What I’ve come to learn over the last year as I’ve entered the world of food photography is that what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Your journey will not replicate my own. You can spend hundreds of dollars purchasing “how to” guides promising insider tricks and tips to make a quick buck, but if you truly want to succeed — whether that’s with photography, blogging, writing, or anything else you have your heart set on — you have to not only work, but work hard.
What do I mean by that? You’ve got to really want it. You’ve got to stop making excuses for how there are never enough hours in the day and make time.
Looking back, I had things easier than most. I have three young children (currently aged 3, 4.5, and almost 6), however, I’m fortunate enough that they’re either in school or camp, depending on the season, full-time. There are a few weeks each year when they’re stuck at home with me (yes, in the moment, that’s exactly how it feels!), and so I do my best to work around their constant need for snacks, their utter boredom with their approximately 12,000 toys, and their desire to bitch, moan, and complain unless they have my undivided attention. It’s a battle of wills, and usually a glass of rosé wins.
I can’t profess to have taken detailed notes along the way, but I’ll try to summarize the steps it took to get here — to making on average $1000+/week — and then discuss further how I’ve achieved so much growth in my first year. Also, I fully anticipate that some people will scoff at my idea of growth, but keep in mind it was literally one year ago when I picked up a camera for the first time and decided, “I’ve got this.”
Actually, scratch that — I’m breaking this down into two checklists. The first is mental, which is just as important, if not more so, than a physical to-do list. I truly believe that mental obstacles have the potential to hold us back the most. So where do you begin?
- Decide to do it, whatever “it” is to you. Just make the decision and take the leap. I’m a huge believer in tackling the unknown, because often it’s our own lack of confidence that keeps us from achieving great things. Let the fear go, lest your whole life be filled with regret. Honestly, what’s the worse that happens? You’re not good at something, you potentially fail, and then you move on. Of course it’s not quite that simple. You’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed, and $100s don’t grow on trees, but I would bet any amount of money that trying and failing is better than wondering, “what if?”
- Schedule a course of action and make a plan. I’m not talking big picture yet, rather… short term. Start small. Small goals are achievable. Like how to get from point A to point B. If your goal is to open a business, begin an LLC, or start a website, then research what will be necessary to get you there (how much money upfront?, how long will it take to organize and build from the ground up?, etc.) If you have a full-time day job, perhaps this means you need to let go of an after-work hobby or your nightly tv binge of The Office reruns, but trust me — you can make this work.
- Have a support system in place. This is easier said than done, but if you do not have people on your team, rooting for you, your chance of failure is greater. I know it can be scary to reach out to friends or family and share plans about jumping ship from one career and diving head first into another — one that you are not at all currently qualified to take on (hi, yes, I did that!) — but you need cheerleaders, because you will fall. You will have days when you feel overwhelmed, overworked, and unappreciated. Find your people. Your people will pick you back up.
- Do not expect perfection. It’s simply not possible, and to believe that any new endeavor will be perfect is laughable. Every ‘expert’ so to speak started somewhere, and I promise that when they look back on their growth over the years, they are better able to appreciate their specific journey. And it’s because they had room to grow.
I cannot stress the importance of being in a proper mental state before taking physical action. Mental obstacles can absolutely prevent success. So work on that first, okay?
With regards to actual things you need to do to get started, I’m afraid I can only speak to my personal story, but these same guiding principles can 100% be applied to your specific situation and goals. Here are my top 3:
- Read. Educate yourself in the field you’re entering. Before even picking up a camera I read through 3 or 4 food photography books to better understand what the hell I was trying to accomplish. This provided a much-needed basic understanding of photography, styling, and editing. I call this skill-based research, as opposed to business operations.
- Invest in yourself. You either need to invest time to learn and/or execute your vision, or money. Even better is if you can invest both! But if that’s not realistic, choose one and start there. For instance, you need time to build a website. If you do not have the time available to sit and play with code or if that makes you want to rip your hair out, invest money and pay someone to do it for you. (Life lesson: outsourcing is the key to making time for what you really love!)
- Practice your craft. There’s a very well known saying by Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of practice can turn anyone into an expert. So what are you waiting for? This is one of those obvious you-can’t-become-an-expert-overnight mantras, but seriously every day that you wait to begin is a day longer to achieve your goals.
Those are the 3 steps needed to propel yourself forward into a new path. Educate yourself, invest time and/or money to get up and running, and practice.
