A year ago, I battled a monster of my own making: burnout. I had just completed my eighth consecutive wedding weekend with five more ahead in the season. On my schedule for the week were two high school senior sessions, one newborn session, and a family session. This wasn’t an unusually busy week. It was part of my new normal; behind on work, overwhelmed and constantly exhausted.
On paper this looked like the success I aimed to achieve. I was working hard, making great money, my schedule booked to the max. I loved my clients and I was making them really happy. But my happiness was missing from the equation. Somewhere between “I love photography so much that I want to make a living doing it” and actually making it happen, I had taken a major wrong turn. If I couldn’t get back on track, I was ready to give it up completely.
After some extensive soul-searching and a bit of tough love from family and friends, I realized that by saying YES to every inquiry that came my way I lost control of my business. I justified my decisions with the excuse “I need the money,” but the truth is that I was being a coward. What I really needed was clarity.
A deep dive into my business revealed that most of my time and energy was devoted to managing weddings. I enjoy shooting weddings, but they don’t align with who I am in my life right now. I have school-aged children and being a wedding photographer means that I miss time on the weekends with my family. To take it a step farther, weddings just don’t move my heart the way family sessions do. I know how quickly life moves and children grow; my passion is preserving images of family life for my clients, because it changes in the blink of an eye. When I show what’s honest and real between mothers and sons, and fathers and daughters, I am satisfied in a way that transcends time, space and money. At my core I am not a wedding photographer, I am a lifestyle family photographer. And when I made the decision to own that, everything changed.
Being honest with myself and deciding to specialize saved my business, and it saved my family. It allowed me to streamline and focus in a way I never thought possible. By saying NO to clients and projects that don’t truly inspire me, I made space for the ones that do. And more important, I’ve created space in my life to HAVE a life, to spend time with people who matter most.
Do you feel out of control, like your business owns you rather than the other way around? Here are some steps I took to get clarity and achieve a sustainable business model:
- Take time to pause the chaos. Carve out a day or even an hour to step back and examine what’s working and what’s not. If you’re shooting everything under the sun, you won’t magically land on a niche without making a conscious decision to do so. That decision needs – and deserves – careful consideration.
- Listen to your intuition. There are endless resources claiming to be the authority on the best way to run a photography business, but you are the only person who will ultimately know what’s right for you and your business. Do the work to figure it out. Don’t be surprised if it’s vastly different from what everyone else is doing. Different is good. Be brave and own it!
- Get specific. Take a piece of paper and on one side write what you love about your business, and on the other side write what drains you. If you can attribute an item to a specific part of your business, make note of that, too. What you learn might surprise you. Maybe shooting newborns is wearing you down, while shooting seniors energizes you. Embrace this knowledge and adjust your schedule accordingly!
- Tell your peers about your new direction and create a referral network that consists of photographers who specialize in areas you no longer want to shoot. Perhaps you can send maternity and newborn sessions to another local photographer in exchange for her senior portrait referrals? Win-win!
- This is a tough one, but only share the type of work you want to do going forward. We all love to show how busy and amazingly versatile we are by blogging and posting every session we shoot on Facebook, but what you put into the world is what you get back. Clarity perpetuates clarity. Make every post count!
Specializing may not ultimately be the answer for you, but don’t be afraid to pursue it if it feels right. Much like the person behind it, your business will not look the same in 10 years as it does today. It will probably need to evolve and change to survive. What works today may not work next year, and that’s okay. If you’re like me, your business was initially ignited by sparks of passion and love for photography. You must feed those flames if you want to keep it alive. Don’t you owe it to yourself and your clients to do work that sets your heart on fire? I sure think so.
About Erin Oveis Brant
Erin Oveis Brant lives with her husband and 2 energetic sons in San Diego, CA. When she’s not chasing kids or playing at the beach, she’s trying to figure out how to get more bright color into her wardrobe and more fresh vegetables into her diet. She believes true happiness is worth fighting for and smiling is her favorite.