3 Things All Photographers Should Consider at the End of the Year

It’s that time of year again. A time to look back as we start to look forward.

True, I am writing this in early December. So, technically speaking, the year is not quite at an end. But it seems like December comes sooner and sooner with each passing year and the rapidity of the weeks within December only serve to heighten that sense. Part of this is due to the general mood that sweeps the artistic and inartistic population as we ready ourselves for the end of the year. For commercial photographers like me, who work on larger projects which (usually) require weeks of planning prior to the shoot, the limited number of early days in December available to secure new business that will still shoot prior to the end of the calendar year always seems shorter than I wish it would. The end result being that, generally speaking, if I haven’t booked a campaign for December early in the month, by the time the holiday weeks arrive and my clients depart for their own family trips, it’s likely that I can, for all intents and purposes, consider the last couple weeks of the year as an official holiday.

But, as every small business owner knows, “time off” is really just time to prepare. A chance away from the usual week-to-week hustle and bustle of running a business to catch up on some of the tasks that have fallen by the wayside throughout the year. For me, this means that the latter weeks of December tend to center on three basic questions.

How Did I Progress This Year Artistically? 

Whether you are in business as a professional photographer, or simply take photographs for the love of the game, the wonderful thing about photography is that, if done right, it is a path of constant growth. No matter how good you may be right out of the gate, you can always get better. In many ways, your goal as an artist isn’t to master your craft. It is to continually remaster your craft and continue to improve upon your approach and output with every opportunity.

So, at the end of the year, generally around the same time that I am catching up on re-editing my portfolio, I like to take stock of what new projects I’ve shot during the year. Both professional and personal. How has my practical skill set grown throughout the year?  More importantly, what aesthetic themes have begun to emerge as a throughline that seem to be coming out in my work. Oftentimes, your artistic voice will come through in your work, even when you might not be consciously aware that it’s happening. It takes years to really understand our own inner motivations and proclivities. And then additional years to keep understanding ourselves as our lives and artistic viewpoints change. It’s hard to see the development when you are in the moment.

Taking a beat to look back at the images you’ve created throughout the year will often reveal your own subconscious. You had no idea you had been drawn to shoot so much of a certain subject. Wow, look how this one specific color seems to work its way into so many of your photos without your planning. Maybe you are drawn to certain compositions, subjects, or environments. It can be hard to identify these preferences with a camera in your hand. But, given the distance of time, looking back on your work objectively can help you identify the things that appeal to your base instincts. Identifying those things can help you identify where your strengths are as an artist. Identifying your strengths informs you which aspects of your photography you might want to put forward in order to separate yourself from the competition.

Where Do I Stand Financially?

It’s not nearly as much fun as sifting through your images. But, if you do photography for a living, sooner or later you’re going to need to turn a profit. In order to be profitable, you need to have some idea of how much money you are bringing in versus how much money you are spending. Hopefully you’ve kept detailed records throughout the year to keep track of the pennies going in and out. The end of the year is the perfect time to take a closer look at where those pennies went so that you can hold onto more of them in the coming year.

This year, not only did I do an analysis of my books for the last twelve months, but I did a separate analysis of my books for the last 10 years. The business has changed a lot over recent years. There are many reasons for this change. Not the least of which might be that the decade has been interrupted by a little thing called a global pandemic, which fundamentally changed the world and the industry. But, even without the pandemic interruption, there have been shifts in my business on both a macro and micro level. Like artistic development, these shifts can be hard to identify in the moment. So, taking an objective view of the numbers over time can allow us to interpret our progress (or lack thereof) in a more practical manner. 

How much money did I spend on gear each year? Personal projects? Overhead? Were there spikes in spending? What specifically caused those spikes? Were they related to one specific year? For example, both my desktop and laptop died within weeks of one another a few years ago, causing me to replace them both in the same calendar year. Thus, there was a large spike in computer spending that year. But that same spike wouldn’t be classed as an expense that I’d expect to be recurring on an annual basis.

How much did I spend on marketing? How has that expenditure shifted year over year? Does that shift correspond to increases or decreases in revenue? Can anything be gleaned from the correlation that would help me to make better marketing decisions going forward?

I read once that even unexpected expenses can be expected. Sure, I wasn’t expecting to have to replace all my computers at the same time. But, if you look at the balance sheet over time, you’ll see that almost every year incurs at least one unexpected major expense. Maybe your camera breaks. Or a new upgrade becomes available that you need to address a shift in your business. Or, you want to invest in a once in a lifetime project. Or this. Or that. Looking back over a longer period of time allows me to average my annual expenses and come up with a more accurate guess as to what I can expect to spend next year, while taking into account the likelihood of an unexpected expense or two being thrown into the mix.

This clarity also allows me to restrict my emotional response to my business and look at it from an objective platform. If I need to spend X each year in expenses to keep my business afloat, do my revenues outperform that number? It can be a hard fact to face. But making a profit is a simple matter of mathematics. If it turns out that your average revenues show no signs of besting your average expenses, you may need to re-examine your strategy. Likewise, if your annual revenues show consistent growth year over year, you might be in a better position to project growth in the coming year. If your expenses show a downward trend, identifying areas where you can further reduce might allow you to retain more of the money that comes into the business this time next year. 

It’s not nearly as sexy as discussing new camera techniques, or following your artistic passion, but business is business. And knowing the objective numbers behind the subjective passion is what will allow you to turn that passion into profit.

Where Am I Going?

Looking back to do the hard work of examining both my business and aesthetic progress is key in allowing me to move forward. As a commercial artist, you are the captain of your own ship, for better or for worse. So, you are the only one who can decide when it’s time to turn the ship or forge straight ahead. The market we are in is constantly evolving, and what worked three years ago might be a completely obsolete strategy as we move forward.

Once you’ve taken the time to assess where you’ve been, and what that projects about you and your business, it’s time to decide where you want to go. It’s impossible to give people directions without first knowing where they want to go. Likewise, you can’t reach a goal without first knowing what that goal is in the first place.

So this is the time of the year when I take a step back and reconsider my course. Am I still aiming my work at the right clients? Have outgrown a certain market? Or am I trying to compete in an area which the numbers are telling me will rarely be profitable?  

Where do I want to go as an artist? Is the work I’m doing still fulfilling? Does the analysis of my creative trends suggest that my heart is leading me in a different direction? Sure, running a business is full of practical decisions made by the brain, not the heart. But, at the end of the day, the amount of dedication required to succeed in this business necessitates that I be as emotionally invested in my success as I am mentally. So, as important as it is to identify the financial indicators to business success, it is equally important to engage with the ongoing process of checking in on my artistic indicators. This will not only make me a better artist, but also make me a better value to potential customers.

Whether you pick up a camera to make a living or simply to improve your hobby, taking time to reflect can be key in your ability to look ahead with clarity, confidence, and passion.


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