I still remember the first money I ever made. As a five-year-old boy, I was obsessed with the Lego catalog I received in the mail every month and was desperate to be able to afford the new cars and planes that Lego kept putting out.
Doing what I knew how to do best, I took some of my own Legos and made my own Lego set, complete with a custom box, custom instructions and all the pieces necessary to build the set. managed to bamboozle my neighbor out of twenty dollars of their hard-earned allowance in exchange for my homemade Lego set. My hard-earned money didn’t last long though before my parents found out and returned the money to our neighbor.
I’ve always been looking for an easy way to get rich quick off my hobbies, and as I grew up, so did my ambitions for making money. Shortly after selling the Lego Kit, I became interested in photography. Starting off with a film camera, I quickly grew into a digital camera, taking thousands of photos. Fast forward several years to middle school and I’ve just created my first Instagram. Disgusted by all the #instagood and #artsy iPhone pictures of a blurry flower, I started to post my own photos. To my surprise, I started getting a lot of likes and compliments at school about what a good photographer I am.
Selling My First Photos
These compliments inspired my first attempt to make some money of my photos – when I submitted them to online photo competitions. Nothing really came out of that besides an everlasting spam of emails (which I’m still getting to this day). The contests were too easily accessible, and my photos were getting lost in the thousands of other photos on the website.
My next attempt to make money was selling my photos on stock photo websites. All you had to do was upload your photos and wait. I earned a couple dollars doing this, however if I wanted to get more exposure and put myself on an established stock photo website, I would have to pay creator fees which I was not interested in doing.
My First Foray Into Portrait Photography
By this point I had started to take photos of people for various school activities. I was in yearbook and was taking photos of everything that was going on around the school, from classes to extracurriculars. Most of my old photography had all been landscape or nature photography, so this was really the first time I started to develop my skills for people photography. I borrowed a portrait lens from my parents and started to take pictures of my friends, posting them on my photographer Instagram account.
As more and more people saw my photos on my Instagram account, more of my friends and eventually people I didn’t even know wanted me to take photos for them. I was at the point where I would just take my camera with me everywhere because someone would usually ask if I could take photos for them. I’d take a couple photos for them, edit them on my phone then they’d post them, giving me exposure and validation that, yes, my photos were good enough for Instagram.
Expanding To A Business
This was around the same time that senior photos were due for the current seniors at our school, and a couple of my senior friends asked me to take their photos and offering to pay me. Never having been paid for a photoshoot before, I undersold myself, putting myself out there for not much money. This was very late in the senior photo season, so I only took photos for three or four people. I made a small amount of money, but the biggest gain were the photos I could put on my Instagram and the exposure to new people who my clients had referred me to. By the time prom rolled around, I had a group ask me to take photos for them, offering to pay me a lot more money than I had ever imagined I would be making from my photos. I graciously took up the job and spent the day of prom running around between parks in Seattle and the actual prom venue where I was taking photos for our school.
It was at this prom where I met another high schooler who did photos for people. We talked a bit and she showed me how she made most of her money and got clients. At this point, I transitioned over to a business Instagram and changed the theme of my account so it would be better at getting people to contact me. I also decided that the portrait lens my parents had bought me wouldn’t suffice anymore, so I went and bought my own portrait lens, using the money I had made from my other photoshoots.
That summer, I offered myself out to all my friends to take photos in order to improve my editing skills. While I was pretty good at taking photos, that was only half the experience you were selling to your client, so I figured I had to improve my abilities. I went on a lot of photoshoots all around where I lived, scouting out new locations and getting photos to post on my Instagram. I developed my own set of custom presets for my photos so that I would be able to quickly edit them and learned how to use the photo editing tools available to me.
Side Hustle Taking Off
By the time school rolled back around, I was ready to shoot senior photos for everyone. Coming from a small school, there were no other photographers in our grade, and I had a monopoly on the senior photos. It also helped that I was friends with a bunch of people from neighboring high schools. I took their photos and they were happy with them, so they started recommending me to people at those schools as well.
Soon, I was doing four to five photoshoots a week. My days were entirely based around my photo business. I would leave school, go straight to a photoshoot, come home and edit my photos, do some homework and sleep. While the work was tiring, it was worth it - by the end of the senior photo season I had shot photos for about forty people and made a considerable amount of money.
While the senior photo season may be over, I now have the skills to take and edit photos worth selling, and an established presence on Instagram as well as the local high schools in my area. I anticipate taking more photos for people throughout the end of the school year and will probably continue my photography side-gig into college. My attempt to make my own photography business may be far cry from a legitimate business, but it has taught me a lot about time, working with your clients, money management and marketing. The biggest thing I learned through this whole process was that I need to believe in my worth - I started out underselling myself. When your clients are telling you “you probably should have charged more,” and you’re struggling to have time to meet all the demand, its probably time to charge more.
As for college – I’m going to have to keep hustling. School is expensive and I will have to support myself. I’d rather be busy than bored, and I’d rather be tired than broke, so I’m going to keep myself out there trying to make money and further my business. I am determined to make my dream a reality and will keep working until I get there.
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Check out the other finalists here: 2020 Side Hustlin’ Student Scholarship Results Page.