As I enter my 5th year in business and approach my 2-year anniversary of going full-time with my equine photography business, I have been reflecting on lessons I've learned. I've learned a lot of them the hard way, but some have been fortunate accidents that lead to success.
If you're a budding equine photographer, I'd love to share some insights into things that have both helped and hurt my business!
1. Never underestimate the power of small connections.
2020 was my first year taking on shows as an Official Photographer. I started small, with a one-ring summer series at a brand new facility. Some of the shows were small in number, but the value of the connections I made at these shows was literally the thing that pushed me to the point of being ready to take my business full-time in 2021.
I've heard show photographers lament, "Ugh, the numbers at this show were so small, it's not going to be profitable." I'd challenge that—while the bottom line profit might not be what you'd dream of, it's up to you to make a show valuable in other ways. It is your responsibility to leverage your exposure there. Do you have a booth set up so people know you're there? Are you talking to people and forming genuine connections? Are you providing a level of service that meets or exceeds the service provided at "bigger" shows?
If your business offers portraits, "small shows" can be approached as a marketing venture to meet potential portrait clients. This requires you to get involved with competitors and spectators. Genuinely express interest in competitors and their horses, and provide the same level of service (or even better) that you would at a bigger show.
My favorite example is from somebody I met at a very small show (probably about 30 competitors for the day.) She ordered a few show photos and then reached out to schedule a portrait session, which turned into my biggest (and possibly favorite) piece of artwork yet.
Action items for you:
Brainstorm opportunities in your market that other photographers might have glossed over because they are "too small."
Where is there potential there for you to make valuable connections? This can be anything from small horse shows, to connecting with employees at local tack shops, to reaching out to another local equestrian business.
2. Genuine connections are more powerful than "vanity followers."
It is so easy to get wrapped up in Instagram clout. I've done it, you've done it, we've all done it. Vanity metrics are powerful and it's hard to escape that trap.
However, most of the people I really look up to in business stress the importance of genuine connections over empty numbers.
When you surround yourself with people you "click" with, you'll not only bring in the more of the right clients, but you'll feel more fulfilled. I would rather have 5 portrait sessions with people whose company I enjoy than 50 sessions with people who aren't a good fit but "they're paying the bills."
Connecting with the right people has a snowball effect. Generally speaking, they'll have friends or acquaintances who you'll click with, too. You'll get to know more people who are really in your corner, and that is more valuable for your business and your sanity than having an overwhelming amount of connections who drain you.
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
- Create your "ideal client" avatar. There is a TON of helpful information out there on this topic. I really like this article from Hootsuite on developing a buyer persona, and there's also a helpful free template at the bottom of the article. (I personally have 3 client avatars I constantly go back to: "Amateur Andrea," "Professional Paula," and "Junior Jenny.")
- Brainstorm and make a list of the people in your community who fall into these categories. Make sure they're also people you genuinely "jive" with so that you can form a connection that fulfills you, instead of draining you.
- Pick one person from this list (ideally one that is familiar with you already), and reach out to them. If you nurture that connection, it will bring more connections like it.
3. Don't mistake MONEY for VALUE.
The amount of money somebody is willing to invest in you is directly related to how much they value what you provide. It is NOT based on their bank account.
Targeting potential clients based strictly on how much money they have is a losing game. Somebody might be rich, but if they don't value the service you provide, they're not going to invest in you (or they will, but they'll likely hem and haw about every dollar.) On the other hand, somebody who isn't as well-off financially might truly value your services enough to set aside some savings for you and will know that you are worth every penny you charge.
Somebody who values what you offer will not ask for discounts and special treatment. They know that what you do is valuable and they respect your time and talents.
Knowing and believing in your value is essential so that you don't cave when people ask for discounts. If somebody asks for a discount, they don't value you enough. (It's one thing to offer a special rate on your own terms, and another to be coerced into giving one.)
