Being a student photographer isn’t as simple as point and shoot. UNC students Ashley Seace, Savannah Lord, Corine Olarte and Runze Zhang share their biggest photography challenges and greatest payoffs they’ve had in their time on campus.
Breaking into the photography business has a number of financial and client relations struggles, especially for students. Seace, a senior psychology major, said paying for all of the equipment was the biggest initial hurdle to starting her business.
Even after obtaining the necessary equipment, Seace said getting clients to take her seriously was difficult because of her age.
"I've never had anybody outright say anything negative, but I have gotten the 'Well, how old are you?' question before, and that's a little frustrating because I need experience to get jobs, but people don't want to give me the chance to progress my skills,” Seace said. “Everybody has to start somewhere, but I think I don't get taken seriously pretty often when I tell them I'm a student."
Olarte, a senior majoring in psychology, said she faced similar challenges when working with potential clients.
"The main struggle for me is that I look really, really young,” Olarte said. “A lot of people still don't think I'm 21, and with that on top of still being in school, it just seems like I'm inexperienced even though I am as professional as possible in every single meeting I have with clients. A lot of times clients pretty much refer to me as a kid rather than a professional person they're working with."
For Lord, a junior psychology major, one of the biggest challenges for her is how little clients are willing to pay for her services because she isn’t a full-time professional photographer.
“I've had people try to make deals by doing shorter sessions to try to make it cheaper, or just immediately throw out a price that fits their range that they're comfortable with, which is normally less than what I would typically charge,” Lord said. “It's so hard getting clients, so sometimes you just have to work with what you get.”
Zhang, a senior geography major, said she has similar issues with trying to price her services when most of her clients are students as well.
"Everyone is trying to pay as little as they can, and I also have to be realistic about my market, so it's kind of hard finding a balance between how much I think my work is worth and how much I think people will be able to pay for it," Zhang said.
Competing for clients
These student photographers said it’s difficult to land clients because there are so many people who offer photography services on campus. For Seace, social media is a useful tool for advertising her services and connecting with potential clients.
"There are a lot of photographers in Chapel Hill, so it's just been hard finding somebody who will look at my work and decide they want me to do their session,” Seace said. “I feel like it's a competition at times because you have to pounce on the posts people put out there right away if you want any success in getting their business."
Olarte said that even when people have posted on social media and are actively looking for a photographer, it’s hard to stand out when so many people have already offered their services for a competitive rate, or even for free. She said many photographers offer their services for free because they are still looking for ways to build their portfolio, which makes it even harder for more seasoned photographers to land clients.
“People are going to go toward those people who are offering their services for super cheap, and then the people who are trying to create something more with it kind of get put to the side just because they were more expensive,” Olarte said. “Sometimes it tempts me to lower my prices, but at this point with how much experience I have and all of the people I've worked with, I shouldn't be lowballing my prices."
Zhang said she has also seen skilled photographers offering their services for free.
“I think that's bad for everyone when people who are just starting out photography offer their services for free because I think it gives people the idea that photography isn't something you have to pay for or that you don't have to pay much for quality photos," Zhang said.
Photography at UNC
Being a student photographer at UNC has its own set of unique struggles and benefits. Zhang said finding enough time in the day to fit in sessions and editing is often difficult, especially toward the end of each semester.
"Time is a big constraint because grad shoots take place right around finals,” Zhang said. “I have to work with my schedule, their schedule, and there's also editing time to take into consideration because people usually want their photos back before graduation to send out cards or invitations, so it's pretty difficult trying to find time to study and get all of that done."
Lord said she has had similar experiences and finds it especially hard to accommodate a lot of clients for graduation sessions in particular because client schedules are the least flexible and campus locations are the most sought after during this time.
“I've had people have very little wiggle room for when they can take pictures, so it can get frustrating because I have to shift my schedule completely to do a shoot,” Lord said. “Especially with graduation shoots, all of the locations, like the Old Well and the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, have a line, and it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours just to get to take pictures, so I have to space out even more time in my schedule for those kind of shoots.”
Being a student photographer at UNC can also have some benefits, like being able to connect with other student photographers and build a network of support.
"There is enough word-of-mouth marketing, since a lot of people try to find photographers through their friends, or they see photos their friends have posted, and they look at the tag to see who took them,” Zhang said. “I think photographers on campus are pretty supportive of each other. When I can't take shoots, I always refer them to my friends or people that I know."
Lord said UNC also offers a large client base made up of diverse students with a variety of reasons for seeking out photography services.
"Being a student at UNC, there are so many students you can contact,” Lord said. “Everyone is always wanting somebody to take pictures – and most of it is for graduation, but you also have people wanting to get into modeling and stuff like that, and you just have a bigger pool of clients."
For Seace, being a photographer on campus has given her the chance to broaden not only her client base, but also her friend group.
"Photography gives you the opportunity to meet a lot of different people on campus that you probably would never meet,” Seace said. “I definitely think it opens up a lot of pathways to make new friendships, and it gives you more familiar faces on a really big campus like UNC."
Why it’s all worth it
Dealing with scheduling difficulties, initial financial hurdles and lots of competition can make it frustrating to run a student photography business, but Zhang said seeing how happy her clients are with the finished product makes all of the headache worth it.
“It's just fun for me, and I really like the reactions I get when I return photos,” Zhang said. “I'm really happy when people like how they turned out and like how they look."
Seace had a similar sentiment, and she said it’s rewarding to go from not knowing a client to watching them get excited about her work.
"I like making people happy,” Seace said. “If I can make somebody smile because of my work, it reassures me that what I'm doing is worth the hassle."
For Olarte, photography serves as a confidence boost for her clients. She said a lot of the clients she's worked with have had low self-esteem, but Olarte said being able to show them that they photograph well has given her a renewed love for her work.
"I feel like every client I work with doubts that the pictures will turn out well – not because of my own abilities, but because of their lack of confidence,” Olarte said. “Now with my photography, I'm able to help people and remind them that they do look good in photos, and I'm there to encourage them and make them feel confident. They get a little confidence boost, and I feel like those little things help in the long run."
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