How to Pass the Time When Business is Slow
Is your calendar looking a little empty? Pull up a chair. It's time you and I had a chat about the facts of life. No, not those facts of life. I'm talking about a stark reality that every professional photographer has to deal with from time to time-- The Phone That Won't Ring. If you've ever picked up your phone for no reason other than to check for a dial tone, you know what I'm talking about. Hitting the refresh button on your email a little (or a lot) more often? Ever called a friend on your cell phone, not because you really wanted to talk to them, but because you wanted to make sure your phone was working? I don't care how good a photographer you are or how impressive your client list is-- the simple, basic, unvarnished truth is that into every professional's life some down time will fall. It's not fun. It can be downright depressing. It can also lead to some pretty bad habits-- the kind that can be extremely hard to break after things pick up again.
You may not have caused the slump, but you can certainly take an active role in making it as short as possible. Sitting on your ass isn't going to fix anything, so what do you do? Here are a few suggestions (in no particular order).
Don't Waste the Quiet Time.
I know it sounds painfully obvious, but it bears repeating. Just because business has slowed down doesn't mean you go to the movies every afternoon while you're waiting for things to turn around all on their own. Think about your typical busy week for just a minute. What percentage of that time is actually spent photographing? 10-15 percent? Less? As business owners, there are a million and one things we have to do to keep our businesses running smoothly. Those things don't go away just because wedding season is winding down or you are between bookings or assignments. Being your own boss is full of ups and downs. Just make sure that important things aren't falling through the cracks while you're waiting for the pendulum to swing back the other way.
Stay in Touch with Your Clients.
Sometimes clients don't know what they need until you tell them. Clients have busy lives and schedules just like you do. Maybe they've been meaning to call you. Maybe your timing will be nothing but pure dumb luck. Either way, staying in touch with your clients keeps you fresh in their minds. This is also a good way of reevaluating your customer service. Is it possible that your current situation has something to do with the quality of customer service? Now is a good time for a hard, honest look at how you are running your business.
Shoot New Work for Your Portfolio.
A good portfolio takes work. Lots of work. It should. Sometimes it is the only tangible representation of your talent a potential client will ever see. The only problem is that it's one of the first things that gets put on the back burner when we're busy. We don't get paid to work on our portfolio (at least not directly), and taking portfolio editing off the top of our to-do list doesn't get a second thought when we're busy. Chances are you have a ton of ideas bouncing around in your head or an inspiration file stashed away somewhere. As long as you're not shooting for clients, you might as well dust some of those ideas off, get them out of your head, and into your portfolio.
And While We're Talking About Your Portfolio...
As photographers and artists, we tend to be very emotionally attached to our work. Unfortunately, that same attachment often prevents us from looking at our work objectively, and that is the #1 stumbling block to a successful portfolio. Now might be a good time to look into hiring a photo editor to help you through the process of objectively evaluating your portfolio choices. I know what you're thinking and you're right. "There's no business coming in the door and you want me to spend money on an expensive photo editor?" If you've planned for a rainy day and you can afford it, I absolutely do want you to hire a photo editor. A stronger book might be just what you need to start bringing business back into your studio or branching out in new photographic directions. If you can't afford an editor, pick a photographer friend whose work you admire and whose opinion you respect. Make sure they understand that you are looking for open, honest critique and not just a pat on the back. Getting a solid feel for the strengths and weaknesses of your portfolio is one of the best things you can do for yourself during this slow period. Find someone to help you do it right.
Now re-read that last paragraph and substitute "website" for "portfolio," When was the last time you refreshed your website? Take some time and breathe some new life into it. We work in a constantly evolving industry. Your website should reflect not only that you can keep up, but that you're capable of leading the charge.
Organize & Get Rid of the Clutter.
Time to take out the trash. The good news is that you can do a lot of this from the same comfy spot where you are sitting right now. You're spending a lot of time in front of the computer anyway, right? Take some time to clear out the clutter in your image library and make sure that everything is streamlined and organized. Doing this is conjunction with your portfolio work is a great exercise is learning how to edit yourself. Go through your earlier work. Take note of how you've grown. Sometimes looking back helps you look ahead.
When that's done clear out the email. Imagine what that inbox would look like if it was all printed and sitting on your desk. Now imagine printing your sent folder and adding it to the pile. It may all be electronic and not taking up and real physical space, but it's still clutter and it's slowing you down. Save what you really need. Ditch the rest.
Spend some time getting your gear cleaned, serviced, and organized. We hardly ever do it when things are busy because we need it on hand. Now is a perfect time to take it in or send it out to make sure everything is in perfect working order.
