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5 Lessons I’ve Learned from 5 Years as a Professional Photographer

May 10, 2023

This month (May 2023) marks 5 years of business for me. It’s been an incredible journey so far and I’ve learned so much!

When I first started my business in Madison, Wisconsin, I had no idea what it would turn into. I was just starting to wrap my head around the fact that people liked my photography enough to pay me for it. Back then, I thought if I built a website, I would get clients. Boy was I wrong. 😂 While year one wasn’t a total failure by any means, I was definitely a novice propelling ahead with more grit than business savvy. I sure have come a long ways since the early days of my business. 

It would be challenging to list every single business and life lesson I have learned along my five year journey, so I have decided to highlight five lessons that stand out to me in my first five years of business as a photographer.

Colorado Wedding and Portrait Photography | Sarah Godfrey Photography

1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

It’s been so hard not to compare my successes to others – especially in the world of social media. Although I made tracks in my first 2 years of business and was proud of what I accomplished, the uphill battle to hit my goals seemed impossible. I looked at other photographers and thought, “well they have connections and know people” or “they started earlier and just got lucky with getting referrals.” These things could be true, but every business is so different. I have learned my own success is dependent on me alone. As a person in business for myself, I have had to actively seek and invest in more educational opportunities, mentorships and connections with other photographers and businesses.  I have also learned to embrace failure. It’s still not easy (especially if I invest money somewhere and it doesn’t pan out), but I have learned to look at those failures as opportunities to pivot and try something else. 

In all honesty, if I had the same success year 1 as year 4 of my business, it would have been a disservice to my clients.  In the early days, I did not have the same skills as a photographer, had no Client Management System (CRM) –  aka no organization/was sending paper contracts, and did not posess the experience necessary to run a full day wedding by myself as the primary photographer.  Slow growth isn’t always bad – even if you can’t see it at the time. If you are a new business owner, don’t give up! Persistence will eventually pay off. 


2. You are going to hear no… a lot. 

Being a photographer can be hard. In today’s digital media age, it is easier than ever to learn photography and there are a ton of people who want to be photographers. While not everyone is a professional, there are a lot of “good” photographers out there who can also provide a similar client experience as you and will deliver quality photos. 

That being said, unless you are a sales master, you will typically hear “no” a lot more than “yes” (or just be ghosted.. a photographer’s favorite 😂). For most businesses this is to be expected. After all, most high-performing sales organizations are said to close only 30% of their qualified leads. But as an individual service based business, rejection still hurts. As a photographer, you definitely learn perseverance. 


3. It’s important to figure out what drives you besides money 

A lot of photography and business educators teach the importance of “naming your why” as a business owner. When you first start out that seems silly, because of course that is money, right?! You loved photography before the business part so making money is the “why.” 

The longer I have been a photographer, the more I have understood being able to identify a purpose for what I do. In all honesty I think there are so many easier ways to make money than being a photographer. Between e-commerce, social media, real estate, etc, there are so many opportunities if you want to be self-employed. Also, many of those opportunities are much more scalable than a photography business.

I have learned what makes me happy besides being able to support myself is serving my clients to the best of my ability, making photography a fun and non-stressful experience, and working hard to create images that are worthy of being passed down generations. Don’t get me wrong, I love coming up with new creative photoshoot ideas and shooting in beautiful locations, but what motivates me is the people I get to impact in a small way. 


4. You have to love learning 

A decision to stop learning or investing in education is a decision to be stagnant in your business. Photography equipment is always innovating. Marketing ideas and best practices change every year. It’s important to keep improving and learning every year. 

I’ve spent a lot of money over the years on courses, mentorships, etc. There may have been some regrettable investments along the way, but I still recognize the importance of trying to find new ways to educate myself. I’m not saying every new photographer should go spend 2K on a course (free options are out there too.. YouTube, etc), but it’s important to dedicate time to growth. 


5. Work/life balance is important

I can be pretty hard on myself. Throughout the past five years, I have gone through many phases where I decided I wasn’t doing enough or on the contary I felt the need to do all the things at once. I’d go through periods of intense motivation where I would write four blog posts in a night, work on my website, etc., to times where I would do absolutely nothing for two months and then wonder why I was not getting clients. 

I now feel I have a better balance with my business. I understand the importance of creating new content and consistently making changes, but am less hard on myself if things do not get done. I also have boundaries for managing my email inbox, etc (ex: I don’t reply to client emails on weekends). I created this business to improve my life – not let it run my life. 

I hope in another 5 years, I can look back at this blog and recognize even more growth/changes from another 5 years in business. Also, to all you new business owners – I hope you glean some advice/motivation from this post! 🙂

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