I could out of fear. Through research, trial and error, and dumb luck, I found a niche that I love. I also learned how to create an “upsell” so that I make 2-3 times the booking fee from every job.
It took me years of trial and error to learn the lessons and systems that got me where I am today (and it didn’t have to!).
The key to all this was specialization. If you want to make money in photography, but you don’t have a lot of technical skill, you can totally do this. The trick is to find a niche that you love, and then learn a few key setups really well. If you can deliver a great outdoor natural light headshot consistently, it’s time to start charging for it! You don’t need to know everything — just enough to deliver something that is valuable to your client.
What's your biggest piece of advice for those looking to become a freelance photographer? Any particular things they need to consider?
I don’t think that I am physically capable of only giving one piece of advice, but I will try to keep it under 5!
The first thing to do is warm up your personal network. I talk with a lot of other successful photographers about how they get business, and they all say the same thing — word of mouth. This all starts with your personal network. I promise, there are some professional opportunities lurking there! Do this before you touch a camera because it takes time to get your network ready.
The next thing is find a niche you love. You do this by trying out different niches of photography until you find the one that speaks to you (and it will!). When you find the right one, it’s kind of like finding your soul mate — you just know. Having a niche makes everything easier, from marketing to learning technique to running your business. It’s also much easier to get referrals when you specialize. I didn’t specialize for years, but when I did, it was the one step that catapulted my business over the six-figure mark. You are at an advantage if you niche down at the start.
Next up — focus on specific setups for the niche you choose. I touched on this in the last answer. People are unfocused when they learn photography, and they spend too much time trying to learn everything. Instead, reverse engineer the process. Learn how to do a few things very well, showcase those things, and then sell them.
Speaking of selling, you need to put an “upsell” into your process, which I teach in-depth in my course. Unless you are working for ad agencies with strict budgets, and I am guessing that you are not, this is a vital part of your business model. It gives the client the chance to get what they really want, and you make more money in the process.
It takes time to set up a business, but if you stick with it, you can and will have a successful photography business. And the great part is that YOU get to decide what that means. If it’s an additional $1000 a month for your family, that’s great. If it’s a six-figure business that pays off the mortgage in 7 years, it’s totally possible!
You have a new course helping photographers start successful freelance businesses. What can enrollees expect to learn?
Students can expect to be taken through the process of starting a profitable photography business VERY quickly.
I looked back at my 20+ years in photography and asked myself, “If I wanted to start a successful photography business with very little technical information, as quickly as possible, what are the steps I would take?”
This course is the answer to that question. It’s structured into 10 modules, each one being another step in the process.
A few things they will learn are: how to network authentically (remember it’s the number 1 way photographers get clients), how to find a niche they love, and how to get good enough that they can start charging money fast.
I also cover how double or triple your revenue from your bookings with product sales, and how to create a stream of pre-qualified clients with as little effort as possible.
It’s all about learning how to make money from photography as quickly as possible. And it is possible.
What's one product or service you can't – or wouldn't want to – run your business without?
A big part of my business is creating custom photo books for my clients. Most of my clients initially choose a package that has a 40-page book included, which is pretty standard in my niche. But then they almost always end up purchasing much larger books after the shoot. I charge $60 per additional page, so when a client gets a 140 page book, there are 100 additional pages. That’s an extra $6,000!
This is why I keep extolling the value of an upsell. If you can make just $500 extra off a shoot, and you have 20 shoots a year — that’s $10,000 more a year in the bank!
The product I use for this upsell comes from a printer called Couture Book. They handmake books in the USA, and have an insane amount of customization options. They can easily print books up to 300 pages, which is rare. There are only a handful of printers who can craft a photo book over 80 pages.
My point is to have a reliable system in place that allows you to offer a consistent, profitable product to your clients after their photo shoots. The reason is simple: when a client first books a shoot, products like prints and books are all abstract. The emotional connection comes from the actual images you will show them after the shoot. It’s hard to turn down extra prints and photo books after they’ve fallen in love with the images. And it’s a very low-pressure sale. I NEVER push my clients to buy products they don’t want.
Anything you’d like to leave our readers with?
YES! I want anyone reading this to know that photography is one of the very best work-at-home careers out there. It’s perfect for moms because you can set your own hours and still have time for your family. It also gives you a creative outlet that can earn you a substantial income.
People often think of photography as a difficult field to break into, but with my system, you can have a very profitable business faster than you ever thought possible. It does take dedication and work, but YOU CAN DO THIS! I can show you how!
Learn more about Christian's The Click Cartel course and sign up for his free 6-day intro course.