From there, it’s kind of a choose-your-own-ending scenario. What are your specific goals? From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to be a successful food photographer — not necessarily a blogger. That’s a really important distinction for how I accelerated my business. I am moderately interested in learning the ins and outs of Pinterest to drive traffic to my site, but what’s more lucrative than ad money (for me, at least) are actual paid gigs. Once my LLC was formed, my website was up and running, I opened a business checking and savings account, and I was practicing around the clock, the next step was content creation. No blinders on with this one, it’s absolutely necessary to create stellar content — how in the world can you expect anyone to invest in you if you don’t do something well. As an aspiring food photographer, I needed to up my game and build a legit content library that I could proudly send off to companies and potential clients.
Now you’re probably thinking, “what about a media kit? how do I set rates? how will I ever be confident enough to reach out to brands?”
We’re not there yet. I put all my effort into taking and editing great photos before worrying about any of that. So right now, my advice is to focus on content, because as my mentor, Sarah Fennel of Broma Bakery taught me — content. is. king.
If you already know everything there is to know about your specific craft, congratulations, you are 1 in a million and literally just need to practice, practice, practice! If, however, you are like the rest of us mere mortals, I highly recommend investing time and money in an educational course to learn from an expert. (A 10,000 hour kind of expert. You don’t need to cough up the dough to learn from the best-of-the-best teachers, which will set you back thousands of dollars. What you need is someone successful in your industry who has useful information to teach.) And remember, your time and money is super valuable. Spend them wisely.
Okay, cool. We’re on the same page now. One tiny problem… you don’t have the dollars available to invest. Go to your people. Ask nicely. Borrow a loan from a family member. Do odd jobs for small amounts of money. Sell old items you no longer need or want to make your dreams possible. Remember, you are the thing that is most standing in your way. Be your best advocate. If you don’t fight for this, I promise no one else will will it to happen for you. (You may think I’m joking, but I say this to my husband ALL THE TIME.)
Alright, so you’re really doing this. You’re enrolled in a course or have purchased additional materials to learn from a master, you’re practicing all the time, and you’re building up your content library. Now what?
It’s time to pull up your big girl pants (or boys! hi boys!) and be assertive. Reach out to brands, bloggers you admire, local establishments and find out whether you can offer a service that will help them. This is no longer about you, but about making it very clear to these future-clients that you are a worthwhile investment for their business. Which will, in turn, generate revenue for your own. What it comes down to is having confidence and believing in yourself enough to try.
That’s all I’m asking you to do it try.
I got my first paid gig(s) on Upwork.com — a website devoted to connecting freelancers with paying clients. This was a wonderful first foot in the door, and for my introverted self, it meant I didn’t have to get on the phone or meet with anyone in person. I’m not saying that’s the right way to do things, just that it worked for me. I’m not sure if it was luck, determination, or a combination of the two, but I was able to earn over $5000 from Upwork in my first 6 months, all the while growing and learning from working with a variety of clients (with varying temperaments, by the way — more details on that in lesson 2). Keep in mind that $5000 was revenue, not profit. At this point in my journey, I was still chipping away at the debt accrued from investing money into my business.
The more projects I took on, the more my confidence grew. I didn’t necessarily feel ready to approach brands, but I did it anyway. Remember, dive right in, and figure out the more minute details as you go. And you know what I found? Yes, people will say no to you — or perhaps not even respond to your inquiries — but there were a fair amount of people who were willing to take a chance on me. I can’t tell you how to choose the specific brands that you hope to work with, but let common sense be a guiding principle… if you have 100 followers, do not expect that Chobani will want anything to do with you. The field isn’t completely oversaturated, but there are enough talented fish in the pond that you are unfortunately going to need to start a bit smaller. My suggestion? Think local. Which local companies can you approach. Many businesses are grateful for the opportunity to support local individuals rather than working with large agencies. And guys, here’s my friendly reminder that the worst that can happen is they say no. (I figure if I say this enough you’ll truly understand that you won’t get anywhere unless you take risks, but accept that not everyone will want to work with you.)
This turned out to be pretty long. Super, huge, major apologies. But I told you I had a lot of opinions on the matter and wanted to share my story!
So let’s stop here for now. In my next newsletter I will go over the specific types of clients that I landed throughout my first few months in business, and the steps I followed (outside of Upwork) to approach and follow up with them. I think there’s strength in numbers and when we all succeed, we pave a longer, stronger road for those to follow in our steps. I want to spend my time building up this community that has so lovingly embraced and supported me during this first year.
It is not easy getting started. Following your dreams is rarely simple, but if you have the opportunity to wake up every day, excited about working and creating something you believe in, why on earth would you let that slip away?