Lessons from mistakes
Early in my tattooing career I chose to pay attention to every single problem and complaint I heard my customers tell me about their prior experiences with other artists. I then decided to do the exact opposite and now I have one of the most respectable tattooing businesses in the area. I learned from other people's mistakes.
The reason I bring this up is because working photographers are not immune from similar business problems. While there are no health risk, you are dealing with images that represent more than the sum value of the paper they're printed on. Photos, like tattoos, have an emotional investment. That emotion is entrusted onto the working photographer. Notice I said working photographer and not professional photographer.
Let's not kid ourselves. Most of us in these photography groups have some rather expensive equipment. We have also invested heavily into learning how to use that equipment. Some of us have had our share of small successes and have caught the attention of someone (family, friend, coworker) who has seen our potential and has gambled on our ability to capture useable images for a considerably cheaper rate. Our egos will step up to the plate to take on that challenge. Why not, we have to start somewhere.
The problem lies in "biting off more than you can chew." The proverbial 'can of worms' that gets opened up without knowing what is actually involved. Photography is more than just pressing the shutter button, just like tattooing is more than stepping on the switch and drawing a few lines. Both not only require the technical and creative ability to use the tools but also everything else that goes with it. There's networking, scheduling, portfolio maintenance, editing, equipment upkeep, bills, taxes, insurance, sales, promotions, and so much more.There are hidden dangers in this short list.
Looking at that list of business elements many will think to themselves, "I know all that," even though what they truly mean is, "I have heard about all those things being part of the business and feel confident I can handle it." What you don't hear too often are such things as keeping a second set of equipment for back up, hiring competent assistants and second shooters, knowing what the 'money shots' are (pardon the pun) and how to properly capture them. There's also being where you need to be before you have to be there, having eyes on the back of your head, anticipating the action, acting professionally when others around you are acting like cavemen and keeping your cool when things start falling apart. And things always seem to fall apart at the wrong time.
We live in a litigious world where people are sue happy and willing to take anyone to court for what they feel is due reward for their 'emotional distress', a.k.a. bullshit. Unless you like being on the receiving end of a law suit it is best to travel prepared. Not only prepared with the right contracts but also prepared to deliver the final product, on time and as expected.
Let's talk legal-eeze here. As a photographer you NEED contracts for all your work. I would even go so far as say you should have them even for gratuity jobs. There are just too many pitfalls to stumble over and you need to protect yourself against them. Contracts also protect your customer as it puts into writing what they are purchasing. However, contracts, no matter how well written, can not protect you from incompetence.
There are no schools that teach you how to shoot a wedding or put together a fashion shoot for a catalog. These are things that are taught on the job. If you don't have someone to teach you it is guaranteed you will learn through mistakes, and mistakes are expensive.
So before you go out and hang your shingle, do your homework. Due diligence will mean the difference between having a successful business and failing terribly. Know what your limitations are and, more importantly, understand how to correct those limitations. Learn from others, learn from your mistakes and remember that practice makes perfect.