lifestyle and fine art portrait specialist

Courtney Malone


Hi, I'm Courtney.
I'm so glad you have found your way to my little home on the web. I'm a photographer, graphic designer, and most importantly a mom to two sweet kiddos. I'm obsessed with newborns. family stories, helping mamas to better learn how to use their cameras to document their own motherhood journeys, and am constantly seeking to understand the wild and crazy ride that is motherhood.
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The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made When I Started My Lifestyle Family Photography Business

February 13, 2019

Starting a photography business is such a wonderful journey to begin! When I first started 3+ years ago, I was so excited at the prospect of potentially quitting my day job (check!) and growing a successful, booked out photography business (check!). But let me tell you, it didn’t start out that way.

When I started my business I made some BIG mistakes. To be fair, the photography business is really tough to break into. It’s a crowded market and it’s tough to stand out in the noise of all the other photographers out there trying to make it. It’s also REALLY tough to come by some basic information to help you get started in this industry the right way, and requires a lot of trial and error to get where you want to be.

I’m here to share some of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started out in hopes of helping you skip the awkward years, and fast track to running a successful business! Here are some of the BIGGEST mistakes I made, and ultimately how I corrected them.

1. My pricing was all wrong.

Pricing was one of the hardest things for me to figure out when I first started. I honestly didn’t even know where to begin. I used ALL the wrong techniques to price my services in the beginning, including comparison, guessing and totally random and irrelevant “packages” that my clients weren’t interested in.  

My BIGGEST pricing mistake, however, was setting up pricing without ever understanding my cost of doing business. While I knew that running a business would require some spending and investing on my end, I had no idea what those numbers were, and often found myself in shock when big bills or unexpected business needs dipped into my paycheck.

Mathematically, this wasn’t too hard to correct. I finally got smart and came up with a spreadsheet to track my annual expenses, and compare it to my expected revenue. I was finally able to see what was coming in and what was going out and what that meant for what I could pay myself.

In the beginning, it hurt when I realized I was paying myself LESS than minimum wage. Yep, it’s true! When I did the math, and calculated my take home pay against the number of hours I spent for each session, I was paying myself less than minimum wage. Ouch.

I knew in my heart I was providing far more than a minimum wave service for my clients, and something needed to change. The hard part of this fix, was that I was priced SO LOW in the beginning, that when I finally realized both the cost and value of what I was providing, I had to make a big jump in pricing. This caused me to lose some wonderful clients along the way, and its still one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with – no longer fitting in the budget of some of my first wonderful clients.

I am happy to also say that I have gained some incredible ones too who also see the value in what I offer, and knowing I am compensating myself for the service I provide makes me feel engaged and totally dedicated to what I’m doing.

Make sure you are considering your costs and your time as you set your pricing. Next week I’ll be sharing a spreadsheet I’ve created to help you assess your numbers as an all inclusive photographer. If you’d like to get access to this spreadsheet, enter your details below so you don’t miss a post!

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    2. I didn’t understand my equipment or lighting.

    When I first started out, I thought the fancy camera and a “good eye” was all I needed. Turns out these two things alone weren’t enough to get me where I wanted to be.

    I can remember the very first day I offered paid shoots! I went BIG and offered a day of “mini sessions” to friends and friends of friends. I’m embarassed to say that I shot those in Aperture Priority mode (because I had no clue how to shoot in manual! Yikes!), charged a whopping $50 and had absolutely no concept of flattering light, hence why I scheduled them all day (think a high noon mini session at an outdoor location). It was pretty sad, but I honestly didn’t know any better at that time. We all truly start somewhere, and for me, this was it – a pure hobbyist who wanted to dabble in potentially going pro.

    I realized pretty quickly after that that if I was going to call myself a professional and truly operate a business, I need to be a master of my craft. I had to know what to do in any circumstance to still get my clients the promised results. I invested a ton of time and a ton of money into education. I became an online course junkie, and I constantly had a camera in my hand (just ask my husband… the poor guy!). I practiced constantly and worked my buns off until I knew the camera and lighting like the back of my hand.

    I now pride myself on TRULY being a professional – prepared for any situation including lighting troubleshooting, camera malfunctions, the works.

