Abdulhameed Sani Ahmad is the founder and CEO of Ustaz Photography. He started the business in 2018 just to quench the burning passion he had for photography. Since then, he has realized there is more to photography beyond passion. Abdulhameed Sani speaks with Rilwan Muhammad on how it started.
Can you briefly tell us about yourself?
My name is Abdulhameed Sani Ahmad. I was born in Kaduna state. I went to Air force Primary School and thereafter moved to Air force Secondary School, all in Kaduna state. I studied economics at Yusuf Maitama Sule University, Kano, starting in 2015 and graduating in 2020.
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Was economics what you wanted to study?
When I was in secondary school, a lot of my friends would tell me that I was a better fit for the sciences. Even then I didn’t know what career to pursue or which course to study. So, one day, my uncle asked me about the course I would study and said he hoped it was law. I said no, and he said, ‘what about economics?’ Then I nodded yes. But I wasn’t sure it was the right choice for me. So, when I registered for my Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (SSCE), I chose economics and applied for the same in my Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTM). After having got the required marks, I got admission into the university to study economics.
And what was the first-year experience?
It was a pleasant experience and studying economics was also nice because I liked the course. I had a rudimentary knowledge of some concepts of the course since we had it back then at secondary school. From 100 to 200 level, the ride was smooth; but it began to get tough as we got to 300. It was there, of course, that we were exposed to the “technical” part of the course, and it wasn’t easy. But Alhamdulillah, with determination and prayers, we graduated successfully. Finishing, I did my NYSC in Jigawa state. I served at Federal University Dutse.
How would you describe your NYSC experience?
My NYSC year was full of activities because, at my Place of Primary Assignment, I worked with the head of the economics department. While there, I even had the opportunity to lecture some students, which I think is quite an experience. Honestly, my NYSC year was very eventful.
Let’s talk about the business you are into.
I’m into photography. I’m the founder and CEO of Ustaz Photography. Even before starting the business, I liked taking pictures; I was a photo freak. Back at school, my friends would come with their phones and ask me to snap them good pictures. I realized the passion for the art shouldn’t just die like that without me commercializing it. I asked my father to buy me a camera because I wanted to start photography. He just smiled and didn’t say a word. Later he called and asked, “are you ready to buy the camera?” I said I was ready, and he said we should get one. We got it from Jumia at the cost of N175,000. That was August 2018. I got the camera and started practicing at home. I would snap anything that appealed to my eyes – flies, papers, ceiling, bulbs, etc.
And then you ventured into photography?
No, it wasn’t immediately after I got the camera that I started the business. I didn’t start until around three months after getting the camera. I used the time to attend photography classes with other photographers, watched different YouTube tutorial videos, and made inquiries from people with excellent skills in that business. I started fully around October 2018.
How did the training help you in establishing your business?
It was very helpful. I learned a lot of things and acquired different skills. It was physical training, and you know with practical demonstration, one learns better and faster. It was very easy. After the first day of the training, I came up with a good picture that enticed my trainer. Soon after the training, I started my own business, snapping people and collecting contracts. I decided to use Ustaz Photography as the name of the business.
What was the inspiration behind the name?
So many ideas came to me as I was trying to come up with a name that would better fit. So one day in school as we sat and engaged in chatter with our friends, a lady whom we had a passing acquaintance with came to us, fixed her gaze squarely on my goatee, and said, “Look at your goatee, why won’t you use Ustaz Photography as your brand name?” And that was it – I decided it was the name I should use for the business. The uniqueness of the name was what caught my attention.
How did you validate the profitability of the business before starting?
To be honest with you, the one thing that took me into this business was passion. I didn’t give much attention to the money I could make doing photography. I knew that I loved it and needed to make it my everyday job. With just the camera at first, I didn’t know that there were a lot of other tools one would need to start the business properly. After I started, the person who gave me training on photography said I needed other materials such as speed light, softbox, stand, lenses, and a whole lot of other gadgets. I used the money I realized from the business to buy these materials. After procuring them, I understood that one could make decent money doing photography. One thing is, even with a few materials, you can do the business but the quality of the work would not be the same as the ones done with quality equipment. With your camera, you can snap lightless pictures. The main thing is Photoshop, which in itself is photography – if you know how to edit, all the other things can be easy. I got an overhead flash, bought a speed light, a softbox (which diffuses light), and from there I started collecting contracts – birthday shots, weddings, etc. But at first, I offered free services. I snapped people for free so that I could get clients. And then the business started receiving a boost. And here we are!
