This article originally written by Heather Hughes Ostermaier for Black Star Rising, and was reprinted here with permission.
As a wedding photographer, I like the seasonality of the business. With my work concentrated in the summer and pleasanter months of the year, I can take some time off in the winter months. I still have meetings and portrait sessions, but I can get away with working a few hours a day versus eight to 12.
Of course, managing the ebb and flow of work brings its challenges, too — and requires making some smart business and financial decisions. Otherwise, you might find yourself unable to pay the rent come March.
Here are a few tips I recommend for seasonal photographers to keep your business, and your life, in balance.
1. Figure out your monthly costs for your slow season and have that money saved and available before it starts. We all have bills — car payments, mortgages, groceries, membership fees, electric bills — that are due every month or every year for a fairly predictable amount. Look back at your bank statements or other records to see how much you spent each month last year, add on any new bills you know are coming, and then add another $2,000 to $5,000 as a cushion for the unexpected. That way, you’ll be OK if your car needs an unexpected repair or you decide to take a last-minute vacation.
If you keep this money in a savings account, it can continue to earn interest until you need it, and then you can take out amounts as you need them or each week like you were getting a paycheck. Remember, winter is the time of year that a lot of annual bills like membership dues, advertising and taxes are due, so it’s always better to have a little extra saved than you think you will need.
2. Don’t bet the farm on deposit checks. For most of the country, November through March are the slower months for weddings. And depending on your payment schedule, this is also when your incoming checks will start slowing down.
If you have a two payment schedule, the initial deposit and the final payment, then you will still be getting deposit checks during this time as you continue to book the coming year. But deposit checks are generally smaller than the final payment, and they are dangerous to plan around since you never know when you will book your next date.
So be cautious in betting on deposit checks. The last thing you want is to put yourself in a situation where you feel pressured to dramatically cut your prices to book a wedding — simply because you need the deposit money to pay the electric bill.
3. Don’t go on a shopping spree. Unless you planned for it and have the extra money, this winter is not a good time to invest in new equipment or make major purchases. Chances are you are still filling your calendar for the next year, and while you can estimate how well things are going compared to the same time last year, you still have no guarantees. We have been reminded a lot lately how unstable the economy will be this year, so plan for a slow year and unexpected cancellations — and spend accordingly.
4. Get caught up on your to-do lists. I am a major list person, but even if you don’t have them written down, all of us have things that come up during the busy season that we put off until things slow down. Whether it is preparing your taxes, organizing the office, updating your Web site, or looking for a new album company, there are things we put off until we have the time — and it is easy to put them off all the way to next year.
Resist the urge. Soon it will be wedding season again, and you will feel a lot better if you don’t have all those tasks hanging over your head. Plus, if you stick to a plan and get your list done, you may find yourself with a month free to sleep in and take that much-needed vacation.
5. Conduct an annual performance review of yourself. This is the perfect time to look back over the past year to see what you did, didn’t do, what worked, what didn’t and see what changes you can implement to make your business better and more profitable. You don’t have to create a formal evaluation form, but you should look at the same things you would be judged on if you were working for someone else.
Did you meet your budget? Is your advertising working? Are your vendor relationships good? Are your prices competitive? Is there anything you can do to make your photography or business better? The potential questions are endless, and you can decide what is important to you — but you should definitely take time for self-examination at least once a year.
6. Take advantage of the time off and recharge your batteries. Photography is a creative field, and when you are working six to seven days a week during the busy season, it is easy to get burned out — so by the time the slow season rolls around, you are ready for it. Even though you have your to-do lists to get done, you also need to take care of yourself.
If you have trouble staying away from the computer like I do, then get away for a few days or a week. Schedule a vacation — even if you don’t leave the house. Just don’t make any appointments, change your voicemail message, or do any other work. Give yourself time to relax.
—Heather Hughes Ostermaier
Heather is an international award-winning photojournalist and uses her passion for storytelling to document wedding stories. She graduated from the Visual Communications program at Ohio University, has over 10 years of experience, and never goes to a photo shoot without her backup equipment – extra lenses and her husband, Rob.
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