    Side note, it’s important that you include things like education investments into your cost of doing business! This is an investment in your skill and value and ultimately what you are capable of providing to your clients!

    3. I didn’t understand marketing or client experience.

    When I first started my business, I would do anything to get my name out there. I ran tons of specials, discounts, and giveaways to try and get followers and likes on social media. The problem is… likes and followers don’t pay any of my bills!

    Yes, it’s important to cultivate a community and to have a regular presence on social media, but I quickly realized that the efforts I was putting in weren’t getting me the desired result, which was a community of clients who love what I offer and stick with me time and time again

    In 2018, I put a ton of emphasis on my client experience. It was one of my biggest goals for the year. I invested so much time and energy into developing systems and steps to guide my clients along their experience from the moment they inquire to the time their final images are in hand. I wanted to wow them with my expertise and dedication to their session being the best it could be. I took time to get to know my clients before the shoot, and truly connected with them which made things so much more intimate, therefore resulting in even more emotion and connection in their images. I realized that by doing this, I was creating a tribe of loyal fans – who would share my name with their friends and family ultimately resulting in more bookings and more wonderful clients.

    I strongly encourage you to invest more time in your client experience rather than your follower count, and truly make your clients feel special. Being a photographer is so much more than taking pretty photos, and this one goes a long way.

    4. I didn’t prep my clients for session day.

    When I first started out, it never occurred to me that I could actually guide my clients along in their session experience, helping them understand what to wear and what to expect on their session day. I know – it probably SHOULD have occurred to me. But I honestly just didn’t know enough about running a business like this to think it would be helpful to guide them along in the process in great detail. Because I wasn’t prepping them well and educating them on what contributes to awesome results, I did a lot of shoots at less than ideal times of day and had many clients wear clothes that just didn’t photograph well (like tightly checked patterns that create a moire effect!)

    I realized pretty early on that my clients were actually sort of nervous for session day! Most families don’t spend a lot of time around a big fancy camera. Having it pointed in your face for an hour (or more for a newborn session!) can be incredibly intimidating, and I wasn’t doing anything to help my clients feel at ease before their session. Not to mention, having a photoshoot when you’re also trying to figure out how to care for a brand new baby can feel incredibly overwhelming. With some guidance from me, I helped to establish my expertise, assuring my clients they were in awesome hands, and I also helped ease client fears and reservations about session day.

    I also realized that my clients needed helping choosing what to wear – not so much because they didn’t have awesome taste (because they did!), but they wanted guidance on what colors and styles photographed well, and how to coordinate an entire family for photos that look cohesive, but not matchy matchy.

    Implementing an entire client prep system from the moment they inquired to the day of the session (and even gallery delivery!) was a huge game changer for client experience. It also made my job easier because clients knew exactly what to expect from me and when!

    5. I thought lifestyle/candid meant unposed.

    I knew from day one in my business that I wanted to capture moments that feel authentic and emotion filled. I was never going to be that perfectly posed portrait photographer who swapped heads just to get the perfect photo.

    What I didn’t factor in… was that those moments just don’t naturally happen. I can remember that first moment it hit me that I was actually going to have to tell clients what to do! Even down to little things like where to put their hands and where to stand. It turns out that candid is anything but!

    As a lifestyle photographer, I quickly learned that I had to be the “director” of the shoot, helping my clients intentionally create moments of joy with a lot of guidance – much more than I ever anticipated. I had to develop a session game plan, and a true posing workflow. It had to be one that helped me direct clients efficiently to capture a lot of variety in a small amount of time, and one that was also flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of kiddos or babies.

    Yes, the authenticity is still there – the smiles and the laughs are real. But by telling my clients where to stand, what to do, where to look, where to put their hands and prompting them with something besides “SAY CHEESE!” I could finally capture the “candid” moments I so desperately wanted to!

    So there you have it! Some of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started out. Luckily, these are all easy to overcome with some hard work and awareness that these might be some areas to pay attention to!

    Next week I’m sharing a post I’ve been working hard on these last few weeks – it’s all about PRICING as an all inclusive photographer! It will include a FREE spreadsheet to help you understand your cost of doing business, and know if you are priced for profit or need to make a change! I can’t wait to share soon!

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