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
"Money mindset" education is imperative. There are tons of free resources out there to get you started (just Google "money mindset" and you'll be astonished at the amount of information you find). From there you can continue on to books or courses dedicated to the subject of creating and maintaining a healthy money mindset.
4. Prioritize education over fancy new gear.
To me, the ultimate indicator that somebody is a beginner photographer is hearing "I could be successful/take photos like that/be a better photographer if only I had the same gear as them."
Your gear doesn't make the photos, and your gear certainly doesn't make your business. Think of upgrading equipment as moving up to the next horse. You can buy a Grand Prix horse even if you’re only jumping 2’6, but you’ll spend a lot of money and won’t necessarily know what to do with all its bells and whistles.
Instead of jumping at the opportunity to upgrade, become an expert with what you have now. I shot with very basic equipment for years after starting my business, and only upgraded when I maxed out my abilities with that gear.
Investing in education is the single most important thing you can do for yourself as a photographer and business owner. This means business & marketing education as well as photography education. I would actually argue that business & marketing education is more important than photography education. Yes, you need a firm grasp of the science of photography, but even if you are the most talented photographer in the world, it won't do much for you if you can't market yourself and run a successful business.
(Spoiler alert: none of us are the most talented photographer in the world. So become a master at the craft of business.)
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
- Make a list of the areas you can improve (we all have them.) This list can include social media strategies, marketing, photography basics like the exposure triangle, the basics of running a legal business, among other things you need to work on. (Psst, did you know I offer mentoring sessions for photographers?)
- Pick one thing on your list and dive in head-first. There are so many free resources out there, you don't need to spend money to get started. As your business grows, you will be ready to invest in formal education.
- Keep working your way through your list. Learn constantly. You never know everything there is to know.
5. Don't be afraid of free work, but approach it correctly.
There might be times in your business when it makes sense to offer free work. Some forms of free work have brought me a lot of paid business.
However, it's important to approach it correctly. You should offer free work to people who will propel your business in the right direction. They should align with your brand and marketing goals (i.e., if I want to target the hunter/jumper world, my model calls won't be directed at barrel racers.)
It's important that this work gives you something of value. It doesn't necessarily need to be monetary value, it can be a confidence boost when you need one, or a creative outlet when you're in a rut.
Back in 2019, after a whirlwind of really tough sessions and clients that made me question everything, I reached out to a girl who used to ride at the same barn as me. I knew that she was super sweet, and had a beautiful horse who she adores (my ideal client is head-over-heels in love with their horse, and she fits that description perfectly.) I knew I needed a good old-fashioned confidence boost and a reminder of my "why," so I reached out to her to set up a free session. It ended up being SO much fun, and re-ignited my passion for my work. It also helped me form a genuine connection with somebody I admire and have been able to stay in touch with, and who has also helped me form more connections with other people I truly enjoy.
Some times "free work" might be right for you:
- You identified a person in your market who could be a valuable connection.
- You are looking for a specific type of model for your portfolio.
- You need a creative outlet to remind yourself that this is not just a career, it's your passion.
- You need to practice a new or challenging photography technique (i.e., off-camera lighting, shooting in direct mid-day sun, shooting action when you're used to only portraits).
- You got new gear and need to test it out in a no-pressure situation.
Tips for making the most of your "free work:"
- Be picky about who you select. Remember this work needs to provide SOME kind of value for you, monetary or otherwise.
- Don't skip the contract. Just because it's free doesn't mean you don't need to protect yourself and your model.
- Set clear expectations for your model. Let them know what you expect of them, for example if their horse needs to be immaculately turned out and show-ready. Also let them know what they'll receive in exchange for their time.
- Try reaching out to people directly before posting "open model calls." Model calls can be helpful in some situations but they have to be approached carefully. There's a great episode on the Horses In Focus podcast that discusses this—check it out here.
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
- Determine the "why" for taking on free work. Before you offer free work, figure out your specific reason for doing so.
- Brainstorm a list of people in your community who can help you achieve your goals.
- Reach out to at least 1 of the people on your list and get something on the books!