Who were the first clients you had when you started?
The first one was a birthday shoot. It wasn’t in a home. We had a shoot on the street. It was a classmate who wanted to celebrate her birthday and I went there and captured the event. I remember I snapped over 30 pictures and charged her only N4,000. If it were now, I would charge her nothing less than N25,000.
How did you juggle photography and studies?
As I mentioned, I started the business when I was in the final semester of my studies and then I wasn’t taking many courses. I took that advantage and had time for the business.
What was the initial start-up capital you started the business with?
Since the first tool I bought was the camera. I’d say N175,000 (which was the price of the camera) was the initial capital. It was later on that I bought a speed light at N15,000; a softbox at about N20,000; a reflector for N8,000; a stand for N10,000 and a bracket for N10,000. These were the kits I bought then.
What is the hardest part in doing this business?
The hardest part in photography, for me, is sitting down to edit, because it can take you up to 20 minutes to edit a retouched picture if you really want to have a picture that would appeal to the client. But for basics, it takes less time. Going out to snap is easy and only difficult when there’s congestion at the event and disruptions caused by people passing and moving from one place to another in the event hall. People will push you, block the coverage and all, but since it’s my business, I don’t take offense.
In an event, how many pictures do you snap on average?
As a photo maniac that I am, I don’t restrict myself from snapping just a few pictures. I can snap more than 300 pictures in an event and once I’m ok with the pictures, I keep and edit them, depending on how I want the pictures to appear. There is a normal picture that doesn’t alter the appearance of the person snapped; the person appears just as they are – if they have a spot on their faces, it appears. There’s also a master picture, and that’s the retouched one; more qualitative as it clears every spot – be it pimples or any unwanted spot – on a person’s face.
What makes you love photography?
You know we can love art or anything without necessarily having a reason for that. I just love photography and I derive a lot of pleasure doing it.
What is the annual revenue of the business in terms of sales and profit?
In photography, we charge as per our discretion. It’s not like we have benchmark prices for our services. It’s difficult to put or give the exact figures because the contracts we receive aren’t also fixed. You can get two or three in a month and it changes in the subsequent month, plus the charges are based on the agreement reached with clients. But if per complete wedding event, a photographer is charging N200,000 and gets two complete wedding events, then he may be earning around N4,800,000 in a year. For events such as get-togethers and normal photo shoots, we charge between N25,000 and N30,000. But there are maintenance costs and other contingencies. There’s a risk of damage to lenses – a lens of N400,000 may fall down and get damaged. Chargers may spoil, and batteries can get weak.
What is the peak period of the business in a year?
We get more clients at the beginning of every year and during Sallah festivities, and the peak period is November and December.
How many events did you cover this year?
Since the beginning of this year, I have covered at least seven weddings.
How do you increase your client base?
Recommendations are what get you, clients. When you render a service to a client and they are satisfied with your services, they can recommend you and refer people to you. We share fliers and people post them on their social media platforms. This strategy is effective as we are seeing the impact.
What are the tools you use in doing the business?
I have a Canon, together with a 50mm lens, strobe light, led light, two stands, a flashlight, reflectors, 160cm softbox, two tripods and a laptop.
How do you survive competition in this business?
There is a lot of competition, especially here in Kano. There are weddings and a lot of photographers want to cover them. So, the one thing I’m doing to have an edge over others is producing quality pictures to satisfy the varying preferences of my clients so that they will recommend and refer other people to me. There are photographers who charge low but produce good pictures because they are good at using photoshop for editing. I earlier told you that photoshop editing is the main thing in photography. You can have all the gadgets but if you don’t know how to edit well, others with few tools can earn more than you earn. So, one has to devise different means to remain relevant and make the business solvent.
How do you generate your profit from the business?
After covering an event, I use the money to settle my workers – two of them – and then divide the remaining amount into three; one for the speculative motive of money, the other for precautionary, and then the other one for a transactive motive. I’m an economist, so everything I do is guided by the knowledge I have of my discipline. I don’t use my money for unproductive purposes. There’s a 35mm lens I want to buy now which goes for almost N350,000. Instead of using the money, I realized from two wedding events to purchase it, I decided to save N50,000 at a time until I get the money to buy it. First is, I use my business money for productive purposes; I don’t spend them anyhow. You see, since after I started, I have been using the money I realized from the business to buy other tools that I need. The beautiful thing is that anytime you apply certain principles in the business, you’ll see the positive impact and that’s a clear indication that you are doing well.