One thing that you should absolutely, positively NOT be doing during this time is investing in any new equipment. I know that sometimes you have to spend money to make money, but now is not the time for new gear. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is a big enough problem when things are going smoothly. You don't want to fall into that trap when they aren't. Spend the money on rent and the things that will actually help you weather the storm.
Come Up With a Plan.
Like I said before-- this slump isn't going to fix itself. Getting organized doesn't just apply to the mountains of stuff you already have. It also means figuring out what comes next and formulating a plan. The fall wedding season may be over, but what are you doing to plan for the spring wedding season? What's going to keep the lights on between now and then? It's not enough to have an idea. You need to have a plan. How you choose to market yourself can have a huge impact on how long this slump lasts-- or if it ends at all. Are your current marketing materials up to date? Is it time to design new business cards? Out-of-date business cards like this old set of mine are one of the easiest and least expensive things you can address during a slump. Make sure all of your information is current. You want people to find you.
Go on a Social Media Diet!!
There is no greater time-suck than Facebook. You know it. I know it. So, let's be honest about it and not let it push you even further down the rabbit hole. Spending ten hours a day on Facebook is not a marketing plan. If you need to put yourself on a Facebook schedule then do it. There is no denying that it is a valuable tool. I'm a writer for four different photography blogs. None of those relationships would have been possible without Facebook. All I'm saying is use it as a tool, not an escape. Figure out what you realistically hope to accomplish with social media and come up with a plan to accomplish it. Repeatedly clicking the "refresh" button and checking out what your friends had for lunch isn't going to get you out of your slump. Be honest with yourself about your screen time.
Spend Time with Other Photographers.
Get out of the virtual world and spend some time with photographers in the real one. We know that networking is an incredibly valuable business tool, but on a more basic level, these people have all been where you are and will be again. Business is cyclical and photography has its own unique sets of ups and downs. Having people in your corner who know what you're going through is invaluable. Finding photo groups in your area will be a great asset in so many ways. Portfolio reviews, photo walks and meet-ups give you a vital source of moral support and an outlet for honing your skills. Building local contacts is key.
Learn a New Skill. Practice an Old One.
Now is a great time to take stock of your skill set and figure out what needs work. Maybe you've been relying solely on natural light and you've been wanting to bring off-camera flash into your bag of tricks (something I highly recommend, by the way). Have you been wanting to expand from portraits into fashion photography? Photography skills can be learned in a short period of time, but they are mastered over a long period of time. This extra time you have while things have slowed down might be a good time to get started.
Don't just look to new skills. Keep up with what you already know by finding ways to practice and stay sharp. Are you a portrait photographer? Are you working on your lighting? Buy a mannequin. Buy half a mannequin. Bribe your kids. Bribe someone else's kids. Just find a way to practice. You don't want to be rusty when things start getting busy again. It's going to happen, so be ready for it.
Don't forget that your skills extend beyond the camera. How's your editing? Is there something you wish you knew how to do in Photoshop? Learn it. Practice it. Nail it. In all honesty, this is where I need to take my own advice and work on my Lightroom skills. I've gotten so adept at doing what I do in Photoshop that learning Lightroom has always taken a back seat to just about everything else, even though I know that getting proficient in Lightroom could save me a lot of time in the long run.
Also give some thought to going back and re-editing some of your work. You've gotten better at it, so give some of your earlier work the benefit of that improvement.
Inspiration and a Positive Attitude
I think we can all agree that getting and staying inspired is one of the biggest steps (and challenges) towards maintaining a positive attitude. I'll also be the first to admit, though, that this is way easier said than done. There are days when doom and gloom will be the order of the day. It sucks, but it's true. And let's face it-- having happy people offering words of wisdom like "Snap out of it," only makes it worse. It's not their fault. They're in your corner and want to help but may not know how. Whatever you do, do not piss these people off. They are your cheerleaders. You're going to need them. Trust me.
Take a workshop. Go for a walk. Go to the library (It's a building with actual books inside that you can borrow. I'm sure your city has one). Go to a museum. Inspiration can be found anywhere. It doesn't have to be obvious. It doesn't have to make sense. It doesn't even have to be pretty. It just has to speak to you and motivate you to create. Be open to it. Be ready for it, because you never know when or where it's going to hit.
Pulling it All Together
You may not be happy about it, but you have some time on your hands. Expect it, but don't accept it. Invest the time in improving. Learn something new. Practice your craft. Start a project. Make the most of it. Remember that slow doesn't have to mean unproductive. Figure out what needs doing and start chipping away at it. Stay positive. Stay in touch. Stay productive. Stay creative.
About The Author
Jeff Guyer is an Atlanta, GA photographer specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings and sports. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his work at Guyer Photography.