A Change of Focus for a Photography Business Facing Challenging Times

A Change of Focus for a Photography Business Facing Challenging Times

For Paul, Covid-19 has brought many collaborations that will help his business to boom once the pandemic is over. Find out how he's adapted in this interview.

Jade Phillips
Jade Phillips
Senior Marketing Manager at Coconut
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I think, I have this equipment – and I have the time now – so what else can I do to help myself and other small businesses in the longer term?

A professional photographer and drone pilot, Paul specialises in architectural photography and the travel sector — taking interior, exterior and aerial pictures that showcase properties and locations around the world.

In normal times, he’d be in and out of airports for much of the year, but the pandemic has cut that back, for now. Instead, he’s been using any down-time to make use of his kit and skills to help other small businesses; building relationships that in turn bring work back to him and can continue to bear fruit once the pandemic’s over.

Have a look at his site to see the range of his work - or just head straight to the travel section to get a fix of some beautiful images from the UK and around the world that can keep you going until we can all get out there again ourselves. 

While no planes were involved, Paul’s been on a different kind of journey in the last year – and this is what he had to say.

Jade: When and why did you decide to become self-employed?

I became fully self-employed in May 2016. I’m Canadian and English and lived in Canada for eight years, then decided to come back to the UK to spend more time with my family. 

I’d been doing some photography on the side in Canada but didn’t make much money. When I first came back here I found the job market really difficult. My background was in luxury hospitality – I’d worked for the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton – but when I came back to the UK, I couldn’t even get a job in a coffee shop. I wasn’t even getting the opportunity to be interviewed. 

So, I thought I’m just going to take a chance. I’d rather try and fail than not try at all. Firstly, a friend of mine had his house renovated and wanted me to make some pictures of it; the builders wanted to use the photos, then all the suppliers did too – and it just snowballed from there.

I found that the more I did, the more people wanted - it was an organic growth.

So, there was no need to pay for marketing. It was all word of mouth, helped in the early days by going to networking events for the travel sector – though in the end most of the travel came about when the property work really took off.

Jade: So, you kind of fell into commercial property photography then?

Yes, I fell into it initially – but then, I realised that I liked the fact that buildings didn’t move! It’s down to how the light and shadows fall in a room. I really like creating pictures that can showcase beautiful properties and their surroundings. I find it a really fun and creative challenge.

Jade: What do you enjoy more - the photography, or working with drones?

Well, the drones part is fun - but it’s also a lot more stressful.

I’ve turned down clients because they've got unrealistic expectations of what you can and can't do with drones – like flying over roads. It's not as simple as just going really high up in the air and getting a picture! If you’re flying over a road then it may be monitored and or may need to be closed, so getting clients to understand these issues can be tricky. 

Whereas when I’m doing photography, it’s in my hands and I can just make it happen.

Jade: What does being self-employed mean for your life now and do you have an end goal?

Well, it lets me just be me.

I’m very fortunate that when I get jobs that enable me to travel, I can take my girlfriend too. So, even though I’m away, I can still spend time with my partner. 

The end goal for me is to keep that good work-life balance and a good family life. I certainly didn’t have that working in the hotel industry; this gives me so much more.

In my old career, it’s not that I wanted to be thanked necessarily – but there were always a lot of what I call ‘thankless tasks’. Whereas now, being my own boss, there aren’t any thankless tasks as everything I do, I need to do to succeed

So, for example, online learning. I’m motivated to do it now because I’m always looking for ways to get better at what I do and build my business. Whereas when you’re in a job and someone tells you that you have to sign up for something like that, and you’re not into it, it’s like being back at school.

Luxury Property Commission - Four Seasons Resort and Residences Whistler, Canada - BHA Architecture

Jade: Where do you go if you’re looking for guidance and advice?

On the photography side of things, I’ve got some mentors and I’m in some Facebook groups. With the business side - like actually running a business from the ground up - that’s more challenging because with photography, everybody’s price points are so different. So, it’s not that easy to share information. 

And then, on the accounting side of things, the guys at Coconut have just been amazing!

I’ve been with Coconut for probably a year and a half, or two years. I just saw it from the get-go as something that could be really good for me. 

In the first year of using it, I still kept all my receipts. I had an accountant and when I switched to Coconut and told him how I’d like him to work with my Coconut account going forwards, he was like, “What are you talking about? Send me all your stuff as usual”. But I explained that he’d get a log-in and be able to access all of my receipts - within half an hour he’d called me back saying “Mate, this is so good! Tell everybody!”.

Jade: What do you think makes your business distinct from others?

Well, there are lots of architectural photographers out there, so I got the drone permissions at the beginning to offer more with aerial photography; like a one-stop shop.

And the other thing that makes me stand apart is that I’m a real people person and thrive on making a personal connection with clients. Everybody gets inundated with emails, but I’m a big believer in picking up the phone and talking things through. Then, if it goes ahead, the job becomes much more of a collaboration based on a real understanding of who they are, what they do and what they need from me to help their business.

Jade: Have you had to adapt or diversify your business because of the global pandemic?

Definitely. It’s been very difficult for everybody. Some clients don’t have enough business, some don’t have enough money. Photography is not an “essential” and so it’s not at the forefront of people’s minds. 

Because of that, I’ve been focusing on building relationships with people, especially local businesses that do things a little bit differently – so that when the pandemic’s over I can build on these relationships.

For example, a friend of mine is a blacksmith and I’ve been able to do lots of amazing photography for him in this really dramatic style - using the dark and the fire/heat for some stunning shots.

I just think, I have this equipment – and I have the time now – so what else can I do that can help me and other small businesses in the longer term?

So local businesses are able to extend their reach through their social media channels with high quality pictures – and in return, his work is being seen more widely and those connections are bringing work back to him.

Jade: Would you say running a business is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

Yes. The buck stops with me now, not with anyone else, and that’s the scary bit  – especially in a pandemic.

I mean, I’ve had some scary things happen to me in the past – I've had a parachute fail in the mountains, I've had a gun pulled on me by a police officer in Colombia, I’ve fallen off cliffs while skiing, things like that. But running your own business means that you’re really responsible; it’s all down to you, and that’s scary.

Jade: So what would you say are the three biggest challenges you’ve faced?

First and foremost, accounting. I’m not a numbers person but I use Coconut (and I’m not paid to say that!). I really like it and I tell everyone about it now too.

Another challenge is pricing; people undercutting and not valuing photography. 

I went through a phase where every quote I gave was rejected and that’s really demoralising. It makes you worry about what you’re doing and you question everything. But you have to keep going. You can modify your prices, but no matter what you do there will always be someone out there who will do it for less - so you have to know your worth.

Third challenge: Knowing if you’re doing the right thing. You constantly question yourself. You get a quiet month and you question it all - but then when it’s busy, everything falls into place. 

So you have to be resilient, look back at your client list and have confidence in it - a good client base will keep you grounded. Also, have a good support system around you too.

Jade: Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you started freelancing?

- Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. 

The biggest hurdle is getting started. But once you’ve done that then you’ll figure it out as you go along. You’ll definitely make mistakes but you can learn from them and you won’t make the same mistakes again. Keep going.

Despite the pandemic, it’s clear that Paul’s got no regrets about taking the leap to being his own boss; using any time he has to learn more and work harder at building connections with other local start-ups that can be mutually supportive in the longer term. While he’s clearly missing the travel, he’s digging in to secure a future for his business when things recover.


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