What plans do you have for the future, especially as they relate to your business?
Well, I want to have a mobile studio – a coaster bus where I can put all my materials and we’ll be moving from one point to another to render our services to people who need it. I understand that a lot of people want to take pictures but they seem not to have the time to visit the studio they want to take the pictures. So, with a mobile studio, I think I’ll address the problem while also earning reasonably well. I also want to develop my skills and increase my client base.
My other plan is to make money from photography and invest in other businesses because one has to diversify.
What lessons did you learn through photography?
Photography has taught me that patience is an integral tool that one can use to get along with people of different characters. Through photography, I’ve come in contact with different people who I must accommodate because they were my clients. You keep being patient with people and their ways as you need them to recommend you and refer other people to you. I’ve traveled to some states to cover events – Kaduna, Abuja, Jigawa states, for example. I’ve been to Jigawa five different times to cover events. So, photography has taken me to places.
If you were to be asked to start a business afresh, would you go for photography?
I will go for photography because it’s what I love doing. Through the years I’ve been into it, made mistakes, learned and acquired different skills. So, starting it afresh, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes I made when I hadn’t much experience.
How much do you think one should need to start a photography business?
For now, looking at the increase in the number of photographers, one needs to get not only a camera but other tools to be able to survive in the business. Unlike when I started my business with just a camera and was making some money, it’s difficult to operate that way now because there’s fierce competition in the business. One needs to have good money to buy the tools, some of which I mentioned earlier.
How do you cope with the increase in prices of the tools you use?
In photography, most of the tools last long and so one doesn’t require changing them at regular intervals. With good maintenance, your tools can last for years. For example, the lens I bought at N35,000 when I started the business in 2018 is the one I still use, and its price now goes for about N65,000.
Do you use social media platforms in promoting your business?
Yes, I use Instagram and I go by the handle @ustaz_photography. I also use WhatsApp, but for Facebook, I want to make a few changes to the account. I understand social media platforms are now effective tools for doing and promoting business. There are a lot of times that I got contacted on Instagram. There’s a watermark on our pictures and people search the name on Instagram knowing that businesses are now on Instagram and other social media platforms, pick our number or send a message and then we talk business.
Is your business registered?
Yes, my business is registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission and I obtained the registration the first year I started – that’s in 2018.
Was there a time you felt like giving up the business?
There was a time I lost my camera. I reached out to one of my friends – Najiba Bashir Chira, CEO of Pinnacle Photography – and she helped. I would borrow her camera to do business and get paid, and within two months I realized enough money to get me a camera. Sometimes she’d send me to cover certain events which she is booked for. At that time, I felt as though it was the end of my career as a photographer because when I lost the camera, I had only N10,000 on me. That was in the early days of the business. But with the help of God and my friends, I waded through the difficult time and got a new camera. I still owe Najiba a debt of gratitude.
Can you share with us some of the memorable experiences you had with your customers?
Last year, I went to Yalleman in Hadeja Local Government Area of Jigawa state to cover an event. The client paid the first deposit and as soon as we arrived in Yalleman, he paid the remaining balance, without complaining. After the program, he called and gushed his torrents of thanks to me. The pictures I snapped at the event were up to 700, and the man said he kept watching them for almost three days and he would call to register his gratitude anytime he finished watching them. And a couple of weeks ago, I had a very nasty experience. I went to cover an event that was so unorganized. Anytime I tried snapping a group of two or three, some people would jump and insist that they’d be part of the picture. They couldn’t allow me to snap good pictures as they kept interrupting and disrupting the shooting.
Was there a time a client complained about the quality of your pictures?
After I got a new camera, I didn’t know that I had to make a few changes in the camera settings to achieve the desired result and also have a smooth editing process. I got a contract, though a single event. After I finished taking the pictures, I came back, edited, and sent the pictures to the client. And he complained bitterly that the pictures didn’t meet his expectations. I felt bad, but later figured out the problem was with the settings, and I quickly changed them.
What advice do you have for people that want to start photography?
My advice is that they should exercise patience and believe that it’s only God that can uplift them. In business, not only photography, one has to be patient as one is likely to meet people of different characters. So, they should be patient and tolerant. That’s the advice I have for them.