From Starving Artist to Sustainable Business

Why are so many photographers struggling in their businesses despite their obvious talent? What causes some people to remain starving artists while others seem to prosper almost effortlessly?

D’Arcy Benincosa, success coach and international destination wedding photographer, believes that photographers, particularly women, too often impede their success by failing to tap into their unique talents. Some have a tough time combining art and commerce, and their lack of confidence prevents them from building a sustainable business.

The good news is that a few revelations can help struggling entrepreneurs change direction and get on the path to profitability. The process starts with an honest self-assessment, says Benincosa. “The first step is to be very clear about where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are. Once you identify your weaknesses, then you can begin to make changes.”

Start by understanding your current money personality, which Benincosa classifies into several archetypes:

  • The child is carefree and prefers to procrastinate financial decisions. People who identify as the child can be easily overwhelmed by money conversations, tend to be unsure about things like pricing, and often buy exciting things impulsively rather than saving for more responsible purchases.
  • The martyr blames financial problems on external factors. Martyrs feel powerless about money and jealous toward others they see as lucky. Martyrs are often so busy caring for other people that they neglect their own interests.
  • The miser hoards money and is eternally afraid of losing it. There’s no flow of money in and out of the business; it’s just stockpiled. Misers never feel that they have enough money, which leads to anxiety and an overanalysis of every financial decision. 
  • The struggling creative feels like a sell-out by making money from art. Struggling creatives struggle to make ends meet despite their obvious talent and ambition.
  • The gambler takes a lot of big risks and often moves from job to job, special offer to special offer, in search of the fastest route to making a lot of money. 
  • The compromiser will forsake principles for money. Compromisers undermine their own value to make a buck, caving on pricing and taking on projects they dislike in search of financial stability.
  • The saboteur makes self-sabotaging decisions, which often come from low self-esteem and a tendency to give away power for love and acceptance. Saboteurs wish life was different but don’t take action to change their lives. 
  • The magician is the most self-aware and forward-thinking archetype. It’s the persona most photographers should aspire to. Magicians make peace with past money decisions without letting those decisions dictate their future. They understand that we all have the magic within us to find our own definition of success that’s free of others’ expectations.   
Drawing of a magician holding a top hat and wand
Magicians make peace with past money decisions without letting those decisions dictate their future.
Don't Sabotage Your Own Income

Once you’ve identified who you are, consider who you want to be, says Benincosa. “Create that person and then work backward. Understand how much money that person wants to make and why.” Start reconstructing yourself and your business in that aspirational image. Put yourself in situations where you can be around the types of clients you want. Figure out the type of work you want to do. Think about how you market and present yourself. Consider your pricing and what you offer to clients.

This may require changing your perspective. Do you think about money the same way as your ideal client does? For example, if you come from a modest background and you aspire to work with luxury-level clients, then you’re probably not on the same page in terms of money. “If you want to work in the luxury market, then it helps to spend time around people in that market,” suggests Benincosa. “Find a way to be around them. See the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the wine they drink. Get a perspective of how they think about money. Once you can understand their thought process and you realize that you are more worthy of money, then you can start to charge higher rates with confidence.”   

Confidence is a key element in the equation. Consider whether you’re making decisions from a place of fear or a sense of prosperity. Unfortunately, says Benincosa, too many people make business decisions based on fear. Fear-based decisions lead to uncertain results and can promote feelings of anxiety and jealousy. Instead, operate with an awareness of your worth. Set aside your fears about things not going well and move forward with an understanding of the unique value you bring to every project. That will help you make those tough decisions about pricing and promotion with more clarity.

Now you understand your worth, you’re getting a better understanding of how your ideal client thinks about money, and you’re making confident decisions based on a sense of prosperity. What’s next? Time to start raising prices?

The process of evolving from a starving artist to a sustainable business is really about getting control of your money instead of letting money control you.

Not so fast, says Benincosa. “First, think about the experience you’re providing. What is the unique offer you’re presenting to clients?” An offer isn’t necessarily a special deal you put on your website; it’s a statement of what you can provide that’s different, special, and desirable to your ideal client. This requires some thought, but some photographers can get a touch lazy at this stage in the process. As they imagine the businessperson they want to be, they’ll start to imitate others in their field who they perceive to be more successful. So they’ll just lay out the terms of their offer or even copy from another photographer. That doesn’t work. You’re not going to be successful imitating someone else. You have to work on what you have to offer.

The only way to do that is to get more in touch with your personal artistic gifts and then create an offer based on those gifts. “Move past copying, and realize you have the magic in you,” says Benincosa. “Go out, be inquisitive, try things you haven’t seen.”

If you can create an original offer based on your unique talents, then you’re able to move beyond the cliche. And when you’re no longer doing the same thing as everyone else, you’re no longer competing on price. You can charge according to your skill, artistry, and, quite honestly, how busy you are.

“When you go to a shoot and you’re frustrated that you’re doing the job, then you know you’re not charging enough,” says Benincosa. “If you show up and you’re excited to do the job, then you’re probably getting compensated more appropriately. And if your calendar is totally booked, then you should raise your prices. I know photographers who are always busy and they raise their prices every couple of months. It’s all about demand.”

In the end, the process of evolving from a starving artist to a sustainable business is really about getting control of your money instead of letting money control you. That shift in mindset will allow you to change the way you build your business—from reactive and hapless to proactive and strategic. And when you’re building a business strategically, the process becomes surprisingly simple. “Whatever you want to become, think about the logistics of how to make it happen, and then go do it,” says Benincosa. Yes, after going through the process, it really can be that simple. 

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.